Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War by Helen Frost
In 1812 in Indian Territory, two boys forge a friendship over hunting, fishing and survival of their families. James’ family runs the trading post at Fort Wayne, living right outside the walls of the fort. Anikwa’s family, members of the Miami tribe, has lived on this land for generations. Now two armies are heading right to Fort Wayne to battle, the Americans and British will meet for a critical battle. The question becomes whose side the Miami will be on when the battle occurs. But even more deep is the question of whether the friendship between the two boys and their two families can survive this battle and the losses that it brings.
Frost has mastered the verse novel, creating a work that functions as beautiful poetry with profound depths and also as a complete novel. Frost puts a human face on history in this novel that tells the story of a major battle in the war of 1812. By the time the soldiers arrive, readers care deeply for both boys and their families. So when the destruction starts, the wounds are real and the losses far beyond numbers. The poems show readers the beauty of the landscape, the bounty of the land, and all that is possibly lost afterwards.
Frost writes from both boys’ points of view in alternating poems. So the lifestyle and losses of both families is shown from their own points of view. Anikwa’s poems are done in a poetic form that creates a pattern on the page. Frost explains in her notes at the end that this is to mimic Miami ribbon work. Without knowing this while reading, I could still see the square form of James’ poem representing the fort and the home he lived in next to the motion-filled form of Anikwa’s poems that exuded nature.
An exquisite verse novel that fills history with real people and war with real loss. Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel by Deborah Hopkinson
Things have been a lot worse for Eel in the past, he now has a place off of the streets where he can sleep safely and he only goes to the River Thames to dig for things to sell to make ends meet. He has serious responsibilities that he keeps entirely private. It helps that he faked his own death to get Fisheye Bill Tyler off of his trail. But Eel still keeps his street smarts and listens, so he knows that Fisheye is back after him. Then in the summer of 1854, his entire world turns upside down and the Great Trouble begins as the Blue Death of cholera comes right into his neighborhood in London. Everyone knows that it is spread through the air, but one doctor, that Eel does small chores for, thinks differently. Now it is up to Eel to help the doctor prove that it is the water that carries the disease before hundreds more die.
Celebrating the visionary Dr. John Snow on the 200th anniversary of his birth, this book successfully mixes historical fact with historical fiction resulting in a dynamic book with engaging characters. At the outset of the book, Hopkinson takes care to make sure that readers understand what living in poverty and parentless was like in Victorian England. She shows the filth, the danger, the loneliness and the skill that it took to survive.
Eel is a wonderful protagonist. He is incredibly smart, driven to help those he cares for, and a mixture of brave and desperate, something that keeps him at the center of this medical mystery. Hopkinson does a great job of keeping all of her characters true to the time period, offering no modern sensibilities into the equation, but presenting it just as it would have been.
This is a dark and thrilling novel that will not let you escape until the epidemic is over and the mystery solved. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.
A Single Pebble by Bonnie Christensen
Mei wished that she could travel to the market with her father, but she had to stay behind and care for their silk worms. So Mei gave her father a jade pebble to take along and give to a child at the end of the Silk Road. Though her father was only traveling part of the road, Mei was sure that her pebble could go all the way to the end. Mei’s father gave the pebble to a traveling monk who was heading further west on the road. The monk in turn gave the pebble and his flute to a young man who was going even farther west. And so the pebble headed west from hand to hand and other objects joined it in a collection from “a girl in the land where the sun rises.” Finally, after many hands and many people had cared for the pebble, it reached the hands of a young pirate who returned home to his family. His son in Italy received that pebble at the same time that Mei got a piece of blue glass that their city in Italy specialized in.
Set in the 9th century, this book pays homage to the various peoples and communities, nationalities and religions along the Silk Road. Readers will get a great sense of the length of this trading route thanks to Christensen’s story that makes it very concrete and connected. The book also celebrates a good story, where the gifts multiply and all because the story surrounding them becomes more and more compelling as the pebble moves farther from home.
Christensen’s art changes throughout the book. The early pages are softened by the watercolor river and hazy trees in the backgrounds. Moving further into the book, the images become more crisp and clear as the desert takes over the story. The softness returns in Italy again with a different light than the one in China. It is all delicately done and evokes both a connection between the two places but also real differences too.
A rousing journey of a book, this story is a celebration of the Silk Road. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.
All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry
Judith has returned to her family and her small Puritan town after being missing for two years but she is unable to speak because her tongue has been cut out. Without speech, the entire community ignores Judith and treats her as if she is less than a person. Her own mother reviles her, never saying her name and ordering her around as “you” instead. In her silence, Judith has many secrets that she keeps close. She sees everything and moves through the town as if she is a ghost. But inside herself, Judith is smart, caring and dutiful. When her mother refuses to hear her attempts at speech, Judith stops trying altogether. When the boy she loves takes another as a fiancé, Judith is only kind to the girl. Secrets though have a way of getting out and one dangerous secret may just be able to save their community.
The first thing I have to say is that the cover is lovely but very misleading. This is a book set in an unnamed historical setting and the cover reads entirely modern. Reading the book I was astonished to find it was historical fiction and kept turning back to the cover in confusion. The paperback cover is no better since it also conveys a modern feel.
With the cover aside, this is one incredible read. One might think the lack of real historical context would be an issue, but it works well here. The focus is on the people rather than the setting, though the world of Puritanical thought is an important element throughout. The book is a real mystery novel with the questions of what really happened to Judith swirling throughout the book. The reveal is tantalizingly written, making for one compelling novel.
Berry writes with a lyrical voice throughout, capturing the loneliness and longing of Judith. The beauty of the writing serves as a way for readers to see the thoughts of Judith and understand that she is rich with thinking inside. Berry is also masterful at pacing and how she reveals the details. It is entirely on her terms and readers may guess what is coming but can never be sure until it is revealed. It is a book where the ending is crucial, exciting and immensely satisfying.
A great pick to book talk for teens, the premise of this historical novel should be more than enough to get teens to pick it up. The writing and the mystery will keep them reading. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by James Ransome
Based on Woodson’s own family, this is the story of how one piece of rope serves as a symbol for the changes that came during the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural south to northern cities. One little girl tells the story of how her grandparents moved to New York City, using the rope to tie their things to the top of the car. The rope was used to tie up the drying flowers from their window boxes that reminded them of home. It was used by the little girl’s mother to tug her toys and play jump rope. It tied her mother’s belongings to another car when she went off to college. Then it was used for more jump rope with the little girl and in the end to support the banner for their family reunion. In the end, it was returned to the original grandmother in exchange for a new rope to jump with.
Woodson adheres to a strict structure in this book that really makes it feel like folklore, connecting it verbally to other histories, other migrations, other families. Each page begins with “This is the rope…” and then moves on to tell the next thing that the rope was used for in this changing family. Turning the pages, readers can see the time change and the opportunities progress.
Ransome’s illustrations are lovely. His paintings capture light and its movement as well as the family as they change. Most of them catch those fleeting moments of life, each connected by the symbol of rope. The result is a rich and warm series of memories.
Beautifully written and illustrated, this book captures a period of time not seen in most picture books and a story of one family’s history. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Nancy Paulsen Books.
The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt
Max’s parents who were both well-known actors had been invited to Kashmir, India to start a theater troupe there. They planned to take Max along with them but then they disappear. The ship they were meant to take does not exist and they are simply gone. That left Max with just his grandmother to care for him, but Max knew that if he was well-cared for, his grief would be too much to bear. Instead he moved back to his family home, across the garden from his grandmother, and had to find a way to earn his keep. It was through that that he stumbled upon a job at which he was exceptionally good: being a detective or as Max preferred, a “solutioneer.”
Set around the turn of the 20th century, this novel has a strong, brisk pace that is invigorating. Max is a character who is bright, curious and always thinking. Voigt populates his life with many other interesting characters, including is wonderful librarian grandmother, the various people he helps find solutions for, and even one demanding baby. The entire book is a vibrant historical fiction that will have great appeal.
One of my favorite aspects of the novel is the use of painting and creativity as a way to allow your brain space to think and figure things out. Max is a painter, creating watercolors of the sky during different seasons. It is this artistic outlet that is a big key to his success and creative thinking. Voigt ties the two together clearly and also gives other characters creative outlets that make them even more well-rounded.
The first book in a new series, this book is a delight of mysteries, solutions, theater and historical fiction. Appropriate for ages 10-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Knopf Books for Young Readers.
Boxers by Gene Luen Yang
Saints by Gene Luen Yang
These two incredible graphic novels tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1898. Boxers is told from the point of view of Little Bao, a young villager who has seen the foreign missionaries and soldiers take the ancient Chinese gods and beliefs and smash them apart. Trained in kung fu by a wandering man and also introduced to a ritual to bring the ancient gods to life, Little Bao becomes the leader of a band of commoners who become instrumental in the rebellion. Saints looks at the other side of the rebellion and is the story of Four-Girl, a daughter not even given a real name by her family. She finds a place for herself in Christianity, at first only attending the teachings because of the cookies but eventually finding a new name and new identity as Vibiana. Her faith makes her a target and both Vibiana and Little Bao have to find the extent of their beliefs and what they are willing to sacrifice for them. There are no easy answers here, no right and wrong, there are only choices in the middle of violence.
Yang has created two books that must be read together to get a full picture of the history. Both books are one-sided, showing only the point of view of the rebels or the Christians. At the same time, they are both balanced against one another, showing the violence on both sides, the hubris, and the faith. They also both capture a young individual caught up in history and questioning their own choices.
As always, Yang has written a compelling book. His art is strong and his story arcs are well developed. I found Boxers to be the more interesting of the two with the Chinese gods and the question of being in control of that amount of violence. Saints to me is a necessary foil to Boxers but lacks its depth. That said, Boxers is one of the more compelling graphic novels I have read for tweens, so Saints had a lot to live up to.
Highly recommended, this graphic novel duo has a place in every library collection. Its violence and questions about faith, duty and responsibility make it a good choice for teens and tweens. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from digital galleys received from NetGalley and First Second.
Bluffton by Matt Phelan
Nothing ever happens in Muskegon, Michigan in 1908. So when a troupe of visiting vaudeville performers sets up their summer camp in neighboring Bluffton, young Henry just has to take a peek. There he meets Buster Keaton, a boy his age who performs on the vaudeville circuit with his parents. His father tosses him around as part of their act, gaining him the nickname of The Human Mop. Henry longs for Buster to teach him how to do tricks and falls, but Buster is much more interested in playing baseball and swimming in the lake. The boys forge a summery friendship that is renewed as each year passes and summer returns. It is the story of a young Buster Keaton who will soon take the world by storm when he starts making movies and also captures a time of perfect summers filled with baseball and elephants.
Phelan has returned with another amazing graphic novel. He takes his own unique approach to them, using the classic framed structure but pairing it with paintings that are done in ink and watercolor. The result is a gorgeous mix of modern and historical, matching the theme of the book nicely.
In this graphic novel, readers get to meet Buster Keaton through the eyes of another boy. Those of us who grew up watching Keaton perform amazing stunts will recognize the amazing man in this young boy with no hesitation. Fascinatingly, the book does not rely on his feats to tie the boy to the man, instead it is about attitude and a defiant fearlessness.
Strong characterization, a glimpse of summers gone by, and one amazing true story create a graphic novel that is pure radiance. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Al Capone Does My Homework by Gennifer Choldenko
Released August 20, 2013
This is the third and final book in the Alcatraz trilogy. Moose is growing up on Alcatraz where his father has just been made Assistant Warden. But with the promotion also comes dangers that he had not faced as a guard. Moose quickly discovers that the inmates have a point system where his father is now worth a lot more points if he is attacked. Moose has far more to worry about though, when there is a fire in their family apartment. Moose feels very guilty because he had been watching his sister Natalie who is autistic, but he fell asleep. Others are all too quick to blame Natalie for setting the fire, though Moose and his family don’t see her doing something like that. Now Moose feels that he has to solve the mystery of the fire as well as protect his father as best he can, but there may be more mysteries along to solve, one that is even hinted at by a note from Capone himself!
I have loved this series from the first book. The historical perspective of a family living on Alcatraz is tantalizing. Yet it is Choldenko’s skill in creating characters who are immensely human and wonderfully heartfelt that makes this series so good. Moose is a character who grows from one book to the next and within each book as well. The growth is strong and believable. The mystery here fits nicely in the historical setting and one finds out from the Author’s Note that the reason it is so credible is that Choldenko based much of it on real events of the time.
This series has been strong from the first book, never suffering from lagging in the middle book or from the final book trying to do too much. Nicely, each book is individually satisfying as well, so they stand just as nicely on their own as they do in a trio. However, I could never not find out what happened next to Moose and the other children on the island.
Satisfying and superbly written, this book is a great conclusion to a wonderful trilogy. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Dial Books.
The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck
I thoroughly enjoyed Peck’s first mouse characters in Secrets at Sea, so I looked forward to meeting more whiskered characters in this new book. The two books are unrelated except for Peck’s elaborate mouse society which has the same charm as The Borrowers or The Littles. In this book, we meet a little mouse who really doesn’t even have a name. He has no idea where he came from, but he is now cared for by his Aunt Marigold who is the Head Needlemouse in the Royal Mews in London. He is sent to school at the Royal Mews Mouse Academy, where he is quickly bullied by bigger mice. Finally, he ruins all of his prospects by appearing in front of a human wearing clothing. Now he has to find his own way, his destiny and his past.
Peck weaves a fine adventure in this book. The romp of mishaps and close scrapes make for fun reading as does the mystery of this little mouse’s past. Add to that the appeal of being near royalty, even speaking directly with Queen Victoria herself, and you have a book where you never know what is going to happen next.
The writing is skilled and detailed. Peck offers action enough for any book but also builds a wonderful second, shadow society with the mice too. There is just enough detail to tantalize and clearly visualize the world, but not so much that the story slows. In fact, the pacing here is superb.
Fans of Stuart Little and The Borrowers will enjoy discovering life in the Royal Mews and a little nameless mouse with a big destiny. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from ARC received from Dial.