Mr. Mergler, Beethoven, and Me by David Gutnick

Mr. Mergler, Beethoven, and Me

David Gutnick, Author

Mathilde Cinq-Mars, Illustrator

Second Story Press, Fiction, Apr. 18, 2018

Suitable for Ages:5-8

Themes: Music, Piano teacher, Intergenerational relationships, Friendship, Loss

Opening: Not long after my family arrived from China, I went to the park with my father, whom I call Baba. Lots of people went there to play…it is where I met someone I will always remember.

Synopsis: Shortly after a girl and her family arrive from China, she and her father (Baba) meet an older gentleman in a park. They learn that Mr. Mergler has taught piano lessons to hundreds of students for over 50 years. Baba proudly shares that his daughter plays the piano at their church. Mr. Mergler asks her to sing her favorite song. He closes his eyes as he listens.  He hears music in a way that most of us can’t. When she finishes, Mr. Mergler recognizes the girl’s talent and offers to give her piano lessons. Their bond grows as she studies with him.  Her fingers fly over the ivory keys and she becomes lost in the magic of her music.  After many months of study, the girl learns that Mr. Mergler is ill. Mr. Mergler sends her a letter and a special gift.

Why I like this book:

This is a heartwarming multicultural and intergenerational story about a girl and her elderly music teacher. The author beautifully captures the affection and bond between teacher and student — and all of the hundreds of students who lives he’s touched. His walls are adorned with their photographs.

This story is inspired by the life of the wonderful and generous musician Daniel Mergler, who loved to teach children. It is a story that will inspire many classically trained young musicians. It is also a tribute to a quiet and kind man who was adored by his students. His story brought tears to my eyes as I reminisced about many of my favorite piano teachers as a child, teen and young adult. I am sure many adults reading this story with their children will recall their memories of favorite teachers.

Mathilde Cinq-Mars soft and whimsical illustrations carry their own melody with musical symbols woven into the delicate composition. They are exquisite and compliment the text.

Resources: Make sure you read the material about the lives of Daniel Mergler and Beethoven at the end of the story. They give insight into Mr. Mergler and are a good way to address music with children. Music can be made with many items. If you don’t have a piano, give children a harmonica, kazoo, bells, pots and pans to play with to encourage rhythm and fun.

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 Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

The Stars Beneath Our Feet

David Barclay Moore, Author

Knopf Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Sep. 19, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 12 and up

Awards: Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent

Themes: African-American, Family relationships, Harlem, Gangs, Grief, Self-discovery, Friendship

Book Synopsis: It all started with two garbage bags full of Legos. Or not, maybe it started with the two thugs following 12-year-old Lolly down 125th that night.

Or maybe it was Jermaine’s dying. Or that fight they had before ‘Maine got shot. Yeah, probably it was that.

Lolly’s having a hard time knowing how to be without his older brother around. Seems like he’s either sad or mad. The thing that helps most is building. His mom’s girlfriend, Yvonne, gave him two huge bags of Legos for Christmas, and Lolly’s working on an epic city — a project so big it outgrows his apartment. The community center lets him work on his magical Lego city in a storage room which provides Lolly with an escape—and an unexpected bridge back to the world from his grief.

But there are dangers outside that persist. There are older guys who harass, beat up and rob Lolly and his friend Vega on the street. They pressure the boys to join a crew (gang), like his brother Jermaine. What would Jermaine want him to do? Get with a crew and take revenge? Or build a different kind of world for himself. Lolly’s going to have to figure this one out on his own.

Why this book is on my shelf:

David Barclay Moore has penned a powerful debut novel with a gripping plot and timely, real-life issues for young people of color. He opens readers eyes to how 12-year-old boys are easily targeted and drawn into gangs/crews as a way to survive. They don’t want to be part of gangs, but they are beaten, robbed, threatened and bullied into submission. It’s a way of life in many inner city neighborhoods where opportunities are limited. They believe that having the protection of a gang can save their lives, but it can also kill them, like Lolly’s brother, Jermaine.

I like how the author helps Lolly deal with his brother’s loss through imagination, creativity, and his love of architecture. Lolly builds epic cities with fantastic stories. He doesn’t realize that he is a gifted artist and storyteller headed for great things.

The relationship between two very unlikely friends, Lolly, who doesn’t know what to do with his anger and grief, and Big Rose, who is on the autism spectrum, is my favorite part of the story. Lolly is furious about the center’s director giving Rose permission to build Lego cities in the storage room with Lolly. But, then he begins to see her talent and speed at building. They end up traipsing all over New York City studying, photographing and drawing its unique architecture. They need each other and are important to each other’s growth healing.

A major reason the author wanted to write this novel is because he feels “there aren’t enough books that speak with the voices of the characters in his story.” For instance a slang word in one Harlem neighborhood may not even be used in another neighborhood a few blocks away. So the narrative is richly textured and thought-provoking, and offers hope and an opportunity for self-discovery.

This novel belongs in the hands of every teenager and middle grade and high school. It offers students the opportunity to engage in important discussions about real life and modern social issues.

David Barclay Moore was born and raised in Missouri. After studying creative writing at Iowa State University, film at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and language studies at l’Université de Montpellier in France, David moved to New York City, where he has served as communications coordinator for Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone and communications manager for Quality Services for the Autism Community. He has received grants from the Ford Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, Yaddo, and the Wellspring Foundation. He was also a semi-finalist for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. David now lives, works, and explores in Brooklyn, N.Y.  You can follow him at his website.

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.

Fox Magic by Beverley Brenna

Fox Magic

Beverley Brenna, Author

Red Deer Press, Fiction, Dec. 15, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Pages: 115

Themes: Teen suicide, Grief, Loss, Bullying, Courage, Hope

Opening: The week after the Bad Thing happened, Chance is back in school. She’s walking away from the water fountain and Monika is right there in front of her.  “She was my cousin, you know,” Monika hisses. “It should have been you.”

Synopsis: Chance Devlin and her two best friends make a pact to commit suicide. They dress in their best clothes and meet at a planned site. Chance changes her mind and runs home. She doesn’t tell anyone. Now her two friends have killed themselves. Chance struggles with grief, loss, and guilt that she didn’t tell anyone or try to stop them. Kids at school bully her and leave nasty notes in her desk and backpack: “Traitor. You’re better off dead.” She keeps the Bad Thing a secret, feels empty inside and escapes through sleep.

Enter her parents. They immediately get Chance into counseling, which is agonizing for her. Her therapist encourages her to write in a journal. Her father is my hero. He takes some time off so he can be at home with Chance, cook her pancakes for breakfast, drive and pick her up from school, make her exercise with him in fun and sometimes nerdy places. And he takes her to see her mom at work as a nurse in a neonatal unit, where she observes the tender and loving care her mother gives each newborn.  Her father shares with her a very important story.

A fox begins to magically appear in her Chance’s life. The fox, she names Janet Johnson, helps Chance to begin to get in touch with her grief, the past, her feelings, find her voice and move forward towards healing.  Is it her subconscious? I like Brenna’s sweet touch of magical realism as it allows the readers to decide for themselves what the fox symbolizes.

Why this book is on my shelf:

Brenna’s coming of age novel is brave and skillfully written. Each chapter is short and features pen and ink drawings to highlight each chapter. Suicide is a difficult but timely subject for older middle grade students that offers a wealth of opportunities for family and classroom discussions. This is a hopeful book.

Brenna doesn’t linger on the suicide pact or reveal the details of that night, which makes this realistic story very approachable for middle grade students. The story is told from Chance’s viewpoint. Readers will grow with Chance’s character as she deals with pain and grief and finds the courage and determination to move forward in her life. She’s authentic, honest and believable. There are many memorable characters that play supportive roles in her growth.

Brenna is from Saskatchewan where there many Indigenous children. I like how she includes both “First Nation and Metis” beliefs in Chance’s classroom as the students talk about school bullying and come up with clever solutions. This classroom interaction plays another important role in Chance’s healing.

Resources: There is an excellent interview with Beverley Brenna with discussion questions, an afterword with a mental health professional, and resource links. Brenna has prepared a teacher’s guide on her website for use in the classroom.

Beverley Brenna is the author of the award-winning Wild Orchid series, about a girl on the autism spectrum. She teaches at the University of Saskatchewan in Suskatoon.

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.

The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas, Author

Balzer + Bray, Fiction, Feb. 28, 2017

Awards: National Book Award Longlist

Suitable for Ages: 14 and up

Themes: Racism, Police Violence, Prejudice, Family Relationships, Community

Book Synopsis: Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter lives between two different worlds: Garden Heights, the poor black neighborhood where she lives, and Williamson Prep, the fancy suburban school she attends.  It’s tough to make friends in her own community where she is judged. It’s hard being an acceptable black student in a white school. The uneasy balance between her worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, by a police officer when he’s driving Starr home. Khalil was unarmed.

Khalil’s death quickly becomes a national news story. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. One of Starr’s best friends at school even suggests he may have had it coming. When it becomes clear the police have little interest in investigating the incident, protesters take to the streets and Starr’s neighborhood becomes a war zone. Everyone wants to know what really happened that night. Starr is the only witness and because she is a minor, her identity is protected.  The police take her testimony with little interest, even though her Uncle Carlos is a detective. When tensions reach a boiling point, she knows that she has to tell the truth.

What Starr does — or does not — say could destroy her community. It could endanger her life. It could help her find her voice.

Why I like this book:

Angie Thomas’ powerful in-your-face novel is timely, brave, and gripping.  It is a story about violence in America that’s not sugar-coated but effective with a trustworthy narrator, Starr Carter, who opens her heart and readers’ eyes to the truth. Readers will walk in her shoes, feel her anguish and cheer as she becomes an instrument for hope.

Thomas’ action-packed and multifaceted plot begins with Khalil’s shooting in the first chapter. The story follows with the fall-out that occurs in Garden Heights as the community responds at first with peaceful protests. Gangs move in, stir up crowds and the scene quickly turns to violence. Businesses are burned and the neighborhood becomes a war zone. It is a grim and suffocating look at the inner-city where abuse, addiction and gangs are a way of life and children are its victims.

Starr’s tight and loving family adds stability to the novel. She lives with her father “Big Mav,” a former gang-member who wants to make their crime-ridden neighborhood a better place to live. He owns a local market and employs teens to keep them away from gangs and drugs. Her mother Lisa is a registered nurse who wants to move away in order to keep her family safe. Starr has an older, protective brother, Seven, and a younger brother, Sekani. Together the family faces adversity head-on with perseverance, resourcefulness, and the triumph of the human spirit.

Thomas presents the growing trend of racial profiling and police brutality in an unbiased way. She shows the prejudice on both sides. Starr’s uncle is a detective on the force, so we see things from his point of view.  It helps readers understand the different sides of the situation without confusion. As a reader I gained a greater understanding of drugs and gang life in the inner city and its appeal to teen boys who are supporting single mothers and younger siblings.

Through the perspective of Starr, readers glimpse the anguish that envelops her community, illuminating the feelings associated with suppression. We need more novels that focus on the social commentary of racism and police brutality. The Hate U Give is an excellent work of fiction and an important discussion book for classrooms.

Angie Thomas was born, raised, and still resides in Jackson, Mississippi. She is a former teen rapper whose greatest accomplishment was having an article about her in Right On! magazine. She holds a BFA in creative writing. The Hate U Give is her first novel. You can visit her at her website.

Greg Pattridge is the permanent 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 today.

Ali’s Bees by Bruce Olav Solheim

Ali’s Bees

Bruce Olav Solheim, Author

Gabby Untermayerova, Illustrations

CreateSpace, Fiction, Jul. 14, 2017

Pages: 142

Suitable for Ages: 7-12

Themes: Immigration, Iraq, Loss, PTSD, Bees, Intergenerational relationships, Tolerance, Friendship

Publisher Synopsis: There is a lot you can learn from bees. They may look aggressive, but they won’t sting you if you keep your cool and make them comfortable around you.

Ali wishes he could feel comfortable in his new home in Los Angeles, California. He loves living with his beekeeper grandfather, but he desperately misses his parents. They were killed in a terrorist attack in Iraq, and Ali was sent halfway across the world to live with his grandfather. In addition to the deep grief Ali faces, he is also struggling with post traumatic stress disorder from the attack.

Ali’s wise grandfather knows that working with the bees will help. Ali enjoys working with the bees so much that he announces he will do his science project on bees, their place in the world, and the dangers of colony collapse disorder. His work attracts the attention of Lupe, a friendly classmate with problems of her own, and Jenks, an angry bully who cares for his disabled father. The three form an unlikely connection through a funny bee dance and a cherished Mickey Mantle baseball card. Will it be enough to overcome their differences and the challenges each one faces?

Why I like this book:

Bruce Olav Solheim has written a sensitive and realistic story about an Iraqi teen boy who has lost his family to the horrors of war and comes to live with his grandfather in California. It is a positive story that challenges readers to understand the effects of war and to show compassion and tolerance towards immigrants as they learn new customs.

The characters are memorable.  Ali has been emotionally scarred by the loss of his parents during bombings.  He is grieving and suffers from PTSD. Sirens and loud noises remind him of war. His wise and patient grandfather, Jady, is a beekeeper. He has a steady and calming influence on Ali as he teaches him how to love and care for bees.  Ali makes friends with Lupe, who has her own family immigration problems, and Jenks who is a bully, but knows how to build things. They are unlikely and diverse threesome, yet perfect partners for Ali’s science project on bees.

The bees not only play a role in Ali’s emotional healing, but also promote the idea of teamwork as the students work together on their bee science project. Learning about bees also encourages readers to become interested in the plight of bees and the natural world.

The language is easy for  elementary students and teens to understand. Solheim’s pacing makes his engaging story a quick read. Pen and ink illustrations are scattered throughout the book and contribute to the story. Ali’s Bees would be a good book for families to read and discuss together and a great classroom book.

Bruce Olav Solheim served for six years in the US Army as a jail guard and helicopter pilot during the war. He has written five books and seven plays. He is a distinguished professor of history at Citrus College in Glendora, California. Solheim founded the Veterans Program at Citrus College and cofounded the Boots to Books transition course, which is the first college course for returning veterans. Solheim was born in Seattle, Washington, to Norwegian immigrant parents

*The author 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.

A Time to Dance and a Book Giveaway

I reviewed A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman, when it was first released in 2014 by Nancy Paulsen Books.  It is a beautiful story written in free verse.  The author has sent me an autographed paperback copy (2015) to give away to one lucky reader. All you need to do is leave a comment below indicate your interest, follow my website, and be a resident of the US or Canada. I will announce the winner on September 13.  I have included part of my earlier review of this remarkable gem. The hardback copy is a permanent resident on my bookshelf.

Suitable for ages: 12 and up

Awards: ALA Notable Book, Booklist Editor’s Choice, Kirkus, other national and international awards

Themes: Dance, India, Amputee, Disabilities, Abilities, Loss, Courage, Recovery

Book Jacket SynopsisVeda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance–so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown up used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling.

But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.

Why I like this book: This inspirational and courageous novel is lyrical with each word carefully chosen.  Verse is the perfect medium. Padma Venkatraman weaves together a story about loss and resilience of a girl determined to dance once again her beloved Indian Bharatanatyam. This is not a story about disability, but one of ability. It is about finding the deeper spiritual meaning of the dance over the applause. “For my invisible audience of the One I begin to dance./ Colors blur into whiteness and a lilting tune that is and is not of the world resonates within and without me./ My body feels whole./In the beat of my heart I hear again the eternal rhythm of Shiva’s feet.”

Reading Venkatraman’s novel is an experience of India in all its beauty, cultural traditions, senses and sounds. If you listen closely you can hear the faint echo of a dancing rhythm. Thaiya thai. Thaiya thai.  I highly recommend this beautiful novel for tweens and teens who have faced challenges in their lives.  This book is a treasure!

Padma Venkatraman is a chief scientist and oceanographer by training and a writer by choice. She is the author of Climbing the Stairs and Island’s End, both multi-award winners.  Padma was born in India, but is now an American citizen. Visit Padma at her website. It has discussion questions and teaching resources.

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

Undiscovered Country by Jennifer Gold

Undiscovered Country

Jennifer Gold, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Apr. 4,2017

Suitable for Ages: 13-18

Themes: Grief, Coming of age, South America, Humanitarian work, War, Mental Illness, Ethnic Minorities

Book Jacket Synopsis: You can run from grief, but it will follow…

Cat’s life is divided. There is the time Before her mom died, and After. When her mom got sick, Cat still did her homework and got accepted into a prestigious college, while her father slowly shut down. Now, everything seems meaningless.

Before, Cat was happy and had momentum. After, she feels stuck. And angry. There might be five stages of grief, but Cat can’t get past stage two. She’s so filled with rage, her doctor tries to medicate her. A pill to make her feel like a zombie? No thanks.

When Cat finds a brochure for Students Without Boundaries – a volunteer program that will send her to South America — she grabs it. It’s her escape from the memories of her mother and the reality of her absence. But life as a “voluntourist” is not an escape. The new people and places Cat meets bring new perspectives and challenges she never expected. Life may still have meaning after all.

Why I like this book:

Jennifer Gold has written a compelling coming of age story about Cat, who is trying to find meaning and purpose in her life after the death of her mother. Gold’s story is carefully crafted with skill and depth.

The story is written in first person with alternating chapters. The “Before” story focuses on Cat’s close bond with her mother throughout her battle with cancer and final moments of death. It is powerful and it carries secrets that will give readers insight into Cat’s choices to leave. “After,” shows Cat’s journey to the jungles of South America, the extreme hardships, poverty, violence, and danger she encounters and her important work in the Infirmary. The alternating chapters work because of the strong “Before” storyline.

The characters are authentic and vulnerable. Cat is a strong and convincing character that readers will connect with and like from the start. She knows that doing humanitarian work in of a war-torn country is a way for her to not dwell on her mother’s absence in her life. She meets other volunteers in the program, like Taylor, Margo, and Melody, who are running away from their own demons in a similar manner. Rafael is a local, who captures Cat’s heart. He heads up a local  resistance movement against the corrupt government and makes deals with some dark figures. Cat’s relationship with him is tricky and will challenge her to make grown-up decisions.

Readers will find the plot is courageous with complicated and multi-layered themes I haven’t even mentioned. The jungle setting is so realistic that readers will feel like they are dripping in sweat, slapping huge mosquitoes, and checking their boots every morning for snakes. It is not a safe place to be with danger an ever-present concern.  The tension is palpable and will keep readers engaged.

Jennifer Gold is a lawyer and mother of two. She is the author of the YA novel Soldier Doll. A history buff, she also has degrees in psychology, law, and public health. She lives in Toronto. Visit Gold online at her website.

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

*I was provided with a copy of this book from the publisher in turn for a fair and honest review.

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.

The Grand Wolf by Avril McDonald

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The Grand Wolf

Avril McDonald, Author

Tatiana Minina, Illustrator

Crown House Publishing Limited, Fiction, Apr. 26, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 4-7

Themes: Animals, Wolf, Death, Dealing with Grief, Accepting Change, Friendship

Opening: “Once in a while, / on a clear sunny day, / Wolfgang would go / to the Grand Wolf’s to play.”

Synopsis: Wolfgang and his friends enjoyed visiting the Grand Wolf.  Grand Wolf always had fresh bread baking in his house and toys in his shed. He’d take Wolfgang on long walks and show him things in the forest. But one day when Wolfgang and his friends went for their visit, they sensed something was wrong. The Wise Owl tells them that Grand Wolf has died. At first they are angry and don’t believe Owl.  Spider helps them deal with their grief and reminds them Grand Wolf will always be in their hearts and memories.

Why I like this book:

I am in awe of Avril McDonald’s tender and wise book about dealing with grief. The lovely rhythmic language and the beautiful illustrations blend perfectly to explore the emotional journey of love and loss, breaking your heart and then helping it to heal.  The book is so well written and talks about death in such a way that is perfect for children.  Wolfgang and his friends express their disbelief and anger and share their tears as Wise Owl and Spider support them, help them deal with this major change in their lives and remind them that just because someone is gone doesn’t mean they have left your heart.  Tatiana Minina’s colorful, bold and expressive illustrations really contribute to the book’s message.

The Grand Wolf is part of McDonald’s Feel Brave Series of books which are designed to help children deal with real life situations, manage tough emotions and reach their potential. Each book tells a story about a real life situation that children may face and offers simple coping strategies.  Each of the five books helps children deal with self-confidence, anxiety and fears, change, grief, loss, worries and bullying.  Follow Avril McDonald on her Feel Brave website.

Resources: This book is a great discussion book and resource for families and educators to use to talk about death with young children.  It is a helpful book for a family dealing with grief, approaching grief or separation. There is also a Feel Brave Teaching Guide available along with a CD.

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.

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw

last-cherry-blossom-9781634506939_p0_v2_s192x300The Last Cherry Blossom

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.