Finn and Puss by Robert Vescio

Finn and Puss

Robert Vescio, Author

Melissa Mackie, Illustrator

EK Books, Fiction, Oct. 1, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 3-6

Themes: Animals, Lost cat, Loneliness, Friendship, Hope, Integrity

Opening: “This is Finn.  This is Puss”

Synopsis: Finn a young boy, is lonely. Puss, a cat, is lost. When the two meet on the street and Finn stoops down to scratch his ears, Finn isn’t lonely anymore.  Puss purrs and seems happy to be with Finn. When Finn sees a “Lost” picture of Puss taped to a building by the cat’s owners, he’s faced with a tough decision.  Will he do the right thing?

Why I like this book:

This is a sweet tale by Robert Vescio about a boy who finds a lost cat and makes a new friend. It explores the boy’s choices of ignoring the notice and keeping the cat, or doing the right thing and notifying the owner, who misses her cat. This is an important lesson children will face many times in their lives. It has difficult lessons about honesty and integrity. It is a good reason to start teaching this lesson to young children. There are heartwarming rewards when children learn to do the right thing.

Finn and Puss only has 80 words, so it is the perfect book for children learning to read independently on their own and for reluctant readers.

Melissa Mackie’s soft watercolor illustrations are expressive and really capture the dynamics of the story. I particularly like her use of white space because it symbolically sheds “light” on this story about building character.

Resources: This is an excellent discussion book for home and school. Ask children what they would do if were in Finn’s shoes? Would they want to keep the cat or return it to its sad owner. What would they do if found a toy that they knew belonged to a friend? What would they do if they saw a stranger drop money on the ground?

Robert Vescio is a full-time children’s author whose aim is to enthuse and inspire children to read and write and leave them bursting with imaginative ideas.

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 Three Sunflowers – Los Tres Girasoles by Janet Lucy

The Three Sunflowers – Los Tres Girasoles

Janet Lucy, Author

Colleen McCarthy-Evans, Illustrator

Publishing by the Seas, Fiction, Sep. 26, 2017

Awards: Seal of Excellence for an Educational Storybook and a Preferred Choice Award for a Kids, Storybook from Creative Child Magazine.

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes:  Sunflowers, Life Cycles, Nature, Courage,  Hope, Harmony, Peace, Patience, Wisdom

Opening“Dawn awoke early one morning washing the summer sky in fresh new shades of pink, orange and lavender.” 

Synopsis:  Life in the garden was alive with activity. Gloria, a tall and wise sunflower, sprung up earlier in the season near a pepper tree. She was once a black and white seed in one of the bird feeders and was dropped by a bird to the ground where she planted herself and grew. Two smaller sunflowers, Florecita and Solecito grew beside Gloria.

Their day was peaceful until a hawk swooped down to the feeders and disturbed the tranquility in the garden. The birds flew off, but Florecita and Solecito were frightened and shouted at the hawk.  Through it all, Gloria guides and reassures the youngsters and reminds them of the nature and purpose of a sunflower’s life. “We are sunflowers, golden and radiant. Our job is to be loving and peaceful wherever we stand.” Peace returned to the garden, but later that afternoon a thunderstorm darkened the skies and threatened the strength and stability of the sunflowers. Once again the youngsters held on by their roots afraid they might tumble. Gloria reached for their stalks and pulled them close.  Their resiliency was tested in the face of a big storm.

Why I like this book:

The Three Sunflowers – Los Tres Girasoles is the bilingual version of the award-winning first edition, The Three Sunflowers. This version offers both English and Spanish on each page, as “a teaching tool and to bridge cultures by illuminating the universal themes, hopes and dreams we all share for all children.”

Janet Lucy has written an inspiring book for children with many gentle life lessons about staying centered when turbulence is swirling around you, being who you are supposed to be, living in the moment, being present with those we love and being thankful. These are all concepts children will grasp.  There is so much depth to this story and I had to be careful not to give it away.  It is also a story about life cycles, death, and transformation. Colleen McCarthy-Evans’s watercolor illustrations are exquisite and expressive. I like her use of white space. It is a lovely collaboration between author and illustrator.

The book is dedicated to La Virgen of Guadalupe, Divine Mother of compassion, comfort and protection. She is the inspiration for the wise character, Gloria, in the book. Her story and a glorious watercolor illustration of Her is on the back of the book. La Virgen de Guadalupe’s saint / holy day is celebrated on December 12. The author and illustrator are donating 20% of the profits to non-profits who provide immigration advocacy and legal support.

Resources:   Sunflowers are an international symbol of Peace. Lucy urges children to plant seeds of peace in their gardens. Visit The Three Sunflowers website to find wonderful resources, activities and a teaching guide to share with children. I was intrigued with how many virtues are included in this story, all great topics for discussion.

Janet Lucy  (left) is an award-winning writer and poet, and author of Moon Mother, Moon Daughter – Myths and Rituals that Celebrate a Girl’s Coming of Age. Janet is the Director of Women’s Creative Network in Santa Barbara, California, where she is a teacher, counselor/consultant and the mother of two radiant daughters.

Colleen McCarthy-Evans (right) is an award-winning watercolorist, writer and board game inventor, as well as a passionate fiber artist. She’s a co-founder of the Santa Barbara Charter School, which teaches conflict resolution along with academics and the arts. She lives in Santa Barbara, California with her husband and dog, and enjoys being in and out of the garden with her two grown sons.

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 website.

La La La: A Story of Hope by Kate DiCamillo

La La La: A Story of Hope

Kate DiCamillo, Author

Jaime Kim, Illustrator

Candlewick, Fiction, Oct. 3, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Loneliness, Connecting, Hope

Synopsis: “La la la . . . la.” A little girl stands alone and sings, but hears no response. Gathering her courage and her curiosity, she skips farther out into the world, singing away to the trees and the pond and the reeds — but no song comes back to her. Day passes into night, and the girl dares to venture into the darkness toward the light of the moon, becoming more insistent in her singing, climbing as high as she can, but still there is silence in return. Dejected, she falls asleep on the ground, only to be awakened by an amazing sound. . . . She has been heard. At last.

Why I like this story:

Kate DiCamillio and Jaime Kim team up to create this strikingly beautiful wordless picture book that highlights a girl’s journey to connect with life — the trees, the pond, the woods, and the moon. The girl is persistent, curious and endearing. Her journey is about overcoming loneliness and never giving up hope no matter how rejected she may feel. She sings out a very simple call “La la la,” and listens for a response.

Jaime Kim’s gracefully captures the girl’s longing through her captivating illustrations. They breathe life into this expressive young adventurer and send her off on a captivating journey.

Resources: Make sure you read the author and illustrator notes at the end of the book to gain greater understanding about their lovely collaboration. Children will relate to the feelings of loneliness and will imagine the wordless story. This is a great discussion book.

Kate DiCamillo is the beloved author of many books for children, including Flora & Ulysses and The Tale of Despereaux, both of which received Newbery Medals. A former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, she lives in Minneapolis.

Jaime (Jimyung) Kim was born and raised in Korea before moving to the United States at the age of eighteen. She works in gouache and acrylics to create her beautiful, tender, and dreamlike landscapes and characters. Jaime Kim lives in North Carolina.

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.

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.

Wish by Barbara O’Connor

Wish

Barbara O’Connor, Author

Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Aug. 30, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Separation, Dogs, Family Relationships, Friendship, Social Issues, Hope

Synopsis: Charlemagne (Charlie) Reese has been making the same secret wish every day since fourth grade. Charlie knows all the ways to make a wish, like looking at a clock at exactly 11:11, finding a four-leaf clover, spotting a shiny penny in the dirt, observing a black cat cross the road or blowing on a dandelion. But when she is sent to live with and aunt and uncle she barely knows in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, it seems unlikely that her wish will ever come true. That is until she meets Wishbone, a skinny stray dog who captures her heart, and Howard a neighbor boy who proves surprising in lots of ways. Suddenly Charlie is in danger of discovering that what she though she wanted may not be at all what she needs.

Why I like this book:

Wish is a richly textured an emotionally honest story about separation. Charlie’s father is in jail. Her mother is depressed and unable to care for her. Barbara O’Connor weaves together a moving story about friendship, belonging and finding family.

Wish is told from Charlie’s viewpoint. The narrative is seamless and the plot is well-paced with just the right amount of adventure and tension to keep readers turning pages.  It is also a beautiful story that is filled with heart and teaches the power and bond of community. Add a dog and you have the perfect read for teens.

Charlie is a spunky and resilient character with a temper, which she believes she inherited. She later regrets the mean and hurtful things she says. At first she hates Colby, N.C., the hillbilly kids and the ugly house she lives in that sits on the edge of a cliff. But she also shows her compassion to people and animals who are worth caring about — even though they are different or may be a scrawny stray dog she names Wishbone.  Howard is a great balance for Charlie. He has one leg shorter than the other and has dealt with mean kids and teasing his whole life.  He is kindhearted and has learned to forgive and accept others for who they are — a big lesson for Charlie. She even tests Uncle Gus and Aunt Bertha with her outbursts, but their love and patience give Charlie a sense of belonging.

Barbara O’Connor was born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina. She has written many award-winning books for children, including How to Steal a Dog and The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester. Visit Barbara O’Connor at her website.

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

Saved by the Boats by Julie Gassman

Saved By The Boats: The Heroic Sea Evacuation of September 11

Julie Gassman, Author

Steve Moors, Illustrator

Capstone Press, Nonfiction, Aug. 16, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Terrorist Attack, September 11, Boats, Sea Evacuations, Civilians, Hope, Kindness

Opening: An arc of sky framed the city in brilliant blue. The bright, golden sun beamed with warmth. But just below, gray smoke swelled and snaked through the air. And, silently, white ash fell in a thick snowfall, coating the city.

Synopsis: September 11,  2011, was a dark day in U.S. history. Amid the chaos of the attacks, sea captains and crews raced by boat to the tragic scene. nearly 500,000 people on New York City’s Manhattan Island were rescued that day in what would later be called the largest sea evacuation in history. In this rarely told story of heroism, we come to understand that in our darkest hours, people shine brightly as a beacon of hope.

Why I like this book:

Julie Gassman’s powerful and inspiring story is based on her own personal experience of fleeing Manhattan by boat on September 11.  Impressively researched, the narrative is presented in a straightforward, honest and compassionate manner. This beautifully crafted story demonstrates the best of humanity during times of tragedy.

This is a little known story about how ordinary captains of tugboats, ferry boats and private boats responded to the Coast Guard call and sped to the harbor to help 500,000 people escape the suffocating blanket of ash and travel to safety in Jersey City. Their spectacular demonstration of heroism deserves recognition. Their biggest concern was the safety of the passengers even though they knew that on open water they could be easy targets. Yet they continued to sail back and forth rescuing people and then carrying rescue workers, water and other supplies on their return.

Steve Moors soulful illustrations capture the crush of people with bewildered and dazed facial expressions, which are contrasted by the busy rescue workers wrapping people in towels and washing faces. His pen and ink drawings of the people and city is shaded in an ashen color, with a bright blue sky in the background. Yet, his artwork conveys a sense of hope.

Most of the youth who will read this book weren’t even born yet. Saved by the Boats really demonstrates to readers that during times of tragedy, we come together as Americans to help each other. With the country dealing with two recent hurricanes, it is an excellent time to encourage children to look for the  acts of kindness and the heroic deeds of ordinary people as we help each other through a difficult time.  It is an important book for youth in Grades 3-6 to read.

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

My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo

My Beautiful Birds

Suzanne Del Rizzo, Author and Illustrator

Pajama Press, Fiction, Mar. 8, 2017

Suitable for ages: 6-10

Themes: Refugees, Refugee camps, Syria, Birds, Hope

Opening: “The Ground rumbles beneath my slippers as I walk. Father squeezes my hand. “It will be okay, Sami. Your birds escaped too,” he repeats. His voice sounds far away. I squeeze back, hoping it will steady my wobbly legs.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Behind Sami, the Syrian skyline is full of smoke. The boy follows his family and all his neighbors in a long line as they trudge through the sands and hills to escape the bombs that have destroyed their homes. But all Sami can think of is his pet pigeons — will they escape too?

When they reach a refugee camp and are safe at last, everyone settles into the makeshift city. But though the children start to play and go to school again, Sami can’t join in. When he is given paper and paint, all he can do is smear his painting with black. He can’t forget his birds and what his family has left behind.

One day a canary, a dove, and a rose finch fly into the camp. They flutter around Sami and settle on his outstretched arms. For Sami it is one step in a long healing process at last.

Why I like this book:

Suzanne Del Rizzo offers a timely, compassionate and poignant story of a Syrian child refugee who flees his beloved home with his family and leaves behind his pet pigeons. Sami’s story is a journey of hardship, sorrow, and hope for a better future. The text is lyrical at times, but mostly it is honest. Conditions are cramped in the tent city, but Sami and his family are safe. But he has trouble adjusting to his new life. He continues to worry about his pigeons, until three birds appear one day and he finds his joy again. This is a turning point for Sami.

Del Rizzo’s exquisite polymer clay illustrations add depth and a life-like dimension to Sami’s story . Her stunning  sunset with vibrant colors of pink, purple and golden hues remind Sami of his sky at home. He even sees his fluffy cloud-like pigeons.

I appreciated that the author focused on the refugee crisis that is affecting the most innocent and vulnerable, children. She doesn’t address political themes in the book, but focuses on the humanity of the situation for children displaced from their homes in Syria. Instead, her story is based on an article she read about a boy who found comfort in connecting with wild birds at the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan.

My Beautiful Birds is an excellent addition to any school library. It is age-appropriate and an introductory story about children who are displaced because of war or natural disasters.

Resources: Make sure you check out the Author’s Note at the end of the book. She talks about the displaced refugees in Syria that flee to nearby countries,  but she also talks about the 65.3 million people who are displaced worldwide.  For more information and resources about the Syrian conflict, visit the Pajama Press website.

Suzanne Del Rizzo has always loved getting her hands messy. She traded her job in scientific research for a career in children’s illustration with her first picture book, Skin on the Brink, which won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award and was a finalist for the Rainforest of Reading Award. Suzanne’s dimensional illustrations use Plasticine, polymer clay, and other mixed media to bring rich texture and imagination to her books. Suzanne and her family live in Oakville, Ontario.

*I was captivated by Patricia Nozell’s lovely review of My Beautiful Birds on her website, Wander, Ponder Write.  Check out her website, because she is reviewing a lot of books about child refugees and immigrants stories from all over the globe.

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.

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Amina’s Voice

Hena Khan, Author

Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Fiction,  Mar. 14, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Pakistani and Asian Americans, Friendship, Peer Pressure, Family, Muslim Culture, Community, Prejudice, Racism

Opening: Something sharp pokes me in the rib. “You should totally sign up for a solo,” Soojin whispers from the seat behind me in music class. I shake my head. The mere thought of singing in front of a crowd makes my stomach twist into knots.

Book Jacket SynopsisAmina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American,” now that she is to become a citizen. Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with  these questions, her local mosque is vandalized, and she is devastated.

Why I like this book:

Hena Khan has written a timely and empowering novel about a young Muslim American girl, who finds her voice with the help of friends, family, and community.

Khan’s novel is multi-layered with many themes. The central theme of Khan’s book is about what it’s like to be a Muslim girl growing up in America. She takes her readers into a loving and strict Muslim family, where cultural traditions are at the center of their lives, from praying, studying the Quran and meal preparation, to the respect shown to visitors and the value of community.

The main characters are multi-dimensional and diverse. Amina is a kind-hearted, shy, and talented pianist and vocalist. Her best friend, Soojin, is Chinese and wants to change her name because no one knows how to pronounce it. Bottom line, she wants to fit in. This raises important questions for Amina. Would the popular kids like her better if she changes her name? How does she be true to her Muslim values and still be American? Many readers will identify with the angst of middle school as they navigate through those sensitive years. Amina’s story will also resonate with children of immigrants.

The language is carefully crafted and uplifting. The plot is realistic and leaves readers with hope even after the Islamic Center is attacked and vandalized. It is heartwarming to see how the community rallies behind the Muslim community by inviting them to use their churches and providing labor to rebuild the center. It beautifully demonstrates to readers the meaning of our common humanity. I know my community would come to the rescue of our Muslim neighbors. Verdict: This book belong in every middle grade library. It’s a treasure!

Hena Khan is a Pakistani American who was born and raised in Maryland. She enjoys writing about her culture. She is the author of several books, including It’s Ramadan, Curious George, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, and Night of the Moon. You can learn more about Hena Khan by visiting her website.

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

The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla

The Someday Birds

Sally J. Pla, Author

Harper Collins, Fiction, Jan. 24, 2017

Suitable for Age: 8-12

Themes: Birding, Family Relationships, Road Trip, Injured Father, Autism Spectrum, Different Abilities, Hope

Opening: “My hands aren’t really clean until I’ve washed them twelve times, one for each year of my life. I soap-rinse-one-soap-rinse-two, open my palms to scalding water, and repeat.  I do it quick, so no one notices…”

Book Jacket Synopsis:  Charlie wishes his life could be as predictable and simple as chicken nuggets. And it usually is. He has his clean room, his carefully organized sketchbooks and colored pencils, his safe and comfortable routines.

But his perfectly ordinary life has unraveled ever since his war-journalist father was injured in Afghanistan. Now his life consists of living with Gram, trips to the hospital, and wishing things were back to normal.

When his father heads from California to Virginia for further medical treatment, Charlie reluctantly travels cross-country with his boy-crazy sister, unruly twin brothers, and a mysterious new family friend, Ludmila. Charlie loves birding. Along the way he decides that if he can spot all the birds that he and his father have hoped to see someday, then maybe just maybe, everything might turn out okay.

Why I like this book:

This is a heartwarming, compelling and hopeful debut novel by Sally J. Pla.  It is convincingly written  with skill and compassion. The family is in crisis mode. Charlie’s father has suffered a traumatic brain injury and is not responsive. It’s difficult for the siblings to deal with the unknown, especially since they’ve already lost their mother. Fortunately they have Gram to ground them.

The characters are rich, messy and real. Charlie narrates and guides readers through the trials of a 12-year-old who is trying to navigate a world that he doesn’t understand. His views are brutally honest and sometimes hilarious. Charlie’s voice makes this story sing. Kudos to the author for not labeling Charlie as being on the autism spectrum. His siblings treat him as their annoying brother with quirky behaviors and different abilities, like birding. Readers will cheer for Charlie as he steps outside his comfort zone, takes some risks and has a little fun. Gram is stern and loving, but amuses her grandkids with her sideways swearing with phrases like bee-hind, flipping heck and gosh-dang. Ludmila has an Eastern European accent and a painful story to share.

The setting is vivid and realistic with an adventurous cross-country road trip for the siblings with Ludmila behind the wheel of a camper, Old Bessie. They visit observatories, national parks, museums along their way. The plot is multi-layered with many themes. It is fast-moving with suspense, surprises and endearing moments. It is a story that celebrates family, heart, connection, love, humor and hope. Their  journey is one of healing and acceptance for everyone.

Even though this book is targeted towards middle grade readers, it is a book that would appeal to older teens and adults. This novel is a treasure! You may want to visit Sally J. Pla’s website.

Resources: April is World and National Autism Month. You may want to check out the following links for more information: Autism Society, Autism Speaks, Autism Acceptance Month, and the National Institute of Mental Health.

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