Close to Famous

It’s time once again, dear readers, to bring you one of the nominees for the 2013-2014 South Carolina Children’s Book Award. Last night, I finished reading Close to Famous by Joan Bauer. This SCCBA nominee was a fast read, but it packed an emotional punch…and it kind of made me want a cupcake.

Foster McFee and her mom have just run away from their home in Memphis. Somehow, they end up in Culpepper, West Virginia, and they’re looking to start fresh…and maybe make a few of their dreams come true.

Foster dreams of being the first kid chef on the Food Network. She’s inspired by her favorite celebrity chef, Sonny Kroll, and Foster spends much of her time trying out new recipes. Soon enough, her new neighbors realize that Foster is a star baker, and this girl who has troubles to spare is making a name for herself in this small town. She may also find that her troubles aren’t as big as they seem when new friends share the burden.

Foster’s mom, Rayka, dreams of being a singer. Sure, she’s had jobs before as a backup singer, but she wants to really show the world what she can do. If only she can escape a menace that’s followed her from Memphis…

The people of Culpepper welcome Foster and her mom into their town, and it will become clear that the McFees have brought some positive changes with them. Not only are Foster and Rayka on the verge of realizing their dreams, but they may just start something that will help everyone in the town.

Is Culpepper, West Virginia, ready for what’s coming? Foster, her mom, and the residents of Culpepper may not be famous yet, but they’re getting close…

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Close to Famous, and I think many of my female students will devour it. (The cover alone might be enough to drive some of the boys away.) Foster’s voice was both vulnerable and totally believable, and I think many students could relate to her struggles. Truthfully, I think any reader can relate to some of what Foster goes through. After all, haven’t we all had a dream that seems unattainable? I know I have (and still do, if I’m being totally honest).

I only have one complaint about this book. Where are the recipes?! I read so much about Foster’s delectable muffins, cookies, and cupcakes, but there were no recipes to guide me in creating my own concoctions. How disappointing! At any rate, I think this would be a fun book club pick, and those that attended the book club could bring their own homemade baked goods with plenty of recipes to share with the group.

For more information on Close to Famous and the many works by Joan Bauer, visit


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

The Year My Sister Got Lucky

As many people know, relationships between sisters are complicated.  Yes, there is love, but there is also anger, joy, jealousy, happiness, disappointment, pride, bitterness, and loyalty.  I know I have experienced all of these emotions at some point in my relationship with my own sister.   In Aimee Friedman’s The Year My Sister Got Lucky, the relationship between sisters Katie and Michaela comes into focus.  These sisters experience the ups and downs that come with sisterhood, and they take the reader along for the ride.

Katie has just discovered that her family is moving from her beloved Manhattan to a small town in Upstate New York.  She is less than thrilled.  She’s even more upset when she learns that she was the last to know about this move.  She doesn’t want to give up her ballet school, her friends, and her wonderful New York City life.  She’s also a little shocked that her sister, who is being groomed for the ballet program at Juilliard, is taking news of the move so easily.

When the family finally arrives in Fir Lake, their new home, Michaela, the perfect older sister, begins to adjust almost immediately.  Katie, however, doesn’t want to let go of her old life.  She misses the noise of the city, her friends, her routine, and her closeness with her sister.  See, while Katie is having a hard time in Fir Lake, Michaela is thriving and seems to be drifting farther and farther away from Katie.

Eventually, Katie does make a friend or two in Fir Lake and begins to see a new, if uncomfortable, relationship emerge with her sister.  She also realizes that this “hick” town might not be so bad after all.  But after Katie discovers that Michaela has been keeping secrets, her world is sent into yet another tailspin.   Katie realizes that she doesn’t really know her sister anymore.  Did she ever?

Read The Year My Sister Got Lucky by Aimee Friedman to learn how Katie and Michaela deal with their new lives and perspectives and how being friends with your sister is often easier said than done.

Alligator Bayou

I’ll be honest.  When I first picked up Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli, I was less than enthused about reading it.  The cover was boring.  (Yes, I do judge a book by it’s cover.)  Once I began reading, however, I was drawn into the story.  I didn’t know until reading the afterword that the story was based on actual events.  That shed a whole new light on what I had read.

Calogero and his family are Sicilian immigrants living in Tallulah, Louisiana.  The year is 1899.  The South is trying to rebuild from the Civil War, and Jim Crow laws are in full effect.  In Louisiana, like in many other parts of America, Sicilians are viewed as lower than dirt.  They are seen as criminals and are trusted by few.  Calogero, his cousin, and his uncles are grocers in Tallulah, and they deal with these prejudices day after day.  Calo doesn’t really understand why these prejudices exist.  What makes white people better that black people or Italian people?  Why can some people enter the ice cream parlor while others have to be served at the back door?  It just doesn’t make sense.

Calo does, however, make friends in the midst of this turmoil.  He joins a group of black teens in a midnight gator hunt in the swamps.  Although he is terrified the entire time, the hunt actually serves to cement friendships between Calo, his cousin Cirone, and the black teenagers.  Calo is also deeply in love with Patricia, a black girl he met while working at his uncles’ grocery.

Many white people in Tallulah are noticing that Calo and his family spend a lot of time with the town’s black community, and they don’t like it.  Some of the more powerful men are just looking for a way to wipe Calo and his family out of Tallulah.  Can things ever change?  What will become of Calo and his family?  Read Alligator Bayou to find out.

It is clear when reading this book that author Donna Jo Napoli has done her homework.  She includes a detailed afterword and notes on her research.  These tools may serve as jumping off points to learn about a little known prejudice in Reconstruction America.  Napoli’s research shows that Italian Americans were reviled across the United States, not just the South.  Alligator Bayou is an excellent book to begin discussions on prejudice and how various groups of people have been treated in our nation’s history.