The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

       World Refugee Day, June 20, 2017

The Only Road

Alexandra Diaz, Author

Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Book, Fiction, Oct. 4, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Child Refugees, Immigration, Guatemala, Courage, Hope, Freedom, Multicultural

Awards: Pura Belpre Honor Book and ALA Notable Book

Book Synopsis: Jaime is sitting on his bed drawing when he hears a scream. Instantly he knows Miguel, his cousin and best friend is dead.

Everyone in Jaime’s small town in Guatemala knows someone who has been killed by the Alphas, a  powerful gang that’s known for violence and drug trafficking. Anyone who refuses to work for them is hurt or killed — like Miguel. With Miguel gone, Jaime fears that he is next. There’s only one choice. Accompanied by his cousin Ángela, Jaime must flee his home to live with his older brother, Tomas, in the United States.

Inspired by true incidents, The Only Road tells an individual story of a boy who feels that leaving his home and risking everything is his only chance for a better Life. It is a story of fear and bravery, love and loss, strangers becoming family, and one boy’s treacherous and life-changing journey.

Why I like this book:

Alexandra Diaz’s novel is powerful and timely. It is about two cousins fleeing from dangerous drug  trafficking gangs in Guatemala and making the treacherous journey north to the United States. There are no guarantees that they will survive. Their story is heartbreaking, but it underscores the problem of why many Central American children illegally immigrate to America.

The richly textured Latino text is peppered with Spanish words and expressions, which contribute to the reader’s experience. At the end of book, there is a glossary of words and expressions used throughout the story.

The story is distinctly character-driven. Jaime’s third person narrative will move readers. Twelve-year-old Jaime is driven by his grief over the death of his cousin. Jaime is brave and compassionate. He’s also a talented artist and sketches his journey. Fifteen-year-old Ángela is  a mother figure for Jaime and to other younger children they meet along their trip. She’s smart, cautious and reminds Jaime they can’t trust anyone. She’s particularly adept at changing her Guatemalan accent to a Mexican accent so she can fool immigration officers (la migra) and town locals. When they need more money for safe passage across the border, Jaime draws portraits and Ángela alters clothing for women.

The plot is multilayered, gripping and complicated. The trip is long and hazardous, which Diaz handles with care. Jaime and Ángela dodge brutal gangs, bandits, and immigration officers. Food and water is scarce. They are herded into a freight car heading north and nearly suffocate from the heat. They rest at safe houses and make friends with other teens who teach them survival techniques. They learn how to hop freight trains (la bestia) and ride on top the cars as they travel north through Mexico to the border of New Mexico. Their final challenge will be to find the right smuggler (coyote) who will help them safely cross the Rio Grande.

Immigration is a hot topic today. The UN reports there are 10 million refugees world-wide. This is an important book for middle school libraries to help students gain a better understanding of refugees, immigration and the reasons they risk their lives to find freedom.

Alexandra Diaz is the author of When We Were, which was an ALA Rainbow List book and a New Mexico Book Award finalist. Alexandra is the daughter of Cuban immigrants and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Make sure you read her Author’s Note at the end of the book that will give you further insight into immigration. Visit Diaz at her website.

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

Hand Over Hand by Alma Fullerton

Hand Over Hand

Alma Fullerton, Author

Renné Benoit, Illustrator

Second Story Press, Fiction, Mar. 14, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Fishing, Gender roles, Courage, Empowerment, Intergenerational, Multicultural

Opening: On the shores of a Filipino fishing village an old banca boat rocks as waves lick its keel. WHOOSH, WHOOSH, WHOOSH.

Synopsis: Nina wants to convince her grandfather – lolo –  to take her fishing with him on his old banca boat. Lolo’s answer is always the same: “A boat is not the place for a girl. Your job is on shore.”  Nina doesn’t want to dry fish with the women and is determined to show her grandfather that a girl can go fishing and do everything a boy can do. When she promises lolo that she will bait her own hook and remove her own fish, her grandfather says “Okay, we will try it. Just for today.”  The other fisherman scoff.  While lolo’s buckets fill with fish, Nina waits for a single tug. Will she prove to her village that a girl can fish?

Why I like this book:

Alma Fullerton has written a charming story about a Filipino girl with big ambitions and a lot of courage. It is also an empowering story for children to see Nina believe in herself. She wants to prove to her grandfather and her village that a girl can do what ever she wants. She’s smart and doesn’t give up, especially when she’s not getting any nibbles.

This a beautiful intergenerational story that celebrates the relationship between  a grandfather and his granddaughter who spend the day fishing together. Lolo is very patient with Nina and offers her helpful advice. And Nina makes lolo proud when she reels in the biggest catch of the day and proves that she can do anything.

The text is lyrical and has a rhythm to it like the rocking of a boat. Nina observes lolo’s fluid and swift movements “hand over hand ” and “fish after fish.” Children will enjoy the repeating this refrain with Nina throughout the story. Renné Benoit’s illustrations are soft and soothing watercolors that contribute to the mood of the story and show the joy of Nina’s journey .

Resources: This is a perfect classroom discussion book for all young children. Use Hand Over Hand to start a conversation about how girls and boys see each other. Can girls put worms on hooks, become scientists, or drive a truck? Can boys tap dance, babysit, or become a nurse?  The story takes place in another country. Do they think there may be more gender stereotypes for children living in another country like the Philippines?

Alma Fullerton is the award-winning author of the picture books A Good Trade, Community Soup and In a Cloud of Dust, When the Rain Comes. Visit Fullerton at her 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.

Seasons of Joy by Claudia Marie Lenart

Seasons of Joy: Every Day is for Outdoor Play

Claudia Marie Lenart, Author and Illustrator

Loving Healing Press, Fiction, Apr. 1, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 2-4

Themes: Seasons, Nature, Animals, Multicultural Children, Playing outdoors

Opening: Wake up! It’s Spring. / Trees are tipped in wisps of green. / Let’s stretch our legs and run on soft, fresh grass. / Up and down the hills we hop and jump / Like newborn bunnies do.

Book Jacket Synopsis: The pure and simple delight of children playing outside is captured in needle-felted wool paintings created by Claudia Marie Lenart. The picture books pairs dreamy images of multicultural children, animals, flowers and trees with verse that expresses the joy young children experience in nature’s seasons. Children can see themselves in the diverse characters and can be inspired to spend more time playing outdoors and connecting to nature.

What I like about this book:

Claudia Marie Lenart’s Seasons of Joy is magical.  Her rhyming prose conjures such beautiful visual images of each season and encourages young children to go outside to picnic in a meadow, watch butterflies dance, float on waves, pile leaves high, gather nuts and pine cones, make snow angels and build snow castles. Just read the opening (above) and let her words roll around your mouth and feel their power.

Accompanying her lyrical language is Lenart’s signature wool artwork, which will captivate children as they study all of the beautiful detail in each dreamy scene. Children will experience the wonder, joy and adventure in spending a day romping in nature throughout the seasons. This is a perfect bedtime story.

Resources: Spend a day outdoors picking violets, climbing a tree, playing games in the meadow with friends, exploring creeks or counting the stars at night.

Claudia Marie Lenart is a fiber artist whose passion is needle felting.  Her soft sculpture characters are created by repeatedly poking wool and other natural fibers, like alpaca, with a barbed needle. She illustrated three books for the late children’s author Jewel Kats: Jenny and Her Dog Both Fight Cancer, Prince Preemie, and Hansel & Gretel: A Fairy Tale with a Down Syndrome Twist.  To learn more about Lenart’s artistry and books, visit her 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.

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Amina’s Voice

Hena Khan, Author

Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Fiction,  Mar. 14, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Pakistani and Asian Americans, Friendship, Peer Pressure, Family, Muslim Culture, Community, Prejudice, Racism

Opening: Something sharp pokes me in the rib. “You should totally sign up for a solo,” Soojin whispers from the seat behind me in music class. I shake my head. The mere thought of singing in front of a crowd makes my stomach twist into knots.

Book Jacket SynopsisAmina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American,” now that she is to become a citizen. Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with  these questions, her local mosque is vandalized, and she is devastated.

Why I like this book:

Hena Khan has written a timely and empowering novel about a young Muslim American girl, who finds her voice with the help of friends, family, and community.

Khan’s novel is multi-layered with many themes. The central theme of Khan’s book is about what it’s like to be a Muslim girl growing up in America. She takes her readers into a loving and strict Muslim family, where cultural traditions are at the center of their lives, from praying, studying the Quran and meal preparation, to the respect shown to visitors and the value of community.

The main characters are multi-dimensional and diverse. Amina is a kind-hearted, shy, and talented pianist and vocalist. Her best friend, Soojin, is Chinese and wants to change her name because no one knows how to pronounce it. Bottom line, she wants to fit in. This raises important questions for Amina. Would the popular kids like her better if she changes her name? How does she be true to her Muslim values and still be American? Many readers will identify with the angst of middle school as they navigate through those sensitive years. Amina’s story will also resonate with children of immigrants.

The language is carefully crafted and uplifting. The plot is realistic and leaves readers with hope even after the Islamic Center is attacked and vandalized. It is heartwarming to see how the community rallies behind the Muslim community by inviting them to use their churches and providing labor to rebuild the center. It beautifully demonstrates to readers the meaning of our common humanity. I know my community would come to the rescue of our Muslim neighbors. Verdict: This book belong in every middle grade library. It’s a treasure!

Hena Khan is a Pakistani American who was born and raised in Maryland. She enjoys writing about her culture. She is the author of several books, including It’s Ramadan, Curious George, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, and Night of the Moon. You can learn more about Hena Khan by visiting her website.

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

The Wheels on the Tuk Tuk by Kabir and Surishtha Sehgal

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The Wheels on the Tuk Tuk

Kabir Sehgal and Surishtha Sehgal, Authors

Jess Golden, Illustrator

Beach Lane Books, Fiction, Jan. 12, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 3-6

Themes: Transportation, India, Tuk Tuk, Nursery Rhyme, Multicultural

Opening: Tuk tuk wheels go / round and round, / round and round, round and round. / Tuk tuk wheels go / round and round, / all through the town.

Publisher Synopsis: This picture book brings an international twist to the beloved nursery rhyme, The Wheels on the Bus, by bringing you aboard a busy three-wheeled taxi in India! Anything can happen as the tuk tuk rolls through town—from an elephant encounter to a tasty treat to a grand fireworks display. And in the midst of all the action, one thing’s for sure: passengers young and old love every minute of their exciting ride as the wheels of the tuk tuk go round and round!

Why I like this book:

This mother and son writing team have created a clever multicultural spin on the popular children’s song “The Wheels on the Bus.” Children are introduced to Indian culture in this joyful story about the riders traveling around town in a three-wheeled motorized tuk tuk. Readers will get a taste of street life as riders hop on and off the packed tuk tuk, pay their rupees (money) to the wala (driver), greet each other with “Namaste,” stop for a cow that blocks the street, get sprayed with water by a roaming elephant, munch on papadoms (snacks) and “bobble-bobble-bobble all through the town.”

As you read the story out loud, you can’t help but slip into the melody of the song.  The language is lyrical and a delightful way to engage children using different words, “ching, ching, ching,” “squish, squish, squish,” and “om, om, om.” Jess Golden’s lively pastel illustrations are colorful, playful, expressive and encourage exploration. His quirky humor transports children to another country and shows the daily lives of the children and families who live there.  My favorite illustration is of the Yogi sitting cross-legged on top of the bus chanting  “om” as the tuk tuk driver waits for the cow to move.

I won “The Wheels on the Tuk Tuk” in a giveaway on Sue Morris’ blog, Kid Lit Reviews. Stop by Sue’s website!

Resources: Sing the “Wheels on the Bus” and then “The Wheels on the Tuk Tuk.” Talk about the differences in the type of  transportation, food, and dress.  This book lends itself to many discussions as children study the illustrations. Would they like riding in or driving a tuk tuk?  What would they do if a cow stopped the tuk tuk they are riding in?  Have them draw a picture of a tuk tuk.

Kabir Sehgal started his class newspaper in second grade and has written ever since. A bestselling author of several books, he is also a jazz bassist and Grammy-winning producer. One day he hopes to drive a tuk tuk through the streets of India. But for now he rides the subway in New York City.

Surishtha Sehgal was a university professor for many years and now enjoys reading to children during story time. She is the founder of a nonprofit organization that promotes social responsibility among students, and she serves on the boards of two universities and a national arts center. She loves sipping chai with her family in Atlanta.

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.

Red Butterfly by A. L. Sonnichsen

Red Butterfly

A. L. Sonnichsen, Author

Amy June Bates, Illustrator

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Free Verse, Feb. 2, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Abandonment, Abnormality, Adoption, Family relationships, China, Multicultural

Synopsis: Eleven-year-old Kara never met her birth mother. Abandoned as an infant in Tianjin, she was born with only two fingers on her right hand. She was taken into the home of an elderly American couple living in China. Her parents never tell authorities about finding Kara or try to formally adopt her, which leaves Kara without an identify. When papa’s teaching job is finished he returns to Montana.  Her mama remains because she can’t bear to part with Kara.

Much of Kara’s life is isolated to keep her safe. She has a daily routine that includes study, but doesn’t attend a Chinese school or have any friends. Her English is excellent, but she can’t read or write in Chinese. When her loud and overbearing American half-sister Jody comes for a visit and ends up in the hospital, the authorities are suspicious. They discover her mama’s visa expired and Kara’s is taken to an orphanage, where she is put up for adoption.

Why I like this book:

This is a complex and multi-layered story where Kara is the innocent victim of secrecy and poor choices made by her foster parents. A.L. Sonnichsen has written a deeply moving story about Kara learning to find her voice and discovering that love knows no boundaries. It is an emotional read.

Free verse is the perfect medium to share this story because it is told in Kara’s voice, which shows her confusion, desperation and loss. The language is beautifully executed, lyrical and carefully crafted with skill and a lot of depth. The story is beautifully paced and a quick read. Amy June Bates pen and ink  illustrations add a creative flare to the spare text.

The plot is courageous and complicated. A.L. Sonnichsen delves deeply into the loneliness of a pre-teen trying to make sense of her mother’s secretive behavior. When the walls crumble around Kara, she has to find her way forward. She begins to find her strength at the orphanage where she helps care for the abandoned children with disabilities. She learns to build trust with some compassionate souls who try to make things right for her.

I enjoyed learning that the author grew up in Hong Kong and spent eight years there as an adult, where she was visited many local orphanages. Her passion for the abandoned children became the inspiration for the story.  Chinese law is complicated and it took the author and her husband seven years to adopt their daughter from a Chinese orphanage. During that time she worked with an organization that worked to improve conditions in orphanages.

Resources: There is a beautiful Author’s Note that talks about her personal experiences in China, as well as the “fall-out” from China’s one-child policy. There is a Reading Group Guide at the end, which would be perfect for classroom discussions. Visit the author at her website.

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

Every Falling Star: How I Survived and Escaped North Korea

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Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea

Sungju Lee and Susan McClelland, Authors

Amulet Books, Memoir, Sep. 13, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 11 – 14

Themes: Life in North Korea, History, Family Relationships, Homeless Boys, Street Children, Gangs, Poverty, Loss, Survival, Escape,  Multicultural, Hope

Prologue Opening: My toy soldier peers over a mound of dirt not far from where my father, abeoji, my mother, eomeoni, and I have just finished our picnic, near the Daedong River in Pyongyang.

Synopsis: Every Falling Star is the memoir of Sungju Lee, a North Korean (Joseon) boy who grows up in a privileged military family in Pyongyang.  He dreams of becoming a general in the army. His father is an important military leader, his mother a teacher and his grandfather a doctor. Sungju plays with his toy soldiers and his father joins him to teach him war strategies. His favorite television cartoon is Boy General. His loving  family lives in a large apartment near Kim Il-sung Square. Life is normal and there is plenty of food. Sungju attends school where he listens to the stories about the eternal leader, Kim Il-Sung, studies regular subjects, and learns about the monsters that want to attack his country — the Americans, the Japanese and the South Koreans. He takes taekwondo lessons, attends birthday parties, and goes to the amusement park.

One day Sungju’s father is asked to leave his job because of something he’s done. The family is sent north to Gyeong-seong, where they are to work as laborers in the countryside. Sungju is shocked by his new life and the starvation and death around him. He attends school where he makes friends, but attending is not worth his time. Eventually the family’s money (won) runs out and they fall upon hard times like everyone else. His parents hunt for wild vegetables, roots, small animals in the forests to survive. Sungju sells his books in the market. When his father goes to China to sell valuables and his mother heads to an aunt’s home for food, Sungju is alone. They never return and he is homeless. The twelve-year-old is forced to live in the streets and fend for himself. He survives for four years by joining a gang (kotjebi) and creates a new family with these brothers. Eventually he leads his own gang. Life is dangerous, brutal, and unforgiving. Sungju learns to steal, lie, and fight-to-kill. Everyday he fears arrest, imprisonment and even execution. It is the hope of finding his parents that keeps him alive.

Why I like this book:

  • Sungju Lee’s brave memoir captivated me from start to finish. I know so little about life in contemporary North Korea, and his gripping and powerfully haunting story touched me in a way I won’t forget. This is a true story that humanizes history for readers.
  • Lee and author Susan McClelland vividly depict the sharp contrast between life for the privileged families living in Pyongyang and the grim, deplorable and brutal life for the poor living through the famine outside the city in the 1990s. You understand how children in Pyongyang are brainwashed with propaganda based on myths from birth. You feel the anger, hopelessness and despair of those starving in the countryside and wonder how you would survive an authoritarian government where censorship is rampant and your freedoms are taken away.
  • Readers will observe Sungju’s transformation from a naïve child, loving and dutiful son in Pyongyang, to a resilient, fearless and notorious street gang leader. He uses the military tactics his father teaches him as a child to outsmart his street enemies, merchants and the police. He has rules his gang all agree to live by, like never stealing food from a child. He develops strategies, secret codes and hideouts. He is a leader and becomes hardened. The only heart he shows is towards his loyal gang brothers: Young-bum, Chulho, Min-gook, Unsik, Myeongchul, and Sangchul. They are his family.
  • The story is a page turner, reads like a novel and is packed with action. The pacing is fierce with most of the storytelling focused on Sungju’s street survival. He and his gang are always on the move. They hop trains to other cities, fight with different gangs for control over markets, manipulate merchants, and are chased out-of-town by police. They move on to other cities and repeat their activities. They also suffer personal injury and loss of two of their brothers.
  • Readers will have to wait until the very last chapter to discover how Sungju leaves his street life and is reunited with his family. The ending feels rushed and I wanted to know more about his big escape. After all, it is a risky event. Thankfully, there is an Epilogue at the end that fills in the gaps. Verdict: Teens will find this powerful memoir about adversity and hope, engaging and satisfying.  Every Falling Star belongs in school libraries. Although the publisher lists the book for ages 12-14, the School Library Journal recommends it for middle grade readers, ages 8 -12. Because of the drinking, drugs, stealing and violence in the book, parents should make that call for tweens.

Quote: “But I hadn’t lost everything. I had hope that I would meet my parents again. With this hope, I made a wish whenever I saw a falling star.”

Resources: There is a Brief History of Korea and Prologue at the beginning of the book. There is an Epilogue and Glossary of Korean words at the end.

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