Sunday, June 25, 2017

El Deafo

El Deafo
by Cece Bell


Genre: Juvenile Fiction, Graphic Novel, Memoir

Synopsis:  Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece's class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends. 

Then Cece makes a startling discovery. With the Phonic Ear she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in school--in the hallway...in the teacher's lounge...in the bathroom! This is power. Maybe even superpower! Cece is on her way to becoming El Deafo, Listener for All. But the funny thing about being a superhero is that it's just another way of feeling different... and lonely. Can Cece channel her powers into finding the thing she wants most, a true friend?

This funny perceptive graphic novel memoir about growing up hearing impaired is also an unforgettable book about growing up, and all the super and super embarrassing moments along the way.
from GoodReads

Review:  I'm still not a huge fan of graphic novels but I can see how this book, both story and format, would highly appeal to kids.  This is a semi-autobiographic novel of Cece's life growing up with hearing loss.  Cece, who is portrayed as a bunny, gets sick as a young child and loses most of her hearing but hearing aids and learning to lip read help her continue to be successful in a hearing environment.  Cece is so self conscious about sticking out and being different that sometimes she doesn't realize that people are overlooking the hearing aids.  This book is funny but also sends a powerful message about accepting differences.  While it is an easy book to read, I think it would be most meaningful to slightly older kids--perhaps around 4th grade. 

Rating: 4 stars

Kira-Kira

Kira-Kira
by Cynthia Kadohata

Genre: Juvenile fiction

Synopsis:  kira-kira (kee ra kee ra): glittering; shining Glittering. That's how Katie Takeshima's sister, Lynn, makes everything seem. The sky is kira-kira because its color is deep but see-through at the same time. The sea is kira-kira for the same reason and so are people's eyes. When Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the Deep South of Georgia, it's Lynn who explains to her why people stop on the street to stare, and it's Lynn who, with her special way of viewing the world, teaches Katie to look beyond tomorrow, but when Lynn becomes desperately ill, and the whole family begins to fall apart, it is up to Katie to find a way to remind them all that there is always something glittering -- kira-kira -- in the future.
from GoodReads

Review:  I appreciated the look into how a different culture, the Japanese culture, faced racism and prejudice in the United States as that is not often written about especially not in children's fiction.  I think this book would open up kids' eyes to how other people live and what they faced.  The story wasn't just about that, though, it was about Katie's and Lynn's relationship and bond as sisters.  Katie is heartbroken when her sister, Lynn, becomes sick but struggles with her feelings about it.  There were a few sections of the book that I wish would not have been included in the book as I felt like it made the book for an older audience instead of the middle grade audience that I think the book was intended for.  These sections did not add anything to be book and could have easily been left out (there were comments about adults having sex but not said so in so many words).  Overall this book was a good read but sometimes a little slow.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
by Roz Chast


Genre: Memoir, Graphic Novel

Synopsis:  In her first memoir, Roz Chast brings her signature wit to the topic of aging parents. Spanning the last several years of their lives and told through four-color cartoons, family photos, and documents, and a narrative as rife with laughs as it is with tears, Chast's memoir is both comfort and comic relief for anyone experiencing the life-altering loss of elderly parents.

When it came to her elderly mother and father, Roz held to the practices of denial, avoidance, and distraction. But when Elizabeth Chast climbed a ladder to locate an old souvenir from the "crazy closet"—with predictable results—the tools that had served Roz well through her parents' seventies, eighties, and into their early nineties could no longer be deployed.

While the particulars are Chast-ian in their idiosyncrasies—an anxious father who had relied heavily on his wife for stability as he slipped into dementia and a former assistant principal mother whose overbearing personality had sidelined Roz for decades—the themes are universal: adult children accepting a parental role; aging and unstable parents leaving a family home for an institution; dealing with uncomfortable physical intimacies; managing logistics; and hiring strangers to provide the most personal care.

An amazing portrait of two lives at their end and an only child coping as best she can, Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant will show the full range of Roz Chast's talent as cartoonist and storyteller.
from GoodReads

Review:  I went into this book being a little dubious about graphic novels as they are not my normal cup of tea.  My library was challenging patrons to read books in a format that they don't normally read for the summer reading program.  This book was recommended to me by one of the librarians saying that it is appealing to everyone and bittersweet.  I'm a big fan of memoirs and I think that helped me like this book even though it is in a format that is quite different for me.  I did have trouble connecting with the main character as she did not seem to have a close relationship with her parents and that she had a hard time taking charge of the situation.  I also wonder if I'm not the right target audience for this book as, knock on wood, I'm a ways away from dealing with this situation.  Chast is pretty brutally honest in this memoir but she does so with humor but also we feel her sadness for having to acknowledge that her parents have become elderly.  I think this is a well written graphic novel memoir and that readers in the right phase of their life would really appreciate this book.

Rating: 3 stars

Star in the Forest

Star in the Forest
by Laura Resau

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Synopsis: Zitlally feels so along.  Papa isn't here anymore to whisper to her in star language.  Mama is always on the phone, worried.  And Zitlally's sisters are just as scared as she is.  Everyone is thinking about that day.

The day that Papa was pulled over for speeding.

The day the police found out that Papa was an immigrant without papers.

The day her family discovered that Papa would be deported.

Zitlally seeks comfort in the forest of rusty car parts behind her family's trailer.  There she finds a dirty, skinny dog with a star-shaped mark on his neck.  Soon she realizes that Star is no ordinary dog.  He's like the magical animals in the stories Papa has told her.  His fate is connected to a human's fate.

To Papa's fate.

If Zitlally can keep Star safe, Papa will stay safe, too.

When Star disappears, it's up to Zitlally and her new friend, Crystal, to find him...and save him.  Only then can Zitlally be sure that Papa, too, and make his way back home-and her family will be whole once again.
from the book jacket

Review:  Zitlally's father was just deported back to Mexico and Zitlally struggles with missing her father.  We feel her emotions as she tries to deal with not having her father around, the dynamic of the rest of her family, and the worry about how or when he is going to come back.  Zitlally finds an abandoned dog and takes care of it.  She believes that the dog is her father's spirit animal.  This book has a magical realism feel to it when the dog comes into play.  This book deals with hard issues such as deportation, abuse, neglect and more but in an accessible way and one that is realistic to how some people live in our country. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner
by Deborah Ellis

Genre: Juvenile fiction

Synopsis:  Afghanistan, a country that lies south of Russia between Iran and Pakistan, has been fought over for centuries.  Today the country is in the hands of the Taliban, whose extreme religious views include forbidding women to appear in public without being covered from head to toe.  Women cannot go to school, work outside the home or leave their homes without a man to escort them.

A powerful and realistic novel about loyalty, survival, families and friendship, The Breadwinner brings the terrible situation home to North American young people with humanity and power.  Eleven year old Parvana lives with her family in one room of a bombed out apartment building in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital city.  Parvana's father-a history teacher until his school was bombed and his health destroyed-works from a blanket on the ground in the marketplace, reading letters for people who cannot read or write.  One day he is arrested for the crime of having a foreign education, and the family is left without someone who can earn money or even shop for food.

As conditions for the family grown desperate, only one solution emerges.  Forbidden to earn money as a girl, Parvana most transform herself into a boy, and become the breadwinner.
from the book jacket

Review:  I am intrigued about different cultures and how people live in other countries.  This book was a good introduction to life in Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban.  For students and children with no background knowledge, this book would be a good place to start.  Parvana is a young girl who is allowed out of the home to help her father who is crippled.  When her father is arrested, Parvana turns into a boy so she can make money for her family.   Parvana's eyes are opened, as well as the reader's eyes, to the treatment of Taliban leaders and how dangerous it is for her to keep her identity a secret.  There is conflict between Parvana and members of her family but the family bond surpasses the difficulty.  One of my complaints with this book is the ending.  This book doesn't really end--there is no resolution.  There are 2 other books in this series and it seems like you have to read all three of them to really come to the end of the story.

Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Counting by 7s

Counting by 7s
by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Genre: Young adult fiction

Synopsis:  Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly happy life...until now.

Suddenly Willow’s world is tragically changed when her parents both die in a car crash, leaving her alone in a baffling world. The triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, but extraordinarily endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a fascinatingly diverse and fully believable surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read.
from GoodReads

Review:  This book is all about characters and their developments and relationships.  Willow is a quirky girl who is brilliant but has no friends.  Dell is her school therapist who is quirky in his own way too and one that doesn't seem to care much about anything.  Willow finds unlikely friends in Mai, Quang-ha, Patti, Jairo, and Dell who help her move past the grief of her parents dying and discover the meaning of family, friendship and love.  Readers are drawn into this story and feel such pain for Willow but also can see how she helps bring other people to together in unexpected ways.

Rating:  4 stars

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty

A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty
by Joshilyn Jackson

Genre: Women's fiction

Synopsis:  A Grown-Up Kind Of Pretty is a powerful saga of three generations of women, plagued by hardships and torn by a devastating secret, yet inextricably joined by the bonds of family. 

Fifteen-year-old Mosey Slocumb-spirited, sassy, and on the cusp of womanhood-is shaken when a small grave is unearthed in the backyard, and determined to figure out why it's there. Liza, her stroke-ravaged mother, is haunted by choices she made as a teenager. But it is Jenny, Mosey's strong and big-hearted grandmother, whose maternal love braids together the strands of the women's shared past--and who will stop at nothing to defend their future.
from GoodReads

Review:  I very much enjoyed listening to this book because of how engaging the narrator was.  Later I found out that the narrator is the author which was probably why the story was so engaging!  This book is so different from other books that I have as the story is very southern.  Each character had such interesting and quirky personalities and their own way of talking.  You could really tell that Mosey was a teenage by the way that she talked probably made more pronounced by the author reading her voice.  The book didn't seem to take itself too seriously and I appreciated the light humor that it offered, at least I took some things as humorous even if it was not the intention of the story.  Characters seemed a little over the top which also made the story seem a little lighter.  The details in the story, however, are not light from drugs to solving the mystery of the bones to recovering from a stroke.  This is a good read for when you are looking for something not too heavy.  I'll be picking up more books from this author in the future.

Rating: 4 stars

Swimming Lessons

Swimming Lessons
by Claire Fuller

Genre: Fiction

Synopsis:  Ingrid Coleman writes letters to her husband, Gil, about the truth of their marriage, but instead of giving them to him, she hides them in the thousands of books he has collected over the years. When Ingrid has written her final letter she disappears from a Dorset beach, leaving behind her beautiful but dilapidated house by the sea, her husband, and her two daughters, Flora and Nan.

Twelve years later, Gil thinks he sees Ingrid from a bookshop window, but he’s getting older and this unlikely sighting is chalked up to senility. Flora, who has never believed her mother drowned, returns home to care for her father and to try to finally discover what happened to Ingrid. But what Flora doesn’t realize is that the answers to her questions are hidden in the books that surround her. Scandalous and whip-smart, Swimming Lessons holds the Coleman family up to the light, exposing the mysterious truths of a passionate and troubled marriage. 
from GoodReads

Review:  I read over 50 pages into this book and was just completely uninterested in the story.  I was remotely interested in Flora's life and what would happen to her when she went back home but the letters that Ingrid wrote just turned me off from the book.  I think all her letters were written later but they were looking back when she first met Gil.  But her letters were pretty confusing and the time jumping really threw me off plus Gil seemed very strange.  I could not relate to any of the characters at all. 

Rating: abandoned

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

How Tia Lola Came to (Visit) Stay

How Tia Lola Came to Visit Stay
by Julia Alvarez


Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Synopsis:  Moving to Vermont after his parents split, Miguel has plenty to worry about! Tía Lola, his quirky, carismática, and maybe magical aunt makes his life even more unpredictable when she arrives from the Dominican Republic to help out his Mami. Like her stories for adults, Julia Alvarez’s first middle-grade book sparkles with magic as it illuminates a child’s experiences living in two cultures.
from GoodReads

Review:  This was a book about Miguel, his sister, mom and eccentric aunt from the Dominican Republic.  Miguel and his sister are dealing with not living with their father and moving somewhere where there are no other Latinos and sticking out a bit at first.  Miguel also has to deal with being embarrassed by his aunt who as I said before is quite eccentric.  This book is not very deep and problems seem to be resolved fairly simply which makes it a good book for middle elementary children.

Rating: 3 stars

A Piece of the World

A Piece of the World
by Christina Baker Kline

Genre: Historical fiction

Synopsis: To Christina Olson, the entire world was her family's remote farm in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine.  Born in the home her family had lived in for generations, and increasingly incapacitated by illness, Christina seemed destined for a small life.  Instead, for more than twenty years, she was host and inspiration for the artist Andrew Wyeth, and become the subject of one of the best-known paintings for the twentieth century, Christina's World.

As she did in her beloved bestseller Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline interweaves fact and fiction in a powerful novel that illuminates a little-known part of America's history. Bringing into focus the flesh-and-blood woman behind the portrait, Kline vividly imagines her life-with her complicated relationship to her family and her past, and her special bond with one of our greatest modern artists.
from the book jacket

Review:  Perhaps this was not the right kind of book for me but I loved Orphan Train and the writer's style but this book was just so dull.  I should have abandoned it but for some reason I stuck with it probably because I thought it would get more interesting.  The story just dragged on and on with it not going anywhere.  The timeline jumps back and forth between when Christina is an adult, child, teen and young adult.  I found this to be distracting. So many characters were introduced and I did not know who they were but yet it seemed like I was already supposed to know who they were.  It was an interesting premise however just not well executed.

Rating: 2 stars

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Tequila Worm

The Tequila Worm
by Viola Canales

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Synopsis: Sofia comes from a family of storytellers.  Here are the tales of growing up in the barrio, full of the magic and mystery of family traditions: making Easter cascarones, celebrating el Dia de los Muertos, preparing for a quincenera, rejoicing in the Christmas nacimiento, and curing homesickness by eating a tequila worm.  When Sofia is signaled out to receive a scholarship  to an elite boarding school, she longs to explore life beyond the barrio, even though it means leaving her family to navigate a strange world of rich, privileged kids.  It's a different mundo, but one where Sofia's traditions take on new meaning and illuminate her path.
from the back of the book

Review:  This was definitely a cultural look into Sofia's life growing up in a tight knit group of Latinos in Texas.  The book shares so many traditions from storytelling, cascarones at Easter, quincenera to cooking frijoles (beans).   There was humor in this book as well as sadness.  The characters are down to earth  and one that readers will connect to. There were mature topics in this book including underage drinking of alcohol, so that should factor into how young of a student reads this book plus Sofia herself is 14-16 years old when most of the book takes place so while the reading level may be a little lower, the intended audience may be higher.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Girl Who Came Home

The Girl Who Came Home
by Hazel Gaynor

Genre: Historical fiction

Synopsis:  A voyage across the ocean becomes the odyssey of a lifetime for a young Irish woman. . . .

Ireland, 1912 . . .

Fourteen members of a small village set sail on RMS Titanic, hoping to find a better life in America. For seventeen-year-old Maggie Murphy, the journey is bittersweet. Though her future lies in an unknown new place, her heart remains in Ireland with Séamus, the sweetheart she left behind. When disaster strikes, Maggie is one of the few passengers in steerage to survive. Waking up alone in a New York hospital, she vows never to speak of the terror and panic of that fateful night again.

Chicago, 1982 . . .

Adrift after the death of her father, Grace Butler struggles to decide what comes next. When her great-grandmother Maggie shares the painful secret about the Titanic that she's harbored for almost a lifetime, the revelation gives Grace new direction—and leads both her and Maggie to unexpected reunions with those they thought lost long ago.

Inspired by true events, The Girl Who Came Home poignantly blends fact and fiction to explore the Titanic tragedy's impact and its lasting repercussions on survivors and their descendants.
from GoodReads

Review:  I listened to the audiobook version of this story and it was not the right choice to listen to as I drove to and from work as it made me cry on many occasions!  Nothing like showing up to work with a tear streaked face!  The heartbreak in this story was palpable.  The story is told in alternating perspectives and the story bounces around in time a bit.  Most of the time we hear either Maggie's or Grace's perspectives.  Grace is often looking back at Maggie's story in the form of her diary.  The modern story of Grace and what happens in her life was not deep and did not add much to the story except to discover Maggie's story and bring it out into the open.  The story of what happened on the Titanic was not extremely original.  At times I was reminded of the movie Titanic as I listened to what was happening in the story.  That being said, I still truly enjoyed the book and would recommend it to people who like historical fiction.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Maximilian and the Mystery of the Guardian Angel

Maximilian & the Mystery of the Guardian Angel
by Xavier Garza

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Synopsis: Margarito acts like any other eleven-year-old aficionado of lucha libre. He worships all the players. But in the summer just before sixth grade, he tumbles over the railing at a match in San Antonio and makes a connection to the world of Mexican wrestling that will ultimately connect him—maybe by blood!—to the greatest hero of all time: the Guardian Angel.
from GoodReads

Review:  I know absolutely nothing about lucha libre which I think was a disadvantage when reading this book as I had no background knowledge to which I could relate the events of the story.  However, there was enough other content in the story that I was able to follow along without too much of a problem and I even learned a little about lucha libre!  Max is a huge fan of lucha libre and his hero is the Guardian Angel.  This story is face paced and contains some humor.  I think this book would greatly appeal to middle grade readers, especially to those who may have seen a lucha libre match.  This book is presented in both English and Spanish with English being on the left page and Spanish on the right.  I think once kids discover this book, they will want to read the other ones in the series.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Taking Sides

Taking Sides
by Gary Soto

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Synopsis: Lincoln Mendoza is brown, not white.  Moving from the barrio to the tree-lined streets of the suburbs won't change that.  Tony Contreras is still his main man, and he's still loyal to his team at Franklin Junior High, even though he's playing basketball for Columbus now.  But when Franklin and Columbus are scheduled to face each other in a league game, Lincoln is worried-how can he play his best with his white friends at his new school, decked out in Air Jordans, against his old buddies in their worn-out sneakers?

When the day of the game arrives, Lincoln's own internal conflict is as intense as the battle between the two teams.  But when the game is over, Lincoln has learned something about winning-and about loyalty, about change, and about friendship.
from the book jacket

Review:  This book was published in 1991 and the language, mainly slang, in this book shows its age.  I think that kids could relate to the story about a boy who is able to move out of barrio but Lincoln seems to have moved straight into a very wealthy suburb which is less realistic.  The conflict of not knowing who to be loyal to is also relate-able but the terminology used is just too 90s (i.e. talking about Montgomery Wards!)  There is somewhat mature topics such as Lincoln having an ex-girlfriend and liking a new girl at school, theft, and fighting which makes this book a solid junior high book in my mind.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Most Beautiful Place in the World

The Most Beautiful Place in the World
by Ann Cameron
Illustrated by Thomas B. Allen

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Synopsis:  Seven-year-old Juan lives in Guatemala, a place of stunning beauty and grim economic reality. Abandoned by his mother, Juan lives with his grandmother and shines shoes. He passionately wants to attend school, but fears Grandmother will say no. Finally gathering his courage, he is surprised when she not only agrees to send him to school but also chides him about the importance of standing up for himself. Juan tells this bittersweet story, which reads smoothly and powerfully on several levels, with warmth and dignity.
from GoodReads

Review:  This is an early chapter book that is written at a more mature level.  The writing style is simple but the topic is far from it.  Juan has a lot stacked against him in his life.  His father left, he was abandoned by his mother, he needs to work to make money for him and his grandma to live off of but that doesn't make him give up on his dreams.  This is a heartwarming story a little boy with such a positive outlook on life.  This is a book that could be read by younger children and older students who may be reading at a lower level.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Reluctant Midwife

The Reluctant Midwife
by Patricia Harman

Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis: The Great Depression has hit West Virginia hard. Men are out of work; women struggle to feed hungry children. Luckily, Nurse Becky Myers has returned to care for them. While she can handle most situations, Becky is still uneasy helping women deliver their babies. For these mothers-to-be, she relies on an experienced midwife, her dear friend Patience Murphy. 

Though she is happy to be back in Hope River, time and experience have tempered Becky’s cheerfulness-as tragedy has destroyed the vibrant spirit of her former employer Dr Isaac Blum, who has accompanied her. Patience too has changed. Married and expecting a baby herself, she is relying on Becky to keep the mothers of Hope River safe. 

But becoming a midwife and ushering precious new life into the world is not Becky’s only challenge. Her skills and courage will be tested when a calamitous forest fire blazes through a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. And she must find a way to bring Isaac back to life and rediscover the hope they both need to go on.
from GoodReads

Review: I enjoyed the characters I met in The Midwife of Hope River so when I saw that there was a sequel and that characters were returning, I eagerly picked this book up.  I didn't enjoy this book as much.  Becky wasn't as compelling of a character as Patience was and the story of her being a midwife was too similar to Patience's story.  Once she stopped delivering babies and starting working at the CCC camp, the story became more interesting to me.  The men she met were interesting and engaging.  The story of Dr. Blum was captivating as I wanted to know how and when he was going snap out of his catatonic state.  I found the excerpts into Dr. Blum's mind to be distracting and it was hard to tell (when listening to the audiobook) when he was talking.  I wish the story had stayed in just Becky's perspective.  I did like the ending until the last chapter when I feel that Harman thought she needed to add in some social issues that weren't present in the rest of the book.  I still enjoyed the story and would read another book about these characters if there happens to be one but this one wasn't as good as the first.

Rating: 3 stars

To see my review of The Midwife of Hope River, click here.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Traveling Light

Traveling Light
by Lynne Branard


Genre: Women's Fiction

Synopsis:  It all starts when Alissa impulsively puts a bid on an abandoned storage unit, only to become the proud new owner of Roger Hart's remains.  Two weeks later, she jumps in her car and heads west, thinking that returning the ashes of a dead man might be the first step on her way to a new life.

She isn't wrong.

Especially when Blossom, who just graduated from high school, hitches a ride with her to Texas, and Alissa has to get used to letting someone else take the wheel.  Posting about their road trip on Facebook, complete with photos of Roger at every stop, Blossom opens Alissa's eyes to the road in front of her-and to how sometimes the best things in life are the ones you never see coming...
from the back of the book.

Review:  This book was a light, easy to read but yet somewhat quirky book about Al, a thirty-something year old woman who takes a backseat in life.  She lived in the same town, still lives in her childhood home, and works for her father's newspaper in a small town.  She spontaneously decides to take a road trip to New Mexico after finding a box of ashes in a storage unit she bought.  Along the way, she meets 17 year old Blossom who asks Al for a ride.  Blossom is a free spirit but not without some baggage.  Blossom and Al have adventures along the way with the remains of Roger and Al's 3 legged dog Casserole.  Al learns to tighten the reigns on her life and just live through her trip.  This was enjoyable read with out of the box characters.

Thank you to Berkley (Penguin Random House) for a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Return to Sender

Return to Sender
by Julia Alvarez


Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Synopsis:  After Tyler's father is injured in a tractor accident, his family is forced to hire migrant Mexican workers to help save their Vermont farm.  Tyler isn't sure what to make of these workers.  Are they undocumented?  And what about the tree daughters, particularly Mari, the oldest, who is proud of her Mexican heritage but also increasingly connected to her American life?  Mari's family lives in constant fear of being discovered by the authorities and sent back to the poverty they left behind in Mexico.  Can Tyler and Mari find a way to be friends despite their differences?
from the book jacket

Review:  This book is written in two forms: one, a narrative about Tyler and two, letters written by Mari to various people.  Tyler is forced to confront his feelings about having Mexican workers on his family's farm and how he should act around Mari.  Mari and her family live in fear that la migra (ICE) is going to find them and take them back to Mexico.  Mari's mother has been missing for almost a year but Mari still believes that she is alive and will find her and her family.  This book gives a look into what undocumented workers have to face and how they must feel.  Mari and Tyler develop a friendship that bonds the two of them together as they face a struggle.  There are terrible events that happen in this story so I would recommend it for older readers, not middle grades.  It also has one line that I thought was completely inappropriate (about a character being laid) for students and unnecessary.

Rating: 4 stars

Love, Amalia

Love.Amalia
by Alma Flor Ada & Gabriel M. Zubizarreta

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Synopsis:  Amalia's best friend, Martha, is moving away, and Amalia is feeling sad and angry.  And yet, even when life seems unfair, the loving, wise words of Amalia's abuelita have a way of making everything a little bit brighter.  Amalia finds great comfort in times shared with her grandmother: cooking, listening to stories and music, learning, and looking through her treasured box of family cards.

But when another loss racks Amalia's life, nothing makes sense anymore.  In her sorrow, will Amalia realize just how special she is, even when the ones she loves are no longer near?
from the book jacket

Review:  In this book, Amalia struggles with her feelings about her best friend, Martha, moving.  Her grandmother tries to help her but before Amalia can feel better a tragic event happens in Amalia's life.  Amalia's grandmother has always been a huge part of her life and someone who helped her with many things.  Amalia loved learning about her heritage through her grandmother's stories and baking.  This book was just too simple for me and was very flat.  Amalia was one dimensional as were the other characters.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Saturday, April 1, 2017

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things
by Bryn Greenwood

Genre:  Fiction

Synopsis: As the daughter of a drug dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents.  It's safer to keep her mouth shut and stay out of sight.  Struggling to raise her little brother, Donal, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible adult around.  Obsessed with the constellations, she finds peace in the starry night sky above the fields behind her house, until one night when her stargazing causes an accident.  After witnessing his motorcycle wreck, she forms an unusual friendship with one of her father's thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold.

By the time Wavy is a teenager, her relationship with Kellen is the only tender thing in a brutal world of addicts and debauchery.  When tragedy rips Wavy's family apart, a well-meaning aunt steps in, and what is beautiful to Wavy looks ugly under the scrutiny of the outside world.
from the book jacket

Review:  Reading about the life that Wavy and Donal had was hard as they grew up with drug addict parents who didn't care about them at all.  Wavy clearly had so many emotional issues that could only be healed by a lot of therapy.  At first the relationship between Wavy and Kellen started off as very innocent and I love how much Kellen watched out for Wavy and how Wavy changed when she was with him.  But then the relationship got stranger and much less appropriate.  Clearly Wavy needed love and any type of love was OK with her.  She needed boundaries but Kellen got not give them to her.   As the book progressed it was harder and harder to read about their relationship.  I was disturbed by the end.  This book is somewhat graphic and vulgar.  Go into this book knowing that you will be torn by what you know is wrong but what may have been the best for a character.

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Dreamer

The Dreamer
by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Illustrated by Peter Sis

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Synopsis:  From the time he is a young boy, Neftalí hears the call of a mysterious voice.  Even when the neighborhood children taunt him, and when his harsh, authoritarian father ridicules him, and when he doubts himself, Neftalí knows he cannot ignore the call.  Under the canopy of the lush rain forest, into the vast and fearsome sea, and through the persistent Chilean rain, he listens and he follows...
from the book jacket

Review:  At first I didn't particularly like this book as it was far too fantastical and magical for me and that is not the genre that I prefer.  When I finished the book and read the author's note about how this is a fictional biography of Pablo Neruda's childhood, I liked this book much more and wish that I had gone into the book knowing this so that I could appreciate the poetry, questions and fantasy aspects throughout the book.  I would have understood the book better.  Neftalí grows up in a home where he and his siblings are not allowed to follow their dreams but must do what their father but yet Neftalí can't help but do what he was born to do.  He is an observer, a daydreamer, a thinker, a dreamer and he uses what his father considers to be negative qualities about him to make a difference.  This book isn't for everyone and I feel that some kids would not respond to it as it would be outside their genre but it is a well written, well illustrated book.

Rating: 4 stars

My Name is Maria Isabel

My Name is Maria Isabel
by Alma Flor Ada

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Synopsis:  For Maria Isabel Salazar Lopez, the hardest thing about being the new girl in school is that the teacher doesn't call her by her real name.  "We already have two Marias in this class," says her teacher.  "Why don't we call you Mary instead?"

But Maria Isabel has been named for her Papa's mother and for Chabela, her beloved Puerto Rican grandmother.  Can she find a way to make her teacher see that if she loses her name, she's lost the most important part of herself?
from the book jacket

Review:  This is a very basic chapter book that is very short and simple.  Maria Isabel wants to be called Maria Isabel but her teacher names her Mary and gets very angry when Maria Isabel doesn't answer to the name Mary.  Maria Isabel misses out on opportunities because the teacher doesn't use her real name.  This book just made me angry because the teacher was portrayed in such negative light but rightly so because the teacher had no patience for Maria Isabel.  I was angry reading this because as a teacher I would never disrespect a student by calling the student a different name or mispronouncing their name and I know every teacher in my school would do the same thing.  I wanted so much more from this book-more depth, more feelings, more explanations but this book is intended for a much younger audience.  I feel that this book would be appropriate for 2nd and 3rd graders but no higher.

Rating: 3 stars

The Color of My Words

The Color of My Words
by Lynn Joseph

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Ana Rosa is a blossoming writer growing up in the Dominican Republic, a country where words are feared.  Yet there is so much inspiration all around her-watching her brother search for a future, learning to dance and to love, and finding out what it means to be part of a community-that Ana Rosa must write it all down.  As she struggles to find her own voice and a way to make it heard, Ana Rosa realizes the power of her words to transform the world around her-and to transcend the most unthinkable of tragedies.
from the back of the book

Review: This story is a young girl who lives in the Dominican Republic who is a writer.  At the beginning of each chapter there is a poem about something from the chapter and they are beautifully written.  This story made me tear up more than once as I felt the hurt radiating from Ana Rosa.  This story is heartbreaking at times but is also full of life and culture.  There are several aspects of this story that make me hesitant to recommend it to elementary students one of which was drunkenness.  I felt like I could overlook the rum but with the other aspects, I decided I cannot use this book with my fifth and sixth grade students.  The reading level of this book is right for that age group but unless you have a mature group, I would recommend this to slightly older children.

Rating:  4 stars

The Midwife of Hope River

The Midwife of Hope River
by Patricia Harman

Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis:  A debut novel featuring Patience Murphy, an Appalachian midwife in the 1930s struggling against disease, poverty, and prejudices-and her own haunting past-to bring new light, and life, into an otherwise cruel world

As a midwife working in the hardscrabble conditions of Appalachia during the Depression, Patience Murphy's only solace is her gift: the chance to escort mothers through the challenges of childbirth. Just beginning, she takes on the jobs no one else wants: those most in need-and least likely to pay. Patience is willing to do what it takes to fulfill her mentor's wishes, but starting a midwife practice means gaining trust, and Patience's secrets are too fragile to let anyone in.

A stirring piece of Americana, The Midwife of Hope River beats with authenticity as Patience faces seemingly insurmountable conditions: disease, poverty, and prejudices threaten at every turn. From the dangerous mines of West Virginia to the terrifying attentions of the Klu Klux Klan, Patience must strive to bring new light, and life, into an otherwise cruel world.
from GoodReads

Review:  This story takes place in the 1930s during the Great Depression and takes place in West Virginia where the Depression has greatly affected residents.  The story does flash back to earlier times as well.  Patience Murphy is a midwife who struggles to make ends meet.  She has a dark past of which we are only given snippets of what happened at a time.  We finally get the whole story closer to the end.  Patience is an independent and strong woman who is not afraid to stand up injustice and she sometimes seems ahead of her time.  I did feel that she seemed too modern at the beginning but as the story went on, I became more intrigued by the life in West Virginia in the early 1900s and I forgot about how modern she seemed.  For some reason I gravitate towards and really enjoy stories about midwives.  The births in this story are somewhat graphic at times so this probably isn't the book for someone who is squeamish about childbirth. 

Rating: 4 stars

Dancing Home

Dancing Home
by Alma Flor Ada and Gabriel Zubizarreta

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Synopsis:  Mexico may be her parent's home, but it's certainly not Margie's.  She as finally convinced the other kids at school she is one hundred percent American-just like them.  But when her Mexican cousin Lupe visits, the image she's created for herself crumbles.

Things aren't easy for Lupe, either.  Mexico hadn't felt like home since her father went North to find work.  Lupe's hope of seeing him in the United States comforts her some, but learning a new language in a new school is tough.  Lupe, as much as Margie, is in need of a friend.

Little by little, the girls' individual steps find the rhythm of one shared dance, and they learn what "home" really means.
from the book jacket

Review:  This is the story of two fifth grade girls who are cousins.  Margie was born in the US to Latino parents but wants to be thought of as American.  Lupe grew up in Mexico until she comes to live with her aunt, uncle and cousin.  Margie does not want Lupe around her but by having Lupe at her house Margie learns a lot of about her heritage and herself.  I love the message that this book presents and while it may appear to be preachy at times, I think it resonates and is an important message for kids to hear.  I think this is a book that intermediate grade readers should read to discuss about the book, perhaps in literature circles.  It is a book that I am highly considering for a group of Latino students to read as many of them are in Margie's situation.   There are a lot of Spanish phrases in the book but they are all explained in the following text, not just translated right afterwards.

Rating:  4 stars

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Wedding Chapel

The Wedding Chapel
by Rachel Hauck

Genre: Christian Fiction, Romance

Synopsis:  For sixty years, the wedding chapel has stood silent and empty.  Retired football hall-of-famer Jimmy "Coach" Westbrook built the chapel by hand, stone by stone, for his beautiful and beloved Collette Greer, whom he lost so many years ago.  The chapel is a sanctuary for his memories, a monument to true love, and a testament to his survival of the deepest pain and loss.

Photographer Taylor Branson left her hometown of Heart's Bend, Tennessee, to make a new life for herself in New York.  She had lots to run away from, not least of all a family history of broken promises and broken dreams.  Love catches Taylor off guard when she falls for Jack Forester, a successful advertising executive, and their whirlwind romance leads to an elopement-then to second guesses.  Jack, in spite of his very real love for Taylor, is battling his own demons and struggles to show her his true self and the depths of his love for her.

Taking a photography assignment in Heart's Bend, Taylor is thrown back into a past of family secrets buried deep beneath the sands of time.  When Taylor and Coach's journeys collide, they each rediscover the heartbeat of their own dreams as they learn that the love they long to hold is well worth the wait.
from the back of the book

Review:  From the get-go, this book did not draw me in like the other two books in this series.  I just wasn't as interested in Jimmy's life at all nor did I like the story of Taylor, Jack and Colette and they are all the main characters!  The book was so slow until two thirds of the way through.  Once you get past that, the book speeds up and becomes much more captivating.  All of a sudden I cared about the characters and what happened to them.  That aside, if I hadn't read the other books first, I would not have continued reading this series.  I felt like the Christian fiction aspect of this book didn't come into play until the end and it was on the lighter side.  The chapel is referred to in future books but I don't believe you meet any of the characters again.  This book could have been a stand alone.

Rating: 3 stars

To see my review of The Wedding Dress, click here.
To see my review of The Wedding Shop, click here.

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Memory of Violets: A Novel of London's Flower Sellers

A Memory of Violets: A Novel of London's Flower Sellers
by Hazel Gaynor

Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis:  In 1912, twenty-year-old Tilly Harper leaves the peace and beauty of her native Lake District for London, to become assistant housemother at Mr. Shaw’s Home for Watercress and Flower Girls. For years, the home has cared for London’s flower girls—orphaned and crippled children living on the grimy streets and selling posies of violets and watercress to survive.

Soon after she arrives, Tilly discovers a diary written by an orphan named Florrie—a young Irish flower girl who died of a broken heart after she and her sister, Rosie, were separated. Moved by Florrie’s pain and all she endured in her brief life, Tilly sets out to discover what happened to Rosie. But the search will not be easy. Full of twists and surprises, it leads the caring and determined young woman into unexpected places, including the depths of her own heart.
 
from GoodReads

Review:  The haunting and desperate chapters and letters written by Florrie grabbed me into this book and kept me listening.  My heart broke for these two little girls, Flora and Rosie, who had to survive on the street all on their own by selling flowers.  At first I wanted to know more about them and less about Tilly but then Tilly's interactions with the orphans and the flower girls captivated me as well.  Tilly eventually found a journal written by Florrie and then both of their stories were intertwined.  Since I was listening to the book on my way to and from work, there were times where I felt things were repeating but I couldn't go back and check.  I discovered later that Tilly's dreams often repeated themselves.  The narrator in the audio version had a wonderful voice and presence but I did not like her voice for Mrs. Ingram.  She didn't sound French to me.  Other than those 2 small details, I very much enjoyed the story and would read another book by this author.

Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum

Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum
by Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner

Genre: Non-fiction

Synopsis:  Kennedy Odede found his first grey hair at six.  Named after John F. Kennedy, he grew up as the eldest of eight children in Kibera, a teeming Kenyan slum without sewage systems, roads, running water, or access to basic needs, like health care and education.  At ten, he was along on the streets.  Homeless and in despair at sixteen, Kennedy was given a book of Martin Luther King's speeches.  Inspired, he bought a twenty-cent soccer ball and started a youth group, determined to bring the hope he'd found into the lives of his fellow citizens.  He called it Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO).

Several years later, Jessica Posner, an irrepressible Wesleyan student, went abroad to work with SHOFCO and, despite Kennedy's incredulous objections, moved into his tiny house.  They fell in love.  When Kennedy was threatened by political violence, Jessica helped him win a full scholarship to Wesleyan and brought him to America.  Torn between his community, Kennedy, with Jessica at his side, decided to start a school for Kibera's most vulnerable population: girls.

The alchemy of their remarkable union and the small, joyful world their brilliant collaboration has made in Kibera have drawn the support of community members and celebrities alike.  With this support, Jessica and Kennedy have been able to provide water, heath care, and entrepreneurial programs, which now serve more than seventy-six thousand people, and have replicated this model in Mathare, another Kenyan slum.  Because of their efforts, hundreds of young girls have the potential to become Kenya's future leaders, and tens of thousands of people living in poverty have access to clean water, health care, and economic empowerment programs.  Their girls attend school every day in crisp blue uniforms and red sweaters.  Filled with hope and ambition for the future, they adhere to a rigorous curriculum and out-performing students from the most expensive schools in Kenya.  By elevating these girls, Jessica and Kennedy have started a subtle yet powerful revolution in each community, and have dedicated themselves to bringing the same resolve and enthusiasm to urban slums beyond Kibera and Mathare.

Jessica and Kennedy's story is many things: a tender love story, a tale of how true leaders are made, and an account of the successful melding of the best in two cultures.  Few have fought as tenaciously and ingeniously against poverty and hopelessness as these two young people.  Their story vividly illustrates the power of young, hopeful people to have an impact on the world, and stands as a testament to the transformations made possible by true loves.
to the book jacket

Review:  The authors of this book are truly amazing people who persevered and never lost hope that they could better their community.  Kennedy overcame so much in his life from abuse, poverty, homelessness, crime, drugs, lack of education, and more to become a leader in his community who works tirelessly to make everyone's situations better.  Jessica is an innocent student from the United States who has no idea to poverty-stricken area that she is walking into but she dedicates herself to helping others and eventually is accepted as part of the community.  I'm amazed by how quickly the two of them were able to build infrastructure once they were able to procure funds.    This book does not sugarcoat events that happened at Kibera and the atrocities that occur to women and girls.  There are parts that are not easy to read and broke my heart to learn about how other people are living.  This book is truly eye opening.  This book makes me think about my life and what I can do to try to help others.

Rating: 5 stars

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Fish in a Tree

Fish in a Tree
by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Synopsis:  "Everybody is smart in different ways.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid."

Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people.  Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions.  She's tired of being called "slow" and "loser," but she's afraid to ask for help; after all, she thinks, how can you cure dumb?

However, Ally's newest teacher sees the bright, creative kid beneath the troublemaker and helps to shine a light on her gifts.  Meanwhile, Ally gets to know tell-it-like-it-is Keisha and science-and facts-obsessed Albert, who also break the mold.  The three stand together against others who are not so kind.

As the outsiders begin to fit in, surprising things begin to happen in Ally's classroom that show her there's a lot more to her-and everyone-than a label, and that great minds don't always think alike.
from the book jacket

Review:  This book provides a look into a sixth grader who has made it thus far without teachers realizing that she can't read and without realizing that she has a disability.  Ally provides a front of an "I don't care" attitude and causes trouble so that she can distract from her academic struggles.  But the truth is Ally really does want to read and she is very hurt by comments that kids make about her.  Ally feels dumb because she can't read and the author helps us feel her pain.  Ally finally gets help when a maternity leave sub, Mr. Daniels arrives.  This is definitely a good book for the juvenile fiction reading crowd.

I had a couple problems with the book as a teacher however.  It blows my mind that no one in Ally's first 5 years of schooling caught that she couldn't read.  She has moved around a lot but I still think teachers would have noticed and tried to get her help earlier.  That seemed a bit unrealistic to me considering all the testing we do to assess student's levels.  Another problem I had with the book was that the kids seemed wise beyond their years.  Ally, Keisha, Albert, and Suki (another girl in the class) all seemed to always have an adage to help them through a situation.  Mr. Daniels was also an unrealistic maternity leave substitute.  I'm not sure I've ever met a substitute that is that enthusiastic and that willing to put it that much extra work.  Even once they figure out what is wrong with Ally, she does not seem to get support within the school day which is unrealistic as well.  All the problems aside, I rated this book more on what the intended audience would think of the book and not what an adult who is a teacher thinks of the book.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, February 9, 2017

America's First Daughter

America's First Daughter
by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis:  From her earliest days, Patsy Jefferson knows that though her father loves his family dearly, his devotion to his country runs deeper still.  As Thomas Jefferson's oldest daughter, she becomes his helpmate, protector, and constant companion in the wake of her mother's death, traveling with him when he comes America's minister to France.

It is in Paris, at the glittering court and among the first tumultuous days of the French Revolution, the fifteen-year-old Patsy learns about her father's troubling liaison with Sally Hemmings, a slave girl her own age.  Meanwhile, Patsy has fallen in love-with her father's protege, William Short, a staunch abolitionist and ambitious diplomat.  Torn between love, principles, and the bonds of family, Patsy questions if she can choose a life as William's wife and still be a devoted daughter.

Her choice will follow her in the years to come-to Virginia farmland, to Monticello, and even to the White House.  And as scandal, tragedy, and poverty threaten her family, Patsy must decide how much she will sacrifice to protect her father's reputation, in the process defining not just Jefferson's political legacy but that of the nation he founded.
from the back of the book

Review: This book started so strongly.  I was caught up in the early life of Patsy at Monticello and then in France when Jefferson was the minister to France and even at first when she returned to Virginia.  But once Patsy married and had children and her father was involved in political drama and her sisters-in-law where caught up in scandal, the book slowed down.  There was so much history and that dragged the story down (and I like historical fiction!)  This book is lengthy-580 pages!  You feel that length in the middle when you just want the story to move along.  I feel like more could have been cut out of this book to make it a faster paced book.  I did enjoy the look into Thomas Jefferson's life from a different perspective and the look into a woman's life at that time.  You get more a behind the scenes look in the start of our government and how a woman was able to influence a man out of the public's eye.  Reading the author's note was definitely insightful to know what was fiction and what was not.

Rating: 3.5 stars