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.

Ida, Always

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Caron Levis, Author

Charles Santoso, Illustrator

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Feb. 23, 2016

Pages: 40

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Polar Bears, Best Friends, Illness, Grief, Loss, Hope

Opening: “Gus Lived in a big park in the middle of an even bigger city. Buildings grew around him and shifted the shape of the sky. Zookeepers poked in and out. Visitors came and went.”

Synopsis: Gus is a polar bear. He lives in a big park in the center of a city. Every day when he crawls out of his cave, his best friend Ida is always there to greet him. They play ball, splash in the water, chase each other, climb onto their favorite rock to gaze at the city and listen to the many noises around them. One morning Ida doesn’t come out of her cave. The zookeeper tells Gus that Ida is very sick and will die. Gus and Ida still have some time together to deal with the news. They stomp and howl, sniffle and cuddle, joke and giggle and wonder where Ida will go. Once Ida passes, Gus realizes that he will always carry their memories  together in his heart.

Why I like this book:

Caron Levis has written a tender, sensitive and hopeful book for children about illness, love and loss of a companion. The author’s gentle narrative and heartfelt honesty shows children the endearing friendship between the two polar bears, their reaction to Ida’s illness, the happy and sad moments they spend in their last days together, their curiosity about what will happen when Ida dies, and Gus’s adjustment to life without his best friend.

The text is lyrical and at times poetic as Levis depicts poignant moments between Gus and Ida. When Gus realizes that Ida is going to die, the simple text, “Don’t go, don’t go…DON”T!” is enlarged and emphasizes his pain and grief. I like the use of sounds in choice words.

For a child, the story of Gus and Ida easily opens a discussion about loss in their lives. Loss is a very important event for a child and they rarely have the opportunity to explore it honestly with adults.  This book can help children talk about the loss of a pet, a friend or a family member and translate that into their lives. This book belongs on every book shelf.

Charles Santoso’s illustrations are rich, warm and expressive. They beautifully capture the relationship between Gus and Ida and showcase the city skyline and the lush green zoo. The cover will melt your heart.

Resources:  There is an Author’s Note at the end. The story of Gus and Ida is inspired by the real-life polar bears, Ida and Gus, who lived together in the New York City’s Central Park Zoo. This book is an excellent resource for parents to talk about loss with their children.

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.

Minna’s Patchwork Coat

Minna's Patchwork Coat51a3s9oMphL__SX340_BO1,204,203,200_Minna’s Patchwork Coat

Lauren A. Mills, Author and Illustrator

Little Brown and Company, Fiction, Nov. 3, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Pages: 288

Themes: Children of coal miners, Appalachian Region, Coats, Quilting, Family life, School, Community, Prejudice

Book Jacket Synopsis: Minna and her family don’t have much in their small Appalachian cabin, but “people only need people,” Papa always says. Unable to afford a warm winter coat, Minna is forced to give up her dream of going to school — until her neighbors work tirelessly to create a quilted coat out of old fabric scraps. But even that might not be enough to cut through the long-held prejudices of Minna’s new classmates. Can she make them see beyond the rags to the girl with a special story inside?

Why I like this book:

Author and artist Lauren A. Mills lovingly reimagines her 1991  picture book, The Rag Coat, into a middle grade historical novel with 50 delicate and expressive black and white illustrations and an expanded story about a remarkable girl, a patchwork coat and how the two stitch the community together through scraps of stories that touch all of their lives.

The story is set in the Appalachian Region in West Virginia during in 1908. Most of the men work as coal miners deep beneath the earth. Many become sick with black lung disease. Poverty and loss are real. Prejudice for minorities is real and children of color aren’t permitted to attend school. Yet, families help each other when times are tough. They barely have enough money to feed and clothe their families, but they are rich in love, storytelling, music and dance. And the beauty of nature is the canopy they all share,

The characters are colorful and memorable. Minna is a resilient and feisty girl. Even though Minna is disappointed she can’t go to school, she spends her days helping her mama and watching her brother, Clemmie.  She also learns about the curative power of plants from “Aunt” Nora, a wise Cherokee healer. And Minna teaches Nora’s mixed-race grandson, Lester, to read and write. Mama keeps the family’s songs and stories alive. Papa is unable to work because of black lung disease. He’s a fiddler and teaches Lester how to play.

Minna’s Patchwork Coat is a richly textured story with many layers and a charming narrative. The plot is engaging. Sadly Minna’s father passes, but his spirit and memories help ease her grief. In order to earn money for the family, her mama joins the Quilting Mothers to stitch beautiful quilts to sell in the larger cities. When the mothers work on a colorful pattern called Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors, Minna longs for such a beautiful coat so she can go to school. The mothers work tirelessly to create a quilted coat out of old fabric scraps. Minna picks the scraps which carry a story about many of the students at school who tease her. Hearing their mothers share their stories helps Minna get to know each one better, including the bullies. The coat is finally finished and she proudly wears it to school on “sharing day.” She is teased by the other children about her coat of rags, until they realize that those rags carry bits of their own history. A beautiful tale that teaches children about the bond of community and their connection to each other.

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

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Lost in the Sun

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Lisa Graff, Author

Philomel Books, Fiction, May 26, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 10 and up

Themes: Friendship, Loss, Guilt, Disfigured persons, Brothers, Remarriage

Book Jacket Synopsis: Everyone says that middle school is awful, but Trent knows nothing could be worse than the year he had in fifth grade, when he accidentally hit Jared Richards in the chest with a hockey puck out on Cedar Lake. (Who knew that Jared had a heart defect? And that one little hockey puck could be deadly?) Trent’s pretty positive his entire town hates him now, and can’t blame them. So for Trent, middle school feels like a fresh start. He may even join the baseball team, if he wants to.

If only Trent could make the fresh start happen. It isn’t until Trent gets caught up in the whirlwind that is Fallon Little — the girl with the mysterious scar across her face — that things begin to change. Because fresh starts aren’t always easy. Even in baseball, when a fly ball get lost in the sun, you have to remember to shift your position to find it.

Why I like Lost in the Sun:

Lisa Graff has written a compelling coming of age story about Trent, a sixth-grader who blames himself for Jared’s death, is wracked with guilt and doesn’t know how to handle the nightmares from the accident and the rage that burns inside him.

This novel speaks powerfully about deep emotional pain. The plot is complex, realistic and skillfully executed. It digs deeply into many themes that include recovery from a tragedy, a father’s remarriage and a new baby, the relationships between three brothers who play pranks on each other, and Trent’s friendship with Fallon, who also shares a different kind of scar.

The first-person narration by Trent is raw and honest. The characters are believable, vulnerable and memorable. It’s hard not to become attached to the characters in this story. Trent is sarcastic, moody, angry, sensitive and funny. Fallon is taunted by other kids at school about her scar, but is upbeat, wise and strives to be herself. In a way she is fragile like Trent, but her demeanor is opposite. They bond through watching baseball movies and searching for “continuity errors” in the movies. Trent and Fallon are an unlikely pairing, but they support each other on their journey towards healing in unusual ways. Trent’s brothers, Aaron and Doug, are pranksters and provide comic relief.

Although Graff’s novel is written for middle graders, young adults will be drawn to this authentic and emotionally driven story from a boy’s perspective. Visit Lisa Graff at her website.

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

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Edward’s Eyes

Edward's Eyes41gicCObHuL._SX371_BO1,204,203,200_Edward’s Eyes

Patricia MacLachlan, Author

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Fiction, 2007

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Family relationships, Baseball, Death, Donation of Organs

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Jake is part of an extraordinary family. He has a life filled with art, music, and long summer nights on the Cape. He has hours and days and months of baseball. But, more than anything in this world, Jake knows he has Edward. From the moment he was born, Jake knew Edward was destined for something. Edward could make anyone laugh and everyone think. During one special year, he became the only one in the neighborhood who could throw a perfect knuckleball. It was a pitch you could not hit. That same year, Jake learned there are also some things you cannot hold.”

Why I liked Edward’s Eyes:

  • Patricia MacLachlan’s unforgettable story is about family relationships, love, laughter and loss. It is a well-written story that is uplifting from the start. It may be about a loss, but is also realistic and inspiring. Some may feel the story is sad, but I experienced it with wonder and awe.
  • Edward’s Eyes is narrated by Jake, who is the youngest until Edward is born. From the first moment Jake looks into baby Edward’s beautiful dark blue eyes, he knows his brother is special. Jake becomes his brother’s teacher. Through Jake we get a sense of a very strong family (five children) that love, play, and raise each other. Edward grows into a a kind, friendly and thoughtful old soul. He seems to know things before anyone else, like his mother is going to have a baby girl and she’ll be named Sabine.
  • The characters are all memorable and well-developed. The pacing is perfect for this short novel and it has the right amount of tension, especially when tragedy unexpectedly strikes the family and community.
  • MacLachlan succeeds in creating an experience for young readers. The language is simple and not complicated. I love the emphasis on a family that supports and treats each other with respect. It’s also a good baseball story that includes community and Edward’s famous knuckleball pitch. And MacLachlan knows how to pack an emotional punch. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but this heartfelt story will tug at your heart, put a smile on your face, and fill you with hope.

Patricia MacLachlan is a Newberry Medalist for her book Sarah, Plain and Tall. I reviewed her powerful 2013 picture book about grief and renewal, Snowflakes Fall, which was dedicated to the families of Newtown and Sandy Hook, CT. I also reviewed Fly Away and The Truth of Me,  both middle grade novels about complicated family relationships.

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Connecting Dots

Connecting Dots516dZBPfoUL__SX348_BO1,204,203,200_Connecting Dots

Sharon Jennings, Author

Second Story Press, Mar. 1, 2015

A Gutsy Girl Book (4): 197 pages

Suitable for Ages: 9-13; Grades 6-8

Themes: Self-Esteem, Family Relationships, Loss, Abuse, Coming of Age, Friendship

Opening: Until I was five, I thought my grandmother was my mother. In kindergarten, I found out the truth.

Book Synopsis: My name is Cassandra. Some people think I’m an orphan.  They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and in my case that’s definitely true. My best friend, Leanna, keeps bugging me to write my life story. She loves writing. Me, I’d rather be an actress. But telling the truth for once about my life could feel good. You see, I always thought my grandma raised me because I was an orphan. But when she died, I found out that was a lie. It’s hard to find out that nobody wants you. For a long time I didn’t have a real home, or any real friends. But things can change, and now I’m sitting here at my desk in my room, writing my story so you can read it, strange or not.

Why I like this book:

Sharon Jennings has written a heartbreaking and heartwarming coming of age story about a 12-year-old girl who is shipped off to the homes of many cruel relatives who treat her with disdain. Cassandra suffers abuse, hardship and finds little love. All she really wants is to find a family and a home where she feels she belongs.

Connecting Dots is a richly textured story narrated by Cassandra.  Cassandra’s character is memorable, strong, resilient, fearless and wise. In the face of such adversity and unimaginable abuse, she finds a bosom buddy in Leanna Mets, who encourages her to write her life story. As Cassandra shares her pages with Leanna, she finds writing cathartic, empowering and healing. Acting in school plays and with a kid’s theater company strengthens her resolve to never lose sight of her dream to become an actress.

The plot is strong, honest, tough and clever, with many twists and turns.  When you finish, you’ll want to cheer Cassandra for connecting the dots in her life. This third installment lives up to the “Gutsy Girls” book. Connecting Dots is definitely a companion book to Home Free, where Cassandra’s friend Leanna is the protagonist.

Note to Parents: There is a mention of Cassandra being sexually abused by an uncle Ernie and punished by an aunt with an enema and beatings. Although the book is for readers 9-12, parents may want to judge their child’s maturity level.

Other Gutsy Girl Books: Finding Grace, by Becky Citra; The Contest, by Caroline Stellings; Home Free, by Sharon Jennings; and Connecting Dots, by Sharon Jennings.

Sharon Jennings has written over 60 books for young people, many of them award winners and nominees. Home Free, the prequel to Connecting Dots, was nominated for a Governor General’s Award, the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, and the Silver Birch Award. Visit Sharon Jennings at her website.

Check out the Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books reviewed and listed on author Shannon Messenger’s blog.

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A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord

A Handful of Stars9780545700276_p0_v2_s260x420A Handful of Stars

Cynthia Lord, Author

Scholastic Press, Fiction, May 26, 2015

Pages: 192

Suitable for Ages: 8-12, Grades 3-7

Themes: Blueberries, Migrant workers, Hispanic-American children, Prejudice, Blind dog, Friendship, Multicultural

Opening: The only reason I ever spoke to Salma Santiago was because my dog ate her lunch. 

Synopsis: Two girls from different cultures meet when Lily’s blind dog, Lucky, takes off across the blueberry barrens of Maine. Salma, a migrant girl, grabs her peanut butter sandwich and lures Lucky before he runs onto a highway. Lucky is Lily’s last link to her mother who left them with her grandparents when she was two. Lily and her grandfather thank Salma at the migrant camp with a pork dinner pie. The girls bond over their love of dogs and painting.  Salma helps Lily paint wooden bee hives to raise money for an operation to save Lucky’s eyesight. When Salma decides to enter the Blueberry Queen Pageant, something a bilingual Hispanic migrant girl has not done before, Lily becomes aware of the town’s biases. Through their enduring friendship, both girls find their own inner strengths .

What I love about A Handful of Stars:

Cynthia Lord delivers a magical and richly textured story about an unlikely friendship between Lily, a French Canadian, and Salma, a Hispanic-American.  She draws her readers into the story with that great opening sentence (above) that begs the reader to want to know more.

I love that Lord continues to use her home state of Maine as the setting for many of her stories. She paints a vivid picture of the blueberry barrens of eastern Maine. Readers will learn a little history about the Mason bees that pollinate the blueberries and gardens, the raking of the wild Maine blueberries by migrant workers, and the top of a blueberry is shaped like a star. Readers will also gain insight into the lives of migrant children and how hard it is to be uprooted.

Lord is a master at developing memorable characters. Readers will easily connect with Lily and Salma’s struggles, longings and hopes. Lily and Lucky live with her grandparents. Lily feels the loss of her mother, who is deceased. Lucky is Lily’s last link to her mother, so she is determined to earn money and save his eyesight. Salma is imaginative and artistic, but secretly longs to belong and stay in one place.   Their friendship will test and carry them to a new self-confidence and healing.

The plot is realistic with the right amount of tension that will keep readers turning pages. Lord seamlessly weaves many themes into this touching story: migrant families, cultural differences, biases, community, loss, letting go and accepting change. There is a wonderful twist in the plot of the story, so readers will be pleasantly surprised with the ending.

A Handful of Stars is a perfect summer read. The cultural themes will encourage many lively discussions. Visit Cynthia Lord at her website.

Cynthia Lord is the award-winning author of Rules, a Newbery Honor book and a Schneider Family Book Award winner. She is also the author Half a Chance, Touch Blue, and the Shelter Pet Squad chapter book series.