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.

Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar

hour-of-the-bees-41ovl5tbiol__sx344_bo1204203200_Hour of the Bees

Lindsay Eagar, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Mar. 8, 2016

Pages: 360

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Family relationships, Heritage, Magic, Grandfather, Dementia, Forgiveness, Understanding, Loss

Book Jacket Synopsis: While her friends are spending their summers having pool parties and sleepovers, twelve-year-old Carolina –Carol — is spending hers in the middle of the New Mexico desert, helping her parents move the grandfather she’s never met off his dying sheep ranch and into a home for people with dementia.

At first Carol keeps her distance from prickly Grandpa Serge, whose eyes are impossibly old and who chastises “Caro-leeen-a” for spitting on her roots. But as the summer drags on and the heat bears down, she finds herself drawn to Serge, enchanted by his stories about an oasis in the desert with a green-glass lake and a tree that gave the villagers the gift of immortality — and the bees that kept the tree alive.

When Serge weaves details of his own life into his stories and tells her to keep an eye out for the bees he is certain will return to the ranch and end the century-long drought, she chalks it up to dementia. But as the thin line between magic and reality starts to blur, Carol must decide for herself what is possible — and what it means to be true to her roots.

Why I like this book:

Lindsay Eagar’s heartfelt and sensitive intergenerational story is about finding and honoring your roots.  The language is strong and lyrical and captures the growing bond between Carolina (Carol) and Grandfather Serge. And there is an intermingling of Spanish and English that adds authenticity to the setting.

It also is a coming of age story for a 12-year-old Carol, who is the only family member interested in really getting to know her grandfather and is spellbound with his storytelling about a special tree that keeps the Spanish community safe, a girl who dares to leave and explore the world, and living forever.

The characters are realistic and believable. Carol is a curious, sweet, patient and reliable tween who is the only family member who respects and even admires her grandfather. She attempts to connect with him, even when he lapses into the past and mistakes Carol for her Grandmother Rosa. Grandfather Serge is a crusty old man who is battling dementia and won’t leave his run-down sheep ranch. He can spin a great story and Carol wants to hear them all.

The plot is original with moments of action and tension in the ravaged desert environment that will keep readers engaged. There are personality struggles that teens will relate to with Carol and her sister, Alta, and Carol’s father and Grandfather Serge. This magical story inside the story is beautifully written and one you won’t forget.  I LOVED The Hour of the Bees.  The ending is very satisfying and will capture  readers’ imaginations.

This is a helpful story for teens who have grandparents suffering with dementia. It gives them insight into ways of communicating and connecting with loved ones. It is also an interesting story to read, discuss and write about because of the many  layered themes.

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

The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan

the-poets-dog-51gd-tehrml__sx331_bo1204203200_The Poet’s Dog

Patricia MacLachlan, Author

Katherine Tegen Books, Fiction, Sep. 13, 2016

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

Pages: 88

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

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

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

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

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

Why I like this book:

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

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

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

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

Jenny and Her Dog Both Fight Cancer by Jewel Kats

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

Jewel Kats, Author

Claudia Marie Lenart, Illustrator

Loving Healing Press, Fiction, Mar. 21, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 6-9

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

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

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

Why I like this book:

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

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

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

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

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.  

Applesauce Weather by Helen Frost

applesauce-weather-51y2mlsxytl__sx336_bo1204203200_Applesauce Weather

Helen Frost, Author

Amy June Bates, Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Aug. 9, 2016

Pages: 122

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Apples, Loss, Multigenerational families, Family relationships,  Storytelling

Book Jacket Synopsis: When the first apple falls from the tree, siblings Faith and Peter know that it’s applesauce weather. And that means Uncle Arthur should be here. But maybe he needs a little more time to grieve? This is the first year without Aunt Lucy, after all. When Uncle Arthur does finally arrive, it’s clear that something besides one of his fingers is missing. Where are the stories? Where’s that twinkle in his eye? With help from Faith’s love and patience, and sparked by Peter’s growing interest in the girl next door, Uncle Arthur might just have the start of a new story.

Why I like this story:

Written by award-winning poet, Helen Frost, “Applesauce Weather” is a heartwarming  story about the love and support of family following the loss of Uncle Arthur’s wife, Lucy. She gives a fresh, crisp feeling of a lovely fall weekend filled with family and traditions.

This is a perfect book to introduce older children and teens to a novel written in verse. The chapters are short and written in the alternating voices of Faith, Peter and Uncle Arthur. This allows readers to get to know the characters from three different viewpoints. There are also seven special verses of “Lucy’s Song” interspersed throughout the book that reveal snippets of the Uncle Arthur and Aunt Lucy’s life together and the great love they once shared. They reveal stories about the bench Uncle Arthur makes for Lucy that still sits under an apple tree and the day they carved their initials into a nearby tree.

Amy June Bates’ black and white pencil drawings have a charm about them and give the reader a peek at the characters and a strong sense of the vivid setting. The illustrations add a nice touch to the overall story.

Helen Frost is the author of Step Gently Out, Sweep up the SunAmong a Thousand Fireflies, Monarch and Milkweed, and six novels in poems for children and young adults. She was awarded a Printz Honor for Keesha’s House.

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

Be Light Like a Bird by Monika Schroder

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

Monika Schroder, Author

Capstone Young Readers, Fiction, Sep. 1, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

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

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

Why I like this book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stranded Whale

Stranded Whale51zH+DEwRZL__SY444_BO1,204,203,200_The Stranded Whale

Jane Yolen, Author

Melanie Cataldo, Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Fiction, July 16, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 5-9

Themes: Whales, Nature, Death, Anger, Grief

Opening:We were walking home from school, hurrying along the top of the dunes because Ma always hates when we’re late for supper.”

Synopsis: While walking home from school along the dunes in Maine, Sally and her brothers spot an enormous whale stranded on the beach. The siblings take off their sweaters, dip them into the cold briny water and rush back to wet down the whale. Realizing they need more help, Josh runs for help and returns with many people carrying buckets. The Coast Guard arrives and begins to help. But the tide is going out quickly and the whale is just too big. Time is running out.

Why I like this book:

  • Jane Yolen has written a touching story that will tug at your heart. The story is set in 1971 and it reminds me of lengthier picture books written at that time. Yolen carefully chooses her language. Her text is rich, lyrical and carries you like a poem. Melanie Cataldo’s uses muted tones in her oil and pencil illustrations. They contribute to the emotion and vulnerability of the story.
  • Because it is 1971, the three siblings don’t have modern cell phones to call for help. This adds to the tension because so much time is lost. Sally and her brothers have to rely upon their own resources to help the whale. Josh has to run a mile to find an emergency telephone. It takes a while before the town people and Coast Guard arrive with buckets to wet down the whale. They all try to push the whale back into the ebbing sea. There are no fire hoses or lifts. This is a nice contrast/comparison story for readers.
  • The story is narrated by Sally, who is brave and strong. While Josh is sad about the situation, Sally is mad at everything. She’s mad at the ocean for deserting the whale. She’s mad that they didn’t have a boat and long ropes to pull it into the sea. Sally is also compassionate and looks deeply into the whales eye and sees a tear. She continues wetting down the whale “one sweater, two sweaters at a time.” She tells the whale it is “beautiful and strong, how much she would miss it, whatever happened next.”
  • The ending is realistic. (Spoiler alert) Despite their efforts to rescue the whale, Sally and her brothers learn that not all living creatures can be saved. This is an important truth for children.

Resources: Yolen has an Author’s Note at the end. She talks about why she chose the setting and time frame. She also gives a lot information about how many whales are found on beaches annually and the many reasons for why they beach. There are many good discussion points for parents/teachers and children in this story.  Today is Endangered Species Day.  Make sure you check out the Endangered Species Coalition website.

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.