Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Wishtree

Katherine Applegate, Author

Feiwel & Friends, Fiction, Sep. 26, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Trees, Wishes, Crows, Animals, Friendship, Tolerance

Opening: It’s hard to talk to trees. We’re not big on chitchat. That’s not to say we can’t do amazing things, things you’ll probably never do. Cradle downy owlets. Steady flimsy tree forts. Photosynthesize. But talk to people? Not so much.

Synopsis:

Red is an oak tree who is 216 rings old. Red is the neighborhood “wishtree.” Every May 1 people come from all over town to write their most private wishes on pieces of paper, cloth, and socks and tie them to Red’s branches. He holds their hopes and dreams in his limbs. Then, they whisper their wish. Red listens but never responds. It’s against the rules for a tree to speak to a human.

Along with her crow friend Bongo and other animals who seek refuge in Red’s hollows, this “wishtree” watches over the neighborhood. Red has seen a lot of change over 200 years.

When a Muslim family moves in, Red observes how Samar and her family are treated by neighbors. Not everyone is welcoming.  Nasty threats are carved on his trunk, eggs are thrown, and ugly words shouted from passing cars.  More than ever, Red wants to fulfill Samar’s wish to find a friend. When Red learns the property owner may have some plans for him, he breaks some rules and ask his friends for help.

Why I like this book:

Katherine Applegate’s heartwarming middle grade novel is magical and conveys a message that is relevant today. It also reminds us of our common humanity.

The story is narrated by Red, a red oak tree, with compassion, concern, wisdom, and a sense of humor; no easy task for an author. Red’s branches and hollows are home to a birds and a furry cast of comical characters (owls, raccoons, opossums, skunks, cats and a crow) who live to together in harmony — most of the time. Red and his residents communicate openly with each other, but not with humans. Once a year Red is a wishtree for the town. Red’s world is vibrant and harbors a secret that needs to be shared.

Wishtree is a quiet and thoughtful read aloud with the entire family or in the classroom. It has a strong plot that with themes the encourage readers think about diversity, inclusion, acceptance, kindness and the true nature of friendship. It is a delightful mix that will keep readers turning pages. The story has Common Core connections.

For the next few months Greg Pattridge will be hosting Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Thank you Greg for keeping MMGM active while author Shannon Messenger is on tour promoting her sixth book, Nightfall, in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, which was released November 7.

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.

Big and Little Are Best Friends by Michael Garland

Big and Little Are Best Friends

Michael Garland, Author and Illustrator

Orchard Books, Fiction, May 9, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 3-5

Themes: Animals, Elephants, Mice, Best Friends, Differences, Acceptance, Rhyme

Opening: Big and Little / Are best of friends. / Though the things / that they like / Are at opposite ends.

Synopsis: Big is an elephant and Little is a mouse.  They are opposites in every possible way. One likes loud music, the other prefers soft. One loves hot weather, the other loves cold. One is shy and the other is bold. One wears plain, the other wears frilly. They are as different as night and day. Sometimes they fight, but they always make put their friendship first.

Why I like this book:

Michael Garland has written a timely and heartwarming story for children that celebrates tolerance. Elephant and a mouse are very different in surprising ways, but they learn to compromise and accept each other. They learn that they don’t need to change who they are in order to become best friends. Elephant and mouse discover that their differences can lead to a lot of fun when they are together. The story also breaks down some preconceived stereotypes.

Garland’s simple rhyming text includes fun synonyms and antonyms and is perfect for beginning readers. Garland’s signature double page-spreads feature lively, humorous and colorful illustrations that will appeal to children’s imaginations.

Resources: Use Garland’s concept book to teach children about opposites, like “big and little.”  Ask children their favorite color, food, toy, sport, book, movie and so on. Compare the similarities and differences with siblings or classmates. Apply the idea to friendship. Would they still be friends if one liked cake and the other preferred pie?  Depending upon the age of the child, you may want to include bigger topics that include diversity.

Michael Garland has 35 books in print. Four of Garland’s books are New York Times Bestsellers, and Miss Smith’s Incredible Storybook won State Reading Awards in Delaware, California and Texas. He lives in Patterson, NY.  You can visit Garland at his website.

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.