The Warden’s Daughter

Yesterday, Jerry Spinelli’s newest book, The Warden’s Daughter, was released. I started reading it a bit earlier (thanks to NetGalley), but I didn’t manage to finish it until last night. It took a little while for me to gain traction with this book, but I flew through the latter half after school yesterday. As I got closer to the end, I was reading through a veil of tears. I needed a good cry, and this book delivered.

Cammie O’Reilly doesn’t exactly have a normal home. She is the warden’s daughter, and she and her father live in a little apartment attached to the Hancock County Prison. A prison trustee, Eloda Pupko, takes care of Cammie, and Cammie is friendly with many of the female inmates. As much as she wishes differently, though, none of them can really take the place of the mother who died when Cammie was just a baby. Or can they?

During the summer of 1959, Cammie does whatever she can to get someone, preferably Eloda, to mother her. It doesn’t seem to be working out for her, and this just adds to Cammie’s general sense of unhappiness. Sure, she has things she enjoys–talking about American Bandstand with her friend Reggie, playing baseball, eating junk food until she’s sick, and talking to Boo Boo, one of Hancock’s most colorful prisoners–but Cammie is not really happy.

This summer, big changes are in store for Cammie, and it’s not just turning the big 1-3. A new, controversial prisoner enters Hancock’s gates. Reggie, Cammie’s best friend, becomes obsessed with fame. Cammie finds friends–and an odd sense of family–in an unlikely situation. And Cammie’s entire world is rocked by a loss that no one could have anticipated.

Cammie struggles to cope with everything happening around her, and she lashes out at those close to her. Her anger and sorrow make her reckless, and she begins doing things she never thought she would. Her life seems to be spiraling out of control, and she doesn’t know how to get back on track.

What will it take for Cammie to become truly happy? Perhaps someone who’s been looking out for her–loving her–all along will give her just the push she needs…


The Warden’s Daughter is a great piece of historical fiction that is ideal for middle grade collections. Would I place it in an elementary library? Probably not. I’m not sure that my students are developmentally ready to tackle the question of capital punishment–an issue that is addressed in this book. There are also a few other situations in the book (suicide, rebellion, smoking, etc.) that, in my humble opinion, make it more suited to a middle grade audience.

I do think that this book could start some interesting discussions on how people in prison are treated. Cammie’s father, the warden, doesn’t treat his inmates as if they are subhuman. He treats them, even those who’ve committed the most heinous crimes, with respect. That’s something very different than what I’ve seen portrayed on the news and in various other forms of media. It might be worthwhile to have readers examine Callie’s father’s mindset with how today’s prisons are run or how they are portrayed in the media. Which way is better, and how can prisons be reformed? It’s thought-provoking to say the least.

If The Warden’s Daughter sounds like your cup of tea, I encourage you to give it a read. Given that I’m not normally drawn to historical fiction, I liked it a lot. I hope you will, too.

To learn more about this book and others by Jerry Spinelli, visit the author’s website. Enjoy!

Dash

It’s not exactly a secret that I have issues with dog books. (The blame goes to Old Yeller.) This is something of a problem when one is an elementary school librarian. They’re everywhere.

Most of the time, I pick up a dog book because I have to read it. It could be a South Carolina Book Award nominee or a pick for my district’s Battle of the Books competition. (There are a couple of rare cases when I actually choose to read a dog book myself.) In the case of my latest read, Dash by Kirby Larson, I read this book because it was chosen for Battle of the Books this year.

Last year, I read Duke by Kirby Larson, so I knew kind of what to expect with Dash. I knew that this book was another historical fiction story, it took place during the Japanese internment of World War II, and it had a dog in it. That’s about as far as my knowledge went for a while.

When I made time to sit down and read this book, I quickly realized that, while the dog is an important part of the book, it’s not the primary focus. That honor goes to Mitsi Kashino, a young Japanese-American girl living on the west coast and dealing with the fallout of life after Pearl Harbor. Her story is one that is often glossed over in history books, but it is one that is extremely important for readers of all ages to know more about.

Things are not easy for Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even though many of them have been in America their entire lives and love their home, people–including neighbors and friends–now view them with suspicion and even hatred.

Mitsi Kashino knows that things are bad, especially when her two best friends suddenly decide that they want nothing to do with her. Now, it seems that Mitsi’s only friend in the world is her beloved dog Dash. He’s always happy to see her, and he doesn’t care about what she looks like or where her family is from.

Not everyone is like Dash, though. Soon, Mitsi’s family is forced to leave their home and move to an internment camp…where pets aren’t allowed. Mitsi is heartbroken that she can’t take Dash with her, but she finds a kind neighbor who agrees to care for her dog until they can be reunited.

Life at the camp is not easy, but Mitsi is eventually cheered by letters from Dash. She writes him back, telling him what the camp is like, but she keeps some things to herself. Like how her brother has started hanging out with troublemakers or how she worries that living in the camp is tearing her family apart.

Eventually, Mitsi makes a new friend and finds a measure of joy, even in a horrible situation. She also thinks of a way to keep Dash with her while they’re far apart. But what will happen when Mitsi and her family are forced to move once again? Is there any hope of ever seeing Dash again? Will life ever return to normal?

Read Dash to learn how a girl holds onto hope–and her dog–even when times are difficult.


Dash, like I’ve mentioned previously, addresses an event that most history books gloss over. I’m ashamed to admit that I knew nothing of the internment of Japanese Americans until I was in college. It’s just not something that was talked about. Books like this one help to remedy that situation, letting young people know that the United States is nowhere near blameless when discussing atrocities committed during World War II. (Further conversations could expand on other cruelties in American history–slavery, the Trail of Tears, the current treatment of immigrants, refugees, and Muslims, just to name a few.) Yes, these are serious issues to discuss with upper elementary and middle grade students, but, given what is happening in the world right now, those discussions are especially timely.

Even though Dash is a dog book, the story itself is one that will stay with me. I actually wanted the book to last a bit longer, giving me a glimpse of Mitsi’s future. Dash is a great book, and I know my students will thoroughly enjoy it. My primary hope is that it will make them think.

For those who enjoy reading Duke and Dash, Kirby Larson has another dog book that was recently released. The book is Liberty, and, like its predecessors, it’s a work of historical fiction set during World War II. From what I’ve gathered from Goodreads, it takes place in 1940s New Orleans, giving yet another look at kids–and dogs–during the war. I’m not sure when/if I’ll get around to reading Liberty, but I’m fairly confident that it will be popular with my students.

If you’d like more information on Duke, Dash, Liberty, and other books by Kirby Larson, check out the author’s website, Facebook page, or Twitter feed.

Stella by Starlight

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve finally finished reading all of the nominees for the 2016-17 South Carolina Book Award, and it seems that I saved one of the most powerful books on the list for last. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, given that the book, Stella by Starlight, was written by Sharon Draper.

Stella by Starlight is not a comfortable read, and I think that’s what makes it so important. This book, which takes place in the segregated South during the Great Depression, doesn’t shy away from the racism, hatred, and fear that was so prevalent at the time. (Anyone who is paying attention would agree that these things are still prevalent.) But this book also emphasizes the power of family, community, faith, and courage in the face of adversity.

The book begins with Stella and her brother, JoJo, witnessing something disturbing in the woods next to their home late one night. They see men and horses in white robes. They see a burning cross. This sight can only mean one thing–the Ku Klux Klan. Stella and JoJo race home to tell their parents what they’ve seen, and the people in the community immediately come together to discuss what it might mean.

With the threat of the Klan looming over everything, the people in Stella’s community wonder what they can do to combat such a seemingly powerful force. They’ve always dealt with racism, but this feels much more sinister. When several men, including Stella’s father, decide to stand up for themselves in the voting booth, the threat becomes even greater.

Through all of this turmoil, Stella examines her own feelings through writing. Stella admits she’s not the best writer, but she practices late at night in the hopes of getting better. She has so many thoughts about what’s going on around her, and she wants to get them down on paper. She writes about her family, school, and community. She writes about the prejudice she experiences and sees around her. She writes about the people, both black and white, who come together and take a stand when times are hard. She writes about her hopes for the future.


I don’t know what more I can say about Stella by Starlight. It’s an excellent piece of historical fiction, and I hope that many teachers and students will use it to supplement their understanding of racism, both in the segregated South and in the present day.

I also see this book being used to help students with their writing…or whatever else they may be having trouble with. Stella freely admits that she is not a great writer and needs practice. Students need to see that it’s okay to make mistakes. What’s important is to keep trying and working to get better.

Librarians, teachers, and parents who want to explore themes like bravery, integrity, empathy, tolerance, and respect with their students should definitely take a look at Stella by Starlight. It’s an extremely powerful book that will stay with all readers long after they’ve finished it.

For more information on Stella by Starlight and other books by Sharon Draper, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with Ms. Draper on Facebook and Twitter.

Ship of Dolls

A few minutes ago, I finished reading one more of this year’s South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominees. (Only one more to go!) The book was Ship of Dolls by Shirley Parenteau.

While I’m not one to seek out much historical fiction, I admit that I liked this book more than I thought I would. It takes place in the 1920s, one of my favorite historical periods, but Ship of Dolls is not all flappers and speakeasies. No, this book is set in Portland, Oregon, and it tells the story of Lexie, a young girl trying to find her way after being sent to live with her grandparents. (Sounds a bit like the book I posted on earlier today, doesn’t it?)

The year is 1926, and Lexie Lewis would like nothing more than going back to live with her mother, a singer and flapper who is always the life of any party. That party is currently far away in San Francisco. Lexie’s new stepfather doesn’t think this life is a place for a child, so Lexie is living with her grandparents in Portland. She’s not happy about the situation–especially since her grandmother is so strict–and she longs to be reunited with her mother.

At school, Lexie may have an opportunity to see her mother once again. Her class has been collecting money to send a Friendship Doll to Japan. Letters will be sent along with the doll on its long journey, first to San Francisco and then to Japan. The student who writes the best letter will get to accompany the doll on the first leg of the journey. Lexie is determined to win this all-important contest, travel to California, and be reunited with her mother…permanently.

But winning this contest is not as easy as one would hope. Lexie gets into a bit of trouble trying to get inspiration for her letter, and that trouble leads to even more as her little lies turn into big ones. Then there’s the matter of Louise Wilkins, Lexie’s rival at school. Louise is also determined to win this contest, and she’s willing to do anything to get her way.

As Lexie works on her Friendship Doll project, she continues to focus on being with her mom again. Sure, working on this project has brought her closer to her grandparents, especially her grandma, and maybe they’re so strict for a reason, but Lexie belongs with her mom. Right?

Lexie’s potential reunion with her mother is growing closer and closer, and, soon enough, Lexie faces an important decision. Should she go with her mom on whatever adventure is next, or should she stay with her grandparents in Portland? The answer may surprise even Lexie.


Lexie Lewis’ story is fictional, but it is based on an actual event…and one that I had never heard of. In the late 1920s, Dr. Sidney Gulick organized the Friendship Doll Project, which sent over 12,000 dolls from the U.S. to Japan in an effort to foster friendship and peace between the two nations. Japan reciprocated with fifty-eight Dolls of Gratitude sent to the U.S. While the two countries did eventually engage each other in World War II, the dolls of friendship were remembered years later, and some of them have been found, restored, and displayed in museums.

Aside from the interesting historical events in this story, I think Ship of Dolls is a good book for addressing concepts like honesty, friendship, forgiveness, and tolerance. Lexie, her grandmother, and even Louise grow throughout the course of the book, and it’s interesting to see how their interactions change–particularly in regards to the concepts listed above–as the story progresses.

If Ship of Dolls sounds like the book for you, there’s more to enjoy. A second book, Dolls of Hope, follows the very doll in Lexie’s story on it’s journey in Japan. A third book, Dolls of War, is scheduled for a Fall 2017 release, and there will also be a fourth and final book in the series called Dolls of Secret. You can find more information on all of these Friendship Doll books on author Shirley Parenteau’s website.

With that, I’m going to wrap things up and enjoy my last few hours of freedom before the new school year begins. So long for now!

 

Anybody Shining

As another school year draws near, I’m once again scrambling to finish all of the current nominees for the South Carolina Children’s Book Award. As of today, I’ve managed to read 17 of the 20 titles, and I started number 18. Can I finish the rest before next Tuesday? We’ll see.

Anyhoo, I finished reading Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell, one of this year’s SCCBA nominees, this afternoon. Historical fiction is not typically my go-to genre, but I found this book to be a quick, moving read that I think many of my students will enjoy.

Anybody Shining takes place in the mountains of western North Carolina in the 1920s, and the language used definitely reflects the setting. To be perfectly honest, I felt like I was reading something that one of my older relatives could have written. I still hear some of the same vocabulary encountered in this book, and I’m willing to bet that many readers, particularly those who’ve grown up in the South, will be able to relate.

Arie Mae Sparks wants just one friend to call her own. She’s hopeful that her cousin Caroline, who lives all the way in Raleigh, will respond to her letters one of these days–and be the friend she’s always wanted–but it’s not looking good at the moment. Still…Arie Mae keeps on writing, telling her cousin about everything happening in Bone Gap, North Carolina.

Though Arie Mae despairs of ever finding one true friend, newcomers in her little town may provide some hope. These new folks–who’ve arrived all the way from Baltimore, Maryland–have come to the mountains to learn about the nearby settlement school. Almost immediately, Arie Mae sees the potential for friendship in Tom, a boy who has a special shine about him.

Even though Tom has a bad leg and can’t do everything the other kids can, he and Arie Mae form a fast friendship. He doesn’t care at all that Arie Mae is not as fancy as his sisters or that her family doesn’t have as much as his. He simply wants to hear her stories and go on adventures with her.

Arie Mae is all for seeking adventure, but she soon learns that Tom has more difficulties than just a bad leg. His mother warns Arie Mae that her new friend has a weak heart and shouldn’t exert himself too much. Arie Mae worries about this, but Tom is determined to do just what he wants. What’s a friend to do?

Through her continuing letters to her cousin, Arie Mae reflects on her friendship with Tom, her feelings about his condition, her family and their life on the mountain, and all sorts of other things. She thinks about what makes her world so odd to some and so special to others. Can people be true friends when they see the world so differently?

Learn more about the power of friendship, reaching out, and overcoming differences when you read Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell.


Like some of the other SCCBA nominees this year, Anybody Shining is an excellent book for exploring the concept of voice. Arie Mae’s voice, in both her letters and the book’s narrative, shines through, and I think readers will delight in how she views the world around her. I’m hoping they’ll even follow her example and write their own friendly letters, allowing their own distinct voices to shine.

To learn more about Anybody Shining and other books by Frances O’Roark Dowell, visit the author’s website.

I’m hoping to have a book trailer up for this book soon. You can check my school YouTube channel for that in the near future.

And I Darken

Yesterday, Kiersten White’s newest book, And I Darken, was released into the world. I was lucky enough to get an early copy via NetGalley, but I didn’t manage to finish the book until last night. You know how it is–vacation, work stuff, naps–all of that got in the way.

Anyhoo, I did finish this first book in a planned trilogy last night, and I can say with absolute certainty that it’s unlike anything I’ve read in recent memory. It is a batcrap-crazy ride, and I mean that in the best way possible. And I Darken defied all of my expectations, and I cannot wait to see what awaits the characters I encountered in this book.

So…what’s it all about? While some sources have And I Darken listed as fantasy, I wouldn’t be so quick to attach that label…at least to this first book. There is no fantasy involved…unless you maybe want to call alternate history a type of fantasy (which I don’t). This story takes place during the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and it is the tale of the children of Vlad Dracul (the inspiration for Dracula, of course).

Now, in this telling, Vlad is not exactly the fearsome ruler of legend. He’s still in charge of Wallachia (part of Romania), but he’s weak and under the thumb of the Sultan. He essentially offers his children, Lada and Radu, as collateral to the Sultan.

Radu is a gentle, handsome boy who goes virtually unnoticed by others…unless they’re pointing out his apparent weakness. Forgotten by his father, Radu seeks solace in Islam and finds a measure of peace in his new circumstances.

Lada is fierce and sees being a woman as a liability. She knows that she is equal–if not superior–to any man. She is at once Radu’s protector and tormentor, and, even though she hates that her father has abandoned them to the Sultan, she remains loyal to her homeland of Wallachia.

Eventually, the siblings encounter another child who would become central to their lives. This boy is Mehmed, and he is the Sultan’s heir. Radu is immediately drawn to Mehmed, and the two quickly become friends. Radu is tormented by his feelings for Mehmed and confused about what those feelings might mean.

As for Lada, she soon becomes Mehmed’s confidante. He can drop his shields around her and simply be himself. Yes, he will be Sultan soon, but with Lada, he can simply be Mehmed. Lada resists getting involved with Mehmed. After all, attachment and emotion are signs of weakness. Her primary goal is survival…by any means necessary. As time passes, though, Lada and Mehmed grow closer, and Lada realizes he is becoming an essential part of her life. She does wonder, however, if she is equally important to him.

Set against a background of political maneuvering, betrayal, fighting, and even murder, Radu and Lada must decide what each of them are willing to lose to achieve their own ends. Will Radu be able to suppress his own desires and give up his only family to remain by Mehmed’s side? Will Lada abandon her goal of returning to (and ruling) her beloved Wallachia to form some semblance of a life with Mehmed (and his harem)?

Love and loyalty will be tested in these tumultuous relationships. What–or who–will be sacrificed in the process? Read And I Darken, the first book in The Conqueror’s Saga, to find out.


Like so many before it, this post doesn’t come close to capturing just how rich, dark, and satisfying this book is. (I almost feel like I just described a piece of dark chocolate.)

And I Darken is an intense read that makes a person think about just what they’d be willing to do to serve their own ends or even the good of those around them. Would you be willing to betray the person who means the most to you? Give up your family, faith, or future? Walk away from everything and everyone you’ve ever known? Kill? Those are just some of the things facing the characters in this book, and these situations and how they play out could lead to some very profound discussions.

Other discussions might come when talking about the characters themselves, especially Radu and Lada. In Radu’s case, there’s the issue of coming to terms with his sexuality in a time and place that didn’t even address anything other than heterosexuality. (Apparently, it’s okay to have multiple wives and concubines, but being gay is taboo. Another potential topic to explore there.) How have things changed since the time of the Ottoman Empire? Have things changed at all in certain parts of the world? Is being gay still considered being something “other” even in the so-called “modern” world? So many questions to ponder.

And then there’s Lada…

Lada is a warrior. She buries her feelings deep and displays very few outward signs of weakness. She is vicious and determined to get what she wants. She does whatever she must to survive and protect those she cares for, but she knows that her ultimate goals conflict with those of Radu and Mehmed, and she has to decide what to do about that. Lada is a complicated character, one who rarely even understands herself or her motivations, but she is absolutely fascinating to read about. Lada’s character could lead to many discussions on what it means to be feminine; how women have been viewed historically and in the present, especially as it pertains to fighting, defying expectations, and dealing with patriarchal societies; and even something like negative reactions when women put their own needs and desires first.

I’m curious to see what will happen with Lada in the next two books, and if she’ll truly become the brutal inspiration for a very different legend of Dracula. Should be interesting.

Speaking of future books, I have no idea what the title of book two will be. I’m assuming it will be released about this time next year, but that’s just a guess at this point.

If you’d like to learn much, much more about And I Darken, please visit the book’s official website. I’ve only explored it a little, but it has lots of information to offer, including character descriptions, a book trailer (which I’ve also included below), an author bio, and more.

Lastly, for those wondering if And I Darken is a good pick for the middle grade crowd, I would have to say no. While this book is extremely compelling, I think many of the themes and situations are more suited to a high school crowd. As always, though, read it for yourself to determine if it’s a good fit for your students/patrons.

Salt to the Sea

Given that I have a degree in political science and once aspired to be a social studies teacher, it shames me to admit that I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction. (I gravitate toward contemporary fiction, fantasy, and science fiction. You may have noticed this if you’re a regular here.) I usually only read historical fiction when there’s an element of the supernatural involved…or when I have to for my job as a school librarian.

Why, then, did I request to read Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys on NetGalley? Well, part of it was because I’d heard great things about this particular author. I knew her previous two books, Between Shades of Gray and Out of the Easy, were highly recommended (though I’d never read them). Also, the book’s subject, a virtually unknown tragedy of World War II, intrigued me. So I requested the title, I was approved, and I began reading.

From the first page of Salt to the Sea, I was hooked. This book was a haunting, bleak, gritty look at what this war–particularly the fighting between Germany and Russia–looked like to four young people. It explored their backgrounds, everything the war took from them, and what they hoped for their uncertain futures. Those futures depended on the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that they prayed would be their salvation…but ended up being a horror no one ever expected.

Told in four distinct voices, Salt to the Sea explores the terrifying reality of many innocent (and not-so-innocent) casualties of war. There’s Joana, a Lithuanian nurse who wants to help those around her, reunite with her mother, and escape the guilt she feels over past actions. There’s Emilia, a Polish girl dealing with the torment visited upon her because of her nationality. And there’s Florian, a young Prussian man hiding secrets that, should they be discovered, would mean certain death. These three people meet on the road to Gotenhafen with the hopes that they will receive safe passage out of war-torn East Prussia. The journey is extremely perilous, and, with every step, these three refugees risk their secrets being revealed.

When Joana, Emilia, Florian, and company finally arrive in Gotenhafen, they are overwhelmed by what they encounter. Thousands upon thousands of people are there hoping to board one of the ships that will take them across the Baltic Sea to freedom. It is here that they meet Alfred (the fourth voice in this book), a self-important, disturbed German soldier. They convince Alfred to give them safe passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff. None of them could know that this ship–overloaded with close to 10,000 passengers–would not be their deliverance but their doom.


Prior to reading Salt to the Sea, I had never heard of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. This ship, which was hit by Russian torpedoes just hours into its journey, carried German soldiers, members of the Nazi party, and refugees simply seeking some measure of safety. With 10,000 people aboard the ship (which was intended for fewer than 2,000), there weren’t nearly enough lifeboats for everyone when tragedy struck. Most of the passengers–many of them children–perished on board the ship or died in the icy waters of the Baltic Sea.

For me, Salt to the Sea highlighted a lot of the unknown stories of war. Yes, we hear about battles, victories, atrocities, and so many other things, but what about those things that are ignored–intentionally or not?

Let’s put aside the fact that most people have no clue about the Welhelm Gustloff sinking, which had a much greater loss of life than the Lusitania or the Titanic. When we (Americans) study World War II, we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the people who were stuck between Germany and Russia. What happened to those who didn’t agree with Hitler? What became of the women and children left behind when men went off to fight? What did they have to endure to survive? Was survival even an option for many of them? It’s these human stories we don’t often hear, and fictional accounts like this one really help to open our eyes. Maybe we can even use these stories to shine a light on things that are occurring in our world right now.

I truly believe that Salt to the Sea, which will be released on February 2nd, should be added to every library–school, public, or classroom–that serves teen readers. (I would recommend it for ninth grade and up.) It is a phenomenal book that not only draws attention to a virtually unknown event but also delves into what a person can endure during a time of war. Through the four voices in this book, readers experience the horrors of war. They see that some were seeking safety, others wanted to right wrongs, and still others were using the circumstances to make themselves feel important. I think it’s vital for readers to hear all of these voices and see several moving examples of strength, sacrifice, bravery, and humanity.

For more information on Salt to the Sea and author Ruta Sepetys, click here. To learn more about the Wilhelm Gustloff, go to the Wilhelm Gustloff Museum website.

As for me, I am now going to add Ruta Sepetys’ other books to my already extensive TBR list. This author has convinced me to give historical fiction a bit more attention.