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Random Thoughts on What I'm Reading
It's November, 1939 in Krakow, Poland, and seven-year-old Anna finds herself alone after her father, a linguistics professor, doesn't return from a meeting.
That's the startling premise of Gavriel Savit's debut young adult novel, Anna and the Swallow Man.
What is Anna to do? She's too young to know that her father is part of an intellectual purge by the Nazis. All she knows is that no one is willing to care for her.
As she stands on the street, she meets a strange, tall person she comes to call the Swallow Man. Like Anna and her father, he knows several languages, and he also has the ability to talk to birds.
Anna and the Swallow Man embark on a walking journey that will take several years and hundreds of miles through war-torn Poland. They struggle to skirt danger, the war on the eastern front, and, most importantly, discovery of the Swallow Man's identity.
Who is the Swallow Man? He is a mystery, but Anna knows she must stay with him in order to stay alive.
When they meet a fellow traveler, Anna learns some hard lessons about friendship and about war.
Written in an allegorical style with hints of magical realism, coupled with the brutal reality of their daily lives, Anna and the Swallow Man is a novel that begs to be discussed with other readers.
Despite Anna's dark wartime journey, the end hints at hope and a new life. Recommended for high school students and older.
Roz isn't your typical robot. When she lands on the shores of a wild island, she sets out to discover who and where she is. Only we, the "insider" reader, know that Roz fell off a cargo ship during a hurricane.
Thanks to Peter Brown's debut middle-grade novel, The Wild Robot, we get to join Roz for the ride--or the walk, as the case may be.
At first, the animals on the island are afraid of Roz (full name ROZZUM unit 7134) and call her a monster. Can you blame them? They've never seen a creature who is both alive and isn't, who doesn't have to eat, whose feet fall off, and who emits strange sounds.
But over time, Dart the weasel, Digdown the groundhog, Swooper the owl, Fink the fox, and other wonderfully named animals come to see that Roz may not be so different. When Brightbill the gosling becomes orphaned, Roz is determined to learn how to be a mother--with the help of her computer brain, of course.
When harsh winter blows onto the island, will everyone survive? When Roz encounters real danger, will her new friends come to the rescue?
This gentle novel, with short episodic chapters and art from Caldecott Honor Award-illustrator Peter Brown, is about community, love, and different kinds of families. In the end we learn that differences can actually bring people (or robots) together.
This is a great read-aloud novel, or if you prefer to discover books quietly by yourself, for ages 8 and up.
Imagine that your grandfather has died, leaving you with a falling-down Greenwich Village townhouse, chickens in the backyard, a mom who's out of touch with reality, and $463. Oh, and mysterious last dying words.
That's the dilemma facing 13-year-old Theodora Tenpenny in Laura Marx Fitzgerald's intriguing middle-grade novel, Under the Egg.
Theo has more problems than she can count (and all those eggs to gather), but she also has determination. With his last words, her grandfather, Jack, told Theo to "look under the egg" to find a treasure.
Theo knows this has nothing to do with chickens. It has to do with a painting. You see, Jack was an artist and a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
When Theo discovers a rare Renaissance masterpiece, possibly by Raphael, her search for its owner (is there an owner?) leads her to a new friend, Bodhi.
Together the girls enlist the help of several quirky adults around the city. But the deeper Theo goes into the mystery, the more she wonders, Who was Jack? It's not a spoiler to reveal that Theo does find a treasure, but it's not the kind she expects.
For fans of E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, this mystery abounds with clues to paintings and to life. Recommended for ages 9 and up.
In Teresa E. Harris's debut middle-grade novel, The Perfect Place, we learn that twelve-year-old Treasure has moved around. A lot.
That’s because Treasure's restless dad can’t settle down. This time it's different, though. This time he leaves without them, and it seems to be for good.
When Mom decides to go looking for him, she drops off Treasure and her seven-year-old sister, Tiffany, with their Great-Aunt Grace (GAG for short), in Black Lake, Virginia.
Eccentric GAG smokes, she makes the girls do chores, and her ancient house is packed with piles of stuff—and a big furry cat—setting off Treasure’s allergies. Dad has always promised that someday they’ll move to “the perfect place,” and that promise keeps Treasure going.
She follows her rules of not making new friends and not getting attached to anyone—including GAG. But when Mom has no luck finding Dad, and Treasure meets an interesting boy who seems determined to be friends, the rules fall apart. She takes matters into her own hands.
Treasure learns a troubling truth about Dad and finds herself reassessing Black Lake and Great Aunt-Grace. Maybe the perfect place is closer than she realizes.
With the heat and humidity of Black Lake, Virginia as a backdrop, The Perfect Place is a great read for summer. But don't wait till then. Immerse yourself in a beautifully written story about a girl's search for that special place--perfect or not. For ages 9 to 12.
I was excited to see that a graphic novel, Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson, was chosen as a Newbery Honor Book this year. I loved this book.
Roller Girl is about being a best friend, learning how to skate, dying your hair blue, putting on your war face, falling down and getting up again, and mostly, about navigating the changes before junior high.
Astrid and Nicole have been best friends since fifth grade. They do everything together. When Astrid's mom takes them to a roller derby competition, Astrid is hooked. She signs up for roller derby camp and assumes Nicole will, too.
But Nicole takes ballet camp instead with their archenemy, Rachel. In the words of the book's jacket flap, "and so begins the toughest summer of Astrid’s life.” It turns out she’s horrible at skating, but that’s not the painful part. That would be Astrid's growing distance with Nicole. Can this friendship be saved?
Over the summer, Astrid learns more than skating and roller derby moves—she learns what being a friend is really about. As I cheered for and cried with Astrid, I was in awe of the author/illustrator for capturing perfectly a twelve-year-old girl's heart.
Sometimes things change and you can do something about it. But sometimes you can't. Roller Girl explores one girl's way of coping with both. For ages 10 and up.
The teen novel All American Boys is unique for two reasons.
First, it's written by two authors: Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Second, it's told in a back-and-forth narration by two boys, Rashad and Quinn.
Sadly, the situation the novel explores is not unique: Rashad, who is black, is beaten by a white cop. And not just any cop--he's Paul, Quinn's best friend's brother, a man who took care of him after Quinn's dad was killed in Afghanistan.
The beating takes place at the start of the novel, when Rashad is involved in an innocent mishap in the grocery store. But Paul assumes Rashad is guilty of stealing.
The bulk of All American Boys deals with the aftermath of the beating, when Rashad lands in the hospital and Quinn, who witnessed what actually happened, struggles with whether he should speak up. How can he be disloyal to Paul and his best friend?
It's impossible not to take sides after students at their school plan a protest. Quinn is forced to confront his deepest feelings about race. Rashad is forced to see his family, especially his father, a former cop, in a new light.
With Jason Reynolds writing Rashad's character, and Brendan Kiely writing Quinn's, this is tight, authentic writing. The voices of both characters are spot on. The novel will make you ask, What would I do if faced with police brutality?
For ages 12 and up.
Gordon Parks is one of my heroes and inspirations.
Born in 1912, he was a multi-talented photographer, film director, musician, and writer, one of the most influential artists in the 20th century. (He died in 2006.)
Carole Boston Weatherford presents his amazing life in her picture book biography, Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, with illustrations by Jamey Christoph.
Beginning with Parks's birth in Kansas, the youngest of 15 children, Weatherford shows how the times Parks lived in shaped who he became.
His white teacher told her all-black class, "You'll all wind up porters and waiters." There were few opportunities for young black men, but Parks was a groundbreaker, fighting stereotypes and vowing to "lay bare racism with his lens." With his camera, Parks became a witness to the inequality and segregation all around him.
Also inspiring, Parks expanded his talents to other arts, refusing to be pigeon-holed.
"About Gordon Parks" at the end of the book fills in more detail, with samples of his powerful photographs. This award-winning biography is for anyone, of any age, who wants to learn more about this American master.
In my quest to read all the Newbery Award books, I went back to one of the earliest, the 1924 winner.
The Dark Frigate by Charles Boardman Hawes is a swashbuckling pirate adventure set in 1600s England during the reign of King Charles.
I admit, the language was a bit challenging at times. But only at first. Hawes uses authentic 17th-century speech and accurate ship terms to lend the story realism, and once I got into the rhythm, the story held me to the end.
The hero is 19-year-old Philip Marsham, an orphan, who must flee London after a skirmish that's not his fault. Philip is the son of a seafaring man from a good family. But now, with no family or friends on land, Philip must make his own way in the world.
On the road he meets up with a dubious companion and signs up as crew on the Rose of Devon, a merchant ship bound for Newfoundland. That is, until the ship is taken over by the "Old One," a complicated "gentleman of fortune" who murders the ship's captain and commandeers the vessel.
Philip faces submission to his new pirate captain, or death. He chooses to stay on board, but makes his escape only to land in even worse trouble.
With details of life on the ocean and in the new world of America, The Dark Frigate offers a good read for those willing to immerse themselves in the language and times. You'll meet a fascinating and colorful cast of characters.
In the introduction, Lloyd Alexander, himself a Newbery Award winner, writes, "What emerges from these lights and shadows, from [the author's] view of the world as a rather hard place to live in, is an impression of surprising, almost startling, modernity."
I agree. The novel is modern in its portrait of life and adventures with all their complexities. Ages 12 and up.
This year's Newbery Medal went to a picture book, only the second time in the award's history that has happened.
Last Stop on Market Street, written by Matt de la Pena and illustrated by Christian Robinson, is a story close to my heart. When I was growing up, my mom and I took the bus everywhere. I still love taking the bus. This picture book depicts a bus ride that opens a young boy's eyes, ears, and heart.
One Sunday, as CJ and his nana wait for the bus, he complains that his friends' families have cars. His nana points out things his friends are missing, like trees that drink through straws, a bus that breathes fire, a bus driver who always has a trick, a passenger with a guitar and a song, and an old lady with butterflies in a jar. When CJ closes his eyes, he "sees" the wonders of the world through his ears.
They get off the bus and CJ asks why it’s always so dirty. His nana points to the sky and replies, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.” CJ begins to see beautiful things too, like a perfect rainbow, "broken streetlamps still lit up bright," and "stray-cat shadows moving across the wall."
They arrive at their destination, where CJ sees familiar faces and tells his nana he’s glad they came. Her response is picture-book perfect.
I love the message in this brightly illustrated picture book. The story is truly for all ages, and shows how a simple bus ride can become a magical trip.
The setting is Greenland. The year is 1900, when Robert Peary is exploring the Arctic.
The young adult novel Between Two Worlds by Katherine Kirkpatrick is narrated by a 16-year-old Inuit, or Polar Eskimo girl, Eqariusaq, known as Billy Bah to the American explorers.
Eqariusaq has been married for three years, common for her people. They live in the village of Itta. As the story opens, Peary’s wife and daughter, Josephine and Marie, have arrived in a supply ship for Peary, only to discover that he’s not in Itta. Eqariusaq, her husband, and other Inuit go to Ellesmere (Musk Ox Land) to hunt and to help the Americans search for Perry.
When the harbor becomes encased in ice, forcing the ship to stay for eight months, Eqariusaq acts as a translator. (She learned English during the year she spent in the United States as a child with the Peary family.)
During that time she also falls in love with Duncan, an American sailor, and must decide whether to stay with her husband or go back to America with Duncan when the ship is freed from the harbor ice.
Kirkpatrick conveys Eqariusaq's dilemma and emotions well. The young married woman feels tied to her land, but she also loves the American who has been kind to her. Details from the Inuit culture over 100 years ago give this novel authenticity.
Wear a sweater while you read Between Two Worlds. The bitter temperatures of snowy Green-land come through like a blast of Arctic wind. Recommended for ages 12 and up.
I always eagerly await a new novel by Gary D. Schmidt. His latest, Orbiting Jupiter, is as beautiful as the winter landscape it depicts. It's also a departure, a novel for teens instead of Gary Schmidt's middle-grade audience.
Twelve-year-old Jack tells the story of his older foster brother, Joseph. Joseph arrives at their Maine farm damaged by an abusive father and by his stay at a detention center. Joseph, an eighth-grader, is also a father.
Joseph longs to see his baby daughter, Jupiter, but he's thwarted by the authorities. When his abusive father makes an appearance, the plot spins forward to its sharp and dramatic conclusion.
I could feel the cold, snow, and ice of a Maine winter seeping through the pages of Orbiting Jupiter. Set against that, the warmth of the cows in the family's barn help bring Joseph out of his painful past.
This spare novel packs a wallop. It's one of my favorite books this year. For readers 12 and up.
"Be who you are," states the back jacket of George. That's the theme of this middle-grade novel by Alex Gino.
To the outside world, fourth-grader George is a boy. George is sure she’s a girl. She thinks of herself as "she" and longs to reveal who she really is--a girl stuck inside a boy's body.
George decides to audition for the role of Charlotte in the school play of “Charlotte’s Web." She's convinced that when Mom sees her in a female role, she'll finally understand that George is transgender.
Things don't go as planned until George's best friend, Kelly, comes up with an ingenious idea to help George. (We all need a best friend like Kelly, who is a quirky character worthy of her own novel.)
Alex Gino (who is transgender) doesn't shy away from showing George's pain--teased by her brother, punched by the school bully, and misunderstood by her mom. Fourth grade can be traumatic enough without worrying that someone will discover your secret--at the same time wanting to tell your secret.
George is an important book. It stands up for those who want to be who they are. For ages 9 and up.
Along with her parents and brother Nick, seven-year-old Holly goes to Padgett Lake to visit Gram and Gramp as usual—only Mom and Dad aren't staying, which isn't usual. Holly’s parents need time alone to work out their problems, which worries Holly. What if they get a divorce?
Mary Atkinson's lovely middle-grade novel, Owl Girl, perfectly captures Holly's worries. Gram is bossy, and Gramp does more things with Nick because he's older. Their dog Bonk is sick, too.
One night Holly hears an owl in the woods. She knows it's lonely, just like her. She knows she shouldn't disobey Gram, but she just has to find the owl. Through following her own heart, Holly learns about nature and herself. She grows up just a bit this summer.
Beautiful, poetic writing pulls us right into the story, like this description of a Maine rainstorm:
All that dark night, the rain came down in torrents. It splattered and pinged and bounced off the screens in Holly's windows. It coursed down her skylight like a raging river. It drummed against the metal roof like thousands of galloping horses. Between the booming thunder and crackling lightning, the rain was everywhere and all the time.
Owl Girl is for anyone who wants to hear the call of the owl.
Sara Nickerson's new middle-grade novel, The Secrets of Blueberries, Brothers, Moose & Me, will make your mouth water--not only from the delectable descriptions of fresh, plump blueberries, but from the beautiful sentences throughout.
Twelve-year-old Missy is having a summer of changes. Her two best friends are off to camp, her dad's remarrying, her mom's painting the living room bright yellow, and her teenaged brother, Patrick, is turning into a person she barely knows.
When Missy gets the chance to earn money--and independence--by picking blueberries, it turns into more than a money-making scheme.
At first the blueberry fields make Missy's life even more confusing. Mom told Missy and Patrick to stick together, so why does Patrick keep hanging around the girl in the bikini top? Why did the brothers who own the blueberry fields have a blood feud? And why does Missy feel so weird about everything this summer?
Slowly, the blueberry fields give Missy a new view of life. Picking blueberries connects her to nature and the source of food--a revelation. She comes to love the silence as she goes down the rows. In that silence, she learns more about herself.
The Secrets of Blueberries is a perfect book for summer. I highly recommend it for readers who want to lose themselves in a story about life's big and small changes. For ages 9 and up.
In Jack and the Wild Life by Lisa Doan, the sequel to the hilarious Jack the Castaway (see below), Jack’s parents have learned their lesson. Or so they say.
Richard and Claire Berenson have a plan—surprise!—for a new moneymaking scheme that’s sure to be a success. They’ve even followed the Family Decision-Making Rules, as established by seventh-grader Jack.
So what could go wrong with their plan to open a rustic (to say the least) tourist camp in Kenya, where you can live like the Maasi, build your own hut, and milk a cow named Princess?
Plenty, as Jack finds out. He gets chased up a tree, fights off honey badgers (who aren’t as sweet as they sound), and runs from an angry bull elephant. Worst of all, his parents have lost him again! Surviving on Chips Ahoy and oranges may be fun for an hour, but try several days.
Jack needs all his ingenuity and every piece of duct tape in his backpack to get through this one. Oh, and did I mention the stuffed monkey his (maybe) girlfriend Diana makes him take along? He’s not only lost, he’s the laughingstock of Africa.
Jack and the Wild One is a wild ride, with zany illustrations by Ivica Stevanovic. Bring along your own Chips Ahoy, and hope you survive for the third promised book in the Berenson Schemes series. Ages 9 to 12.