The Book Thief

As is the case with so many books, I’m late to the party on this one. The Book Thief has been in my I’ve-been-meaning-to-read-this-for-a-while-but-haven’t-gotten-around-to-it pile since I first became a school librarian (way back in 2005 when the book came out). Like Ender’s Game, it was the desire to see the movie adaptation that really spurred me to finally read the book…and I’m so glad I did.

I finished reading The Book Thief less than an hour ago, and I was so moved by the book that I was sitting in my library crying my eyes out. My students and my clerk thought I’d lost my mind. (By the way, I have no problem taking some time to read at school every now and then. How can I expect my students to learn to love reading if they don’t see me modeling it?)

Anyhoo, back to The Book Thief. This book tore me apart, and I can only hope that the movie will, in some small way, live up to its source material. I’m going to see the movie this afternoon, and I fully expect my heart to be in shreds by the time I get home tonight. Here’s hoping…

The Book Thief takes place in Molching, a small town outside of Munich, Germany, during World War II. It is told from Death’s point of view, and the story follows the journey of a young girl, Liesel Meminger, the the lives she touches, and the books she steals during this turbulent period.

I’ve read quite a few fictional accounts of WWII, but most of those tend to focus on the experience of Holocaust victims and survivors. This may be one of the first books I’ve read that details the experience of a German teen who has to at least pretend to tow the party line while quietly protesting the world around her. Liesel finds power in words, and she does everything she can to gain access to as many words as possible…and share those words with those most important to her.

From her foster parents to her best friend to community members to the Jewish man hiding in her basement, Liesel, through both words and deeds, touches every life around her and demonstrates how much one girl–a book thief–can impact so many lives…and can make even Death stop to take notice.

I’m not going to say much more about this book other than it is at once heart-breaking and heart-warming. I was pulled in by the unique way this story was told, and I stayed because I truly grew to care about Liesel, her family, and her friends. The Book Thief has more than its share of tragedy, but there’s so much more to take in here. Even in the midst of a war, people find ways to experience joy, peace, laughter, friendship, and courage. Some of those things may reveal themselves in unexpected ways…perhaps in the form of a stolen book.

If the movie adaptation is even half as good as the book, I think I’ll be pretty happy.  I guess we’ll find out at 4:25 this afternoon!

For those who haven’t seen The Book Thief yet, here’s a movie trailer to whet your appetite. It worked for me!

Published in: on December 5, 2013 at 11:41 am  Comments (2)  
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The Mighty Miss Malone

It’s time to celebrate! I’ve finally finished reading this year’s nominees for the South Carolina Children’s Book Award! All in all, I’m pretty happy with the list. Even the books I put off reading were great. My last of the nominees, The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis, was an excellent book that I hope my students and teachers will love. This is another historical fiction novel (which explains why I put it off to the end), but the themes in this book are timeless, and I think many young readers will relate to Deza Malone, a character introduced in Curtis’ Bud, Not Buddy.

As frequent followers of this blog know, I don’t read much historical fiction unless I have to–or unless there are elements of science fiction and fantasy thrown in. The Mighty Miss Malone is a book that I had to read…and I’m glad I did. At first, I was reluctant to get started, but it didn’t take long for me to love the main character. A passage I read on page 31 only cemented that.

“I’m different from most people and one of the main reasons is, I think I might have two brains. Whenever I get nervous or mad or scared or very upset, I have thoughts that are so different from my normal thoughts that there isn’t any way they could be coming from just one brain.
My first brain decides it doesn’t want to know about what is happening and stops working. Then my second brain takes over.
And that brain is always looking to start trouble, to hurt someone or break something.”

I don’t know about you, but I find this totally relatable, and I knew from this one glimpse into the mind of young Deza Malone that I would enjoy my time with her.

Twelve-year-old Deza Malone is probably the smartest girl in Gary, Indiana. Everyone–including Deza–knows she’s destined for great things, but the journey from here to greatness is going to be a long, tough road.

The year is 1936, and the Great Depression is in full swing. It’s tough for folks to find work, especially black folks. Deza’s father is no exception. The Malone family is struggling, and things are going to get much worse before they get better. At least they have each other, right?

After tragedy strikes their community in Gary, Deza’s father leaves to find work in Flint, Michigan. He’s promised to send word when things are well, but, when the Malones hear nothing from their beloved father, Deza, her mom, and her big brother Jimmie–who has problems of his own–set off to find Mr. Malone.

Their journey is peppered with disappointment, adjustments to new and often frightening situations, and simply trying to survive in a world that is by no means kind to those who are poor. Through it all, Deza tries to keep her spirits up and her eyes focused on a brighter future. It’s not always easy…especially when her father–and eventually her brother–seem to be slipping farther away. It’s also difficult for Deza to accept that some people (like her new teachers in Flint) can’t see past the color of her skin.

Deza does what she must to be strong for her family. Will that strength see her through the tough times and into a future filled with possibilities? What will Deza learn about herself and the world around her during this journey? Will the Mighty Miss Malone win in the end? Find out when you read The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis!

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This book is yet another of the SCCBA nominees in which the voice of the main character is one of the novel’s main strengths. It really shines through, and, in a book that is filled with its fair share of depressing and desolate situations, Deza brings a bit of humor to make things just a little brighter.

The Mighty Miss Malone is also a book that I hope will generate discussions about the Great Depression, how it impacted children in poverty, and how society still treats the poor. This book may be a work of historical fiction, but I doubt anyone can read this book without making connections to how those in poverty are treated in today’s world. It’s tragic, disturbing, and–I hope–eye-opening.

For more information about this book and others by Newbery Medal winner Christopher Paul Curtis, visit http://www.nobodybutcurtis.com/. Happy reading!

City of Orphans

Well, my summer is nearly at an end, and I’ve almost finished reading the twenty books nominated for the 2013-14 South Carolina Children’s Book Award. Last night, I finished #19, City of Orphans by Avi (also nominated for the South Carolina Junior Book Award). Had this book not been nominated for the SCCBA, I don’t know that I would have picked it up. It’s no secret that historical fiction is not my favorite genre. (For those wondering, the 20th SCCBA nominee left to read is also historical fiction. I’ve put it off as long as possible.) After reading City of Orphans, though, I’m honestly glad I gave this book a chance.

For the most part, this is not a particularly happy book, but it does explore what life was like for kids in turn-of-the-century New York. (Hint: If you had no money, it was bad.) The title, City of Orphans, refers to the fact that even kids with parents, most of whom were immigrants, were–for all intents and purposes–orphans. It was up to them to figure out how and where to make money, where to go when they needed help, and how to get out of bad situations. In this book, we meet Maks and Willa, two “orphans” just trying to survive in this bleak world.

It’s 1893, and New York City is teeming with people–immigrants, crooks, cops, and, most of all, kids. Kids just trying to survive, trying to make a few cents to help their families. One of these kids is Maks Geless. Maks is a newsie. (He sells newspapers on street corners.)

One night, Maks runs into some trouble on his way home from work. Trouble by the name of Bruno and the Plug Ugly Gang. Maks is sure he’s dead meat…until a dirty, homeless girl with a big stick saves him. This girl, Willa, has lived in the streets for months, and Maks figures the least he can do is give her a place to stay for coming to his rescue. So Maks takes Willa home to stay with his family.

Maks’ family, immigrants from Denmark, lives in a tenement, nearly ten people crammed into one small apartment, but it’s home, and they’re all together…until Maks’ older sister Emma is arrested! Maks is sure that Emma must be innocent. There’s simply no way she could have stolen a watch from someone at the new, fancy Waldorf hotel where she works. Maks’ parents are unfamiliar with the way things really work in America, so it’s up to Maks–and his new friend Willa–to figure out just what happened with Emma and the case of the stolen watch.

All the while, Maks and Willa have to watch out for the scary Bruno and this gang, just waiting to terrorize them and take their meager earnings. Can these two kids save their own necks while trying to get Maks’ sister out of jail? And is anyone willing to help two poor kids–who have no money–without expecting something in return? What will these two junior detectives discover in their quest for the truth? The answers will shock even them and will have the power to turn their worlds upside down. Learn how two kids navigate the perilous waters of turn-of-the-century New York when you read City of Orphans by Avi!

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I think City of Orphans is a great discussion-starter about what kids experienced throughout history. As a former social studies teacher, I can tell you that most lessons focus on what adults did in the past. Not much attention is given to kids’ experiences, and that’s a shame. I think many students today would find lessons more engaging and relatable if they could somehow identify with the people they were studying. Do we need to ignore what adults were doing during historical periods? No, but we shouldn’t discount a large portion of the population just because they’re young. (I see a research project in the future for some of my students!)

I also believe City of Orphans could be a “gateway” book to other works of literature. Those that immediately come to mind are the works of Charles Dickens, particularly Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. City of Orphans, while not quite as bleak–or wordy–as Dickens’ works, has the same kind of tone. I don’t particularly care for Dickens, but others do, and readers who really enjoy City of Orphans may want to explore a few of these classics.

If you’d like more information about this book and others by Avi, visit http://www.avi-writer.com/. You can also like his page on Facebook.

I hope you enjoy City of Orphans as much as I did!

The Aviary

Greetings, dear readers! It’s been a while since my last post, and I apologize for that. I’ve been trying to get through my latest read for a while, and let’s just say that it was extremely slow-going at first. So slow, in fact, that I read at least six other books while I was trying to get into this one. Why did I continue trying, you ask? Well, this book, The Aviary by Kathleen O’Dell, is a nominee for the 13-14 South Carolina Children’s Book Award, and I felt I had to read it if I plan to promote it to my students. A few minutes ago, I finally finished The Aviary, and, while it took what seemed like forever for me to get invested in the story, the last half of the book flew by. (Pun intended.)

Even though The Aviary a work of historical fiction (not my favorite genre) that involves birds, which I’m not a huge fan of (which is odd considering that both of my college alma maters have birds as mascots), I do still plan to recommend this book to my students. It’s a good story, and I think it will spark the imaginations of upper elementary and middle grade readers.

Clara Dooley has been cooped up in the Glendoveer mansion her entire life. Her mother takes care of the house, and young Clara, who has a weak heart, has lessons with the aging Mrs. Glendoveer, widow to the famed magician, the Great Glendoveer. The Glendoveers were once a big, happy family, but tragedy struck–the Glendoveer children were kidnapped and killed–and the family was reduced to little but tears, bitterness, and a longing for times past.

The Glendoveer mansion is shrouded in mystery, a mystery made even more strange by the birds that inhabit the house’s aviary. These birds have lived longer than any birds should, and they have some odd connection to the Glendoveer family. Clara has always been a bit frightened of the birds–who squawk madly whenever she’s near–and her fear reaches a new level when one of the birds speaks a name–Elliot.

As one would imagine, Clara is intrigued by this, and she asks elderly Mrs. Glendoveer if she knows anyone by the name of Elliot. That seemingly simple question starts Clara down a path that will eventually unravel the mystery of what really happened  to the Glendoveer children…and how the birds in the aviary–and Clara herself–fit into the puzzle she’s attempting to solve. But how can Clara hope to figure out what happened if she can’t even leave the house? Well, she’ll have a little help from a new friend, and Clara may just discover that she’s stronger than anyone ever realized…

What really happened to the Glendoveer children? Who is Elliot? What is so special about the birds in the aviary? Why is so important that Clara be the one to uncover the truth? And can this young girl solve a mystery that has puzzled everyone for decades and help the Glendoveer family finally find peace? Answer these questions and many more when you read The Aviary by Kathleen O’Dell!

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I think that any reader who really sits down and gives The Aviary a bit of time to get going will be pleasantly surprised by the journey. That being said, I do have a few issues with this book. First of all, it felt like it dragged at the beginning. It usually doesn’t take me quite so long to get into a book, and, honestly, if I hadn’t had to read this book, I would have stopped reading it entirely. Secondly, I didn’t find the cover appealing at all. (I freely admit that I judge a book by its cover.) I found the cover to be kind of boring, and that may have given me some preconceived notions about the book. Finally, the book featured letters from several characters, and those were printed in very difficult to read fonts. Given that many of my students can barely write–much less read–cursive, these letters may be hard to decifer (which is a shame since most of them add quite a bit to the story).

If you’d like more information about this book, check out the official Facebook page or the author’s website. You may also enjoy the book trailer below. Maybe if I’d watched this first, I would have gone into this book with little more excitement. (It doesn’t give away anything, but the music sets the perfect mood for this book.)

Published in: on July 18, 2013 at 10:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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War & Watermelon

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately. The only thing I can blame is the end-of-year craziness that comes with working in a public school library. Two weeks ago, we had PASS testing (and don’t get me started on standardized tests). Last week, my library had our third book fair of the year. (We raised around $4,000, but my clerk and I are exhausted.) While that was going on, the library remained open for the last week of checkout for the school year. Today, about 9 million books were returned…which now have to be shelved. So, when I get home in the evenings, what little time I do have that’s not devoted to housework, paying bills, or that most heinous of chores–mowing the lawn–goes to doing absolutely nothing. My desire to read has been almost nil, but I have hopes that things are turning around…

Yesterday, I read a book that a student brought to me. The book is Rich Wallace’s War & Watermelon, and one of my fourth graders brought it to my attention. She read it and came to the conclusion that it didn’t belong in an elementary library. Well, of course, I had to read it after that. This student is not one to go crazy over every little thing, so I really took her concerns seriously. (Not that I don’t take all other concerns seriously, but you know how people are. Some get their knickers in a bunch over nothing. This girl isn’t like that.) After reading the book, I have to agree with my student. War & Watermelon is not a book for an elementary school library…but it is a great addition to any middle or high school collection.

War & Watermelon takes place in the summer of 1969, and it explores what life was like for one almost thirteen-year-old boy during this time. Brody is a pretty typical kid. He likes football, he’s starting to be interested in girls, and he’s dealing with drama at home. Typical stuff, right? Well, kind of. This is also the summer of ’69. (Cue Bryan Adams music.) The Mets are winning, man just landed on the moon, the U.S. is at war in Vietnam, and Woodstock is about to hit New York. It’s a lot for a kid to take in, especially when his brother’s about to turn eighteen and become eligible for the draft. Tensions are high at home and everywhere else, and Brody often doesn’t know which way to turn. No matter what happens, though, this will be a summer that Brody will never forget.

War & Watermelon sort of fills in a gap in some historical fiction collections, but I really don’t think it’s a good fit for my school library. Elementary school kids probably wouldn’t understand some of the humor, and they probably shouldn’t understand some of the drug references. (Notice I said shouldn’t.) The main character does go to Woodstock, and many young readers (and their parents) might focus a little too much on the nudity and drug use present at the music festival instead of the message of peace it was intended to be.

I’ll be passing this book on to a local middle school, and I hope that students there will enjoy it. I just don’t think my kids are ready for this book. Do with that what you will.

With a Name Like Love

Not many people know this, but I’ve been struggling with my faith the past few years. (I consider myself a Christian, but I haven’t regularly attended church in a while. I have many reasons for this, none of which I’ll get into here.) I tell you this to introduce you to a book that may have done just a little to restore my faith. The book is With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo, and it’s a nominee for the 2013-14 South Carolina Children’s Book Award. I was kind of leery about reading this book because I thought it might be too preachy…seeing as how it’s about a preacher’s daughter and all. I was surprised, though, by how sweet the book was. It was quietly beautiful, and it presented faith–and Christian love–as I think it was truly meant to be:  selfless and without judgement.

Ollie is the eldest daughter of the traveling preacher Everlasting Love. (Yes, that’s his real name.) In the summer of 1957, the family–which consists of Everlasting Love and his wife Susanna, Ollie, and four other daughters–travels to the small town of Binder, Arkansas, to set up their revival tent for three days. On her first day in Binder, Ollie meets a boy who will change her life. Jimmy Koppel has seemingly lost everything. His mother is in jail for killing his father, and, if something doesn’t happen soon, he’ll be shipped off to live with an aunt he’s never met. Everyone in the town appears to hate Jimmy just because of who his daddy was, and no one will believe him when he says his mom is innocent. No one except Ollie, that is.

Ollie is determined to prove that Jimmy’s mom didn’t commit this horrible crime, but can she convince her father to stay in town longer than three days? She needs time to get information from Jimmy and prove his mom’s innocence, and time is something that’s quickly running out. And even if she does have time to do a little investigating, will folks’ attitudes about Jimmy’s family prevent them from coming forward with information…even if it could set an innocent woman free?

As Ollie and Jimmy become friends, they are confronted with both the best and worst in humanity. Some people just can’t let go of their own anger and hatred, but some show these two young people–and everyone else in this troubled community–that there are good people in the world, and those people will do whatever they can to help those they love or people in need. Will the good outweigh the bad in this small town? Will the truth about the death of Jimmy’s father come to light? And what will Ollie learn about herself, her family, and friendship through all of this? Learn what love really means when you read With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo.

With a Name Like Love would be a great addition to any elementary or middle school library. Regardless of a reader’s faith–or lack thereof–the message in this book is one that all could stand to receive. It will also find a place in many church libraries. (As a matter of fact, I can think of several adults who really need to read this book. It might make them take a closer look about their own attitudes and what Christian love is all about. “Love thy neighbor” is something that a lot of people just don’t take seriously.)

This book is a work of historical fiction, but young readers, especially those who’ve grown up in the South (or have older relatives who have) will have very little problem relating to some of the things in this book. Some, though, may find it odd or even fascinating that people used to live without things like refrigerators or flushing toilets. If readers have grown up in a church (as have most of my students), they’ll even recognize some of the hymns sung by the church-goers in this book.

With a Name Like Love is author Tess Hilmo’s first book. I honestly hope it won’t be the last! To learn more about this author and this lovely book, visit http://tesshilmo.com/.

Published in: on April 10, 2013 at 10:40 am  Comments (2)  
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Ripper

I’ll admit that I have a somewhat morbid fascination with the unsolved mystery that surrounds Jack the Ripper. (I’m no ripperologist, but my personal bucket list does include taking the Jack the Ripper tour in London.) In the past couple of years, there have been a number of YA fiction books published that revolve around the unknown serial killer. Last year, I was lucky enough to read Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star, in which someone is recreating the crimes of the Ripper. (It’s an absolutely fantastic read, and I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel, The Madness Underneath, which will be released on February 26th.) Several days ago, I started reading Ripper by Amy Carol Reeves. I first heard about this book from the author herself. She presented information about her book at the annual SCASL (South Carolina Association of School Librarians) conference earlier this year. I was enthralled by her research process and the little details that went into the making of Ripper. I meant to read the book as soon as I could get my hands on it, but one thing or another inevitably got in the way, and I didn’t make the time to really get into this book until a few days ago (when I got out of school for winter break). Now, I’ll go ahead and tell you (if you didn’t already know) that historical fiction is not exactly my cup of tea…unless it happens to take place in London. There’s just something about that city that totally captivates me, and Ripper only added to my obsession…

The year is 1888, and a young girl, recently orphaned, has moved to London to live with her strict, unyielding grandmother. Arabella Sharp is not exactly a typical Kensington lady…much to her grandmother’s chagrin. Abbie would much rather be doing something interesting rather that sitting around all day waiting for her grandmother to select a suitable husband for her. Unexpectedly, Abbie receives an invitation to work at Whitechapel Hospital, assisting a doctor and family friend with the care of poor women (mostly prostitutes) and their children. Even though the work is most unpleasant at times, Abbie feels drawn to the medical field and is considering doing something totally unheard of–applying to attend medical school.

While Abbie is learning much at Whitechapel Hospital–and dealing with rather puzzling feelings for not one but two young physicians–something more sinister is occurring nearby. Prostitutes, all of them former patients at the hospital, are being murdered. No one seems to know anything about the culprit, but his heinous crimes soon earn him the nickname Jack the Ripper. All of London, specifically the rundown area of Whitechapel, is in an uproar. Who is this killer? Why is he targeting prostitutes? And why can the police find no trace of him?

Abbie, much to her dismay, may be in possession of answers to these questions. Ever since she first entered the Whitechapel area, she’s been plagued by visions. Visions of the Ripper’s crimes as they are committed. She’s seen what he does to his victims. She’s felt his breath on her neck. She knows that he’s somehow got his eye on her. But why? And what is his connection to the hospital where she feels so needed?

As Abbie does all that she can to uncover the mystery of the Ripper, she uncovers something that she is totally unprepared for. Jack the Ripper is not the only being wreaking havoc on London. Something much bigger may be at work, and the Ripper might just be one small piece of the puzzle. Can Abbie unveil the truth before she’s lost to a power that spans centuries? Before she–or someone close to her–becomes the Ripper’s next victim? Read Ripper, Amy Carol Reeves’ gripping tale, to reveal the horrible, hidden truth about the world’s most infamous serial killer.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the supernatural twist at the end of this book. (I liked it, but it was a bit surprising.) Ripper isn’t simply a retelling of the crimes of Jack the Ripper. It does contain lots of information based on actual events, locations, and people, but this is most definitely a fictional account of what could have happened during that horrible time in 1888…if you believe in the strange and supernatural, that is. (I’m not saying that I do, but it is kind of fun to read about.) Amy Carol Reeves detailed what was and wasn’t factual in her book when she spoke at the SCASL conference, but I must confess that I can’t remember everything. (It was in March, after all.) I will, however, get the opportunity to go over this information with her again, as she is speaking at the conference again this year. (And I get to facilitate a panel with her and several other YA authors.  Hooray for me!) I also look forward to talking with her about the next book in this series, Renegade, which is due out in April of 2013.

If you’d like more information about Ripper and author Amy Carol Reeves, I encourage you to visit the author’s website. For those of you searching for information on Jack the Ripper, there are thousands of websites that contain loads of information, many of them saying different things. Theories abound on the true identity of this killer, so it’s no surprise that this enigma has found its way to YA fiction. If you can recommend any other YA Ripper books, let me know, and I’ll add them to my towering to-read pile!

Published in: on December 22, 2012 at 2:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Romeo and Juliet Code

I freely admit that I tend to judge a book by its cover.  After all, it’s the first glimpse of a book that I get.  A good cover will tell me what genre the book falls into, what the target audience is (young readers, middle grade, YA, adult), and just a smidge about the book–without giving anything critical away.  It will also show me a little about the book’s tone.  For instance, a dystopian book with a bright pink cover is probably a bad idea.  I want the covers of these books to be as bleak as the environments depicted on the pages. 

The cover of my latest read, The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone (another nominee for the 2012-13 South Carolina Book Award), was, in my most humble opinion, a failure on all counts.  The book itself was okay, but it did not match the cover in any way.  That bothers me.  Anyway, here’s the cover:

Now, judging by the cover, and even the title to a certain degree, one would likely expect this book to be a middle-grade, contemporary–possibly geeky–romance. Well, one would be wrong. The Romeo and Juliet Code is a work of historical fiction. It takes place from May to December of 1941 in the town of Bottlebay, Maine. Is there anything about this cover that suggests historical fiction to you? If there is, please let me know!  There is a small bit of romance in this book, but certainly not enough to warrant this cover.  Maybe I should have my students design a more fitting cover for this book. 

Moving on to the story…

The Romeo and Juliet Code introduces readers to Felicity Bathburn Budwig, a young  British girl who is moving to Maine to stay with relatives for the duration of World War II.  Her parents leave her with family members she’s never met, and Felicity doesn’t really know where her parents are going or when–or if–they will return for her.  They don’t even write to her…but they do send letters to her Uncle Gideon.  Felicity is barely allowed to touch these letters.  That, of course, makes her want to know what the letters are hiding.

With the help of Derek, a boy who lives with the Bathburn family, Felicity learns that these mysterious letters are codes being sent from her parents.  But what do they say?  What is the code’s connection to Romeo and Juliet?  Do the codes have anything to do with the war that is sure to involve America at any moment?  Just what are her parents involved in?  And can Felicity and Derek figure everything out–including the mystery surrounding the turmoil in the Bathburn family–before they lose their minds?  Discover the truth when you read The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone.

While this book is a decent historical mystery with a dash of young love, it wasn’t exactly a quick read, and that–along with the misleading cover–will make this one a hard sell.  I know some of my female students will pick up the book because of the current cover, but the “bait and switch” here might turn them off once they start reading.  Most of my male students won’t pick up this book at all because the cover makes it look like a “girl book.”  Again, a redesign would help tremendously, and that may well be how I get students to read this one.  I’ll give them the opportunity to recover my library’s copies of this book with their own designs.  They’ll have to create covers that accurately depict the book without giving too much away.  Of course, they’ll have to read the book to enter the cover design contest.  Something to think about…

If you’d like more information about The Romeo and Juliet Code and other books by author Phoebe Stone, visit http://www.phoebestone.com/.

Published in: on July 17, 2012 at 5:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Secret of the Sealed Room

In honor of Independence Day, I decided to read Bailey MacDonald’s The Secret of the Sealed Room: A Mystery of Young Benjamin Franklin (which just so happens to be nominated for the 2012-2013 South Carolina Children’s Book Award).  Those of you who follow this blog at all know that historical fiction is not my favorite genre, but I had to read this book anyway, so I decided to read it on a day that had at least some connection with one of the story’s characters–Benjamin Franklin.  The events in this book, as far as I know, are completely fictional, but the story gives readers a glimpse of what life was like in the early eighteenth century (especially for poor young people) and a look at what one of America’s founding fathers may have been like in his younger days.  Even I have to admit that’s kind of cool.

In The Secret of the Sealed Room, readers are introduced to Patience Martin, a fourteen-year-old girl who is an indentured servant in the household of a rather horrible woman, Mrs. Worth.  When Mrs. Worth is found dead–and it is determined that she was poisoned–people begin to wonder just who had the opportunity to kill the wealthy woman.  There’s also a valuable box missing from Mrs. Worth’s room–which was locked from the inside until the woman’s body was found–and all fingers point to Patience as the thief.  Patience knows she didn’t steal anything, but she sees no way to prove her innocence…until she runs away and forms an unlikely friendship with a printer’s apprentice, a young man named Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin helps Patience to disguise herself, and he provides her with food, clothing, shelter, and even a paying job.  Patience and Benjamin also begin to investigate the mysterious circumstances around the death of Mrs. Worth.  Benjamin is rather brilliant (and Patience is no slouch in the intelligence department), and the two young people combine their considerable brain power to uncover what really happened to Mrs. Worth.  But time is running out.  Patience is sure to be caught soon, so she and Benjamin must work quickly to clear her name before she and another innocent bystander pay for a crime that someone else committed.

Can Patience and Benjamin discover the truth…before one or both of them end up in even more trouble than they thought possible?  Find out for yourself when you read The Secret of the Sealed Room by Bailey MacDonald!

To my great surprise, I did enjoy this book, but I do have a couple of complaints.  First, there is no author’s note at the end of the book detailing how much of the story is fact–or at least based on fact–and how much is fiction.  I would have loved to see a bibliography of resources and a narrative of the author’s research process during the creation of this book.  If this information was readily available on the author’s website (http://www.baileymacdonald.com/), that may have satisfied me somewhat, but I can’t find any information about this book’s historical background on the site.

My second complaint is that this book is on the Children’s Book Award nominee list at all.  (Of course, this is not the fault of the author.)  It’s a great book, but I think it’s more appropriate for middle school (and some very high level elementary readers).  The language is a bit difficult, even if it is true to the time period.  Even I didn’t know what some of the words in the book meant, and I pride myself on having a very large vocabulary.  I think the difficulty in understanding many words will turn a lot of readers off, especially if they pick this book up as part of their recreational reading.  It’s going to be hard for me to push this book as an SCCBA nominee.  I’ll try my best, but it definitely won’t be easy.

Despite the issues I had with The Secret of the Sealed Room, I think this is an enjoyable book for any readers who would like to see what Benjamin Franklin may have been like as a young person.  We all know him as an inventor, statesman, and revolutionary, but his experiences as a younger man made him one of the central figures in American history.  Even though this story is fictional, it’s fairly easy to imagine a young Ben Franklin being inquisitive enough to get himself involved in a murder investigation!

Published in: on July 4, 2012 at 9:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Inside Out & Back Again

Two reviews in one day?  Can it be?  Well, obviously it can.  After finishing Rapture earlier today, I was in the mood for something a little less anxiety-inducing, so I started reading another of the nominees for the 2012-2013 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.  I thought a book written for children would surely be a lighter read that a YA novel dealing with a possible apocalypse.  Yeah…not so much. 

The book I chose to read was Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, which tells about a year in the life of a young girl in 1975.  The girl, Hà, leaves everything she’s ever known in South Vietnam in the hopes of a better life in America.  This book, a novel in verse, was a super-fast read, but it definitely shed some light on what Vietnamese immigrants, particularly children, may have faced when they escaped a war-torn—but familiar—Vietnam for a new home that was often more frightening that what they left behind.  This story is even more real because it draws on the author’s own experiences.  Inside Out & Back Again is a powerful read that I won’t soon forget.

Ten-year-old Hà and her family know that change is coming.  War has torn their country apart and claimed one of their own.  Although they are reluctant to leave Vietnam behind, there seems to be no other choice.  Hà doesn’t want to leave her beloved papaya tree, her friends, or the hope that her father will return, but she must go with her family on a journey to a peaceful new home.  But the journey itself is anything but peaceful…

Along with so many other refugees, Hà and her family board a ship that takes them away from the bombs and bullets that plague their home in Saigon.  Food and water are scarce.  Privacy is non-existent.  There are so many people seeking asylum, and no one knows when they can expect to be rescued.  So they cross the sea in hopes that an ally will come along.  And one day, it happens.  An American ship escorts them to Guam where Hà’s family makes plans to go to America.  Eventually, they are sponsored and taken to a place completely foreign to them—Alabama.

Hà is confused by her new home.  She doesn’t understand why the English language has so many confusing rules.  She doesn’t know why her new schoolmates make fun of her.  She doesn’t understand why so many people in the town seem to hate her family on sight.  She doesn’t like the food that is so different from everything she enjoyed in Vietnam.  Hà does know that she is angry, and she longs to find some peace with her new and often frightening circumstances.  With the help of her mother, brothers, and a few neighbors and friends, Hà discovers an inner strength that helps her to adapt to the sudden changes in her life and stand up for herself when others want to push her down.

Inside Out & Back Again is a story of one girl’s journey to a new home and a better understanding of herself, her family, and what it takes to heal from the scars of the past.  This is a wonderful book that I think would be excellent supplemental reading for classes studying the Vietnam War.  A lot of times, this period in history tends to be glossed over, especially when considering the plight of Vietnamese refugees in America.  I’ve taken loads of history classes throughout my education, and I can’t remember a single instance of studying about how the Vietnamese—particularly children—were treated after the war was over.  (I studied this a little on my own when the marching band I worked with did a Miss Saigon show, but that was a bit different.)  This book fills a void in historical fiction, and I look forward to sharing it with the teachers at my school as a possible novel study with our fifth grade students.

This book is an excellent selection for any elementary, middle, or high school libraries.  Children, teens, and adults alike will find this book, a Newbery Honor Book and National Book Award winner, extremely moving, and I hope that it will make them think about their own stories and how they may intertwine with the stories of people the world over.

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