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.

Changing Fate by Michelle Merrill

Changing Fate

Michelle Merrill, Author

CreateSpace, Fiction, May 6, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 12 and up

Themes: Chronic Illness, Cystic Fibrosis, Transplants, Secrecy, Friendships, Hope

Opening: “I reach into my backpack and wrap my fingers around my pill-box, but I can’t seem to pull it out. Maybe I’m a little embarrassed about taking meds with every meal…or maybe it’s the girl with the blue-streaked hair who’s staring at me from across the cafeteria. She steps towards me. I grip the container and flip the lid open.”

Book Synopsis: All Kate wants is to live. Battling cystic fibrosis is hard enough, dying from it is even harder. When her mom moves them closer to the hospital in the middle of her senior year, Kate’s determined to isolate herself – saving everyone the trouble of befriending a dying girl. It’s a difficult task when cheerful optimist Giana insists on being Kate’s friend.

Kate’s resolve falters even more when curly-haired Kyler captivates her with his sweet melodies. As her emotional walls collapse, Kate realizes the people she’s been pushing away may be the ones giving her a reason to live. But it might be too late.

Why I like this book:

There are few novels published for teens with cystic fibrosis (CF) and their families and friends. Kate’s story gives readers an authentic  look into what it’s like to live with CF and have a normal life. It’s a daily battle for Kate to breathe, let alone focus on friendships and outside activities.

Michelle Merrill has written a powerful and beautifully crafted story that is filled with vivid imagery, fear, anger, humor and courage. The characters are colorful, realistic and well-developed.

Kate is a determined and gutsy teen who keeps her CF a secret from the very classmates who are eager to befriend her, especially after she uses her black-belt skills on a lunch-room thief.  There is no resisting upbeat Giana who insists on being Kate’s best friend. And there is Kyler, with a freckle on his upper lip, soft curly hair and a song in his heart. They become a close threesome and Kate realizes their friendships give her a reason to live. Even Vivian, the school bully, manages to find a way into your heart.

The first half of the story gives readers a glimpse into Kate’s daily routine that includes taking enzymes before meals to help her digest  food, nebulizer medications that help her breathe more easily, and a compression vest to loosen mucous in her lungs. There are trips to the ER and hospital stays when she develops a lung infection. Her journey is realistic.

The second half of the story is very fast-paced with unraveling secrets and many unexpected surprises that keep you fiercely turning pages. It is an emotional story, so grab a tissue box. I won’t give away any spoilers because this book is one to savor.

Merrill did her homework. The idea for the story is based on a friend of the author’s two daughters. It is well-researched and I am thrilled to share her novel with readers. It is important for teens to see themselves in others. Each case of CF is different. Visit Michelle Merrill at her website.

Resources: I recently learned that cystic fibrosis is called a “rare” disease because there aren’t enough individuals with CF to meet the magic number for major medical research funding. Sad. To learn more about cystic fibrosis visit their website. This book with pair nicely with The Baking Life of Amelie Day, by Vanessa Curtis.

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

Prince Preemie by Jewel Kats

Prince Preemie: A Tale of a Tiny Puppy Who Arrives Early

Jewel Kats, Author

Claudia Marie Lenart, Illustrator

Loving Healing Press, Fiction, Dec. 1, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 4-7

Themes: Animals, Premature babies, Special Needs, Princes, Hope

Opening: The King and Queen were expecting a boy. Prince Puppy would be their first child. He was considered a miracle because he was the only puppy in the Queen’s womb.

Book Synopsis: The King and Queen of Puppy Kingdom are joyfully awaiting the arrival of their Prince. But the couple and their kingdom are thrown into upheaval when it is learned that Prince Puppy will arrive early, before his important crown is completed. How can they call him Prince without a crown? How will they solve their problem when their puppy is in an incubator and hooked up to feeding tubes and wires?

Why I like this book:

A premature birth can be a confusing and scary time for families as they deal with worry and joy at the same time. This inspiring story has an element of a fairy tale. It is a gentle way to help young children understand the early birth of a sibling and why the sibling must be taken care of in a hospital.  It can also be used to help prepare siblings for the day a new baby is ready to come home and join family life.  It is also a wonderful way to explain to a child their premature birth.

Claudia Marie Lenart’s adorable illustrations really make this story sing. I love her soft woolen sculptures as they add a dreamy and soothing quality to the story and add to the book’s appeal. Lenart is a fiber artist who pokes wool and other natural fibers, like alpaca, with a barbed needle to sculpt her soft characters and scenes.  This is the perfect medium for a fairy tale. Lenart will author and illustrate her first book in April: Seasons of Joy: Every Day is for Outdoor Play.

Resources: The book is a resource for parents to use with siblings. It helps parents answer simple questions for young children. And, it is a good book to use with a preemie child to discuss their early birth. Links to organizations that support preemie families: The Graham’s Foundation, Miracle Babies and the March of Dimes.

Jewel Kats has authored a dozen books-eight are about disabilities. Among  her books are Jenny and Her Dog Both Fight Cancer: A Tale of Chemotherapy and Caring and Hansel and Gretel: A Fairy Tale with a Down Syndrome Twist. Preemie Prince was her final gift to readers. Jewel Kats was the pen name of Michelle Meera Katyal, who passed away in 2016 as the result of complications of surgery. She too had a disability. Please visit her at her website to see her collection of books.

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.

Teacup by Rebecca Young

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Rebecca Young, Author

Matt Ottley, Illustrator

Dial Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Oct. 4, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Leaving Home, Sea, Immigrant, Hope

Opening: Once there was a boy who had to leave his home…and find another.

Synopsis: A boy has to leave his home and sets off on a journey into the unknown with a backpack, a book, a bottle, a blanket and a teacup filled with the earth from his homeland.  His life at sea changes daily. Some days the sea is gentle and other days it is rough and unforgiving. Some days the light is bright and some nights are so dark he wishes to see the stars. He listens to the call of the whales and watches changing cloud formations.  One day a sprout appears in his teacup. It grows into a tree that gives him shelter, apples to eat and branches to climb so he can search the horizon for land. The boy finally finds land and he makes it home. He is alone, until…

Why I like this book:

Rebecca Young has written an inspiring and timely tale with spare text, allowing readers to use their imaginations. The language is poetic and hints at the mystery and wonder of the boy’s journey. She doesn’t say why the boy has to leave his home, which leaves this book open for age-appropriate discussions about the reasons people leave their homes. The fact that the boy has to leave his home, makes readers wonder if the boy is an immigrant or refugee. Perhaps he is pursuing a dream. There are many possibilities. This story can also be used to discuss topics like moving, separation, divorce, and homelessness. This is book for all ages and the perfect bedtime story.  The conclusion is very satisfying and hopeful. Matt Ottley’s oil paintings are luminous and show the light and darkness, the loneliness and joy of the boy’s journey.

Resources: This is an excellent discussion book for home and school. Why did the boy leave his home? Ask children to identify reasons.  How did the boy feel sailing in the small rowboat  on the endless ocean? How would they feel sailing in a rowboat on the sea? Encourage them to use their imaginations and make up a short story or draw a picture about their 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 Perfect Picture Books. 

My Demon’s Name is Ed by Danah Khalil

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My Demon’s Name is Ed

Danah Khalil, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Oct. 4, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 12-16

Themes: Anorexia Nervosa, Eating Disorders, Peer Pressure, Mental Health, Self-Esteem, Courage, Hope

Synopsis: Danah’s eating disorder has a personality — it’s a demon she calls Ed, the voice in her head that undermines her self-esteem and her perception of the world. How can she explain to her family and friends that even when she tries to develop healthier eating and exercising habits, there is a demon wriggling inside her mind, determining her every step?

ED: “There is nothing wrong while I am in control.”

“You see? It is “normal” to lose weight. I told you. Yes, I am always right. You must keep going. Keep going.

While Danah knows that what she is doing is unhealthy, the validation and sense of control that her “demon” gives her begins to win out over everything and everyone else.

Why I like this book:

Danah Khalil has written compelling novel based on her own struggle with an eating disorder, anorexia nervosa. She is 14 years old when her dieting begins. It takes guts to share something so profoundly emotional and deeply personal. I applaud Danah for bravely sharing her realistic story. Her suffering is visceral. Her voice is completely authentic. The solitude and misery she plummets into is dark and seductive. She calls the demon who lives in her head, “Ed.” And, with every journal entry, Ed’s voice  (written in italics,) is there to coax, command and control her every thought and action.

Danah tells her story entirely through diary entries she started at age 14, at the beginning of the anorexia through her recovery at age 18. Although it is an interesting way to watch the progression of her anorexia, the entries become very focused on meal plans, weighing herself, daily workouts, anger towards her parents, and some lovely poetry. This is the isolation she creates for herself. My only sadness is that I never really get to know Danah, her family and friends, even after she enters a treatment facility. I hoped her therapy would reveal more family interaction.

Danah’s story is a hopeful story for families with a child who has an anorexia, or for anyone who is close to someone with an eating disorder. Although Danah recovers, she acknowledges that it will be with her forever and she will need to stay vigilant. Many years ago I worked with teens and young women with eating disorders and it brought back many memories. My Demon’s Name is Ed  is an excellent book that will alert parents, siblings, friends, and teachers to the earliest symptoms of eating disorders and seek help.

Resources: The book includes information on common symptoms and book recommendations. I recommend that readers also check out the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA),  which provides information about the eating disorders, support groups, treatment options and stories of hope.

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

Every Falling Star: How I Survived and Escaped North Korea

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Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea

Sungju Lee and Susan McClelland, Authors

Amulet Books, Memoir, Sep. 13, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 11 – 14

Themes: Life in North Korea, History, Family Relationships, Homeless Boys, Street Children, Gangs, Poverty, Loss, Survival, Escape,  Multicultural, Hope

Prologue Opening: My toy soldier peers over a mound of dirt not far from where my father, abeoji, my mother, eomeoni, and I have just finished our picnic, near the Daedong River in Pyongyang.

Synopsis: Every Falling Star is the memoir of Sungju Lee, a North Korean (Joseon) boy who grows up in a privileged military family in Pyongyang.  He dreams of becoming a general in the army. His father is an important military leader, his mother a teacher and his grandfather a doctor. Sungju plays with his toy soldiers and his father joins him to teach him war strategies. His favorite television cartoon is Boy General. His loving  family lives in a large apartment near Kim Il-sung Square. Life is normal and there is plenty of food. Sungju attends school where he listens to the stories about the eternal leader, Kim Il-Sung, studies regular subjects, and learns about the monsters that want to attack his country — the Americans, the Japanese and the South Koreans. He takes taekwondo lessons, attends birthday parties, and goes to the amusement park.

One day Sungju’s father is asked to leave his job because of something he’s done. The family is sent north to Gyeong-seong, where they are to work as laborers in the countryside. Sungju is shocked by his new life and the starvation and death around him. He attends school where he makes friends, but attending is not worth his time. Eventually the family’s money (won) runs out and they fall upon hard times like everyone else. His parents hunt for wild vegetables, roots, small animals in the forests to survive. Sungju sells his books in the market. When his father goes to China to sell valuables and his mother heads to an aunt’s home for food, Sungju is alone. They never return and he is homeless. The twelve-year-old is forced to live in the streets and fend for himself. He survives for four years by joining a gang (kotjebi) and creates a new family with these brothers. Eventually he leads his own gang. Life is dangerous, brutal, and unforgiving. Sungju learns to steal, lie, and fight-to-kill. Everyday he fears arrest, imprisonment and even execution. It is the hope of finding his parents that keeps him alive.

Why I like this book:

  • Sungju Lee’s brave memoir captivated me from start to finish. I know so little about life in contemporary North Korea, and his gripping and powerfully haunting story touched me in a way I won’t forget. This is a true story that humanizes history for readers.
  • Lee and author Susan McClelland vividly depict the sharp contrast between life for the privileged families living in Pyongyang and the grim, deplorable and brutal life for the poor living through the famine outside the city in the 1990s. You understand how children in Pyongyang are brainwashed with propaganda based on myths from birth. You feel the anger, hopelessness and despair of those starving in the countryside and wonder how you would survive an authoritarian government where censorship is rampant and your freedoms are taken away.
  • Readers will observe Sungju’s transformation from a naïve child, loving and dutiful son in Pyongyang, to a resilient, fearless and notorious street gang leader. He uses the military tactics his father teaches him as a child to outsmart his street enemies, merchants and the police. He has rules his gang all agree to live by, like never stealing food from a child. He develops strategies, secret codes and hideouts. He is a leader and becomes hardened. The only heart he shows is towards his loyal gang brothers: Young-bum, Chulho, Min-gook, Unsik, Myeongchul, and Sangchul. They are his family.
  • The story is a page turner, reads like a novel and is packed with action. The pacing is fierce with most of the storytelling focused on Sungju’s street survival. He and his gang are always on the move. They hop trains to other cities, fight with different gangs for control over markets, manipulate merchants, and are chased out-of-town by police. They move on to other cities and repeat their activities. They also suffer personal injury and loss of two of their brothers.
  • Readers will have to wait until the very last chapter to discover how Sungju leaves his street life and is reunited with his family. The ending feels rushed and I wanted to know more about his big escape. After all, it is a risky event. Thankfully, there is an Epilogue at the end that fills in the gaps. Verdict: Teens will find this powerful memoir about adversity and hope, engaging and satisfying.  Every Falling Star belongs in school libraries. Although the publisher lists the book for ages 12-14, the School Library Journal recommends it for middle grade readers, ages 8 -12. Because of the drinking, drugs, stealing and violence in the book, parents should make that call for tweens.

Quote: “But I hadn’t lost everything. I had hope that I would meet my parents again. With this hope, I made a wish whenever I saw a falling star.”

Resources: There is a Brief History of Korea and Prologue at the beginning of the book. There is an Epilogue and Glossary of Korean words at the end.

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

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw

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Kathleen Burkinshaw, Author

Sky Pony Press, Historical Fiction, Aug. 2,  2016

Pages: 240

Suitable for Ages: 11-13

Themes: Hiroshima, Children of war, WW II, Love, Loss, Traditions

Opening: “Get under your desks — now!” Yakamura-sensei shouted above the lonesome wail of the air raid siren.

Book Synopsis:  Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her five-year-old cousin, Genji, are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage.  And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden from its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.

This is a story that offers young readers insight into how children lived during the war, while also introducing them to Japanese culture. Based loosely on author Kathleen Burkinshaw’s mother’s firsthand experience surviving the atomic bombings of Hiroshima, The Last Cherry Blossom hopes to warn readers of the immense damage nuclear war can bring, while reminding them that the “enemy” in any war is often not so different from ourselves.

Why I like this book:

Kathleen Burkinshaw’s debut novel is powerfully penned, authentic, emotionally raw and deeply personal. It is a captivating journey about life, love, secrets, pain, loss and hope that will tug at your heart long after you put the novel down.

Even though there are frequent air raid drills and black-out curtains, traditional Japanese life continues with a strong sense of community. The first half of the story focuses on family, cultural traditions, food preparation, ceremony, ritual, and the beautiful cherry blossom and New Year’s festivals. There are family secrets, the angst of adolescence and enduring friendships. Readers will easily fall in step with the pace of life in Japan before it begins to change.

The story is character-driven, with Yuriko narrating. Reader’s will be captivated by Yuriko’s curiosity, spirit, and strong will, which is nurtured by her papa, who publishes the newspaper. Their bond is tight and he tells her bedtime stories of their samurai ancestors and how they are the last branches of their family tree. Yuriko shares secrets and a love of jazz music with her best friend Machiko.

The plot picks up momentum as more soldiers are being sent to war and not returning home. Rumors spread that there isn’t enough scrap metal to build Japanese planes. The Emperor sends out propaganda that the Japanese are beating the Allies in the Pacific.  But, the Americans bomb Nagasaki.  Air raid sirens are going off many times daily. And in a blink of an eye there are war planes flying low overhead.  Sirens sound. There is an eruption of bright light and loud sounds. Yuriko’s world implodes that tragic day.

This is a dark period in humanity’s history 71 years ago. Children will learn that Japanese children shared the same fears as the children in Allied countries during World War II.  Her novel speaks to the enduring will to survive. It is my hope that Burkinshaw’s novel will help readers humanize historical events that have radically changed our world and take them more seriously as they become our future leaders.  The author’s mother shared her story because she felt “the use of nuclear weapons against any country or people, for any reason, is unacceptable.”

Resources: There is a very helpful glossary of Japanese words and expressions that are used throughout the novel, an Author’s Note, and Statistics About Hiroshima.

Kathleen Burkinshaw wrote The Last Cherry Blossom based on her mother’s story of growing up in Hiroshima during World War II. She was twelve years old when the bomb was dropped on Aug. 6, 1945. Visit Kathleen Burkinshaw at her website.

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

Note: Watch for Multicultural Children’s Book Day, which will be celebrated on Jan. 27, 2017. Hashtag: #ReadYourWorld.