Friday, April 17, 2015

Echo, a novel by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Today I want to share the post I wrote about  this book for my other blog, The Children's War, simply because I found this to be such an enchanting novel.  

When young Otto goes missing in a German forest during a game of Hide and Seek, he meets three princesses, sisters named EinsZwei and Drei (One, Two and Three).  The sisters were brought to a witch by a midwife after their father, the king, rejected them for not being the son he wanted.  Now, they have been cursed by the witch to live in a small clearing, unable to leave until they save a soul from death's door.  The sister's hope comes from the prophecy each were given by the midwife when she left them with the witch: "Your fate is not yet sealed/ Even in the darkest night/ a star will shine/ a bell will chime/ a path will be revealed."

As an adult, Otto becomes a master harmonica maker, but when one of them is destroyed in an important order for 13 harmonica's, he decides to include the one that each of the sisters had played.  One the bottom of the harmonica, he paints the letter M.

The story skips now to Germany in 1933, just as Hitler comes to power.  For 12 year old Friedrich Schmidt, life is hard.  Not only was he born with half is face covered in a wine colored birthmark, and Friedrich can hear music in his head and has an uncontrollable need to conduct it, making his a target of the other kids and earning him the name Monster Boy.  A loner, Friedrich finds the M marked harmonica in an abandoned factory.  The music from it is like no other he has ever heard before.  After his father is arrested and sent to Dachau, Friedrich becomes a target of the Nazis despite the fact that his sister is an important member of the Hitler Youth's League of German Girls.  Though he is about to audition for the music conservatory and realize his dream of conducting, Friedrich realizes he must try to free his father and escape Germany.

The story skips two years to an orphanage in 1935 Pennsylvania.  Mike Flannery and his younger brother Frankie are adopted by Mrs. Sturbridge's lawyer Mr. Howard on the spot when it turns out that they can play piano beautifully.  The adoption is done to meet the requirements of the will left by Mrs. Sturbridge's father.  But when Mike learns that Mrs. Sturbridge is planning on have the adoption reversed, he makes a deal with her.  If her keeps Frankie, he will audition for a travelling harmonica troupe of young kids.  After all, he has a harmonica marked with an M that makes an especially beautiful sound.

The story jumps to California in 1942.  Japanese Americans have just been rounded up and sent to internment camps.  For Ivy Lopez and her parents, that means a job and the possibility of owning land, having a permanent home and never needing to move from job to job.  Her father new job is caring for the house and land of an interned family, the Yamamotos, whose oldest son is serving in the army.  Ivy, who has come into possession of a harmonica marked with and M that makes an especially beautiful sound from her old school, is excited to join the orchestra in her new school, until she discovers that the Mexican American students don't attend the main school, going to a ramshackle annex instead. 

Three different stories bound together in space and time by one harmonica marked with an M but how do their destiny's connect?  Ryan ends each story with a cliffhanger, but it all comes together in the end.  In the meantime, she shows the reader how music can be a sustaining force even in the most difficult times.  Each of the characters must deal with situations that are rife with hate, suspicion and intolerance to suffering for those who are different and helpless in some way. 

Ryan uses the technique of a Rahmenerzählung, framing the three stories with the story of Otto and the fairytale story of the three sisters, giving it a nice magical element.  Ryan holds the reader in suspense about every one's destiny and how they connect until the very end, but it is a delicious kind of suspense. 

Echo is an enchanting novel that carries a message of hope, even throughout the scary parts, but readers should still read it with a willing suspension of disbelief to really get  appreciate the entire story.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL (but I liked it so much, I've decided I need to buy a copy for my personal library)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Audacity by Melanie Crowder

Living with her mother, father and three brothers in a shtetl in Russia, young Clara Lemlich's great desire is to go to school and get an education.  But in her strict Orthodox Jewish family, education is limited to her brothers, who will follow in the footsteps of their father, praying and studying the Torah.  But Clara has learned to read Russian against her father's wishes, and even after he destroys her few hard won books, she doesn't give up.

After the pogrom of 1903 against the Jews in nearby shtetls, the Lemlichs decide to emigrate to the United States.  It is a long, harrowing trip, but eventually they arrive in New York City and make their way to a small dingy apartment on the Lower East Side.  Day after day, her mother goes out looking for work, while her husband and sons spend their times praying and studying.  Finally, her father decides that Clara shall be the one who goes out to work.

Finding a job in a sweatshop making shirtwaists at $6.00 a week, she brings home the family's only income.  The work is harsh, under grueling circumstances, with row upon row of women and children sewing in a locked room, only allowed to go to the restroom twice a day despite the long hours.  And at the end of the day, the girls and women are inappropriately patted down to make sure they haven't stolen anything.  But Clara also discovers public libraries and the free school, and her hope of going to school revived.

After getting fired from her first job, her second job pays less and the workdays are longer.  More harsh conditions and more abuse from the sweatshop owners, foreman.  Once day, Clara hears the word union and, after learning what it means, decides the women she works with in the garment industry also need a union to represent them, just as the men, who are treated differently, have.

Little does Clara realize what forming a union will involve.   Her dream to go to school and become a doctor is given up in her fight for better working conditions for the women in the garment industry.  To that end, she is spit on, locked out of jobs that she needs, she's beaten repeatedly by thugs and by the police, she's jailed and hospitalized, but she never stops, never gives up.   To say that Clara was a young woman who had a definite streak of defiance and a very strong sense of what is right and what is wrong, is to say the least about her.  And she succeeds!

Audacity is a imagine fictional portrayal of the early life of Clara Lemlich.  Written in beautiful free verse, it is the story of a small, but fearless, and yes, audacious fighter.  Told from Clara's point of view in the first person, the reader is privy to her hopes, dreams, thoughts, fears, especially telling is her anger at her father for denying her an education, for not working when the family is so destitute.

Free verse novels can look deceptively simple, and they are wonderful enticements for reluctant readers, but make no mistake, the content is not so much complicated as it is far more thought provoking than you might at first think it is.

One of my favorite books from 2013 is Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 (which happens to be the end point of Audacity), a picture book for older readers, and as I read Audacity, I had flashes of the illustration from this book.  So although Audacity is a book meant for teens, it could be nicely paired with Brave Girl.

Melanie Crowder has written a spellbinding story, full of historical and cultural references that make it an eminently readable full-bodied novel and a source of inspiration.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book is a ARC received from the publisher, Philomel Books

If you are ever in New York City and want to see what life was life for immigrants living on the Lower East Side like the Lemlich family, be sure to visit The Tenement Museum

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Catch You Later, Traitor by Avi

It's 1951 and for 12 year-old Pete Collison life is all about the Brooklyn Dodgers, Sam Spade mystery stories, and his best friend Kat A/K/A Katherine Boyer.  He could completely live without his older brother Bobby, who thinks only about rockest and getting into an elite science camp run by am aeronautical government agency, and the NY Giants because what self-respecting Brooklynite would root for any other team than the Dodgers?  Yes, life was pretty ordinary for Peter Collison.

Until one Thursday morning in April, when everything changed.  Suddenly, Pete's teacher Mr. Donovan started picking on him, his friends started to avoid him and even things with Kat felt different.  To top it all off, when Pete got home from school that day, there was a mysterious phone call from a stranger telling him he has to help, but help who? and why?

Pete figures out that Mr. Donovan has said something to the class about his parents, but no one, not even Kat, will tell him what.  The next day, a Friday, Pete's seat in class is changed to last seat, last row -the public school equivalent of no man's land.  And by the end of the day, Pete realizes that his teacher thinks his father is a Communist and had spoken to the class about it on Wednesday when he was out of the room.

At home that day, there is another mysterious phone call asking if Pete would help.  Suddenly, Pete has a lot to think about.  Could his father, a professor of American History at City College, really be a commie?  And even if he did have some affiliation with the Communist Party, who told the FBI about it?  What, Pete asked himself, would Sam Spade do?  His answer - poke around, look for clues, watch, listen and wait, keep everything to himself until he figured things out.

Things seem to just go downhill for Pete.  He's constantly followed by the FBI, who want him to spy on his father, Kat is sent away to boarding school because of him, and the only friend he seems to have left is the blind neighbor he reads to once a week.  To top it all off, after putting his best Sam Spade detecting methods to work, Pete discovers some incriminating family history from the Great Depression that could land his dad in jail.  And now his dad is being called before the Subversive Activities Control Board.  Can all of Pete's clues and information help his dad now?  Or will it only hurt his case?

Catch You Later, Traitor is told in the first person by Pete, who at times tells his story in the language and style of a Sam Spade novel.  This gives the story lots of period flavor and also serves to introduce information which would otherwise be awkward or distracting to include, but necessary to the story.  But that is part of Avi's strength as a writer.

And Avi always manages to produce clever page-turning historical fiction.  Infused with the big story, here McCarthyism and the Red Scare of the early 1950s are real details about living in Brooklyn at that time.  His stylized narration reminded me so much of his two earlier books, Don't You Know There's a War On? and Who was that Masked Man, Anyway? All three books are written in the protagonists favorite form of entertainment - detective novels, snappy slang and radio shows.  I like to think of these as Avi's Brooklyn trilogy.

If Avi is good at capturing the micro-flavor of a time and place, he is also able to realistically represent more complicated macro-events of a period.  McCarthyism was a movement that bred so much fear and ignorance, and that impacted so many lives, including Sam Spade author Dashiell Hammett.  The McCarran Act gave the government license to hunt down anyone they thought might be a subversive and as we see with Pete's dad, if a person couldn't or was unwilling to give names of other Communist party members or sympathizers, they could be imprisoned.  FBI intimidation/bullying tactics are also realistically portrayed.

I think Catch You Later, Traitor is a good introductory novel to this complicated era, and nicely explores themes of loyalty, friendship, the meaning of family as well as the rights and freedoms granted Americans under the Bill of Rights.

If you like Avi, this is a book for you; if you are new to Avi's novels, jump in, you are in for a treat.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book is an EARC received from NetGalley

Monday, April 6, 2015

New Shoes by Susan Lynn Meyer, illustrated by Eric Velasquez

It's the 1950s somewhere in the Jim Crow south and Ella Mae is off to buy new shoes with her mom.  Normally, Ella Mae's new shoes would have been a pair of her older sisters outgrown shoes, but her feet have grown and she can't wear her sister's hand-me-down shoes anymore.

Money is counted out and soon Ella Mae and her mom are off to Johnson's shoe store, where they are ignored by the salesman in favor of a white girl and her father who came in after them.  Eventually the salesman acknowledges them, pointing out where the pencil and paper are so that Ella Mae's mom could draw an outline of her feet.

Why? Because African Americans were not allowed to actually try on shoes back then; shoes were matched to the outline of a person's foot.

Sadly, Ella Mae's cousin Charlotte tells her that she has had the same humiliating experience buying shoes at the shoe store.  So Ella Mae comes up with a plan.  The two girls diligently begin doing chores for neighbors, and all they ask for is a nickel and a pair of outgrown shoes.

Finally, they have enough nickels and shoes to set their plan in action.  The girls clean and polish and wash shoelaces for all the usable shoes.  And when all that's done they open their own shoe store - Ella Mae and Charlotte's Shoes, price: 10¢ and their used pair. And the best part of their shoe store is the everyone can try the shoes on.

I really liked this book because it not only opened a window on a shameful part of American history but I loved the way Ella Mae and her cousin Charlotte came up with a way to fight back and solve a problem in a way that also allowed their friends and neighbors to be treated respectfully at the same time.  And it shows how even kids can make a difference.

New Shoes is narrated by Ella Mae in a very matter of fact way that immediately draws the reader into her world.  For the realistic oil painted illustrations, Valasquez used a palette of earth tones for the background and but he shows the girl's dresses in soft pastels.  In this way, the illustrations compliment the narrator's tone, making it feel inmate yet still giving the reader some needed objective distance to think about what is being said.  

Sometimes when we talk about things like the Jim Crow south and segregation, we tend to see the overall picture.  But historical picture books for older readers like New Shoes are able to bring to light the everyday individual indignities and humiliations caused when these ideas were played out.  Trying on a pair of new shoes is such an ordinary, everyday thing that most people probably don't even think about it, let alone think about a time when African Americans were not allowed to simply because of the color of their skin.  

Be sure to read the informative Author's Note at the back of New Shoes.  

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from a friend

Friday, April 3, 2015

A Poem in Your Pocket by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Poetry Friday is a weekly meme, hosted this week by Amy at The Poem Farm.  Thanks for hosting this week, Amy.

April is National Poetry Month and what better way to start the month than with a picture book about poetry.  And Margaret McNamara's third book about Mr. Tiffin and his students is definitely up to the task.

All through April, Mr. Tiffin's class is going to learn all about poems in preparation for poem in you pocket day and a author visit from a well known poet, Emmy Crane.  But Elinor has spent all of March at the library studying poetry. so now she has all the answers when it comes things like similes, metaphors concrete poems, haiku, acoustic poems.

But when Mr. Tiffin takes the class out for a walk to practice using their poet's eyes, the kids in Elinor's class all seem to be able to see the poetry around them except Elinor.  And when brings brown bags with surprises in them for everyone and asks each student to write a poem about what's in their bag, Elinor just can't seem to get one written.  Her poetry journal is blank.

Over the weekend, Elinor writes poem after poem, but none are good enough as far as she is concerned.  Finally, on Poem in Your Pocket Day, Elinor goes to school with an empty pocket.  In assembly, Emmy Crane reads some to her own poetry to the children, and each child reads their poem to her.  But when its Elinor's turn, she courageously goes up on the stage and confesses to Emmy that she has no poem, none were perfect enough for a poet like her.  No poem is perfect, Emmy tells her, but can she help Elinor find her poet's eye?

A Poem in Your Pocket is an ideal book for introducing young readers and writers about poetry, a subject that is so often overlooked in schools these days.   It is a wonderful read aloud as well as a great teaching tool.  McNamars's definitions of the different poetic terms used are simply defined making that aptly suited for young children just starting their poetic life.  I loved the walk Mr. Tiffin took the kids on to discover the poetry in the things that they see everyday but probably don't think much about.

Added to this wonderful book are Karas's gouache, acrylic and pencil sometimes full page, sometimes spot illustrations, adding to and enhancing the story.  He really captures Elinor's frustration and despair, along with the eagerness with which the other kids in the class embraced poetry. I really liked that Mr. Tiffin's class was portrayed as very diverse.

I thought this was going to be a story about a girl who just wasn't terribly poetic.  Instead it was about how we all have a poet's eye and that there is no such thing as a perfect poem.  Of course, the underlying message is about how the need to be or do something perfectly results in being completely unproductive because nothing measures up.  And bravo for the portrayal of a caring teacher and poet who both gently showed Elinor what's important.

A Poem in Your Pocket is a book not to be missed.

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was borrowed from a friend

Remember - Poem in Your Pocket Day is Thursday, April 30, 2015

You can find our more about Poem in Your Pocket Day including poems to download, and ways to participate HERE

Susan at The Book Chook also has some tips and resources for Poem in Your Pocket Day that can be found HERE

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

X, a novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon

Ilyasah Shabazz, youngest daughter of civil rights activist Malcolm X, has already written two books about her famous father, but now she, with Kekla Magoon, has written a fictionalized version of his youth and the circumstances that led to his conversion to the Nation of Islam.  X, a novel makes for fascinating, gritty reading that once you start will be hard to put down, even if you have already read The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (yes, the author of Roots).

Almost from the beginning, Malcolm Little's life is filled with strife, anger, and disappointment.  Living in Lansing, Michigan, his father, Earl Little, a black activist, is killed, pushed in front of a streetcar most likely by the Black Legion (a splinter group of the KKK) when Malcolm is 6 years old.  As a result, the Little family is forced to live in abject poverty, his mother working only when she could pass herself off as white and get a job.

Malcolm is an intelligent, straight A student, even becoming class president in junior high, but he has always been a bit of a wild child as well, mostly stealing food to help feed his family.  When the authorities finally succeed in having his mother committed to a mental institution against her will. the now teen aged Malcolm, his brothers and sisters are all placed in different foster homes.  Malcolm is stunned when a teacher he likes tells him that he "didn't need a high school diploma to be a nigger." (pg 83)  Suddenly, Malcolm realizes that what he often took for friendliness by the white kids was racism, plain and simple.  Naturally, when his half sister Ella comes to Lansing from Boston, and invites Malcolm to come live with her, he jumps at the chance to get away and start over.

In Boston, Malcolm has a room and bed of his own plus plenty of food to eat, but his eyes are also opened to the racism that still surrounds him, and it doesn't take long for him to become completely disillusioned about the lessons his father had taught him about pride and equality for black people.  And it doesn't take long for him to discover liquor, jazz, drugs and women, particularly one white woman named Sophia as ways to shut out what he knows to be true.

But life soon becomes very dangerous and dark for Malcolm in Boston, and after seeing Harlem in New York, he decides that is where he belongs, where he can start over again.  But it doesn't take long for trouble to find him in Harlem and Malcolm is forced back to Boston.  Malcolm has never let go of Sophia, even after she marries, and once he is back in Boston, she proposes a scheme that will bring Malcolm, his friend Shorty, Sophia and her sister an abundance of money.  But when he is caught by the police, Malcolm is sent to prison and it is there that he is really able to start over, finally finding his true self when converts to Islam.

X, a novel is narrated by Malcolm but you need to remember that it is a historical fiction and the perspective is not that of the real Malcolm X.  The story begins in Harlem, in 1945 with Malcolm fleeing from a numbers runner he cheated but immediately and continuously begins to move fluidly between his past and his present.  Shabazz and Magoon don't spare the reader much in writing about the kind of gritty debauchery Malcolm fell so easily into, but they also make it clear that his self-destructive behavior resulted from a combination of disillusionment with this father's teachings, cruel racism, feeling that he can't change any of it, and the desire to keep these truths at bay in a constant haze of women, liquor, and reefer.

I found this to be one of the most compelling novels I have read in a long time.  My only complaint is that I thought a few short footnotes would have been useful to explain some people young readers may not be familiar with, for example, Marcus Garvey.  And although there are useful notes in the back of the book and a timeline of Malcolm X's life, it is kind of annoying have to flip to the back to find something.  But, I also think it is the kind of novel that will lead you seek out more information about this controversial but often misunderstood man regardless of what you may think of his activism.

No matter what you feel about X, a novel, it is definitely a book that will make you think.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book as received from the publisher, Candlewick Press

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Best Children's Books of the Year, 2015 edition from Bank Street CBC

Besides choosing which books should receive the three Bank Street Children's Book awards each year, the Bank Street Children's Book Committee also publishes a list of best books for young readers age infant to 16 years old.

You can find past lists in PDF form from 2010-2014 on their website HERE.

The Best Book lists are divided by age and includes both fiction and nonfiction.  Within age groups, books are further subdivided by genre, e.g. Fantasy, Coming of Age, Sports etc and each book listed is annotated.  And while every book on the list is considered a best book, there are some extraordinary books marked with a star. 

The 2015 Edition of the Best Children's Books of the Year, 2015 can be found HERE.  This year there is even a print edition that can be purchased for $10.00 (plus $3.00 shipping) by contacting us at

You can also read about the committee's guidelines for choosing the best books each year HERE

I know I posted about the 2015 winners of the Bank Street Children's Book Committee awards, but in case you missed it, here they are again: 

2015 Josette Frank Award for Fiction

For older readers::
I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Dial Books, 2014, 384 pages

For younger readers:
Feiwel and Friends, 2014, 240 pages

2015 Claudia Lewis Award for poetry

For older readers:
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014, 336 pages

For younger readers:
Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Rick Allen
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, 32 pages

2015 Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for nonfiction

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin
Candlewick Press, 2014, 192 pages
Imagination Designs