Riders of the Realm: Through the Untamed Sky by Jennifer Alvarez

Riders of the Realm #2: Through the Untamed Sky

Jennifer Alvarez, Author

HarperCollins, Fantasy, Mar. 26, 2019

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Pegasi, Jungles, Giants, Dragons, War, Survival, Loyalty, Bravery, Freedom

Book Synopsis:

After winning the wild Pegasus mare named Echofrost in a contest, Rahkki Stormrunner becomes an official Rider in the Sky Guard army. But Rahkki is terrified of heights, and Echofrost is still difficult to tame. And with Echofrost’s herd captured by the giants and the growing threat of battle looming over the realm, the new Pair will have to work through their fears in order to fly with the army and free the herd.

Meanwhile, back in Rahkki’s village, rebellion is brewing, and Rahkki learns there is a sinister plot to overthrow Queen Lilliam. But the queen suspects Rahkki’s behind it, and he is under intense watch.

As Rahkki and Echofrost travel to Mount Crim to free Storm Herd, Rahkki fears that the greatest danger may not come from the impending battle against the giants, but from within his own clan.

Why I like this book/series:

Fans have waited a year for the release of Jennifer Alvarez’s second novel in the Riders of the Realm series. It was worth the wait. Riders of the Realm: Through the Untamed Skies is an exhilarating and epic journey.  Alvarez’s storytelling is exquisite and her world-building outstanding.

Alvarez has created a matriarchal culture within the Sandwen seven clans, all ruled by a monarch queen. The men in the clan are honored battle warriors. Their flying steeds (Kihlari) are tame and paired for life with a flyer, but their mission is to protect the clans from giants, dragons, huge snakes, and killer plants.

The story is character-driven. Kind-hearted Rahkki, the 12-year-old stable groom for the wild Echofrost, has won the steed in a contest. He built a relationship of trust with her in the first novel. Rahkki’s goal in competing is to save her life and free the Pegasus so she can find her herd. But now they are bound to each other for life. And Rahkki is her Rider.  Princess I’Lenna is the eldest daughter of Queen Lilliam. Unlike her evil mother, the princess is kind, smart, clever and wants to build peace among the clans. She is Rahkki’s best friend and their relationship is crucial to the future of the realm and freeing Storm Herd from the Giants. But there is an uprising building within the clan and Rahkki isn’t sure who are his friends or enemies.

Alvarez ends the book on a huge cliff hangar which will catch readers completely off-guard and leave them imagining the future of the realm and their favorite characters. They will have to wait for the final volume next year.  This will give new readers an opportunity to check out the original Guardian Herd series, where the Pegasus are free.

Jennifer Lynn Alvarez received a degree in English literature from UC Berkeley. She is an active horsewoman, a volunteer for the US Pony Club, and the proud mother of three children. She also is the author of the Riders of the Realm: Across Dark Waters and the Guardian Herd series. To learn more about her winged universe of novels, please visit 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 a purchased copy.

Tears of the Mountain by Michelle Isenhoff

Tears of the Mountain (The Mountain Trilogy, Book 3)

Michelle Isenhoff, Author

Amazon Digital Services, Fiction, Dec. 2, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 13 and up (adults will enjoy)

Themes: Ancient land, War, Journey, Prophecy, Fantasy

Synopsis A simple act of obedience has the power to change the world.

Jubal wants only to live in peace, but ancient feuds from neighboring kingdoms steal away any hope of tranquility. He is a son of the grand vizier when he would rather be a hermit living high in the mountains playing his flute. Jubal is expected to be part of the Kindolin army, but he doesn’t like battle, unlike his best friend Sark. He would rather study with his wise tutor, Doli, about Kindolin’s unknown history.

On the day of the annual Sun Festival, a well-planned coup erupts from within the palace walls and Jubal’s family is slaughtered along with many others. War erupts in Kindolin and Sark’s father is involved in the coup. Jubal and Liena go to Doli’s home, where the wise man helps him flee to the mountains. Doli tells Jubal he “has been given a calling and it his destiny to play out a role on a divine stage.” It is a prophecy where Jubal will end a curse.

“Mud and mire shall birth a tree;

A sprout shall grow of ancient seed.

The five unite to break the one;

The curse of man shall be undone.

But brothers rise ere dragon’s bane; 

The last shall smite the first again.” 

Jubal finds himself flung into a quest of even greater antiquity. For victory lies not in the strength of arms but in this promise given long ago. His path, fraught with betrayal, loss, and his own lack of faith, carries him far beyond the boundaries of Kindolin. Will Jubal be strong enough to lay down his own life in fulfillment of his task? Or will Kindolin disappear into the pages of history?

Why I like this book:

Isenhoff has written a captivating novel about the ancient orient. It is about a prophecy and the destiny of a boy to slay the dragon, Ju-Long, and end an ancient curse. Isenhoff’s storytelling is superb and her language is lyrical and poetic. The untamed beauty of the lush mountains setting creates both joy and challenges as the seasons change. The plot is thrilling, courageous and perilous.

The characters are fascinating and unforgettable. Jubal is the son of the vizier, where much is expected of him. He is a gentle soul who has no interest in being part of the army, bearing arms, training and learning battle strategies. He would rather study with his wise tutor, Doli, about Kindolin’s ancient beginnings. Jubal values his childhood friendships with Sark and Liena, and the three share their skills. Sark likes war and teaches Jubal and Liena martial arts. Liena shows them the forest plants that they will need to  sustain them. And Jubal helps Sark with his school lessons. Liena’s destiny is intertwined with Jubal’s task and a love story emerges within the story.

Journey back to the first age of men in Isenhoff’s final installment of the Mountain Trilogy that ties Song to his family’s very earliest beginnings. There are three books in this trilogy, Song of the Mountain (free on Kindle), Fire on the Mountain and Tears of the Mountain. They can be read together, or as stand-alone novels. I have read and loved all three inspirational novels. Isenhoff includes a Prologue at the beginning, so readers have an understanding of the story. I choose to read a book in hand

Sample of Isenhoff’s lyrical style: “Under normal circumstances, music bubbled out of Jubal like water from a spring. He was forever humming or whistling or tapping his fingers to some new tune. He heard them everywhere –in the syncopation of raindrops, in the minor key of the wolf’s cry, even moonlight carried a soft melody. And when the surrounding peaks sent their breath strumming through the forest, it produced an entire symphony.”

Michelle Isenhoff is a former teacher and longtime homeschooler. She has written extensively in the children’s genre, most notably her work in historical fiction: The Ella Wood series and The Divided Decade collection. She also writes fantasy: The Recompense series and The Mountain Trilogy. She has been lauded by the education community for the literary quality of her work. These days, she writes full-time in the adult historical fiction and speculative fiction genres. Visit Michelle’s fabulous 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 a purchased copy of the book.

My Grandfather’s War by Glyn Harper

My Grandfather’s War

Glyn Harper, Author

Jenny Cooper, Illustrator

EK Books, Fiction, Jun. 12, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 5-9

Themes: Intergenerational relationships, Grandfathers, Vietnam War, Memories, PTSD

Opening: “This is my Grandfather. He came to live with us just after I was born. I call him ‘Grandpa’ but his real name is Robert.”

Synopsis:

Sarah loves spending time with her grandfather, but she knows that there are times when he is sad and keeps to himself. She senses his pain. Curious to find out the cause of her grandfather’s unhappiness, the child innocently asks him questions and unknowingly opens old wounds. Her grandfather is very open with Sarah and tells her about going to war in Vietnam. He tells her that his leg was hurt and that’s why he walks with a limp. But he also shares with her that some of his friends were hurt even more and some even died in Vietnam. He talks about the heat, the jungle and the chemicals that made many sick. He explains that the Vietnamese people didn’t want the soldiers there. When they came home from war no one thanked them for their service. Sarah discovers her grandfather’s sadness is a legacy of the Vietnam War and his experiences there.

Why I like this story:

Glyn Harper, a Professor of War studies, has written My Grandfather’s War to mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War’s longest battle, Khe Sanh.  It is a compelling story that sensitively tackles difficult topics about painful memories, PTSD, the legacy of war and the treatment of returning Vietnamese Veterans. It is a story brimming with heart. Harper’s goal is to get children “hooked on history.”

     Courtesy of the publisher.

Jenny Cooper’s illustrations are realistic and expressive. Yet her warm and soft palette of colors is soothing for children.  As Sarah’s grandfather talks about his time in Vietnam, Cooper shows Grandfather’s war memories of the jungle, battle, the reaction of the Vietnamese people to the soldiers presence, and the protests by Americans on opposite pages. The illustrations aren’t frightening and will encourage kids to ask questions about this “unpopular” war.

     Courtesy of the publisher.

There are no books for children about the Vietnam war, as Sarah discovers when she looks in her school library. This is the first book that I’ve seen that delicately explains the war in an age-appropriate manner for children. I am very excited to share this book because my brother, my cousin and many friends spent time in Vietnam, while I was in college dodging protests and the National Guard presence on campus. It was a confusing time for everyone. That’s why this book is an important addition to any school library.

Resources: There is a history of the Vietnam War at the end of the book. This is an opportunity to teach children about the complexities of war, and how it impacts and shapes people’s lives. You see it in the expressions of the grandfather and the people of Vietnam. There is also a Teachers Guide that can be downloaded from EK Books.

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.

*Copy provided by the publisher.

Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

Mary Beth Leatherdale, Author

Eleanor Shakespeare, Illustrator

Annick Press, Nonfiction, Apr. 11, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 10-12

Pages: 64

Themes: Boat refugees, Children refugees, Seeking asylum, Persecution, War, Natural Disasters, Courage

Publisher Synopsis:

The plight of refugees risking their lives at sea has, unfortunately, made the headlines all too often in the past few years. This book presents five true stories, from 1939 to today, about young people who lived through the harrowing experience of setting sail in search of asylum: Ruth (18) and her family board the St. Louis to escape Nazism; Phu (14) sets out alone from war-torn Vietnam; José (13) tries to reach the United States from Cuba; Najeeba (11) flees Afghanistan and the Taliban; and after losing his family, Mohamed (13) abandons his village on the Ivory Coast in search of a new life. But life is not easy once they arrive. It’s hard to fit in when you don’t speak the language. These child refugees face prejudice. Yet the five make it and lead successful lives.https://gpattridge.com

Stormy Seas combines a vivid and contemporary collage-based design with dramatic storytelling to produce a book that makes for riveting reading as well as a source of timely information. These remarkable accounts will give readers a keen appreciation of the devastating effects of war and poverty on youth like themselves, and helps put the mounting current refugee crisis into stark context.

What I like about this book:

This is a timely and powerful story about resilience and determination. The book doesn’t pull any punches. It is the true stories of five refugee children who face real danger as they escape by sea. One sails aboard an ocean liner and the other four drift in open, unseaworthy boats that are overloaded. There are no lifejackets or bailing cans. Food and water is scarce. They face stormy weather and pirate attacks at sea. The boat refugees leave with hope in their hearts of seeking asylum and freedom from persecution, civil war, drought and natural disasters. They arrive at their destinations ill and needing medical treatment. Some end up in detention or refugee camps.

Reading stories about immigrants that span 80 years, offers readers a greater insight into the current refugee crisis in the Middle East, South America and Africa. It is interesting to compare the past with current events. The stories of the past echo similar themes refugees face today — they are not welcome by many countries. They are ostracized and treated like prisoners. This is an excellent and current book for middle grade students and belongs in school libraries.

Stormy Seas features a beautiful collage design with historical fact sidebars, maps of each child’s journey, timelines, quotes from leaders, and refugee data that includes costs and how many boat people die at sea. This book format is perfect for reading true stories and for research projects. Readers will gain new insights into a social justice issues that date back 600 years. Make sure you read Introduction and the Brief History of the boat people which dates back to 1670 with the Huguenots leaving France for England seeking refuge from religious persecution.

Greg Pattridge hosts the 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.

When We Were Shadows by Janet Wees

When We Were Shadows: A Holocaust Remembrance Book for Young Readers

Janet Wees, Author

Second Story Press, Biography, Apr. 18, 2018

Suitable for ages: 9-12

Pages: 157

Themes: Jewish children, Family relationships, Holocaust, Netherlands, Underground Resistance, Heroes

Synopsis:

It is 1937. Walter is five years old when his parents decide to flee their home in Germany and start a new life in the Netherlands. As Jews, they know they are not safe with the Nazi party in power. For nearly three years Walter and his family is relatively carefree. His father opens a small tea and coffee shop.  Walter and Hannah are able to attend school, learn Dutch, and play with other children.

When Germany invades the Netherlands in 1940, Walter’s world changes from safe and predictable to one full of uncertainty. He hears his parents talking in whispers.  He is too young to appreciate the danger he is in, and everything seems like a great adventure. He has to change his name. His family leaves their home and shop. But as the war progresses, his family is forced to move again and again, from city to countryside, to eventually, the Hidden Village deep in the Dutch woods.

Walter and his parents are separated from his seriously ill sister, who is hidden in a hospital, and his grandmother, who is hidden in other safe houses. He writes letters on napkins, scraps of paper, and book pages, describing his life, his fears, and his hopes. Walter’s eyes are opened to the threat that surrounds them every day and to the network of people who are risking their lives to help them stay hidden. This true story shines a light on a little-known part of WWII history and the heroes of the Dutch resistance—particularly those involved in the Hidden Village—without whose protection, Walter, his family, and hundreds of others would not have survived.

Why I like this book:

This is a moving and sensitive true story about the strength of the human spirit to survive. It is story about the power of a family determined to stay together. It is a story about the compassion and kindness of ordinary individuals who put their lives in danger because they know it is the right thing to do.

I like the format of Janet Wees book as it reads like a story. The author uses the letters Walter writes to his granddaughter, Jenny, as the background for the story. He waits until Jenny is old enough to share his entire story of fleeing Germany in 1937 as a young child and the fear and horror around him.  The rest of the story is told in the letters Walter writes to his oma (grandmother.)  After Oma’s death, Walter found the letters wrapped in a bundle in a trunk. They are in the voice of young Walter, who is able to sneak the letters to Oma through the Underground.

When We Were Shadows is a vivid and realistic story that will make readers remember so that this kind of atrocity doesn’t happen again. There are photographs throughout the book of Walter and Hannah, homes where they were hidden, dense forest camouflaged hide-outs and a rebuilt Hidden Village, that add undeniable authenticity to the story.

Resources: Make sure you read the Prologue, the Epilogue about the liberation and the Author’s Note at the beginning and end. This is another excellent book for middle grade teachers to add to their Holocaust collection.

Janet Wees has written since she was nine years old. A retired teacher, she spends her time creating children’s picture books, reading, walking, writing letters, cycling, volunteering and traveling. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.

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 publisher provided me with an advanced copy of the book.

Escape From Aleppo by N. H. Senzai

Escape From Aleppo

N.H. Senzai, Author

Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, Fiction, Jan. 2, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Family, War, Refugees, Syria, Bravery, Survival, Hope, Freedom

Publisher Synopsis:

Silver and gold balloons. A birthday cake covered in pink roses. A new dress.

Nadia stands at the center of attention in her parents’ elegant dining room. This is the best day of my life, she thinks. Everyone is about to sing “Happy Birthday,” when her uncle calls from the living room, “Baba, brothers, you need to see this.” Reluctantly, she follows her family into the other room. On TV, a reporter stands near an overturned vegetable cart on a dusty street. Beside it is a mound of smoldering ashes. The reporter explains that a vegetable vendor in the city of Tunis burned himself alive, protesting corrupt government officials who have harassed his business. Nadia frowns.

It is December 17, 2010: Nadia’s twelfth birthday and the beginning of the Arab Spring. Soon anti-government protests erupt across the Middle East and, one by one, countries are thrown into turmoil. As civil war flares in Syria and bombs fall across Nadia’s home city of Aleppo, her family decides to flee to safety in Turkey. Nadia gets trapped and left behind when a bomb hits their home. She is alone and must find a way to catch up with her family.  There are many detours along the way and an old man tries to help her. Inspired by current events, this novel sheds light on the complicated situation in Syria that has led to an international refugee crisis, and tells the story of one girl’s journey to safety.

Why I like this book:

N. H. Senzai has written a timely story that explores the culture and history of Syria as it moves from normalcy to the harsh realities of civil war, as witnessed by Nadia. The author weaves chapters into the story depicting life before the war begins giving readers a feel for family and life in Syria. Nadia enjoys birthday parties, painting her nails, playing with her cat, watching Arab’s Got Talent and shopping in the markets.

Senzai’s powerful storytelling and vivid imagery draws readers into Nadia’s harrowing experience. Her journey is quite extraordinary as she befriends other Syrians along the way, an old man and two orphans. The elderly book binder, Ammo Mazen, promises to help Nadia reach the Turkish border, but it is a round about journey, with some unusual characters and missions involved. Just who is this mysterious Ammo Mazen? But he protects Nadia and the two orphans and navigates them around rebels groups, the Syrian Army, and ISIS fighters. As they journey across the Old City, readers catch a glimpse of Nadia memories of the colorful shops and a lively community, which is in stark contract to the crumbling city before her. There are many road blocks, but Nadia turns her fear into a strong determination to survive and reunite with her family.

This plot is gripping, suspenseful, heart-wrenching and hopeful. Readers will experience what it means to be displaced from their home, family and lifestyle. It raises questions for readers about how they would survive if everything they know is gone in a flash and they are thrust into a war-torn environment. Would they be able to survive?  This is tough and timely read for youth trying to grasp what they are seeing and hearing on television about this complicated and troubled country. They are able to  experience the human side of war through Nadia. This is a must read and belongs in school libraries.

N.H. Senzai is the author of the acclaimed Shooting Kabul, which was on numerous state award lists and an NPR Backseat Book Club Pick. Its companion, Saving Kabul Corner, was nominated for an Edgar Award. Visit the author at her 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.

To Look a Nazi in the Eye

To Look a Nazi in the Eye: A Teen’s Account of a War Criminal Trial

Kathy Kacer with Jordana Lebowitz, Authors

Second Story Press, Nonfiction, Sep. 12, 2017

Pages: 240

Suitable for ages: 13-19

Themes: Oskar Groening, WWII War Crimes, Trial, Holocaust, Justice

Book Jacket Synopsis: True story of nineteen-year-old Jordana Lebowitz’s experience attending the war criminal trial of Oskar Groening. Groening worked at the Auschwitz concentration camp and became known as the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz.” In April 2015 he stood trial in Germany for being complicit in the deaths of more than 300,000 Jews.

A granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Jordana knew a great deal about the Holocaust and had traveled to Europe with her Jewish Day School classmates to visit Auschwitz and participate in the March of the Living. There she met and became friends with Hedy Bohm, a holocaust survivor. A few years later she invited Hedy to speak with students and faculty at the university she attended. When Hedy told her that she had been asked to share her personal story of survival at Groening’s trial, Jordana wanted to go to Germany. But she was not prepared for what she would see and hear at Oskar Groening’s trial, including how much an ordinary seeming man — who at first glance reminded her of grandfather — could be part of such despicable cruelty. She had expected to hate him, and she did. But hate, just like forgiveness, can be complicated.

Listening to Groening’s testimony and to the Holocaust survivors who came to testify against him, Jordana felt the weight of bearing witness to history — a history that we need to remember now more than ever.

Why I like this book:

Kathy Kacer sensitively weaves a format for this compelling and dramatic nonfiction narrative that reads like a story. The chapters alternate between Oskar Groening’s life story and testimony, Jordana’s experiences of the trial, and her relationships with the courageous survivors she has come to love and respect. Kacer shares the survivor’s gut-wrenching stories with compassion, dignity and grace. Her pacing will keep readers glued to the story.

There are interesting dynamics at play throughout the story. Seeing the trial through Jordana’s eyes  (two generations removed) offers readers an open-minded and contemporary perspective. Jordana is loyal to the survivors she has journeyed with to Germany. Their painful stories are etched in her heart and mind. But she has trouble seeing Groening as a monster. She wants to hate him, but she sees a frail and sad man who admits he’s morally guilty for his role in the process. Yet she is disturbed by the details of his actions.

Jordana meets the deniers who say the Holocaust is a conspiracy. She converses with Reiner Hoess, the grandson at the Rudolf Hoess, the mastermind behind the design and construction of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. She is moved that Hoess has spent his life talking about the Holocaust with young people and has come to see justice served in the Groening trial. She is shocked after a female survivor finishes her testimony, steps up to Groening, shakes his hand and says “I forgive you.” The other survivors are upset by the woman’s gesture. Jordana even boldly walks up to the judge and asks him “what is it like to be a judge at this trial…and does it affect you?”

Jordana doesn’t carry the baggage of a survivor. She has a youthful desire to be a witness to history and relates her experiences of the trial through a daily blog she writes for the Canadian Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center — the center that paid for her plane ticket to Germany. In the end, Jordana realizes that the trial represents something greater than achieving justice for the survivors. It sends a message to the world that there will be consequences for anyone who is commits or assists in hate crimes, murders and genocide against human beings, no matter how long after a crime.  Jordana also sees an important role for “the youth of today to create a better tomorrow.”

Resources: There is an Epilogue at the end about other SS Nazi guards being brought to trial. Since most are in their 90s, time is running out. Kacer shares what Jordana has  done since the trial and her dream to become a human rights attorney. To Look a Nazi in the Eye is an important book for school libraries. It fits nicely with Holocaust education and will challenge students to have many lively discussions. Although this book is designated for those 13 and up, I would share this book with a mature middle grade student. Adults will benefit from reading this tactfully written book.

Kathy Kacer has won many awards for her books about the holocaust for young readers, including Hiding Edith, The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, Clara’s War and The Underground Reporters. A former psychologist, Kathy tours North America speaking to young people about the importance of remembering the Holocaust. For more information, visit Kacer’s website.

Oskar Groening died Mar. 13, 2018

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.

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War I Finally Won

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Author

Dial Books for Young Readers, Historical Fiction, Oct. 3, 2017

Suitable for ages: 9-12

Themes: Overcoming a disability, WW II, Great Britain, Bombings, Rationing, Family relationships, Prejudice

Book Jacket Synopsis: When 11-year-old Ada’s clubfoot has been fixed at last, and she knows now that she’s not what her mother said she was — damaged and deranged. But soon Ada learns that she’s not a daughter anymore either. Who is she now?

World War II rages on, and Ada and her brother move with their guardian, Susan, into a cottage with the iron-faced Lady Thorton and her daughter. Life in the crowded home is tense. Then Ruth moves in. Ruth a Jewish girl from Germany.  A German? Could Ruth be a spy?

As the fallout from war intensifies, calamity creeps closer, and life during wartime grows even more complicated. Who will Ada decide to be? How can she keep fighting? And who will she struggle to save?

Ada’s first story, The War that Saved My Life, was a #1 New York Times bestseller and won a Newbery Honor, the Schneider Family Book Award, and the Josette Frank Award, in addition to appearing on multiple best-of-the-year lists. The War I Finally Won continues Ada’s journey of family, faith, and identity, showing us that real freedom is not just the ability to choose, but the courage to make the right choice.

Why I like this book:

Fans of The War that Saved My Life, will be thrilled with Bradley’s captivating and satisfying sequel. The setting, the characters, the plot and the imagery are beautifully intertwined and create and extraordinary experience of how WW II changed British family life amidst the blackouts, midnight fire-watching, air raids, bombings, rationing and loss.

The narrative is in Ada’s voice. She is smart and resourceful, strong-willed and spirited, like the horses she trains. Ada continues her journey of triumph over the demons of her past, learns to trust her guardian, Susan, and discovers a new and stronger inner identity.  There are new experiences, things to learn and healing. Her brother Jamie happily accepts Susan as “mum” and all of her affection.

Lady Thorton is aristocratic and an unlikely character who helps Ada face her past. But my favorite relationship is Ada’s interaction with Ruth, a Jewish girl who escapes Germany and moves into the cottage to study higher mathematics with Susan. She faces a lot of discrimination, especially from Lady Thorton and other adults. Ada stands up for Ruth, who ends up playing an important role in the war.

The plot is riveting and full of tension.  Bradley’s pacing will keep readers fully engaged and wondering what will happen next. It is a story that will stay with you because of the depth and the profoundly human characters.

This is an excellent discussion book for teachers to use with middle grade students. The author put a lot of research into this novel, so make sure you read her notes at the end about the historical facts woven into the story. You can learn more at Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s website.

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 will be 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.

A Good Trade by Alma Fullerton

A Good Trade

Alma Fullerton, Author

Karen Patkau, Illustrator

Pajama Press, Fiction, 2013

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: Ugandan children, Poverty, Traveling for water, War

Opening: “In a small Ugandan garden, a single poppy blooms white in a sea of green. On a mat inside his hut, Kato wakes at the break of dawn.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Kato wakes early to begin his morning routine, a long barefoot trek beyond village gates through grasses, down a steep hill, and along fields dotted with cattle and guarded by soldiers. His destination is the village well, where he will pump a day’s supply of water into two jerry cans. Like very day, Kato lets the water splash over his hot tired feet before carrying his heavy load back home, where the day’s chores await him. But this is no ordinary day. The aid-worker’s truck has come, and in the back is something so special the little boy rushes home to look for something to repay the aid-worker for this unexpected gift for his village.

Why I like this book:

Alma Fullerton’s text is rich, spare and beautifully crafted. Her narrative is strong and lyrical as she shares Kato’s daily trip to get drinking water for his family. He is barefoot like the other children in his village. The water he collects is essential for cooking, drinking and bathing.

When Kato spies the aid worker’s truck that brings shoes to the village children, he hurries home with his water cans. He finds a white poppy and returns to give it to the aid worker as his expression of gratitude for her generous gift.

This important book shows children how difficult life can be for kids living in war-torn areas and in drought. For many children school isn’t an option because  their days are filled with chores. Fullerton’s story raises cultural awareness for the global plight of children like Kato. Young readers will appreciate the things they take for granted, like running tap water, shoes and transportation.  It addresses tough issues in a hopeful and age-appropriate manner and is an excellent read-aloud for the classroom.

Karen Patkau’s digitally rendered illustrations are colorful and lush. They work beautifully with the text and illuminate the message in the story.

Resources: This is an important story that will generate lively classroom discussions  about how difficult life can be for children around the world.  Ask children about how they would feel if they didn’t have a pair of shoes? Would they be able to walk barefoot every day to collect water from a well? How would they bath or wash clothing?  What will they eat? This is a great exercise in empathy.

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. Check out my review of her most recent picture book, Hand Over Hand.  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 website.