Book Review: Sweep

37811512If you’re looking for something to read aloud to your kids, I highly recommend Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster by Jonathan Auxier. It’s a wonderful book that will appeal to both kids and adults.

Set in Victorian London, Sweep is the story of an 11-year-old orphan named Nan. Nan was raised by a kindly sweep, who fed her story soup when there was no food and taught her to see the wonder in the world. But when she was six years old, he disappeared, leaving only his hat and a warm lump of char. Since then, she’s worked for a cruel sweep as a climber, a dirty and dangerous job. One day, she’s caught in a chimney fire, and she thinks that’s the end for her. Instead, it’s the beginning of a new adventure with her unlikely savior, a soot golem she names Charlie.

This book is a heartbreaking story about poverty, child labor, anti-Semitism, and sacrifice. It’s also a heartwarming story about friendship, love, and a life of purpose. And it’s a delightful story about Nan and Charlie’s time together in the House of One Hundred Chimneys. Larrabee and I both loved it.

Book Review: Al Capone Throws Me a Curve

36960177Little League tryouts were this weekend, so I have baseball on my mind. One of the best baseball books I read last year was Al Capone Throws Me a Curve

This book is the fourth in Gennifer Choldenko’s terrific Tales from Alcatraz series.

Like the others, it’s set during the 1930s on Alcatraz Island and stars Moose Flanagan. In this book, Moose is thirteen and a half, and his father is the assistant prison warden.

Moose just wants to spend the summer before 9th grade playing baseball, but his life is never that easy. The captain of the high school baseball team demands Alcatraz souvenirs as the price of allowing Moose and his friend to play. The warden asks Moose to keep an eye on his willful daughter Piper. And his parents often make him responsible for his 17-year-old autistic sister Natalie.

For a good-hearted kid who tries to do the right thing, Moose ends up in some crazy predicaments. His story has both humorous and touching moments. It also has fascinating historical details, but they never bog down the fast-paced plot.

It’s possible to read this book without reading the other three first. Larrabee did. But for me, part of the fun of this book was revisiting the characters and setting that I loved so much from the earlier books in the series.

I’d recommend reading them in order–and then taking a field trip to Alcatraz.

Book Review: Out of Left Field

36025369No matter how much baseball trivia you know, I guarantee you’ll learn something new from Out of Left Field by Ellen Klages. For example, in 1947, Sophie Kurys of the All-American Girls Baseball League had 201 stolen bases in one season. And she wasn’t allowed to wear baseball pants. She had to slide in a skirt!

Ten-year-old Katy Gordon is the best pitcher in her Berkeley, California neighborhood. None of the boys in the summer sandlot games can hit her “Sunday pitch.” But when she tries out for a Little League team, she learns that girls are not eligible to play under any circumstances.

The year is 1957. The national news is full of the space race and the civil rights movement. The local news is buzzing with the New York Giants’ move to San Francisco. Katy is in the 5th grade, and when she chooses women baseball players as her social studies research topic, she uncovers a fascinating history.

Katy is the younger sister of Dewey and Suze from Ellen Klages’ The Green Glass Sea (set in Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1943) and White Sands, Red Menace (set in Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1946), but you do not have to have read the other books to enjoy this one.

Out of Left Field is an engaging story with baseball, history, librarians, scientists, a diverse cast of characters, and even a cameo appearance by Willie Mays. I recommend it!

Book Review: Escape from Aleppo

26146347Escape from Aleppo by N. H. Sendai is a timely and eye-opening story about a 14-year-old girl who is forced to flee her home during the Syrian Civil War.

When bombs start falling on her neighborhood in October 2013, Nadia’s family decides to leave. But in the chaos, she and her cat Mishmish get separated from the others. With the help of a mysterious old man and two young boys, she’ll have to make her way to the Turkish border.

Escape from Aleppo is a suspenseful and evocative story about her journey through the war-torn city. In addition, through flashbacks, the reader sees glimpses of her ordinary life (painting her fingernails, watching Arab Idol, eating her grandmother’s cookies) before the war.

Although it’s fictional, this book weaves in a lot of factual information. I like middle grade books about recent history because they help kids understand important events that are rarely discussed in school.

I recommend this book for middle schoolers who have read about the Syrian refugee crisis in the news or seen the heartbreaking before-and-after pictures of the ancient city of Aleppo and want to know more about what kids are going through in that part of the world.

Book Review: Cloud and Wallfish

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 10.27.39 AMCloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet is an intriguing historical novel set behind the Iron Curtain in 1989 East Berlin.

The most unusual things about Noah Keller are his astonishing stutter and his photographic memory. Other than that, he’s an ordinary American 5th grader. He goes to school, plays soccer, and celebrates his 11th birthday with a bowling party.

One day, though, his parents pick him up from school and announce that they’re going on an “urgent expedition” that will be “better than fun.” They’re going to spend six months in East Germany while his mom does research on special education. The only catch: Noah will have to be known as Jonah Brown, he’ll have to go back to being 10 years old, and he’ll have to remember lots of rules (such as Rule #1: “They will always be listening and often be watching. Don’t forget that!”).

Despite his parents’ excitement, Noah/Jonah finds East Germany lonely and boring until he meets Claudia, a girl who lives with her grandmother in the apartment downstairs. They make friends as they try to figure out what’s true in a world filled with secrets and lies.

Some of the things I liked best about this book are:

  • The historical setting. Even though I was alive in 1989, I learned a lot from this book about life in East Germany and about some of the events leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Each chapter ends with a “Secret File” that provides necessary historical context for the events of the story. But these files are not dry textbook entries that you might be tempted to skip. Rather they’re engaging asides by a narrator with personality.
  • The friendship between Claudia (Cloud) and Noah/Jonah (Wallfish). As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m fond of friendship stories, and this is a great one. I love the way that these two kids from different cultures initially bond over a jigsaw puzzle and come to trust each other.
  • The relationship between Noah and his parents. Noah and his parents are close and loving, and yet, they have secrets from each other. Part of what’s interesting about this story is that the reader, like Noah, assumes that his parents are spies without finding out exactly what they’re doing in East Germany.

Although the main character is young (10 years old), I’d recommend this book mainly for older middle grade readers.

Book Review: The Rhino in Right Field

Screen Shot 2018-07-21 at 9.07.54 AMI couldn’t resist this cover. Stacy DeKeyser, you had me at baseball. Throw in a rhinoceros and I’m definitely hooked.

I started to read The Rhino in Right Field without any idea what type of story it would be. It turned out to be a charming historical novel set in 1948 Milwaukee where the kids play baseball in the city zoo (with a rhinoceros named Tank just behind the right field fence).

Twelve-year-old Nick Spirakis is the son of Greek immigrants, who expect him to work hard in school all week, attend Greek school on Tuesday evenings, and then work in his father’s shoe repair and hat shop on Saturdays. He has his own dreams, though, including entering the “batboy for a day” contest at the local minor league ballpark.

According to the author’s note, the main character is based on her father, and many of the period details are true. What fun!

Book Review: Salt to the Sea

Screen Shot 2018-01-17 at 11.50.05 AMSalt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is a beautifully written historical novel set in the winter of 1945.

It’s told from the perspective of four young people all being evacuated from East Prussia at the end of World War II ahead of the advancing Soviet army: Joana, a guilt-ridden Lithuanian nurse; Florian, a Prussian deserter with a secret; Emilia, a pregnant Polish girl; and Alfred, a delusional German sailor.

Joana, Florian, and Emilia join with an unlikely band of refugees on the dangerous road to the port in Gotenhafen. There, they secure passage on a German ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Just when they seem safe, though, the ship is struck by torpedoes from a Soviet submarine and begins to sink.

I have read many novels and works of non-fiction about World War II, but I had never heard of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in which more than 9,000 people lost their lives. One reason I like historical fiction is that it can bring to light events that might otherwise be forgotten.

Book Review: Wolf Hollow

Screen Shot 2017-10-12 at 11.37.49 AM.pngWolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk is set in western Pennsylvania in the fall of 1943. It is the story of twelve-year-old Annabelle, whose peaceful world is upended when a cruel girl joins her school.

This new girl, Betty, first threatens Annabelle, then her younger brothers. When Toby, an outsider and World War I veteran, tries to protect them, he becomes Betty’s new target. Many in the community are inclined to believe Betty’s lies. Annabelle, though, is determined to prove Toby’s innocence.

The very first sentence sets the tone for this novel that is both beautifully written and disturbing: “The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.”

It’s not an easy read–either in a reading level sense or in an emotional sense. I wouldn’t recommend it for every middle grade reader, but for the right reader, it offers a brave and relatable heroine, a tense story, and plenty of food for thought.

Remembering 9/11

Monday will be the 16th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. All adults remember that Tuesday. Where they were when they heard the news. How they felt. What they did.

But kids can’t remember, of course. Mine weren’t even born yet. For them, 9/11 is history. Not all that different from Pearl Harbor or Gettysburg or the Alamo.

Fiction is a great way for kids to learn about other times and places. Novels about the recent past are rare, though.

Luckily for today’s kids, there are two new middle grade novels that address the events of September 11 and the impact they had on the people of the United States.  These novels fittingly manage to be both sad and hopeful.

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 11.54.33 AMTowers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes is a contemporary novel, set in Brooklyn fifteen years after 9/11.

Dèja has just moved into a homeless shelter with her sick father, her overworked mother, and her two younger siblings. The 5th grade teacher in her new school assigns a project relating to September 11.

Although she’s lived in New York her whole life, Dèja knows nothing about 9/11, and she wonders why she should care about something that happened before she was born. With the help of her new friends, Ben and Sabeen, she learns how those events still affect her country, her city, and her family.

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Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin is an historical novel set during September 9-11, 2001 and September 11, 2002.

It focuses on four middle schoolers of different genders, races and religions: Will in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Aimee in Los Angeles, California, Sergio in Brooklyn, New York, and Naheed in Columbus, Ohio.

It’s the story of these four individual kids and the challenges they’re facing before the events of 9/11. It’s about the ways their lives intersect in unexpected ways. And it’s about the difference between “before” and “after”.

Book Review: Code Talker

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 12.02.30 PMCode Talker by Joseph Bruchac is the story of a Navajo boy who serves in the Marine Corps during World War II, sending messages in an unbreakable code based on his native language.

The narrator and protagonist, Ned Begay, is fictional, but the main events in the book really happened. Blaine and I both enjoyed learning more about this little-known piece of history.

The book is presented as a story told by Ned as an old man: “Grandchildren, you asked me about this medal of mine. There is much to be said about it. This small piece of metal holds a story that I was not allowed to speak for many winters. It is the true story of how Navajo Marines helped America win a great war.”

He then goes back to his childhood. He left home at age six to attend a state-run boarding school where he was forced to cut his hair and required to speak only English. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was fourteen years old and too young to fight, but two years later, he joined the Marines. After boot camp, he was sent to code school to learn a code based on the Navajo language. He and his fellow Navajo code talkers played a key role in many battles in the Pacific theater, including on Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. After the war, he returned home and became a teacher, but for many years, he was not allowed to tell anyone about his work as a code talker.

Bruchac says in the Author’s Note that the book “can be read as a parable about the importance of respecting other languages and cultures.” Some of the most interesting parts of the book are its explorations of the differences between Navajo, white American, and Japanese cultures.