The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman

The Length of a String

Elissa Brent Weissman, Author

Dial Books for Young Readers, Fiction, May 1, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Themes: Adoption, Identity, Family relationships, Jews, African Americans, Holocaust

Synopsis:

Imani is adopted by a Jewish family. Now that she’s turning 13, she knows exactly what she wants as her big bat mitzvah gift: to find her birth parents. She loves her family and her Jewish community in Baltimore, but she has always wondered where she came from, especially since she’s black and almost everyone she knows is white.

When her mom’s grandmother–Imani’s great-grandma Anna–passes away, Imani discovers an old journal among her books. It’s Anna’s diary from 1941, the year she was twelve and fled Nazi-occupied Luxembourg alone, sent by her parents to seek refuge in Brooklyn, New York. Imani keeps the diary a secret for a while, only sharing it with her best friend, Madeline. Anna’s diary chronicles her escape from Holocaust-era Europe and her journey to America and her new life with a Jewish adoptive family. She continues to write to her sister Belle about the tall New York sky scrapers, shopping in supermarkets, eating Chinese food, modeling fur coats, and playing Chinese checkers, until news about her family stops. She fears the worst and puts down her pen.

Imani decides to make Anna’s story her bat mitzvah research project. She uncovers some important information about the war and Luxembourg. As Imani reads Anna’s diary, she begins to see her own family and her place in it in a new way.

Why I like this book:

The author skillfully weaves two stories, one from the present and another from the past, using characters that you will feel like you know intimately. This is a very different holocaust story because it focuses on the identity of Jewish and African-American girls (70 years a part) and their search for self, something that readers will find relevant. The setting, the unforgettable characters, and the plot create an engaging reading experience. The ending is unexpected and very satisfying.

You learn about Anna Kirsch and the painful decision her family makes in deciding which of their seven children to smuggle to America as the Nazi’s begin to occupy Luxembourg.  Anna is selected and separated from her identical twin sister, Belle, the other half of her heart. On the ship she begins to write Belle daily letters daily chronicling her journey so that she keeps their connection alive. Anna lives with  loving strangers, Hannah and Max, a Jewish family who open their hearts and home to her. Anna is essentially adopted, like Imani. She continues to write to Belle about her adventures until news about her family stops.

My children are adopted, each responding differently like Imani and her adopted El Salvadoran brother. Like Imani, my daughter had so many questions about her past. What were her ethnic roots? Who did she look like? Why was she adopted? Like Imani’s family, we ran a genetic DNA test for our daughter so she had a sense of her heritage. This eventually led to her finding two biological sisters this past year.  Now she has answers and it has brought her peace as an adult. We need more MG and YA books for adopted children who are trying to figure out who they are and need to see themselves in stories.

Elissa Brent Weismann’s novel is a captivating story that is a departure from her humorous Nerd Camp series. Her website includes teacher resources and curriculum for all of her books.

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

Little Worlds by Geraldine Collet

Géraldine Collet, Author

Sébastien Chebret, Illustrator

Magination Press, Fiction, Feb. 15, 2018

Suitable for Ages:  4-8

Themes: Imagination, Dreaming, Play, Identity, Empathy

Opening: It’s a well-known fact that everybody has their own little world!

Synopsis: A little world is any place where a child’s imagination is free to blossom. When Pablo wants his own space, he climbs into his treehouse and listens to the birds singing. Marion likes to crawl into a tent in her living room and build castles with her cat. Frank and Melvin retreat to their grandfather’s workshop and invent things. Clara dreams of stars and galaxies. Martin wears his knight outfit and takes on dragons. Books carry Lili to far-away places. Marek and Simon play on a wall in a war zone and dream of a world without war.

Why I like this book:

Géraldine Collet book shows a diverse group of children in their own self-constructed little worlds as they explore and freely play, develop their own identities, and learn to understand others. It is ideal for kids who just want to play, have fun or dream about possibilities. Sébastien Chebret’s warm and colorful illustrations are both playful and pensive.

Collet’s book invites lively conversations between children and their parents.  Parents will find her book nostalgic as they remember their favorite places to imagine, create, and dream. I think of my brothers heading to the creek and woods to explore the world, while I climbed to the tops of trees and sang my heart out. What a special way to listen and discover your child’s favorite places to dream and play. And it’s an opportunity to share your favorite memories together. When you listen, you encourage and your child to explore, experiment, imagine and pursue their different passions.

Resources: There is  a “Note to Parents and Caregivers” by Julia Martin Burch, PhD, with more information on ways to encourage your child’s imagination and identity, while also fostering a sense of empathy for others.

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. 

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Beyond the Bright Sea

Lauren Wolk, Author

Dutton Children’s Books, May 2, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Themes: Abandonment, Orphan, Identity, Family, Love, Elizabeth Islands, Sea

Prologue Opening: “My name is Crow. When I was a baby, someone tucked me into an old boat and pushed me out to sea. I washed up on a tiny island, like a seed riding the tide. It was Osh who found me and took me in. Who taught me how to put down roots, and thrive on both sun and rain, and understand what it is to bloom.”

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Crow has lived her entire life on a tiny, isolated piece of the beautiful Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts. Set adrift in a small boat when she was just hours old, Crow’s only companions are Osh, the man who rescued and raised her, and Miss Maggie, their fierce and affectionate neighbor across the sandbar. Even though Miss Maggie sent telegraphs to the other Elisabeth Islands asking if anyone was looking for a new-born, there were no responses. The rest of the islanders are afraid Crow was born on Penikese Island, which housed a colony of lepers. They keep their distance and won’t allow her to attend school with their children.

Crow feels a connection to Penikese and knows in her heart the island is part of her history. One night she spots a mysterious fire burning across the water on Penikese. She convinces Osh and Miss Maggie to take her there. Little does Crow know her quest will lead her down a path of self-discovery, danger and a villain who thinks she has something he wants.

Why I recommend this book:

Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea is a brilliantly crafted novel that is mysterious, breathtaking and heartbreaking. It is set in 1925 on the tiny island of Cuttyhunk where Osh and Crow experience an unlikely new beginning together. The untamed beauty of the sea and island becomes a powerful character that weaves their lives together. The setting, the characters, the plot and the gorgeous imagery create an extraordinary experience for readers.  

The characters are complex and memorable. Crow is a determined, curious and resilient girl. Her greatest gift is her intuition which nudges her to piece together the puzzle that reveals her own history. It is a joy to experience the story narrative through her innocent, yet wise character. Osh is a quiet and kind-hearted man with secrets of his own. He leaves a world at war behind him to live alone on Cuttyhunk. Crow’s unexpected arrival by sea changes Osh’s solitary life and he becomes a caring and protective father. Crow grows up happy and safe with Osh teaching her everything she needs to know about the ocean, the moon, the tides and the weather. Miss Maggie is outspoken with a voice like thunder and a heart that embraces Crow with grand-motherly affection. She schools Crow since she isn’t permitted to attend classes with the locals. Miss Maggie is the only one on the island who isn’t afraid of Crow. Both Osh and Miss Maggie support Crow’s journey to uncover her past.

The plot is courageous, gripping, and dangerous. Wolk’s deliberate pacing keeps readers fully engaged and wondering what will happen next. There are secrets, unexpected surprises and some harrowing moments for all the characters. Crow learns that family is about the people who care about you no matter what. Wolk nicely pulls everything together in a realistic and satisfying ending.

Lauren Wolk is an award-winning poet and author of the critically acclaimed Wolf Hollow, described by The New York Times Book Review as “full of grace and stark, brutal beauty.” She is a graduate of Brown University with a degree in English Literature.  She lives on Cape Cod. Visit Wolk at her website.

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