Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

It is 1911 and a 14-year-old girl from rural Pennsylvania dreams of a better life than she will ever have working on her father's farm. Forced to quit school, she treasures the diary given to her by her beloved teacher. Joan is a reader, and she knows from Jane Eyre and other classic stories that there is more to life for a young girl than cooking and cleaning. She runs away to Baltimore, changes her name to Janet, and gets hired by a wealthy Jewish family to be their hired girl. She learns to navigate a new world of wealth and a bewildering world of religious differences. All the while she writes in her diary about her dreams of travel and education the world beyond the station she was born into. My favorite childhood books are the Betsy Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace, and Janet is clearly akin to Betsy Ray, another girl from 1911 who longed to be a writer and see the great world. Young people who like history and coming of age stories will love this, as well as adult readers. In fact, when I purchased my copy of this book, it was in the adult section of my local children's bookstore. Recommended for grades 7-up.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Middle school kids are going crazy for this book and I'm so glad my 7th and 8th graders chose it for their book club. It's a sci-fi/dystopian Cinderella story, but there's no helpless princess here. Cinder, a cyborg and second-class citizen, is the best mechanic in New Beijing. She lives with her stepmother and stepsisters, who treat her badly (no surprise there). A deadly plague is killing people right and left, and a lunar civilization ruled by Queen Levana is lurking nearby, waiting for a chance to take over the earth by way of marrying Prince Kai. Cinder has a brief encounter with the truly charming Prince and is charged with repairing his android. But shortly thereafter her sister gets the plague, Cinder is "donated" for plague research, and she discovers some shocking secrets about her past. It's fun to catch all the fairy tale references, but Cinder truly is its own story. I listened to the audiobook and couldn't wait to hear more. My only gripe is the ending, which is one of the worst cliff-hangers I've ever read. This book is not short, but there's no reason that younger middle schoolers up through high schoolers won't enjoy it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

I absolutely loved this historical fiction book and Ada and Jamie, two siblings who are sent out of London during the air raids of World War II. Nine-year-old Ada has a club foot and her mother has kept her a virtual prisoner her whole life. She has never gone to school and rarely left their apartment. But when her younger brother Jamie is scheduled to be sent to safety in the country, Ada doesn't hesitate to go with him. In a seaside village in Kent all the children are taken in by local families. Jamie and Ada, who are malnourished and dirty, are the last children chosen, and are practically forced on a single woman named Susan Smith. Although Susan says she has no idea how to take care of children, she knows that Ada needs a doctor, and crutches, and an education. Ada thrives in the country as she learns to ride a pony and makes her first friend. She and Jamie are wary of embracing their new life, though, because they know they could be returned to their mother at any time. This is a story of healing and survival, set during a fascinating time in British history. Highly recommended for upper elementary and middle school readers.

Dream Things True by Marie Marquardt

This year I had the privilege of taking students to visit the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, where undocumented immigrants are detained in prison-like conditions. It is staggering to think of the almost 2,000 people held in the detention center which is run by a for-profit company, and it was disheartening to be denied a visit with a detainee for no good reason. Just after this experience I read this young adult novel about Georgia teenagers facing immigration issues. Alma came to the U.S. as a child and has lived most of her life in North Georgia. She is bright and hard-working and hoping to attend college on a scholarship. She meets Evan, the privileged son of a senator, and they fall in love. However, Evan has no idea how complicated life is for Alma and her family, and when her father and brother are taken by immigration officials, he learns that there are no easy solutions for Alma's family. This is an important book that gives a real human face to immigration issues. There is a real lack of YA fiction about the immigrant experience and this book deserves a wide readership. It is most definitely a YA romance, though, and will be enjoyed by teen and adult romance fans. Recommended for 9th grade-adults.

Prairie Evers by Ellen Airgood

Prairie Evers is a girl who has never been to school. Her grandmother has been her teacher for her whole life and Prairie loves being free to roam on her parents' New York farm. But when granny announces her plan to move back to her home in North Carolina, Prairie is forced to attend school for the first time. Prairie is not behind academically, but she has a lot of catching up to do socially. Fortunately she makes a new friend, Ivy, and discovers that Ivy has troubles at home. Ivy becomes like a sister to Prairie and together they raise chickens, do their homework, and eventually try to help Ivy have a better life. It's a good story, probably best suited to 3rd-5th grade readers who like a realistic story with lots of charm.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys


Many people think the sinking of the Titanic is the greatest maritime disaster of all time, but it's not even close. During World War II a German ship called the Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk, and it held about 10,000 passengers—most of them women, children, and injured soldiers fleeing from Russian troops. This book tells the story of a group of refugees fleeing toward the Wilhelm Gustloff. One is a nurse, one is a young pregnant girl, and one is a young man with a big secret to hide from the Nazis. They come together in order to survive a desperate trek across East Prussia, but as the reader, you know that they are heading toward disaster. The story is told in very short, alternating chapters from the points of view of several of the characters. You will care about these people and learn a lot about World War II history as you read this engrossing historical novel. Recommended for 8th grade-up. Adults will enjoy this book as well, maybe even more than young people.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Pieces of Why by K.L. Going

Tia is twelve and lives with her mom in New Orleans. She is a gifted singer, and her life revolves around singing in The Rainbow Choir with her best friend Keisha. Tia knows very little about her father except that he is in prison and she is not allowed to talk about him with her mother. But when a tragedy happens during a choir rehearsal, Tia finds out things about her father that change the whole way she sees the world. The question is, will she continue to pour out her heart and soul into her singing, or will her newfound knowledge make her withdraw into herself? This is a book about grief and forgiveness and one girl's personal journey toward healing. Kids who sing will relate to this book, as well as kids who like to get into other people's heads and "walk a mile" in their shoes.

My Diary from the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson

Gracie's world is a lot like ours, except for the sasquatches, mermaids, giants, and other creatures that pose a constant danger to humans. Because of all the creatures, society hasn't quite developed like it has in our world. No railroads or highways connect the country, and airplanes don't fly. Grace's family lives in Maine, but when a small Dark Cloud hovers over their house they decide to flee to the Extraordinary World, which no one really thinks exists. Thus begins a family road trip in a Winnabago to save Gracie's sickly little brother from being taken by the Dark Cloud. This book has an equal balance of fantasy and adventure and complicated family dynamics between the siblings and parents. Gracie's imperfect family is believable and readers will hope that there is an Extraordinary World and that they can make it there. This book would be great for fantasy readers from grades 3-6.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Prisoner B-3087

Yanek Gruener was a Polish boy caught up in the nightmare of the Holocaust. He experienced some of the worst horrors of the concentration camps as a boy as he went from a ghetto to 10 concentration camps and was forced on two death marches. Author Alan Gratz took Yanek's true story and made it into this powerful novel based closely on fact. It would be hard to believe that he survived were it not a true story. Like most stories of the Holocaust, it is difficult to read, but what stands out is Yanek's unwavering will to stay alive. This book doesn't gloss over the horrors of the gas chambers and brutal random killings by Nazis. I would think it would be most appropriate for older middle schoolers, but I do know fifth and sixth graders who have read and loved this book. The Boy on the Wooden Box and Yellow Star are two other excellent Holocaust books that are good introductory books for younger middle schoolers.    

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm

Imagine if a 14-year-old kid named Melvin showed up at your house and told you he was really your grandpa? That's what happens to Ellie at the beginning of this book. Grandpa is a scientist who has discovered the "fountain of youth," and he needs Ellie to help him break into his research lab and steal an important jellyfish. Yes, it's a strange story, but the characters are likable and the pages fly by as you meet Ellie's actor parents, her newly sporty former best friend, and her interesting new friend, Raj. Ellie adjusts to middle school, learns a bit about her strengths, and dares to ask the question, can science go too far? This is a fun book for 3rd-6th graders.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

Mehrigul is a 14-year-old girl who belongs to a group of people living in East Turkestan. Her language and people are called Uyghur, but the Chinese have invaded their land and control everything. Mehrigul longs to stay in school, but her father wants her to work on their farm, and her mother is depressed and unable to speak up for her. So she works the land and lives in fear that her father will send her to work in a Chinese factory far away. On market day, things change for Mehrigul. She encounters an American woman who pays her a huge amount of money for a decorative basket made of vines that Mehrigul has made. The woman says she will return in three weeks to buy more of the baskets. Mehrigul begins to dream of being an artisan and helping her family with the money, but her father, who gambles and drinks, has other plans for her.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Wrath and the Dawn by ReneƩ Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is a historical fantasy set in an an Arabic world in the distant past. The main characters are Shahrzad, a 16-year-old girl who is seeking revenge, and Khalid, the 18-year-old Caliph of Khorasan (a sort of regional king). Khalid has been marrying young girls and murdering them systematically, and Shazi decides to marry him and kill him before he can kill her. She keeps herself alive for a few days by telling him stories (a la the famous Arabian Nights story) but that only lasts a few days. Khalid falls for her and she loses her interest in killing him and instead tries to find out why he has killed so many young women all the while succumbing to her growing feelings for him. I wanted to like this book more than I did, but I struggled to finish it. The writing was frequently overly flowery and the strong female character overcoming a male-dominated society didn't ring true to me. In spite of all the good reviews this book got, I just didn't buy into the characters or the romance or the fantasy elements included. I think this book will find an audience with fans of romance books, probably younger high school readers would be the right age to read it.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

I think almost everyone knows what it is like to "break up" with a best friend. It's a devastating but common experience, especially in the middle school years. Roller Girl is about a seventh grade girl who discovers a passion for roller derby, while at the same time drifting apart from her dearest friend from childhood. This book is colorful and bright and brimming with humor and expression. You will sympathize with Astrid as she works through the loss of a friend, and you will cheer with her as she takes on a tough new challenge in the roller derby arena. This book is going to be the next big hit, especially for the readers who love Raina Telgemeier's books Smile, Drama, and Sisters. I think this book is great for a wide range of ages—from fourth grade up through adults.

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar

A fifth grade girl and a seventh grade boy take a shortcut through the woods to avoid a bully. But while in the woods they discover some "fuzzy mud" that turns out to be an environmental disaster waiting to happen. This book has a story that will keep readers interested, interspersed with accounts from the scientists who have created a new kind of organism that is rapidly multiplying. Third through fifth graders will enjoy this suspenseful story that combines bullying, friendship, and ecological issues into one story.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata

Jaden was adopted from Romania at the age of 8. He is now 12 years old and he still remember how it felt to be abandoned by his birth mother. His parents in the United States have loved him and cared for him, but he has trouble connecting with them or anyone else. In this book, Jaden and his parents travel to Kazakhstan to adopt a new baby. Jaden doesn't expect to care about a new sibling, and he certainly doesn't expect to feel attached to a special-needs toddler at the orphanage. Jaden has deep-seated problems for which there are no easy solutions, but this is a story about the power of love and the ability of people to change and grow. I enjoyed this book as an adult reader and I think students will also empathize with Jaden's complicated emotions.