City of Saints & Thieves

Dearest readers, do you ever get to a point where you don’t feel like reading much of anything? Well, that’s been me for the past week or so. (I blame end-of-year testing and other assorted craziness at school.) I’ve cleaned off my DVR, spent some quality time with Netflix, and taken quite a few naps, but I just haven’t had the energy to read much lately. Hopefully, though, I’ve turned a corner and can devote the more of my oh-so-valuable time to the books that mean so much to me.

Today, I bring you a book that took me nearly a month to get through, City of Saints & Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson. It’s a good book, but it’s not exactly an easy read. It’s dark, gritty, and real, and, to be perfectly honest, that’s not something I’m always in the mood for. I have to be in the right frame of mind to really delve into a book like this one, and I just haven’t been there. I did, however, find the will to finish this book over the course of the past couple of days. While it was kind of slow to start, in my opinion, the action really picked up near the middle, and it didn’t let up until the very end.

Tina, a girl surviving by her wits in the heart of Sangui City, Kenya, has her mind set on one thing–revenge. Her mother was brutally murdered five years ago, and Tina has made it her mission in life to make the killer pay. She thinks she knows who did the deed, and she’s working with a local gang to bring the man to his knees. But what if she’s wrong?

Tina believes with ever fiber of her being that Roland Greyhill, an influential businessman in Africa, murdered her mother. Mr. Greyhill had a relationship with Tina’s mom, and they had a child together, but that didn’t stop him from threatening her, an act that Tina witnessed late one night. Of course he’s the one who made good on his threat. All Tina has to do is prove it…and that may be harder than she anticipated when Michael, her former friend and Mr. Greyhill’s son, catches her breaking into the Greyhill estate.

After a somewhat rough reintroduction to each other, Michael convinces a reluctant Tina to at least consider the possibility that his father did not murder her mother. He had nothing to gain and everything to lose. So who else could have done it?

Tina and Michael, with some major assists from Tina’s hacker friend, BoyBoy, go on the hunt for evidence that will either prove or disprove Mr. Greyhill’s innocence. What they find, however, makes Tina question everything she thought she knew about her mother. What was she hiding? What really drove her from their home in the Congo to the Greyhill estate in Kenya? And could uncovering the truth of it all put Tina and her friends in the same crosshairs that were aimed at her mother?

Who really killed Tina’s mother? Was it Mr. Greyhill, or is there another, more sinister, and even closer threat that Tina never could have imagined?


I hope I’ve at least piqued your interest with this post. Even though it took me a little while to get into this book, I did enjoy it, and I especially liked that the book featured non-Western perspectives. I haven’t read many YA books set in Africa–that’s my own fault–and this book definitely made me want to change that.

City of Saints & Thieves, in my opinion, is suited to a mature teen audience. Like I mentioned before, it is dark and gritty, and it does deal with issues like war, rape, murder, and the aftereffects of all of those things. The author’s note at the end of the book indicates that a lot of what we see in the book is based on real events. For that reason, this book could be a springboard for discussions on the plights of women and refugees in Congo and other parts of the world.

If you’d like to learn more about City of Saints & Thieves, billed as a cross between The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, visit author Natalie C. Anderson’s website. You can also follow the author on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

Crenshaw

The lists of nominees for the 2017-18 South Carolina Book Awards were recently released, so I have a whole new reading list to take care of. I decided to read of one of the new Children’s Book Award nominees this weekend.

Most people familiar with children’s literature know Katherine Applegate for her outstanding Newbery-winning book, The One and Only Ivan. In Crenshaw, she gives readers yet another heart-warming story. This moving book takes a look at one boy’s life and the sudden reappearance of his imaginary friend, a very large cat named Crenshaw.

Jackson likes facts. He thinks there’s always a logical explanation for everything around him. So, obviously, there is some plausible reason for the presence of the surfboarding, human-sized, talking cat in front of him.

Jackson knows this cat. It’s Crenshaw, his imaginary friend from years ago, and there’s no rational explanation for his reappearance, so Jackson pretends he’s not seeing what’s right in front of his eyes. It’s just not possible. But he still has Crenshaw sightings from time to time. What’s going on here? Why is Crenshaw hanging around now, when he’s been gone for so long?

Well, it might have something to do with the stress of Jackson’s life. While Jackson’s parents are struggling to make ends meet, Jackson, his little sister, and their dog are dealing with being hungry, losing their few possessions, and possibly having to live in the family car. Jackson remembers when this happened before–and his first meeting with Crenshaw–and he doesn’t want to go through that again.

Could Crenshaw’s reappearance have something to do with Jackson’s worries? What could this strange cat–a cat only he (and maybe his dog) can see–possibly do to make things better? Crenshaw can’t take away Dad’s health problems. He can’t give Jackson’s parents the money they need for rent and all their other bills. He can’t make sure Jackson and his sister have enough to eat. So why is he here?

As hard as it is for Jackson to accept, some things simply defy logic. Maybe Crenshaw is back simply because Jackson needs him. Not to make everything better, but to be a friend when Jackson needs someone–human or feline, real or imagined–the most.


I liked Crenshaw, but I do wish it had a lot more Crenshaw in it. I feel like the book could have explored the relationship between Jackson and Crenshaw a bit more. It would have made the book stronger, meatier, and even more absorbing than it already was.

I think Crenshaw provides young readers with an accessible, easy-to-read look at what it may be like for kids who deal with homelessness or simply not having “enough.” The imaginary friend element is really secondary in this story. The primary focus of Crenshaw is how one young boy handles his family falling on hard times, and this book approaches the issue with creativity, empathy, and, hard as it is to believe in a book with an imaginary cat, realism.

To learn more about this book and author Katherine Applegate, check out this Crenshaw website. You may also like this book trailer produced by Macmillan Children’s Publishing. Enjoy!

How to Steal a Dog

Sometimes my job as an elementary school librarian forces me to pick up books that I normally wouldn’t. My latest read is one of those books. It’s How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor, and it’s one of the titles selected for my district’s Battle of the Books competition this year. I can’t really quiz my kids on the book if I haven’t read it myself, so I devoted much of last night to reading this one.

Normally, I shy away from books with dogs on the cover. I blame Old Yeller for this. It’s difficult, however, to work in an elementary school and stay away from “dog books” completely. They’re everywhere. (There are two on this year’s Battle of the Books list and more on the South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominee list.) Luckily, How to Steal a Dog wasn’t quite as painfully heart-wrenching as most. It did have its emotional moments, but it didn’t leave me with a crying-induced headache at the end. That’s a good thing.

Georgina Hayes needs to find a way to make some quick money. Her dad left Georgina, her mom, and her little brother with almost nothing, and they’ve been living in their car for way too long. They need a home, but Georgina’s mom is working two jobs and still struggling to make the money needed to make a deposit on a house or apartment. Georgina knows there’s got to be a way to help her mom, but what is this young girl supposed to do?

Well, after seeing a reward poster for a missing dog, Georgina gets the bright idea to steal a dog. But it can’t be just any dog. It has to be a quiet, friendly dog. A dog that is loved by its owner. A dog that someone would pay a lot of money to get back.

Georgina writes down her dog-theft plan in her notebook, and, with the help of her little brother Toby, she puts her plan into action. She finds the perfect dog, nabs him, and waits for the reward posters to go up. But nothing really happens the way Georgina wants it to. She feels guilty about what she’s done, and the dog’s owner may not have enough money for a big reward. This sticky situation is quickly spiraling out of control, and Georgina doesn’t know which way to turn.

Can Georgina turn things around and get the money she and her family need? Will she do the right thing, or will she see her dognapping through to the bitter end? What will happen to make Georgina face all the wrongs in her life and do what she must to make things right? Read How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor to find out!

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On a rather serious note, How to Steal a Dog, like Almost Home by Joan Bauer, shines a light on something that gets way too little attention…homeless children. When most people think of the homeless, they envision older people who live on the streets. They don’t realize that some of those people have children, children who still have to go to school, do their homework, and deal with social pressures…all while worrying about where they will sleep at night, if they’ll get a shower this week, or where their next meal is coming from. For me, I think this book made me more aware of what my students may be going through outside of the school walls. Not all of them have a nice house to go home to every day. Not everyone has a mom and a dad there every night to help with homework. Some kids don’t have that extra money needed for class parties, club fees, or even school lunch. That’s something that many educators–myself included–don’t really think about enough. My hope is that How to Steal a Dog will make other readers reflect on these issues and maybe–just maybe–foster just a little more empathy for those around them.

I look forward to discussing this book with my Battle of the Books team. I think they–and many of my other students–will have a lot to say about Georgina’s desperate situation and what they may have done differently.

For more information about How to Steal a Dog and other books by Barbara O’Connor, check out the author’s website.

Almost Home

Confession time. I’ve only managed to read six of the twenty nominees for the 14-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award this summer. I have about a month to finish the other fourteen books…along with all of the other books I’d like to read this summer. It’s not looking good. I can do it, but I’m going to have to really push myself. Will power, especially during the summer, is not exactly my strong suit.

All that being said, I did manage to finish one of the SCCBA nominees this morning, and it packed one heck of an emotional punch. The book was Almost Home by Joan Bauer. I was a little nervous when I first picked up this book. Books with dogs on the cover always make me kind of anxious. (I blame Old Yeller.) In this case, however, the dog was sort of the bright spot in the book, and that little bundle of fur helped to bring light into the life of a girl who was dealing with way too much.

It takes a lot to bring Sugar Mae Cole down. This twelve-year-old tries to always look on the bright side of life, even when things are looking rather dim. And things are about to get pretty dark for Sugar and her mom, Reba. Sugar’s absent dad has gambled away all of their money, and Sugar and her mom are being forced out of their home. Sugar doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but she’s determined to keep her spirits up and be strong for both herself and her mother.

Sugar has a little help along the way. Even when Sugar has to move to Chicago, she keeps in touch with Mr. Bennett, a teacher who encourages Sugar to express herself through writing and to be her best self. Sugar also has Shush, a rescue dog with trust issues of his own. It’s not easy living on the streets or moving from shelter to shelter with a dog in tow, but Sugar is determined to be there for little Shush…the way she wishes someone would be there for her.

When Sugar’s mom shuts down from the stress of everything that has happened, Sugar knows she has to be stronger than ever. Luckily, she’s got Shush…and a chance at a real home when she’s placed with a loving foster family. She’s doing well in her new environment, but the worry about her mother–and her mother’s dependence on Sugar’s no-good father–continues to eat at Sugar’s happiness. Sugar wishes she could do something to open her mother’s eyes, but she knows that Reba must confront the reality of her situation herself.

Through everything that Sugar encounters, she holds onto the dream of home. A home where she, her mother, and Shush can be safe, happy, and together. A home where she doesn’t have to worry that she’ll be kicked out one day. A home where she can shine, thrive, and help others who are going through hard times. A home where she can simply be a kid without so many adult worries. She’s almost there. Sugar Mae Cole is almost home.

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In this post, I’ve tried to capture just how optimistic Almost Home‘s main character really is. I hope I’ve succeeded. Sugar is definitely a character to be admired. I’m confident that I would not fare so well if I were in her shoes. Even when things were at their worst, Sugar maintained hope that things would get better one day. That’s not to say that she was blind to the realities around her. No, she knew that things were bleak, but she didn’t let that get her down for long. She always found a way to be thankful for the little things, and that’s an example all of us could stand to follow.

I also liked how Sugar explored her situation through her writing. She wrote poems and letters that really highlighted what she was going through. Sometimes it’s easier to write the hard stuff down rather than saying the words out loud. (I know that’s true for me. Why do you think I devote so much time to this blog?) Through poetry, Sugar was able to express how she was feeling. She didn’t always share her words with those around her, but, when she did, they had an impact…especially with the teacher who meant so much to her.

(I’m not even going to get started on Sugar’s connection with her former teacher, Mr. Bennett. If I do, I’ll get all emotional about how teachers don’t do their often thankless jobs for the money. We’ll seriously be here all day if I get on that particular soapbox. Just read between the lines a bit.)

I find it rather odd that two of the books on this years SCCBA nominee list deal with characters named Sugar. What’s really striking is that both books show these girls–in different time periods and with different backgrounds–being forced to act beyond their years. In Almost Home, Sugar faces homelessness and all that entails. In Sugar, our main character is a former slave working on a plantation during Reconstruction. Both girls have to take on adult responsibilities, and both girls do so with spirit and a sense of hope for a brighter future. I think it would be interesting to have a book club or small classroom group read both of these books and draw parallels between these two characters. Yes, they have some pretty noticeable differences, but their similarities, in my opinion, are even more apparent. Something to think about there.

Almost Home is an excellent book for elementary and middle school audiences (and older readers, of course). I’m going to recommend this book to my guidance counselor as well. She knows better than I which of our students are dealing with homelessness, and my hope is that this book could offer those kids a bit of hope when things probably seem hopeless.

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!