The Diviners

My favorite historical period (in America, at least) is the Roaring Twenties. I also enjoy reading books about people with supernatural abilities. Well, my latest read combined those two things in an amazing story that I’m still thinking about.

This book, The Diviners by Libba Bray, was a lengthy tome, and I couldn’t read it much at night because I’m a wuss, so it took me longer than I would have liked to finish. That being said, I adored this book, and I look forward to reading the second book, Lair of Dreams, which came out last month. I’m fairly certain it will give me the same case of heebie-jeebies that I got while reading the first book.

Evie O’Neill doesn’t quite fit in her boring Ohio hometown…and everyone knows it. When scandal erupts–a scandal that Evie had a part in revealing–she is sent to live with her uncle in Manhattan, and Evie couldn’t be happier. She knows she’ll find the life she’s always wanted in the Big Apple, and she’s ready to take the city by storm.

As Evie explores the speakeasies, parties, and good times that are so much a part of New York in the 20’s, she’s also being introduced to her Uncle Will’s work in the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult. Uncle Will is soon called to assist with a strange murder investigation, and Evie finds herself right in the middle of it.

You see, Evie has a special ability that helps her to know much more about these gruesome murders than she should…and this ability may just make Evie a target herself. Evie is quickly caught up in an investigation that leads her to learn more about a dangerous cult, ritualistic killings, ghosts come back to life, and someone’s quest to bring about the end of the world.

How can one girl hope to stop such horrible events? Evie will have to use all of her considerable wits to combat the evil to come, but it still may not be enough. She’s on a collision course with a vicious killer, and her charms and abilities may not get her out of this mess.

And Evie is not the only person with abilities that put her in a killer’s cross-hairs. Theta, a chorus girl with a tragic past, has her own dangerous secret. Memphis once had sought-after healing abilities that left him after his mother’s death. His brother, Isaiah, is showing signs of his own special–and disturbing–gifts. Then there’s Sam, a pickpocket who has the handy ability of going completely unnoticed when he wishes to. And let’s not forget Jericho, a student of Evie’s uncle, and a young man who isn’t completely what he seems.

All of these people will, on some level, come face-to-face with the horrendous evil that is waking in New York, and each of them will have to do what they can to protect themselves and those they love. Will they be able to stop what’s coming before it’s too late? Or will one of them be a murderer’s next victim?

Answer these questions and many more* when you read The Diviners by the fantastic Libba Bray.

*Warning: For every answer you receive, about a thousand questions will pop up in its place. It’s kind of awesome.


To say that I like The Diviners would be a major understatement. This book was rich, terrifying, entertaining, complex, and filled with characters that I want to know more about. (If you’re familiar with Libba Bray’s other books, this is probably not news.) Luckily, The Diviners is only the first book. Lair of Dreams was released on August 25th, and there are rumored to be two more books in this captivating series.

In my most humble opinion, The Diviners a series more suited to teen readers, but some mature middle grade readers may be able to handle it. There’s a certain amount of rule-breaking and alcohol use–completely true to the historical period–that might keep it from being a must-purchase for libraries that serve middle grade students. (For instance, I definitely wouldn’t put this book in the hands of sixth or seventh grader.) I simply think mature teen readers will be able to read this book and keep social and historical context in mind. That’s all, really.

If you like your historical fiction with a supernatural twist (or vice versa), I’d highly recommend The Diviners. To learn more about the series as a whole, I urge you to visit the series website. There’s loads of information on The Diviners, Lair of Dreams, and the amazing Libba Bray.


Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything for the past couple of weeks. (If you didn’t notice, well…I don’t know what to do with that.) Anyway, I promise I have very good reasons for my absence. Beginning-of-school-year craziness (technology is a you-know-what when it doesn’t work right), home repairs, and minor illnesses have been to blame. Simply put, even the energy to read left me until just a couple of days ago. With any luck, I’ve turned a corner.

Now, on with the show…

Thursday evening, I manged to finish another of the nominees for the 15-16 South Carolina Children’s Book Award. This book, Duke by Kirby Larson, is also one of my county’s Battle of the Books titles. So, even though it’s a dreaded “dog book,” I knew I had to read it, and, like so many others before it, Duke wasn’t the chore of a read that I anticipated. It was actually kind of sweet, and it shed a bit of light on something I’d never really heard of before, the Dogs for Defense program of World War II.

It’s 1944, and Hobie Hanson is doing what he can for the war effort at home. With his dad fighting in Europe, Hobie is the man of the house, and he tries to help his country in ways both small and large. Hobie’s feeling the pressure, though, to do something bigger than anything he’s ever considered–donate his beloved dog, Duke, to the war effort.

The Dogs for Defense program asks Americans to donate their well-trained family pets to the armed forces–as guard and patrol dogs and even bomb sniffers. Hobie knows that Duke is an excellent prospect for this program…but he doesn’t want to let go of his dog. Isn’t it enough that his dad is fighting in this war? Does Hobie have to put his dog in danger as well?

Eventually, Hobie gives in and loans Duke to the Marines…and immediately wants to change his mind. In fact, he does everything he can think of to get Duke home. Hobie even betrays a new friend in his quest to be reunited with Duke. None of his efforts work, and Hobie decides to be brave and deal with his situation as best he can…and that decision could have far-reaching consequences.

Soon, Hobie will realize that there are many different kinds of bravery. His father, who is in more danger than ever, is brave for leaving his home and fighting for his country. Duke is brave when he follows orders and keeps others safe. But maybe Hobie is brave, too. Maybe loaning Duke to the Marines–even though he didn’t want to–was brave. Maybe looking after his mom and little sister is brave. And maybe apologizing to his new friend and standing by his side is brave.

Will Hobie’s bravery be enough to hold things together until he’s reunited with those he loves? Will his father come home soon? Will Duke?

Discover just how much bravery and love mean to a boy, his dog, his family, and those around him when you read Duke by Kirby Larson!


Given that I don’t usually favor dog books or historical fiction, I liked Duke more than expected. It was at once heart-warming and heart-breaking. Truthfully, this was more Hobie’s story than Duke’s, and that probably factored into my feelings on it. It examined what one eleven-year-old boy likely faced while his father was fighting in World War II. Hobie was asked to take on more responsibility than a kid should…and do it without complaining or thinking of what he really wanted. (That’s kind of hard to fathom today.) He didn’t want to loan Duke to the Marines, but he did it anyway. Yes, he regretted his decision and looked for a way out of it, but he eventually realized it was for the greater good. I don’t know many dog owners today who would have done that.

I think Duke would be a great World War II novel study in upper elementary and middle school classrooms. It highlights the rather unknown Dogs for Defense program, and that could lead readers to further research. It could also lead them to examine their own feelings on what they would or wouldn’t give up for an important cause.

Those who read Duke may also want to take a look at another book by Kirby Larson, Dash. This book, which also takes place during World War II, focuses on a Japanese-American girl who is separated from her dog when the girl and her family are sent to an internment camp. Even though Dash is also one of those dreaded “dog books,” I think this book would provide an interesting perspective on what Japanese-American children experienced during World War II. At any rate, it’s moved near the top of my school to-read list.

If you’d like more information on Duke, Dash, and other books by Kirby Larson, check out the author’s website, Facebook page, or Twitter feed. You may also want to take a quick look at the video below. In it, Kirby Larson herself talks a bit about Duke.

Published in: on September 5, 2015 at 7:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Greetings! This evening, I bring you yet another of the 15-16 South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominees, Gingersnap by Patricia Reilly Giff. This short yet powerful novel combines historical fiction with a bit of the supernatural, and readers end up with a moving tale of a young girl looking for a sense of family.

The year is 1944, and war continues to hold the world in its grips. Jayna knows it’s just a matter of days before her big brother Rob, the only family she has, will be deployed on a ship headed for the fighting in the Pacific. Jayna tries to put on a brave face, but she’s not happy about being separated from her brother once again, and she doesn’t want to live with Celine, their grumpy landlady, while Rob is away.

After Rob leaves for duty, Jayna is comforted by her turtle Theresa, cooking soup, and by an odd presence that seems vaguely familiar. Is this a ghost? If so, who is it, and what does it want with Jayna?

When Jayna receives the devastating news that her brother is missing in action, this “ghost” leads the girl back to their house and to an old box in a closet. There Jayna finds an old blue cookbook and the address of a Brooklyn bakery called Gingersnap (which happens to be Jayna’s nickname).

Jayna, though scared and unsure, sees the bakery’s name as a sign, and she packs up her turtle, the blue cookbook, and most of her belongings and sets off for an uncertain future and a grandmother she’s never known. Jayna is accompanied by the voice of her ghostly companion, and she eventually arrives in Brooklyn. What she finds there, however, may not be exactly what she expected.

Jayna is very confused about her current circumstances and what will happen to her should her brother never return. She likes being in Brooklyn and the friends she’s made, but what if Rob never comes back to her? What if he’s gone forever? Jayna seeks out her ghostly friend to give her some measure of help, but she doesn’t know if that will be enough to keep her brother safe or to preserve the little family she’s made for herself in Brooklyn.

What will become of young Jayna in this time of turmoil? Read Gingersnap by Patricia Reilly Giff to find out!


Many of my students may pick up Gingersnap for the length (only 160 pages), but I hope they stick around for this heart-warming story. In just a few pages, Patricia Reilly Giff gives readers a fairly realistic look at what life may have been like for a young girl during World War II. We see how a family can be torn apart by war, how a girl will do whatever she must to survive and thrive, and how scarcity and rationing can have a huge effect on not just a family’s meals but also keeping a business going.

Peppered throughout Gingersnap, readers see Jayna’s soup recipes. These recipes reflect exactly what Jayna is going through, and the instructions are at once charming, funny, and reminiscent of many recipes created by kids–or my own mother, a woman who makes soup by tossing everything but the kitchen sink into a pot and cooking until it tastes right. (Whatever she does, it works. My mom’s soup is the best.)

Even though the ending of this book is a tad predictable, I still appreciated Jayna’s journey. She learned quite a bit about herself, her family’s past, the war going on around her, and what it really feels like to be part of a family and the community around her. And even though everyone around her had their own reasons to be cynical and angered by the circumstances of war, they were all kind and caring, and they showed Jayna just what it meant to be there for one another in difficult times.

As for the “supernatural” bits of Gingersnap, neither I nor Jayna are sure if a ghost was at work. It’s possible. This part of the book is definitely open to interpretation, and the discussions about this presence could be quite interesting.

I think Gingersnap is a great read for those in third grade on up. (Yes, even middle schoolers and teens will find something to enjoy.) This book could lead to further research on World War II and the fighting in the Pacific, and it would be a good novel study presenting a different view of the war. (As my fellow educators likely know, most novels with a WWII-focus tend to center on the fighting in Europe and/or the Holocaust.)

Finding Zasha

I did not want to read this book. If not for the fact that Finding Zasha is a nominee for the SC Children’s Book Award this year, I doubt I would have ever picked it up. (I don’t gravitate toward historical fiction, and I’m getting a little tired of reading “dog books.”) It took me way too long to get through this book, and it was all I could do to even pick it up some days. Eventually, I did force myself to sit down and finish reading (because I’m an adult, sort of), and I have to admit that I found myself enjoying it more than I did at the beginning. It’s still not my favorite of the SCCBA nominees, but at least I won’t have to tell my students that I loathed it. I guess that’s something.

The year is 1941, and twelve-year-old Ivan Savichev lives with his mother in an apartment in Leningrad, Russia. The entire world is at war, and the German forces are bent on destroying Ivan’s home city. Bombs drop from the sky, food and water are scarce, and no one knows if this day will be their last.

Ivan’s mother decides there’s only one course of action. She will join the other factory workers in the Ural Mountains, and Ivan will cross the frozen Lake Ladoga and go to live with his Uncle Boris (a man Ivan has not seen since he was five). Ivan makes this treacherous journey with Auntie Vera, who is going to stay with her sister-in-law in the village of Vilnov. Ivan cannot fathom leaving Auntie, so he stays with her…and it is here that his life will change forever.

Almost immediately upon arriving in Vilnov, Ivan joins a group of partisans, or an underground movement charged with disrupting the work of the German army. He’s surprised to learn that many of those around him are also partisans, and all of them are eager to do their part for the good of Russia.

After the Germans destroyed his beloved home city, Ivan is looking for a way to help his country win this horrible war, and he’s about to get his chance. The Germans have arrived in Vilnov, and Ivan has caught the interest of their leader, the terrifying Major Axel Recht, a cruel Nazi commander. Major Recht is charmed by Ivan’s musical talent, and he needs someone to help care for and train his precious German shepherd puppies, Thor and Zasha. Ivan steps in and seizes an opportunity to feed information to his fellow partisans.

Ivan soon realizes, though, that his mission is not an easy one. Major Recht is suspicious of everyone and quick to anger. He doesn’t fully trust Ivan, and he seems to resent Ivan’s connection with Thor and Zasha, dogs who are being trained to hunt Russians. Ivan knows he must get away from Recht soon, but he cannot fathom leaving Thor and Zasha behind to face Recht’s wrath alone. Ivan plots to escape with the two puppies, an action that is sure to enrage Major Recht. One night, Ivan makes his move, takes the dogs with him, and leaves Recht behind. He can’t know, though, just how far Recht will go to seek revenge…

In the midst of war, Ivan eventually finds a measure of peace as he finally makes his way to his Uncle Boris’ cabin. He trains Thor and Zasha to be faithful companions, he learns about farming, he visits with friends…and he grows perhaps too comfortable. When his worst enemy returns, Ivan must flee once again, but this latest escape puts Zasha in danger. The dog has gone missing, and Ivan must make some difficult decisions that could impact the safety of his friends and his own future.

What will Ivan do? Will the evil Major Axel Recht catch up with him? What will become of Thor and Zasha? Read Finding Zasha by Randi Barrow to find out!


Even though I wasn’t a huge fan of this book, I do think that Finding Zasha is a good addition to upper elementary, middle, and high school library collections. It presents World War II from a perspective that many students don’t often learn about. Sure, they learn all about American perspectives, and most students know about Anne Frank and the plight of European Jews, but few students–American students, anyway–ever really think about what Russians endured during this war. World War II took the lives of over 25 million Russians, and that’s something that tends to be glossed over in studies of this time period. This book, at the very least, offers a perspective that many American readers rarely consider.

There is another book for those who enjoy Finding Zasha. Saving Zasha, which was actually written first, is the story of what happens to Zasha after the events in Finding Zasha. I’m not sure if I’ll get around to reading this one, but I’m sure many of my students will. (Usually, if there’s a dog on the cover, I don’t have to do much “selling.”)

If you’d like more information on Finding Zasha, Saving Zasha, and author Randi Barrow, visit the author’s website.

Published in: on August 23, 2014 at 2:22 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Quilt Walk

When I first picked up The Quilt Walk by Sandra Dallas, I wasn’t exactly thrilled about reading it. (I wouldn’t have read it at all if it had not been one of this year’s SCCBA nominees.) I’ve never been a fan of westerns, thanks in part to being forced to watch shows like Wagon Train, The Rifleman, and others over the course of my life. My dad loves these shows, and he’s tried to develop an appreciation in me. It hasn’t worked.

Anyway, upon realizing that The Quilt Walk was about a girl moving west with her family, I was reluctant to start reading, but I persevered (because I had to), and I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised. The main character was relatable, the action moved fairly quickly, and I was invested in the book’s outcome. I wanted the people on this journey to arrive safely at their destination and get a happy ending. (Spoilers: Not all of them did.) This book, which I didn’t initially want to read, grabbed ahold of me, and I found myself liking it more than I was prepared to.

The year is 1864, and Emmy Blue Hatchett has just learned that her family is leaving their safe home in Illinois to strike out for a new life in Golden, Colorado. While Emmy Blue is excited about the possibility of adventure, she doesn’t want to leave everything she’s ever known behind…and she knows her mother feels the same way. But they accept their new circumstances, and Emmy Blue, her parents, and her aunt and uncle set off for Colorado.

The family has to leave many things behind–and think of creative ways to take along what they need–but just before they leave, Emmy Blue is given some fabric pieces by her grandmother. Emmy Blue is not exactly happy with this gift. Unlike the other women in her family, Emmy Blue has no interest in quilting. She doesn’t understand the appeal of making perfect stitches and putting scraps of fabric together, but her mother convinces her to take her grandmother’s gift and put it together on their long trek to Colorado.

As Emmy Blue begins piecing her quilt together, often walking while she stitches, she takes in her surroundings and gets to know the people around her. She has long conversations with her father and mother, she makes a new friend when they join up with a wagon train, and she questions some of the cruelty she sees around her. She encounters dangers she never expected, she learns to set up camp and lead a team of oxen, and she even finds herself enjoying her quilt walk just a bit. On this long, perilous journey, Emmy Blue Hatchett is growing up and discovering just how strong both she and those around her really are.

Eventually, Emmy Blue and her family arrive at their destination…though not without some changes. Emmy Blue is a different person than the girl who left Illinois. Her quilt walk may be done, but her journey through life is just beginning.


When I return to school tomorrow (UGH!), I plan to share this book with several of my teachers. I think The Quilt Walk is a welcome addition to studies on Westward Expansion, especially considering the book is loosely based on an actual event in Colorado history. (More information about that is available in the author’s note.)

Readers my age may enjoy making connections between this book and that favorite computer game, Oregon Trail–which I never managed to make it all the way through. I always ended up with dysentery or something.

Another connection I had with this book was quilting. Now, I’ve never learned to quilt–to my great regret–but my great-grandmothers were excellent quilters, and they gave their creations to their families. Some of my most prized possessions are quilts made by my great-grandmothers. (My favorites are my Holly Hobbie and Strawberry Shortcake quilts, along with a very special one that includes both Jose Cuervo and Jingle Bells fabric scraps. I think I treasure that one because it’s so weird.) Who knows? Maybe this book will inspire a whole new generation of quilters. I could even take it up one of these days. Stranger things have happened.

The Quilt Walk is a book I’d highly recommend for any upper elementary or middle grade classroom or library. It’s a great book that tells of life in the “Wild West” and what that life may have been like for a young girl. Young readers may find it interesting to compare and contrast Emmy Blue’s experiences with their own. They may just find they have more in common than they thought possible.

If you’d like more information on The Quilt Walk, a 14-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominee, and author Sandra Dallas, visit her website.

Published in: on August 11, 2014 at 5:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Dangerous Waters: An Adventure on the Titanic

I typically don’t have a problem “selling” books about the Titanic to my students, so I was pleased to see Dangerous Waters on this year’s South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominee list. This adventure story, written by Gregory Mone, is a quick, exciting, entertaining book that young readers–especially those fascinated by the Titanic and its fateful voyage–will devour. (I’ll likely have to order more copies to meet demand.) I would definitely recommend this book for all libraries (and classrooms) that serve elementary and middle grade students.

Patrick Waters wants to work. He wants to be seen as valuable to his family, particularly his big brother James, who has a job in the engine room of the new ship, Titanic. One night, Patrick gets the chance of a lifetime. He finds a way to sneak aboard and work on the Titanic himself, but he’s not exactly cut out for the engine room. (He’s only twelve, after all.) Instead, Patrick finds a place as a steward on the mammoth ocean liner, and this position will change his life forever…

Patrick catches the eye of a wealthy passenger, Harry Elkins Widener, and eventually becomes the man’s private steward, not realizing that this new job will lead him down an intriguing and dangerous path. Harry is in possession of a rare and valuable book, and there are a couple of nefarious types on board who will do anything to steal such a prize.

Patrick isn’t sure what’s so special about this old book, so he does whatever he can to learn more. It seems this book may have the key to unlocking the most powerful force in the world, and some people will do anything–even kill–to learn its secrets. Patrick does his best to help Harry protect the book, but the Titanic is on a path that could put Patrick’s quest–and his very life–in jeopardy…

As the Titanic makes its way to its eventual demise, Patrick is trying to keep himself, his brother, Harry, and his precious book safe. In the process, Patrick discovers his own strengths and what really matters to him.

Will Patrick be able to save Harry’s book from those bent on stealing it? And will he be able to save himself from the tragedy that is to come? Join Patrick on his adventure aboard the Titanic when you read Dangerous Waters by Gregory Mone!


The author’s note at the end of Dangerous Waters lets readers know that many of the characters in this book were based on real people. With the exception of Patrick, his brother, and a few others, all of the people mentioned in this book were actually on board the Titanic. (The Widener Library at Harvard University is named for Harry Elkins Widener.) I think that healthy dose of historical fact will make this event more real to young readers, many of whom think the story of Titanic is “cool” but don’t really think about those who died when the ship sank or had to go on with their lives after losing family and friends in the tragedy.

*An interesting exercise–following a reading of the book, of course–could be to write about the aftermath of the Titanic‘s sinking from the perspective of someone who survived. Putting students in touch with primary sources could make this even more poignant. Something to think about for this school year!*

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Dangerous Waters is an easy sell to most students. I know my students will love it, and I hope it will lead them to further research about Titanic, the people on board, and the books that were so important to Harry Elkins Widener.

For more information about Dangerous Waters and author Gregory Mone, check out his website, blog, Goodreads page, or Twitter. Enjoy!

Keeping Safe the Stars

It’s time, once again, to bring you one of the 14-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominees, Keeping Safe the Stars by Sheila O’Connor.

While reading this book, I wished that I could turn off my adult brain for just a bit and approach the book from a child’s perspective. I think the entire experience would have been a bit different. As it was, this book left me anxious nearly the whole way through. I think any adult reading Keeping Safe the Stars will feel the same way. I look forward, though, to getting my students’ take on this book. I imagine they’ll see something in it that I didn’t.

Pride, Nightingale, and Baby Star are three kids who live in virtual seclusion with their grandfather, Old Finn. When Old Finn gets sick, however, these three kids will have to rely on their own wits to stay together…and keep everyone from knowing that they’re on their own. None of them wants to return to a shelter or group home like the one that they were in when their mother died. Keeping safe the Stars is the most important thing in the world.

Thirteen-year-old Pride (also known as Kathleen) is determined to take over until Old Finn returns. She goes to town for groceries, she cares for their elderly neighbor and her siblings, and, when she discovers that Old Finn has been moved to a hospital in the city, she devises a plan to earn money and get to her beloved grandfather.

It doesn’t take long for everything to start weighing on young Pride’s shoulders. She’s told her share of lies to make sure no one discovers she and her siblings are alone, but those lies are catching up with her. Pride knows that if she can just get to Old Finn, he’ll tell her what she needs to do. He’ll show her how to keep her family safe.

When Pride, Nightingale, and Baby finally make it to Old Finn, though, they discover that their situation is more complicated than ever. This family–a group that is independent and self-reliant to a fault–is going to need help to make it through the days ahead. But who can they rely on to give them the help they need while keeping them together?

Pretty soon, Pride and her siblings will discover that the help they need is all around. All they have to do is accept it.


Set against the backdrop of the last days of Nixon’s presidency, Keeping Safe the Stars is, in my opinion, a book about keeping a family together at all costs, being honest with oneself and others, and asking for help when it’s truly needed.

As an adult reading this book, I have to say that I was filled with anxiety with the turn of every page. The mere thought that three kids would have to take care of themselves–and worry about how to buy groceries or pay bills–left me feeling uneasy. (And no, I’m not naive enough to think that this doesn’t happen around the world every day.) I wanted to leap into the pages and smack the adults around the kids. Tell them to wake up! At the end of the book, I realized that at least a couple of people saw more than Pride wanted them to see, but I was still rather frustrated. Kids need to be free to be kids, not forced to take on the worries and responsibilities of adults.

I found it very interesting that Pride, who lied quite a bit to keep others from discovering the truth, compared herself to Nixon. She sympathized with him a bit, and wondered if he may have told so many lies to protect those around him. It was an interesting parallel, and it could lead some young readers to seek more information on the Watergate scandal and what ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation.

I’m hoping, at the very least, that Keeping Safe the Stars will encourage young readers to ask for help when they feel that their worries are too much for them to handle alone. Sometimes, we all need a bit of help to make it through.

Keeping Safe the Stars is a good addition to upper elementary and middle school library and classroom collections. I look forward to talking about the book with my own students. Like I said before, I’m betting that their view of this book will be a little different than my own!

For more information on Keeping Safe the Stars and author Sheila O’Connor, take a quick peek at the author’s website. Enjoy!


I am woefully behind on reading the 2014-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominees, so, for the next several weeks, I’m going to do my best to read as many of these as possible. I’ll mix it up a little with some ARCs and YA books, but I have to get the SCCBA nominees read before school starts back, so get ready for some children’s literature!

This morning, I finished reading Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes. This SCCBA nominee centers on Sugar, a ten-year-old girl who works on a sugarcane plantation during Reconstruction. This book is a hugely welcome addition to library and classroom collections where, quite frankly, fiction (and nonfiction) books about this time period are sorely lacking.

The year is 1870, and Sugar has been free for several years, but her life is still a hard one. Her father was sold before the end of slavery, and, though he promised to make his way back to Sugar and her mother, he hasn’t returned to the River Road Plantation. Two years ago, Sugar’s mother became ill and passed away, so Sugar is an orphan, looked after by the community of workers on the sugarcane plantation. Sugar–who hates her name and what it represents–lives alone in a windowless shack and is expected to work from sunup to sundown, and even through the night during harvest season. It doesn’t matter that she’s a child.

Sugar tries not to let her troubles get the best of her, though. She finds fun wherever she can…and that fun sometimes gets her into trouble! She climbs trees looking for eagles’ nests, enjoys the stories told by Mister Beale, and plays with Billy, the plantation owner’s son, even though everyone tells her she shouldn’t. Sugar doesn’t see what the harm is. They’re the only kids around, and they like each other. Does it really matter that they have different color skin? It seems the end of the war changed a lot of things, but they didn’t change that much.

Now that so many freed slaves have moved north, Mister Wills, the plantation owner, needs more workers, and these new workers, men from China, are going to change everything on the plantation once again. Sugar is warned to stay away from the newcomers, but she wants to know more about them. She’s curious about their food, language, dress, how and why they journeyed to America, and, most importantly, the interesting stories they have to tell.

Sugar knows that she can learn much from her new Chinese friends, but can she convince everyone else? Can she show them that, just like her friendship with Billy, things are better when everyone is friendly and works together?

Join Sugar on her journey to find family, friendship, and a brighter future when you read Sugar, a beautiful tale of courage, optimism, and determination by Jewel Parker Rhodes!


Sugar is a quick, easy read that is ideal for upper elementary and middle school library and classroom collections. In my opinion, it meets a great need for stories about what life may have been like during Reconstruction. I was especially interested in how the Chinese workers’ stories combined with those of former slaves and how the two groups viewed each other. I don’t think this is something addressed in most social studies classes, so Sugar might become a class novel that supplements studies of Reconstruction and what it looked like in the Deep South.

This book may also lead to some interesting discussions on child labor. I imagine that when a group of ten-year-old students read this book, they will be appalled that Sugar was expected to do so much. This could lead to questions about child labor in the past and around the world today. For these discussions, I would pair Sugar with City of Orphans by Avi, a powerful book about a young boy who sells newspapers in 1893 New York City. Both books are told from differing perspectives, but readers will, I predict, be amazed by how young people were a big part of the workforce in America’s past. My hope is that readers will do further research on how child labor still has a huge–and lamentable–impact on the global economy.

If you’d like more information on Sugar or other works by Jewell Parker Rhodes, please visit her website, Facebook, or Twitter.


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!


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 Happy reading!


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