The Little Blue Dragon by Colleen McCarthy-Evans

The Little Blue Dragon

Colleen McCarthy-Evans, Author and Illustrator

Seven Seas Press, Fiction, Nov. 5, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Hurricane, Separation, Loss, Childhood trauma, Courage, Friendship

Opening: In a land not so far away / and not too long ago, / a powerful hurricane / with winds swirling in all directions / separated the Little Blue Dragon / from her mother.

Synopsis: The Little Blue Dragon becomes separated from her mother after a hurricane. When things settle down, she realizes she’s alone in an unfamiliar place. The Little Blue Dragon embarks upon a journey to search for her mother. She flies to south, east, west and north where she meets a variety of friends who guide and loan her a cave to sleep in — monkeys, ducks, dogs, bats, polar bears and a chameleon.

Why I like this book:

This is a lovely book that addresses trauma, separation and loss in a comforting manner. Sometimes scary things happen to children and they don’t know how to cope with the situation. That is when a book like The Little Blue Dragon can be useful in helping children express their feelings and fear.

Colleen McCarthy-Evans’ colorful illustrations take readers on a visual journey through the dragon’s loss and despair to her making a new friend in a chameleon, who is separated from her little ones in a flood. Together they search for their families and find healing along the way. Friendship and courage allows them both to move forward. I like that the story is open-ended and allows children to make up their own ending.

I want to give a little more detail about the unique artwork, which beautifully compliments the story. McCarthy-Evans’ multi-media illustrations are a specialized photographic treatment of dioramas with animals she hand-paints from stones collected from the Pacific Coast of California.

Resources: There is a discussion guide at the end of the book with six great questions that help children and parents take a deeper look into the story. The discussion encourages children to share their feelings and explore how they handle difficult times. This book is also a good resource for teachers and counselors. There also is a list of activities that accompany the story. Children are encouraged to collect rocks and paint them to recreate the animals from the story.

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.

*A review copy was provided by the author.

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Finding Langston

Lesa Cline-Ransome, Author

Holiday House, Fiction, Aug. 14, 2018

Pages: 108

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Loss, Single-parent families, Moving, Bullying, Poetry, the Great Migration, Chicago, History

Opening: “Never really thought much about Alabama’s red dirt roads, but now, all I can think about is kicking up their dust.”

Synopsis: Eleven-year-old Langston is a long way from Alabama. After his mother dies in 1946, and he and his father move to Chicago’s Bronzeville. Langston must leave behind everything that he cherishes — his family, friends, Grandma’s Sunday suppers, the red clay and the magnolia trees his mama loved so much. He misses the slow pace of life at home and how he could take his time walking home before he starts his chores.

Bronzeville is noisy. Their kitchenette apartment is just a lonely room with two beds, a table and chairs and a hot plate. Dinner is what daddy brings home and throws into a pot. At night, the sounds are loud. People talk loudly on stoops, music blares from radios, and huge rats run down the hallways. At school, Langston is teased for being too country and three boys bully him after school. But his new home has something his old home didn’t have: the George Cleveland Hall Library that welcomes the community, black and white.

The library becomes a refuge from the bullies and a place where Langston joyfully discovers another Langston, a poet whose words are powerful and speak to him of home. With the help of a kind librarian, he reads all of Langston Hughes’ poetry, discovers the power of words and is transported.  A neighbor, who is a teacher, also introduces Langston to other black poets. Through poetry Langston begins to understand his mother, uncovers one of her secrets and finds healing through his namesake.

Why I like this book:

There is so much beauty in Lesa Cline-Ransome’s coming of age novel. Langston will melt your heart as he deals with loss and loneliness, and struggles to find his voice through words and poetry. It is an inspiring story that is relevant today.

The story also gives readers insight into the Great Migration of black families in search of better jobs in larger cities, like Chicago and New York. They leave behind a slower-paced life and close family relationships, to live in sub-standard housing in noisy, concrete cities.

The chapters are short, the narrative is strong and the writing is lyrical. The plot is compelling and there are themes that will spark important discussions among teens and adults.  This is an important book to add to any classroom curriculum.

Favorite lines: Langston’s first visit to a public library.

I trace the letters on the covers of each and stop. One has my name. I pull it out and open to the first page.

I pick up my life

And take it with me

And I put it down in 

Chicago, Detroit,

Buffalo, Scranton.

Feels like reading words from my heart. (Pg. 21-22)

Lesa Cline-Ransome is best known for her award-winning picture books. Her most recent book, Before She Was Harriet, is illustrated by her husband, James Ransome, received six starred reviews, a Christopher Award, a Coretta Scott King Honor Award for illustration, and a nomination for a NAACP Image Award. Finding Langston is her first novel. Visit the author at her website.

Greg Pattridge hosts 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.

*Reviewed from library copy.

Saving Winslow by Sharon Creech

Saving Winslow

By Sharon Creech

Joanna Cotler Books (Imprint HarperCollins) Fiction, Sep. 11, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Pages: 176

Themes: Donkey, Rescue, Farm Animals, Loss, Friendship, Neighbors

OpeningIn the laundry basket on the kitchen floor was a lump.  “Another dead thing?” Louie asked.  “Not yet,” his father said.

Synopsis:

Louie doesn’t have the best luck when it comes to nurturing small creatures. So when his father brings home a sickly newborn mini donkey, Louie lifts the donkey from the basket and holds it close. The donkey nuzzles his neck and makes a small sound that sounds like please. He’s determined to save him.  Louie names him Winslow. Taking care of the donkey helps Louie feel closer to his brother, Gus, who is  far away in the army.

Everyone worries that Winslow won’t survive, especially Louie’s new friend, Nora, who has experienced a loss of her own. But as Louie’s bond with Winslow grows, surprising and life-altering events prove that this fragile donkey is stronger than anyone could have imagined.

Written in the spirit of Creech favorites Moo and Love That Dog, this standout tale about love and friendship and letting go will tug at the heartstrings.

Why I like this book:

Sharon Creech’s storytelling is so sweet and full of heart. Although her novel is about a boy saving a donkey, there are other themes cleverly woven throughout the story — a boy struggling to find his purpose, a girl who has felt loss and is afraid to get close to Winslow, and a family dealing with a son serving his country overseas. Winslow unites the family.

Louie is such a kind-hearted and determined character. After holding the donkey, he immediately accepts “the mission” to do everything in his power to save the newborn donkey’s life — even when his parents and friends are skeptical the donkey will survive a day, let alone a week. He holds the donkey tight to his chest and rubs him with a blanket begging Winslow to live. Nora is a quirky character. She thinks Winslow is “icky,” looks like a possum-goat and doesn’t see the point in becoming attached to a donkey that’s going to die anyway. Yet she sure spends a lot of time around Winslow.

Animals lovers will treasure Winslow’s story. The plot is convincing, the text is spare and it is a quick read. It is a story that can be read out loud to younger children. Visit Creech at her website.

Sharon Creech has written 21 books for young people and is published in over 20 languages. She is the author of the Newbery Medal winner Walk Two Moons and the Newbery Honor Book The Wanderer. Her other work includes the novels Hate That Cat, The Castle Corona, Replay, Heartbeat, Granny Torrelli Makes Soup, Ruby Holler, Love That Dog, Bloomability, Absolutely Normal Chaos, Chasing Redbird, and Pleasing the Ghost, as well as three picture books: A Fine, Fine School; Fishing in the Air; and Who’s That Baby? Ms. Creech and her husband live in upstate New York.

Greg Pattridge hosts 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.

*Library copy.

My Father’s Words by Patricia MacLachlan

My Father’s Words

Patricia MacLachlan, Author

Katherine Tegen Books, Fiction, Oct. 2, 2018

Pages: 133

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Loss, Grief, Love, Healing, Family relationships, Shelter dogs

Synopsis:

Declan O’Brien always had a gentle word to share, odd phrases he liked to repeat, and songs to sing while he played basketball. His favorite song was “Dona Nobis Pacem,” “Grant Us Peace.” His family loved him deeply and always knew they were loved in return.

But a terrible accident one day changes their lives forever, and Fiona and Finn O’Brien are left without a father. Their mother is at a loss. What words are there to guide them through such overwhelming grief?

At the suggestion of their friend Luke, Fiona and Finn volunteer at an animal rescue shelter where they meet two sweet dogs, Emma and Jenny, who are in need of comfort, too. Perhaps with time, patience, and their father’s gentle words in their hearts, hope will spark once more.

Why I like this book

Patricia MacLachlan’s captivating and unforgettable story is about a tragic loss, family relationships, love, laughter and healing. It is a well-written story that is realistic, inspiring and hopeful. Her narrative is gentle and heartfelt. The text is spare and powerful. Some may feel the story is sad, but I experienced it with wonder and awe.

Fiona and Finn are working through their grief following their father’s untimely death. Fiona looks out for her younger brother, but she’s searching for memories of her time with her dad. Finn is a sensitive and gentle boy. He is quiet and thoughtful like his father. Their best friend, Luke, suggests they all volunteer at a local animal shelter. They each connect with and walk a dog. Finn reads, talks and sings “Dona Nobis Pacem” to Emma, who is depressed and faces a wall. Fiona takes Jenny for long walks in the park. The siblings learn that while you comfort a shelter dog, the dog is also comforting you.

This is perfect story for dog lovers. The plot is engaging, but the beautiful ending sneaks up on you. I thought I knew how it would end, but the author surprises me. Make sure you have tissues nearby. My Father’s Words is a refreshingly quiet book that gives readers time to ponder big questions and explore underlying truths and memories. It will make an excellent classroom read-aloud and discussion book.

Patricia MacLachlan is the celebrated author of many timeless books for young readers, including Sarah, Plain and Tall, winner of the Newbery Medal. Her novels for young readers include Skylark, Caleb’s Story, More Perfect than the Moon, Grandfather’s Dance, Word After Word After Word, Kindred Souls, The Truth of Me, and The Poet’s Dog; she is also the author of many beloved picture books, a number of which she cowrote with her daughter, Emily. She lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.

Greg Pattridge hosts 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.

*Library Copy

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.