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.

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Refugee

Alan Gratz, Author

Scholastic Press, Historical Fiction, Jul. 25, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Themes: Child Refugees, Immigrants, Germany, Cuba, Syria, Courage, Bravery

Synopsis: Josef is a Jewish boy living in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board the MS St. Louis, a ship bound from Germany to Cuba with 937 passengers. Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994, with riots and unrest plaguing her country. She and her family set out on a home-made metal boat, hoping to find safety in America. Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by war, violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek through Europe to find “home.”

All three kids go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers — from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, shocking connections will tie their stories together in the end.

Why I LOVE this book:

Alan Gratz had me sitting on the edge of my seat swiftly turning the pages of his powerful and heart-breaking story about three young refugees seeking safety from dangerous and life-threatening conditions in their countries. No matter what their country or culture, these three heroes share a desire for safety and a place they can call home. This is a difficult novel told with brutal honesty and sensitivity.

His storytelling is masterful as Gratz tackles past and current refugee stories and skillfully weaves them together to show their relevancy today. Each character’s story is told sequentially in alternating chapters. Gratz keeps readers turning pages because of powerful cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter. Readers won’t want to miss a moment of the story.

The characters are brave, courageous and resilient 11- and 12-year-olds, who are forced to grow up quickly and make life and death decisions that help their families survive. Josef becomes the man of the family when his father returns from a concentration camp emotionally damaged. Isabel sacrifices her beloved trumpet to purchase the gas needed to power their boat from Cuba to Florida, and she saves the boat captain when he falls out of the boat. When the raft Mahmoud and his family are riding in crashes into a rock and sinks, he makes the painful decision to save his infant sister by handing her to a woman in passing raft. He knows he may never see her again. Courage!

Refugee is well-documented. Even though the three main characters are fictional, their tales are based on true stories. The MS St. Louis was a real ship not allowed to dock in Cuba. The captain, the crew and many passengers mentioned were real. With food shortages in Cuba in 1994, Cuban president Fidel Castro did allow unhappy and starving to leave Cuba for five weeks without being thrown into jail. Many lost their lives at sea, while others call America their home. After six years of war, Syrians continue to flee their decimated country and their chapter in history is still being written on the world stage.

Refugee comes to a resounding conclusion, with the fates of the three protagonists revealed. It’s emotional and there are some unexpected reveals. This timely book can’t help but stir empathy among young readers and help them grasp their role as global citizens. Some readers may see their own family stories among the pages. Verdict: Refugee is a winner that should be required reading in school.

Resources: Make sure you read the Author’s Note at the end of the book that gives detailed information  about the research for each character.  There is also information about What You Can Do and maps that chart the routes of each child’s journey.

Alan Gratz is the acclaimed author of several books for young readers, including Refugee, Projekt 1065, Prisoner B-3087, Code of Honor, and The Brooklyn Nine. Visit Gratz at his website.

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

My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo

My Beautiful Birds

Suzanne Del Rizzo, Author and Illustrator

Pajama Press, Fiction, Mar. 8, 2017

Suitable for ages: 6-10

Themes: Refugees, Refugee camps, Syria, Birds, Hope

Opening: “The Ground rumbles beneath my slippers as I walk. Father squeezes my hand. “It will be okay, Sami. Your birds escaped too,” he repeats. His voice sounds far away. I squeeze back, hoping it will steady my wobbly legs.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Behind Sami, the Syrian skyline is full of smoke. The boy follows his family and all his neighbors in a long line as they trudge through the sands and hills to escape the bombs that have destroyed their homes. But all Sami can think of is his pet pigeons — will they escape too?

When they reach a refugee camp and are safe at last, everyone settles into the makeshift city. But though the children start to play and go to school again, Sami can’t join in. When he is given paper and paint, all he can do is smear his painting with black. He can’t forget his birds and what his family has left behind.

One day a canary, a dove, and a rose finch fly into the camp. They flutter around Sami and settle on his outstretched arms. For Sami it is one step in a long healing process at last.

Why I like this book:

Suzanne Del Rizzo offers a timely, compassionate and poignant story of a Syrian child refugee who flees his beloved home with his family and leaves behind his pet pigeons. Sami’s story is a journey of hardship, sorrow, and hope for a better future. The text is lyrical at times, but mostly it is honest. Conditions are cramped in the tent city, but Sami and his family are safe. But he has trouble adjusting to his new life. He continues to worry about his pigeons, until three birds appear one day and he finds his joy again. This is a turning point for Sami.

Del Rizzo’s exquisite polymer clay illustrations add depth and a life-like dimension to Sami’s story . Her stunning  sunset with vibrant colors of pink, purple and golden hues remind Sami of his sky at home. He even sees his fluffy cloud-like pigeons.

I appreciated that the author focused on the refugee crisis that is affecting the most innocent and vulnerable, children. She doesn’t address political themes in the book, but focuses on the humanity of the situation for children displaced from their homes in Syria. Instead, her story is based on an article she read about a boy who found comfort in connecting with wild birds at the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan.

My Beautiful Birds is an excellent addition to any school library. It is age-appropriate and an introductory story about children who are displaced because of war or natural disasters.

Resources: Make sure you check out the Author’s Note at the end of the book. She talks about the displaced refugees in Syria that flee to nearby countries,  but she also talks about the 65.3 million people who are displaced worldwide.  For more information and resources about the Syrian conflict, visit the Pajama Press website.

Suzanne Del Rizzo has always loved getting her hands messy. She traded her job in scientific research for a career in children’s illustration with her first picture book, Skin on the Brink, which won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award and was a finalist for the Rainforest of Reading Award. Suzanne’s dimensional illustrations use Plasticine, polymer clay, and other mixed media to bring rich texture and imagination to her books. Suzanne and her family live in Oakville, Ontario.

*I was captivated by Patricia Nozell’s lovely review of My Beautiful Birds on her website, Wander, Ponder Write.  Check out her website, because she is reviewing a lot of books about child refugees and immigrants stories from all over the globe.

Ebb Tide by Michelle Isenhoff

Ebb Tide (Volume 3 – Ella Wood Series)

Michelle Isenhoff, Author

CreateSpace Independent Publishing, Historical Fiction, Apr. 24, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 14 – adult

Themes:  Love, Family Relationships, Civil War, Slavery, Abolitionists, Pursuing educational dreams, Courage, Hope

Opening: Emily felt the explosion before she heard it. Her ribcage thrummed like the plucked strings of a guitar, then the sky split open, pouring sound and fury down upon the world below. Her bones bucked against the sudden pulse of energy. Glass fractured. Horses plunged and screamed, slamming vehicles together with a crunch of wood on wood. Escape mocked them. Everyone in Charleston had joined the mad rush to safety.

Book Synopsis: When the Union navy fires on Charleston, Emily must flee to Ella Wood — and to a father who has never forgiven her for attending the Maryland Institute against his will. There, she grapples with Jack’s secret plans for the plantation and his final admonition that she carry them to fruition. But as a woman back under the authority of her father, evoking even the slightest change might prove too much to hope for. In the meantime, old jealousies place Emily’s life in danger, and her desperate hopes for Jovie’s safe return begin to fade. As the war rumbles to its conclusion, she must draw upon every ounce of courage in a final bid for love and freedom.

Why this book is on my shelf:

Ebb Tide brings Michelle Isenhoff’s Ella Wood trilogy to a heart-pounding conclusion. It is powerful, emotion-laden novel with secrets and many unexpected outcomes. Ebb Tide brightly shines as her finest literary accomplishment to date. The prose is beautiful, the language is rich and the dialogue lively. The trilogy has been an ambitious undertaking for the author and fans will be deeply satisfied with her third novel. It is my favorite!

Character development is Isenhoff’s strength. As Emily faces the destruction of Charleston, the uncertainty for Ella Wood, the loss of loved ones and shattered dreams, her ferocious spirit and determination will leave readers breathless. The rich cast of characters are tender and lovable, while others are abusive and gritty. And Isenhoff doesn’t let you rest until all of their fates are known — a monumental effort considering the large cast of characters central to Emily’s journey from debutante to accomplished artist. Readers will be satisfied.

The high-stakes plot is riveting, dangerous and deliberately paced with nonstop adventures. There are tragic incidents at Ella Wood. Emily’s responsibilities increase as the Union Army presence threatens livelihood at Ella Wood. There is a shortage of food, clothing and shoes. Finishing her studies in Baltimore seems out of reach. And Jovie is missing in action. Ebb Tide also has more tender moments with romance, weddings, births, and the reappearance of important characters from earlier books.

Ebb Tide is impeccably researched and offers readers a penetrating look into the emotional landscape of the south, its role in the civil war, customs, culture, the suppression of women’s rights, the searing treatment of slaves and freedom for other slaves. Michelle Isenhoff’s website has links to a pictorial representation of many of the people, places, and events that are featured in Ebb Tide and to her behind-the-scenes research.

** Readers can download a free Kindle copy of Ella Wood until June 15 on Amazon.  

Ella Wood Novellas: In July readers can get to know three prominent characters better: Lizzie, Jack and Jovie. This upcoming series of novellas, available exclusively for Kindle, will fill in additional details in the Ella Wood trilogy’s main story line. Experience Lizzie and Ketch’s escape north. Follow Jack into the Confederate army. And find out exactly what happened to Jovie after Gettysburg. Visit Isenhoff’s website for details.

Michelle Isenhoff is the author of Ella Wood and Blood MoonThe Candle Star, Blood of Pioneers and Beneath the Slashings (Divided Decade Collection); Song of the Mountain and Fire on the Mountain (Mountain Trilogy); Taylor Davis and the Flame of FindulTaylor Davis and the Clash of KingdomsThe Color of Freedom; and The Quill Pen.

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

Undiscovered Country by Jennifer Gold

Undiscovered Country

Jennifer Gold, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Apr. 4,2017

Suitable for Ages: 13-18

Themes: Grief, Coming of age, South America, Humanitarian work, War, Mental Illness, Ethnic Minorities

Book Jacket Synopsis: You can run from grief, but it will follow…

Cat’s life is divided. There is the time Before her mom died, and After. When her mom got sick, Cat still did her homework and got accepted into a prestigious college, while her father slowly shut down. Now, everything seems meaningless.

Before, Cat was happy and had momentum. After, she feels stuck. And angry. There might be five stages of grief, but Cat can’t get past stage two. She’s so filled with rage, her doctor tries to medicate her. A pill to make her feel like a zombie? No thanks.

When Cat finds a brochure for Students Without Boundaries – a volunteer program that will send her to South America — she grabs it. It’s her escape from the memories of her mother and the reality of her absence. But life as a “voluntourist” is not an escape. The new people and places Cat meets bring new perspectives and challenges she never expected. Life may still have meaning after all.

Why I like this book:

Jennifer Gold has written a compelling coming of age story about Cat, who is trying to find meaning and purpose in her life after the death of her mother. Gold’s story is carefully crafted with skill and depth.

The story is written in first person with alternating chapters. The “Before” story focuses on Cat’s close bond with her mother throughout her battle with cancer and final moments of death. It is powerful and it carries secrets that will give readers insight into Cat’s choices to leave. “After,” shows Cat’s journey to the jungles of South America, the extreme hardships, poverty, violence, and danger she encounters and her important work in the Infirmary. The alternating chapters work because of the strong “Before” storyline.

The characters are authentic and vulnerable. Cat is a strong and convincing character that readers will connect with and like from the start. She knows that doing humanitarian work in of a war-torn country is a way for her to not dwell on her mother’s absence in her life. She meets other volunteers in the program, like Taylor, Margo, and Melody, who are running away from their own demons in a similar manner. Rafael is a local, who captures Cat’s heart. He heads up a local  resistance movement against the corrupt government and makes deals with some dark figures. Cat’s relationship with him is tricky and will challenge her to make grown-up decisions.

Readers will find the plot is courageous with complicated and multi-layered themes I haven’t even mentioned. The jungle setting is so realistic that readers will feel like they are dripping in sweat, slapping huge mosquitoes, and checking their boots every morning for snakes. It is not a safe place to be with danger an ever-present concern.  The tension is palpable and will keep readers engaged.

Jennifer Gold is a lawyer and mother of two. She is the author of the YA novel Soldier Doll. A history buff, she also has degrees in psychology, law, and public health. She lives in Toronto. Visit Gold online at her website.

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

*I was provided with a copy of this book from the publisher in turn for a fair and honest review.