Sunday, September 19, 2021

#MMGM: Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman

When she was pregnant with him, Kabir Khan's mother was accused of a crime she did not commit and put into a Chennai jail where he was born. He has lived there since that day, in a cell with several other women besides his mother. Small for his age, no one paid much attention to Kabir until the new warden decides that at age 9, he is old enough to be released. Before he goes, his teacher at the prison school tries her best to prepare him for the outside world, as do his cellmates. 

On the day of his release, Kabir is picked up by a man who says he is his uncle. But it doesn't take long for him to realize that the man is not a relative and that he plans to sell Kabir. Using his wits, Kabir manages to escape and in the process he meets Rani, a Kurava (Roma) girl a few years older than him and living on the streets with her pet parrot. 

Rani take Kabir under her wing, teaching him how to survive on the streets, educating him on India's caste system that makes low caste people like them invisible to others. Together, they manage to earn money for food - Rani tells fortunes and Kabir sings. Kabir knows all about his father and how much his dad loved his mother, but his father never told his parents about his wife before he left for Dubai because she is Hindu and Kabir's father's family are Muslim. Now, Kabir is determined to go to Bengaluru to find his grandparents. 

A stroke of good luck and Kabir's strong sense of honesty enables him to get enough money to buy train tickets to Bengaluru for him and Rani. Sadly, they face caste discrimination buying the tickets and riding the train, but also kindness of strangers helping them. In Bengaluru, they find the mosque that the Khan family worships at and follow a man to his business thinking he might be a relative of Kabir's. But when fighting over water breaks out, Rani manages to help the man save his business. In return, he posts their pictures on social media and luck is once again on Kabir's side. His grandparents see the post and manage to find him and Rani. Soon, Kabir finally has new, clean clothes, enough to eat, a room of his own and he even makes another friend who teaches him how to play cricket. Rani, who hates being confined indoors, is introduced to a woman who runs a school that allows her to live in a tent of her own with her parrot,  and get an education. The woman also knows lawyers who may be able to get Kabir's mother released so that they can be reunited. 

Born Behind Bars is told in chapters that consist of short paragraphs and that are narrated entirely from Kabir's open, honest, observant perspective. Though his eyes, readers learn what jail is like for the women and children who are incarcerated there, and also what life on the streets is like for so many children in India. Kabir's story is a nice mix of good and bad things happening to both him and Rani as Venkatraman explores themes of poverty, tolerance and intolerance of religious and caste differences, justice and injustice, loss and revelation. I also think it may be surprising for young American readers to realize that children can find themselves alone in the world on the streets of India and that it isn't just a thing of the past. 

But is Kabir's luck too good to be true? I wondered that as I read the book and perhaps the story focused on the upshot of his good luck rather than the alternatives. Think what could have been if his fraudulent uncle has managed to sell this plucky, hopeful boy into what would have amounted to slavery.

I have always enjoyed reading Padma Venkatraman's novels set in India and this is no exception. The writing is beautiful, the story is poignant, and Kabir is a character you won't soon forget. He is honest, with an engaging sense of humor regarding his circumstances (I loved his private nicknames for the women with whom he shared his jail cell) and the challenges he faces on a daily basis. It is, in short, an enlightening, compelling novel.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from

Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, 
now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Book Blitz and Giveaway: The Hideaway by Pam Smy

The Hideaway by Pam Smy
Pavilion Children's Books, September 7, 2021, 256 pages
$19.95 ISBN: 978-1-84-365479-7

The Hideaway combines gripping text and stunning illustration to tell the story of Billy McKenna, a boy who runs away from a difficult situation at home and takes refuge in an overgrown graveyard to deal with his mixed-up emotions. There, Billy meets an elderly man who tends the graves in preparation for All Souls' Eve, and ultimately witnesses the magical events that come to pass on that spooky night. 

Interwoven in Billy's supernatural story is the all-too-realistic tale of his mother's situation at home and the police search for Billy. With themes of family and childhood, separation and reunion, domestic violence and doing the right thing, this is an important and beautiful book for middle graders through adults.

Billy's story is illustrated throughout in tonal and textured black and while drawings, until the event on All Souls' Eve, when the text gives way to a series of double page images of the supernatural happening. 

The Hideaway is a compelling, exciting and emotional story that will stay with you long after you turn the final page.

Meet the Author:
Pam Smy studied illustration at Cambridge School of Art, where she now lectures part-time. Pam has illustrated books by Conan Doyle, Julia Donaldson, and Kathy Henderson, among others. Her first novel, Thornhill, was a critical and commercial success, shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, the UKLA Book Awards, the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal 2018, and winning the 2018 British Book Design & Production Award for Graphic Novels. She lived in Cambridge, UK. 
Connect with Pam on her website Pam Smy
or on Instagram @pamsmyillustrator
or follow her on Amazon: Pam Smy
The Giveaway:
Five (5) winners will receive a hardcopy of The Hideaway. This giveaway is open to books lovers in the United States and in the United Kingdom (US/UK). The giveaway ends on September 19, 2021 at 11:59 PM ET

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Sunday, September 12, 2021

Book Blast + Giveaway: Soccer Trophy Mystery by Fred Bowen

This fall, award-winning author and Washington Post KidsPost Sports Columnist ("The Score") Fred Bowen is back with more soccer action and a new mystery - in Soccer Trophy Mystery, the newest addition to the popular tween Fred Bowen Sports Story Series. 
Soccer Trophy Mystery by Fred Bowen
(Fred Bowen Sports Stories Series #24
Peachtree Publishing,  9/1/2021, 144 pages
$16.99 ISBN: 978-1-68263-078-5
Thirteen-year-old twins Aiden and Ava and their good friend Daniel, all avid soccer players, have just learned their county league soccer trophy mysteriously disappeared forty years ago from the town library. It was never recovered.
So between games and practices for the town's soccer championships, the three friends try to solve the case. But will these amateur detectives be able to unravel the mystery and find someone who had both motive and opportunity to commit the crime? And will their teams make it all the way to the championships?

As with the rest of the acclaimed series, Fred Bowen weaves exciting play-by-play sports action with real sports history, including a chapter in the back of the book of "The Real Story" behind the disappearance of the original World Cup trophy that was never recovered. Featuring a new mystery storyline, as well as focusing on girls in sports, Soccer Trophy Mystery  is also a great book for character education both on and off the field.

Now with 24 books and close to a million copies sold, the bestselling series has received national and critical acclaim, saying the series "is flush with life lessons about perseverance, dedication, and picking oneself up after a hard knock" (Booklist) and "Fred Bowen never disappoints. His many action-packed novels speak to the hearts and minds of young sports lovers, and he demonstrated know-how and grace in writing about baseball, basketball, soccer and football" (Washington Parent). Each title in the series functions as a stand alone, so readers can dive right in whether this is their first foray into the series or their 24th. 

Meet the Author: 
Fred Bowen is the author of Peachtree's popular Fred Bowen Sports Story Series for middle grade readers. A lifelong sports fanatic, he has coached youth league baseball, basketball, and soccer. His kids' sports column "The Score" appears each week in the KidsPost section of the Washington Post. Bowen lives in Maryland.
Visit his website at
You can also find Fred on Twitter @FredBowenBooks

5 Winners will receive a 3-book set from the Sports Story Series: Soccer Trophy Mystery, Hardcourt Comeback, and The Golden Glove. The giveaway is open to residents living in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico and ends September 19, 2001 at 11:59 pm ET

Hardcourt Comeback (2010) by Fred Bowen

Part of Fred Bowen Sports Story Series

Calling all basketball fans! Return to the court in this action-packed Sports Story Series book from Washington Post KidsPost columnist and author Fred Bowen – perfect for fans of Mike Lupica and Tim Green.

“Reads like a successful drive to the hoop—quick, purposeful, and effective.” ―Booklist

Brett Carter, the Wildcats’ star forward, is a hotshot on his basketball team—or at least he was. After missing an easy layup shot at the buzzer in one of the most important games of the season, he feels like a total loser. And things only get worse from there…

At his best friend’s birthday party at a rock-climbing center, Brett freezes on the wall. Then he blows an easy question in the American history bee at school. And when he gets back on the court, he can’t get rid of this terrible pounding in his chest. Brett is losing his confidence fast. With the championship game is coming up, can he overcome his fears and play like a “winner” again?

In the afterword, author Fred Bowen shares real stories of well-known players and their hard-fought comebacks.



Discussion Guide:

The Golden Glove (2009) by Fred Bowen
Part of the Fred Bowen Sports Story Series

Ready to hit the baseball diamond? Check out this action-packed Sports Story Series book from Washington Post KidsPost columnist and author Fred Bowen – perfect for fans of Mike Lupica and Tim Green.Jamie’s lucky glove is the most precious thing in the world to him. He’s spent all winter oiling it while readying his skills for the upcoming season. But what happens when he loses the glove?After an unsuccessful search and a disappointing first game, Jamie realizes he’s lost much more than his glove. He’s lost confidence. So when he seeks help from the owner of a local sporting goods shop—a former minor league player—the old-timer shares the history of baseball gloves along with a few fielding tips to help improve Jamie’s game. But will it be enough to rebuild his confidence and replace the “luck” his beloved glove gave him?Author Fred Bowen engages baseball lovers in this relatable story of self-doubt, luck, and facing your fears. In the afterword, readers can learn more about the history of baseball gloves. 



Discussion Guide:


“The books in the Fred Bowen Sports Story series are fast-paced, and at just over 100 pages, they’re perfect for reluctant readers…. Young readers will devour these stories, along with their painless lessons, and still have time to join their friends for games.” 

—School Library Journal 

Hardcourt Comeback: “This entry in the Fred Bowen Sports Story series is flush with life lessons about perseverance, dedication, and picking oneself up after a hard knock, not to mention loads of on-court action. It reads like a successful drive to the hoop—quick, purposeful, and effective.” 


“Fred Bowen never disappoints. His many action-packed novels speak to the hearts and minds of young sports lovers, and he demonstrates know-how and grace in writing about baseball, basketball, soccer and football.” 

—Washington Parent Magazine

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Thursday, September 9, 2021

Threads of Peace: How Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Changed the World by Uma Krishnaswami

Threads of Peace: 
How Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Change the World
written by Uma Krishnaswami
Caitlyn Dlouhy Books/Atheneum, 2021, 336 pages

Publisher's Summary: 
Mahatma Gandhi and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. both shook, and changed, the world, in their quest for peace among all people, but what threads connected these great activists together in their shared goal of social revolution?

A lawyer and activist, tiny in stature with giant ideas, in British-ruled India at the beginning of the 20th century. 

A minister from Georgia with a thunderous voice and hopes for peace at the height of the civil rights movement in America. 

Born more than a half-century apart, with seemingly little in common except one shared wish, both would go on to become icons of peaceful resistance and human decency. Both preached love for all human beings, regardless of race or religion. Both believed that freedom and justice were won by not one, but by many. Both men met their ends in the most unpeaceful of ways - assassination. 

But what led them down the path of peace? How did their experiences parallel...and diverge? Threads of Peace keenly examines and celebrates these extraordinary activists' lives, the thread that connect them, and the threads of peace they laid throughout the world for us to pick up and weave together.  

My Thoughts: 
I always knew that Martin Luther King Jr. use of civil disobedience during the Civil Rights Movement was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, but that was pretty much it. Reading Uma Krishnaswami's new book about these two great men made me realize how little I actually knew about either one of them and just how extensive their impact on the world was and still is. As young men, both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. faced similar instances of racial discrimination that led them into a peaceful fight for equality for all people. 

As part of the merchant caste in Hindu society, Gandhi was able to go to school and get a good education. And following tradition, his married a 13 year-old girl named Kasturba in a union that had been arranged by his parents. Ironically, it may been the headstong Kasturba who first planted the seeds of passive resistance in his mind when she quietly refused to bend to his authoritarian demands that she obey him unquestioningly. Later, Gandhi's ideas about nonviolence may have been further influenced after reading Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau while imprisoned in South Africa for urging passive resistance to the ruling British among working Indians who were required by the 1906 Asiatic Registration Act to be fingerprinted and carry registration cards or be deported. He called this "passive resistance strategy satyagraha or holding fast to truth." (pg 67) 
Protesters March in Transvall (pg71)
Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in the south, in a world divided into white and "colored." At a young age, Martin learned to stay away from angry white people, but it was Martin's father who refused to accept the discriminatory system under which they were forced to live, imparting the values of dignity, self-respect and resistance to injustice that became guiding principles in Martin's life. Later, studying to become a minister, Martin began to read Walter Rauschenbusch, a theologian who believed that not just people's souls should be ministered to, but their bodies as well. Martin realized that he also needed to be concerned with unemployment, living conditions and economic insecurity in the lives of America's marginalized populations. Another influence was J.J. Muste, activist and clergyman, who believed in pacifism and peacefully resisting injustice. "Could nonviolent resistance ever be practical?" Martin wondered. (pg 135)  
March to Montgomery (pgs 256-7) 
The first section of Threads of Peace is devoted to Gandhi and his life, the second section covers the life of MLK Jr, but it is the third section that is so difficult to read as it cover the assassination of both men. But, as Krishnaswami shows, their untimely deaths hardly cut the threads to peace and equality that both men had worked so hard for during their lifetimes. 

Accompanying her well-researched biographies of Gandhi and MLK Jr. are copious photographs and documents, along with text boxes give more information. The author's text is simple, straightforward, and follows a linear timeline. Back matter includes an Author's Note, a Timeline for both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., a Glossary, an excellent Bibliography for further reading, and a list of Sources used.
Click to Enlarge
This histories of Gandhi and MLK Jr., a lawyer and a minister, makes for fascinating reading, all the more so because their stories a real and still resonate in today's world. I think this 1968 cartoon by Bill Mauldin of the Chicago Sun-Times says it all (pg291). Fifty-two years later, I personally witnessed an example of this in the spring, summer, and fall of 2020 when I joined supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement who were peacefully protesting down the street from me every evening.   

Meet the Author: Uma Krishnaswami

Uma Krishnaswami is the author of several books for children including Book Uncle and Me (International Literacy Association Social Justice Literature Award, USBBY Outstanding International Book [and one of my personal favorites]) and Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh (Asian Pacific American Librarians Award. 

Uma was born in New Delhi, India and now lives in British Columbia, Canada.
To learn more, visit her website: or her Facebook page:

Praise for Threads of Peace: 

★ “Krishnaswami’s comprehensive yet accessible text, complemented by intriguing, lesser-known facts, traces the life of each man, from his formative years to his rise as an influential leader to the untimely assassinations that cut both lives short…. A reflective presentation that will inspire young peacemakers.”  —Booklist (starred)

★“The book’s attractive design, lucid text, and carefully chosen details combine to create an inviting and original treatment of its subjects. History has been carefully intertwined with the present in this engaging and reflective book.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

Sunday, September 5, 2021

#MMGM Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk

Echo Mountain
by Lauren Wolk
Dutton BFYR/Penguin, 2020, 356 pages

When the depression causes her family to lose everything, and move from town to a more rustic life on Echo Mountain, Ellie, 11, finds herself quite at home in the forests surrounding the mountainside, as does her father. Her older sister Esther and mother don't feel quite as at home and would prefer to move back to town and the life they once had, where father was a tailor and mother was a music teacher. But when her father is severely injured in an accident while he is cutting down a tree that leaves him in a coma, Ellie feels that she is entirely to blame for it, and knows that Esther sees it as her fault as well. Ellie begins to take over many of her father's responsibilities and the only bright spots in her life are the little carved wooden forest creatures and plants she finds in different places and her dog, Quiet. It was thought that Quiet was dead when he was born, but instead of burying him like she was supposed to, Ellie thrust him into a bucket of cold water, which revised the puppy. Unfortunately, similar rash attempts at reviving her father do not end that successfully.  

Ellie also has noticed a dog without an owner a number of times in the forest. But when she is led to the cabin at the top of Echo Mountain by the dog, she finds not the hag everyone says to stay away from, but a rather seriously ill elderly woman named Cate whom Ellie helps nurse back to health. Impressed by Ellie's innate sense of what to do, Cate begins to share her own secrets for healing. But Cate, like Ellie, has some secrets and as the two get to know and trust each other, secrets are revealed.  

I originally read Echo Mountain for the Cybils award, but recently had the pleasure of rereading it for a summer program. I loved it, as did the kids I read it with. In fact, I couldn't put it down both times that I read it, even knowing what was going to happen. It is the kind of book that I would have read as an 11 or 12 year-old and hung on every word. The writing is lyrically beautiful and the characters are just eccentric enough to be really appealing. I loved seeing Ellie grow and change, becoming more and more comfortable in her surroundings and just absorbing everything about natural healing that Cate can teach her. Overall, I thought Ellie was a wonderfully strong, independent protagonist and her story will resonate with readers for a long long time, as it did with my readers this summer.

I said the writing is lyrically beautiful. How beautiful? Let me share my favorite passage and judge for yourself:

"What am I supposed to do?" I said aloud, though I was alone. But the sky was busy being the sky. And the trees were busy being trees. And the birds, likewise, were busy being exactly who they were. Which was, in itself, an answer. I made up my mind to listen to the flame in my chest, which sighed and roared  and sighed again like a long piece of music I knew by heart but still seemed to be hearing fresh." (pg. 169)

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL
Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, 
now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle

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