There’s a Cat in Our Class! by Jeanie Franz Ransom

There’s a Cat in Our Class!: A Tale About Getting Along

Jeanie Franz Ransom, Author

Bryan Langdo, Illustrator

Magination Press, Fiction, Aug. 15, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: Animals, Dogs, Cats, Diversity, Embracing differences, Tolerance

Opening: “There were eighteen students in Miss Biscuit’s class. Until…”

Synopsis: Just before lunch, Miss Biscuit shared the exciting news that there would be a new student joining the classroom — Samantha. Max, Rusty, Ginger, and Tanner assume that their new classmate will be just like them … a  DOG.  But Samantha is a cat! “But cats make me nervous,” Rusty said. Me, too! Ginger said. “I’m going to start shedding any minute.”  How does that make Samantha feel? That leads to some hilarious acting out and a heap of questions among the classmates.  When Samantha saves the ball game at recess, the other dogs thinks she’s a pretty cool cat. Then Miss Biscuit announces that there will be another new student arriving tomorrow…

Why I like this story:

Jeanie Franz Ransom has written a clever and humorous story for young children about embracing the differences in each other. With the growing diversity in our country, this is a very timely book.  The students in this story are curious and brutally honest with their questions to their new classmate, Samantha. They want to know if she eats mice, walks on a leash, wags her tail and uses a litter box or goes outside. The  cast of characters are lively and learn about acceptance, tolerance and how to get along. Bryan Langdo’s illustrations are colorful, expressive and tickle the imagination! I love the book cover.

Reading this book to children will help them discover how they are more alike than different, no matter their skin color, ethnicity, language, LGBT issues or disability.  There’s a Cat in Our Class emphasizes compassion and connectivity with our beautiful diverse human family. Although their lives may vary, children enjoy learning, playing games and sharing feelings of joy and sadness. This book fosters acceptance of others.

Resources: This book includes A Note Readers written by Gayle E. Pitman, PhD, that discusses how parents, teachers, and other adults can talk with children about diversity in a way that’s meaningful and effective.

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.

Loving Vs. Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell

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Loving Vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case

Patricia Hruby Powell, Author

Shadra Strickland, Artist

Chronicle Books, Historical Fiction, Jan. 31, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Interracial Marriage, Race Relations, Prejudice, African-Americans, Civil Rights, Social Justice, Virginia, Supreme Court

Synopsis: This is the story about Mildred Jeters, an African-American girl, and Richard Loving, a Caucasian boy, who live near one another, are childhood friends, and fall in love.  Mildred becomes pregnant in 1957 and delivers their first son. and a second son in 1958. They want to get married, but in Virginia, interracial marriages are against the law. They decide they won’t allow Sheriff Brooks and the government to tell them who they can marry. They travel to Washington D.C. and are married by a preacher. When they return home to Caroline County, Virginia, they have to be careful. They are arrested and put in jail. They are released as long as Mildred lives with her parents and Richard lives with his family. Even though they hire an attorney and go to court, they are not allowed to be seen together. They move to Washington D.C. to live with family. Richard continues to work as a brick layer in Caroline County and drives the 90 miles back Washington D.C. to spend the weekends with his wife  and children. After living in Washington D.C. for five years, Mildred hates the noise and crowded city and longs to raise her children in rural Virginia. After being arrested sneaking home, they contact the American Civil Liberties Union and meet an attorney, Mr. Cohen. He is eager to help the Loving’s face each stage of the legal system and takes their discrimination case to the highest court, the U.S. Supreme Court.

What I like about this book:

Patricia Powell chose to write the narrative of this powerful story in free verse, alternating the voices of Mildred and Richard. It effectively achieves a balance between the Loving’s beautiful love story and their determination to fight the discrimination to live as husband and wife and win. The last thing the wanted was publicity. They wanted to raise their growing family at home in Virginia, where their children could run barefoot through the grass, see the stars at night and be near grandparents.

The author and artist craftily weave factual information, photographs and illustrations around the lyrical narrative, which lends itself to “visual journalism,” says Strickland. There are page inserts about court rulings on school segregation; the Virginia state, federal and supreme courts refusal of interracial marriages; and the U.S. Supreme Court final ruling in 1967 to uphold the 14th Amendment. There are news clippings from former Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a 1958 map showing the 24 states that banned interracial marriage. There are photographs showing the contrasts between white schools and black schools, protest marches for and against integration and equality.

I’m in awe of the massive amount of research that went into this masterful book. Strickland’s  artwork of Richard and Mildred and their family throughout their story is a light and moving  tribute to their deeply moving journey that lasted about 10 years. She used photographs from  LIFE magazine to create her lively and brush and pen illustrations, which compliment the conversational text between Richard and Mildred.

Middle Grade students will find this oversized book a page-turner. Because it is in verse, it is a quick read. It belongs in every school library. It is a beautiful love story and a book full of resources with historical timelines and more information about the Loving family.

June 12 will be the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling by Chief Justice Warren on Loving Vs. Virginia.

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

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

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Lauren Wolk, Author

Dutton Children’s Books, Fiction, May 3, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 10-13

Themes: Bullying, Mean girls, Lies, Courage, Family relationships, Community, Tolerance

Awards: Newbery Honor Book, NPR Best Book, Booklist Best Book, Kirkus Reviews Best Book, School Library Journal Best Book

Prologue: “The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.  I don’t mean the small fibs that children tell. I mean real lies fed by real fears — things I said and did that took me out of the life I’d always known and put me down hard into a new one.”

Synopsis: It is 1943. Eleven-year-old Annabelle McBride lives on a farm in a small, western Pennsylvania town, with her parents, two brothers, grandparents and Aunt Lily.  Annabelle leads a quiet, ordinary and carefree life, going to school everyday, doing her farm chores, supervising her younger brothers, and helping her mother cook meals in the kitchen. Then one fall morning a very mean-spirited girl named Betty Glengarry moves to Wolf Hollow and changes everything for Annabelle and the community. Betty is cruel and manipulative and easily spots the victims of her bullying through their weaknesses. For Annabelle, Betty threatens to harm her brothers if she doesn’t comply with her demands. Annabelle suffers many beatings on the path to school, until a quiet WW I veteran, Toby intervenes. Betty turns her vengeance on the kind-hearted recluse, and Toby becomes a target of her heartless and ruthless attacks. There are other victims too. As tensions mount, Annabelle’s goodness is her inner strength to do what is right.

Why I like this book:

Lauren Wolk’s debut novel, Wolf Hollow, is gripping and haunting, heartbreaking and beautiful. The setting, the characters, the plot and the gorgeous imagery are so brilliantly intertwined that they create an extraordinary experience for readers. One that you will remember for a long time. You learn about Wolf Hollow and its history of capturing and killing wolves. You feel the silence as you walk the path with Annabelle and ponder its darkness. You experience an extended family living under one roof preparing meals together, canning peaches and baking fresh bread in the oven. And you see contradictions in people who are frightening and neighbors who spread gossip at lightening speed.

The characters are multi-layered and complex. Annabelle is kind-hearted to her very core. She is resilient and courageous. I loved experiencing the story narrative through her innocent and wise character.  She learns how to lie to protects others. Betty Glengarry is vicious and cruel. She knows how to use her charm to manipulate an entire community. Annabelle, who knows Betty’s contradictions, wants her to leave. I want her gone. Yet, as a reader I hope for her redemption and wonder about her vulnerabilities.  What made her so ruthless that she could break a quail’s neck, throw a rock and blind another student, string wire across the road to hurt Annabelle’s brother, and falsely accuse Toby of throwing her in a well?  Was she bullied herself? Even though she’s a bad apple, you worry for her safety. Toby is my favorite character. He’s a gentle man who goes to war, struggles with the atrocities he’s seen, becomes a recluse and wanders into Wolf Hollow. Toby is a quiet presence and his words are few.  He lives in a smoke house and walks the hollows. People think he’s odd, but he is a rare soul who is decent to his very core.

Wolk refrains from sharing all the detail about her characters leaving the reader to decide some things for themselves. The plot is riveting and full of tension. Her deliberate pacing keeps readers fully engaged and wondering what will happen next. Like Annabelle, I found myself contemplating different scenarios. It is a story that will haunt you because of its depth, contradictions and unspoken truths. When I completed the Wolf Hollow, I was convinced I had been there. It is a story that will stay with you because of the profoundly human characters and the untidy ending.

This is an excellent discussion book for teachers to use with middle grade students. There are so many themes that can be explored.

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

Emmanuel’s Dream

Emmanuel's Dream 51ProI85nnL__SX399_BO1,204,203,200_Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah

Laurie Ann Thompson, Author

Sean Qualls, Illustrator

Schwartz & Wade Books, Biography, Jan. 6, 2015

Suitable for Ages:  4-8

Themes: Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, Ghana, Disability, Cyclists

Opening: “In Ghana, West Africa, a baby boy was born: Two bright eyes blinked in the light, two healthy lungs let out a powerful cry, two tiny fists opened and closed, but only one strong leg kicked.”

Synopsis: Emmanuel was born with a deformed left leg.  Many people thought he was a curse. His father left.  Mama Comfort was strong in her faith and named her beloved son Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”  His mother saw only his abilities and encouraged him. Emmanuel hopped on one leg as he did chores and climbed trees. He hopped two miles each way to school, learned to play soccer and ride a bike. He left home at age 13 to earn money to support his family. Refusing to beg like many disabled people, he found two jobs for two years. Emmanuel had a bigger dream. He cycled 400 miles across Ghana to share his message “that a disability doesn’t means inability.”

Why I like this book:

Laurie Ann Thompson has written a triumphant picture book that will resonate with children who have different abilities. It is an uplifting and courageous true story about determination, hope and believing in one’s own abilities. Emmanuel doesn’t see his limitations as other do. He embraces his differences and dreams of carrying his positive message for those who are physically challenged across Ghana. Emmanuel wants people to see him and his disability. He wants people to hear his message. Emmanuel becomes a champion for the disabled and shows that one person can bring change. Thompson’s narrative is simple but delivers a powerful punch for readers. Sean Qualls’ expressive ink and watercolor illustrations compliment and capture Emmanuel’s remarkable journey.

Resources: Make sure you read the Author’s Note at the end of the story to learn more about the continuing work of Emmanuel and how your may get involved. He starred in a documentary about his life called Emmanuel’s Gift, which is narrated by Oprah Winfrey. Visit Laurie Ann Thompson’s website, where you will find a curriculum guide. Visit his website Emmaunel’s Dream.

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.

These Hands

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Margaret H. Mason, Author

Floyd Cooper, Illustrator

Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, Fiction, 2010 & 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-7

Themes: African-Americans, Civil Rights Movement, Hands, Grandfathers, Family Relationships, Prejudice, Tolerance

Opening: “Look at these hands, Joseph. / Did you know these hands / used to tie a triple bowline knot I / in three seconds flat?  / Well, I can still help a young fellow / learn to ties his shoes / — yes, I can.”

Synopsis: Joseph’s grandfather could do most anything with his hands. He could play the piano, shuffle cards, throw a curve ball and hit a line drive ball. Despite all the many wonderful things he could do with his hands, he could not touch the bread dough and or bake the bread at the Wonder Bread factory. He was only allowed to sweep the floors, work the line and load the trucks.

Why I like this book:

Margaret Mason’s has written an inspiring intergenerational story about a boy and his grandfather. This  compelling story is about the discrimination the grandfather experienced as an African-American working in a Wonder Bread factory.

The text is written in free verse with a refrain from the grandfather that heralds the beginning of each double-page spread: “Look at these hands, Joseph. / Did you know these hands used to…”  The tension builds when the grandfather painfully tells Joseph what he was not allowed to do with his hands at the factory. Hands alone were the victims of the prejudice. Hands joined together signed petitions, protested, prayed and overcame the prejudice. What a powerful metaphor!

This little-known story is based on the true stories of bakery union workers at the Wonder Bread factory in the 1950s and early 1960s. Victory was achieved for African-Americans during the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. It was told to the author by her friend, Joe, and after his death she decided to write his story.

Floyd Cooper’s larger than life illustrations are rendered in oil and beautifully compliment the author’s lyrical storytelling.  The muted browns tones are warm, expressive, lively and celebratory. You want to spend time studying each painting.

Resources: Make sure you read the Author’s Note at the end. This is an excellent classroom book for Black History Month. Do you know your family history? Talk with your parents and grandparents and ask them questions about what they may know about your family history. You may be surprised with your discovery. Record their stories or write information about your history in a journal. Browse through family photo albums. Visit  Margaret Mason’s 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.

Sharing Our Homeland

Sharing Our Homeland9781584302605_p0_v1_s260x420Sharing Our Homeland: Palestinian and Jewish Children at Summer Peace Camp

Trish Marx, Author

Cindy Karp, Photographer

Lee & Low Books Inc., Nonfiction, Jun. 1, 2010

Pages: 42

Suitable for Ages: 8 and up

Themes: Peace Camp, Friendships between Jewish and Arab children, Tolerance, Respect, Multicultural

Opening: “Summer is here, and Alya and Yuval are off to camp. They will swim and play games, sing and make crafts, go on field trips and spend a night sleeping in tents. They will have fun with their friends and make new ones.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Summer is here, and Alya, an Israeli Palestinian girl, and Yuval, and Israeli Jewish boy, are off to Peace Camp. They are excited, but their excitement is mixed with apprehension. The area in which they live has been fought over by Palestinians and Jews for a hundred years. What will campers from the “other side” be like? the children wonder.

At camp, Alya, Yuval, and the other campers enjoy two weeks of fun in close contact with one another. They participate in sports, create arts and crafts projects, and go on field trips. The children begin to understand what their homeland means to both sides. They learn not to be afraid and to respect one another.

What I like about this book:

  • Trish Marx has written a compelling and thought-provoking book for youth about a Peace Camp for children in one of the most complex parts of the world. It is heartwarming to know that there are both Jews and Muslims living in Israel who would like a peaceful coexistence.
  • The book focuses on a Muslim girl, Alya, and a Jewish boy,Yuval, who happen to live in neighboring settlements and probably would never meet, except through camp. Readers are introduced to their families, learn a little about their daily lives, occupations, culture and traditions.
  • The author gives a brief history about the Middle East and the context for the conflict in the region. As she does so, she explains how Alya and Yuval live in the midst of this ongoing conflict and the impact on their lives.
  • The goal of Givat Haviva’s Menashe Summer Peace Camp is to build “bridges and understanding among the campers.” It reaches out to children with the hopes of creating a foundation for peace, tolerance and respect for each other.
  • Cindy Karp’s vivid and colorful photographs are filled with laughter and chronicle the activity of the campers. The campers’ days are filled with swimming, water slides, a day at the beach, arts and crafts projects, climbing, and games. There are field trips to a kibbutz (Jewish settlement) and an Arab village where they learn to bake challah bread and taboon, a round flatbread. There is a sleepover the last night.
  • Readers will gain insight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and feel hope that solutions may come with younger generations. I highly recommend this book and hope that it has a home in every school library.

Resources: The author provides further reading, websites of interest, and a glossary at the end.  You may visit Trish Marx at her Lee  & Low website.