Review: Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler

Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler

Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler (9780399162909)

After her father dies, a girl, her mother and seven siblings move into a tar-paper shack in the woods. The shack is worn but inside they discover a root cellar with a pump that offers clean water. The family plants a garden with seeds they brought with them and find a large berry patch too. In autumn, Mum walks to town to get work doing chores and all of the children pitch in at home. They can their harvest so that it will last through the winter. In winter, the boys go hunting and often return home empty handed. But when they get a turkey, the family feasts. When spring arrives, the family starts to trade baked goods for eggs and milk from neighbors and the little shack looks like home now.

Wheeler takes a story from her own family history during the Great Depression and turns it into this heartwarming story of determination and resilience in the face of incredible poverty. The focus here is on how the entire family worked together to meet the challenge, each sibling taking on duties and roles that suited their age and ability. The stalwart mother is also shown as an incredible cook, a source of hope and the reason the family survived.

Wheeler’s illustrations ensure that hope is the focus of this picture book. While drab and dirty at first, the little shack is transformed just by the people who inhabit it. Games are simple and done without any real toys, even the baby finding leaves and sticks the perfect things to play with. The jewel-like canned foods enliven the darkness of the root cellar, promising safety in the cold.

A brilliant historical picture book. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Nancy Paulsen Books.

Snow White by Matt Phelan

snow-white-by-matt-phelan

Snow White by Matt Phelan (InfoSoup)

The Snow White tale is redone with a new setting and great villains in this graphic novel. Snow White’s mother dies in 1918 and she is left with her father who is the King of Wall Street. Soon after her mother’s death, her father falls for the Queen of the Follies, a performer who immediately sends Snow White away to school. When the stock market crashes, her father survives only to die suddenly. Snow White returns home to find that there is no place for her there, only to be rescued by seven small urchins on the street. Meanwhile, her stepmother takes her dire instructions from a ticker tape machine that orders her to KILL.

With all of the magnificence of the roaring 20s that then tumble into the Great Depression, this graphic novel version of the beloved tale truly rethinks the story and recreates it in a new and vivid way. Keeping true to core parts of the original story, this version has the wicked queen, a new version of the seven dwarves, the huntsman ordered to kill Snow White, and apples. Throughout there is darkness, violence and murder. Exactly what any great noir mystery needs.

If you have enjoyed Phelan’s previous graphic novels, he continues his use of watercolor in this book. Done in grays, blacks, blues and shot with touches of red, the art has a painterly feel to it that is unusual in graphic novels. There is a lovely roughness to the framing of the panels, giving the entire book a natural and organic feel.

A brilliant retelling of a classic tale, this dark story is a striking and brilliant departure. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm

Full of Beans by Jennifer Holm

Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm (InfoSoup)

Released August 30, 2016.

This companion novel to Holm’s Newbery Honor Book, Turtle in Paradise, returns readers to the world of Depression-era Key West. The main character is Beans, Turtle’s cousin. It’s 1934 and the streets of Key West are filled with piles of garbage since there isn’t any money for trash pick up anymore. There are no jobs on the island, especially for a kid. Beans’ mother takes in laundry to make ends meet and his father heads north to New Jersey to see if he can find work there. Beans needs to find a way to provide for the family and for himself, so he tries jobs like searching the stinking garbage piles for cans. But when he doesn’t get paid what he’s been promised, Beans realizes that all adults lie. His best option seems to be working in the smuggling business, but that will have consequences that Beans is not prepared for at all.

Holm writes with a natural ease that is deceptively easy to read. Her writing allows readers to explore Key West in a time just as it is becoming a tourist destination due to the New Deal and its workers. Beans’ personal story is clearly tied to the story of Key West with his own despair and lack of money mirroring the city’s. His own journey through to honesty and truth follows that of the city as well. It’s a clever dynamic that makes both roads to change all the easier to relate to and believe.

Beans is a dynamic and wonderfully funny character. He cares deeply for his family even as he spends time avoiding his baby brother and feeling burdened by his younger brother, Kermit. Still, when others are hurting, Beans is there to help in his own way, one that is so deeply himself that readers will adore it. Throughout Beans grows and matures but steadfastly remains the same character, just a little older and wiser. He is brilliantly drawn and a joy to read.

A great follow-up novel to the award winner, this book is a great read aloud for classrooms and families. Children will howl with laughter at Beans’ adventures all the while learning about the Depression and the value of honesty. Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from copy received from Random House Books for Young Readers.

 

Review: Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper

stella by starlight

Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper

The author of Out of My Mind returns with a book that takes a hard look at racism in the United States.  Stella lives in Bumblebee, North Carolina during the Great Depression.  When her little brother wakes her up one dark night, they witness the KKK burning a cross in their town.  Their community is segregated, so Stella and her family go to a different school than the white kids in town.  It’s smaller and less fancy with one room but also one great teacher.  They also can’t use certain stores and many of the white people in town are rude and even violent towards them.  Stella’s father is one of the men in town who decide that they will push for their right to vote, even though they know the system is rigged, requiring tests for black people but not for white.  Stella gets to witness first hand the ignorance of people in power and their disregard for others, but at the same time there is reason to have hope too.

Draper writes a dynamic story here.  She evokes the time period beautifully, allowing readers to really experience the lifestyle, the poverty, and the deep racism of the times.  This is not a book that is just darkness though, Draper creates a strong African-American community in Bumblebee.  The neighbors look out for one another, help whenever possible, and face the worst of society together as a group.  The racism and segregation is presented with an appropriate level of violence for children this age, allowing readers to see that it runs far more deeply than is depicted on the page.

Stella is an extraordinary protagonist.  Her struggles with writing are presented cleverly on the page.  One immediately sees that this is a girl who struggles with the mechanics of writing like spelling and getting the words out, but once they are on the page she has a unique voice and a poet’s eye.  It is a subtle but strong message that if you struggle with something it certainly does not mean you are not gifted in it as well.  These passages of writing lighten the book as do the various stories inserted throughout the book, paying homage to the oral traditions but also to the community and its strength.

Powerful and wise, this novel for young readers will expose them to racism after the Civil War and the basis for many of the problems we continue to see today.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Review: X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon

x

X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon

This is the story of Malcolm X’s boyhood and teen years.  Malcolm Little grew up during the Depression, surviving on dandelion greens soup after his father is murdered.  When his mother gains the attention of social services, Malcolm is moved out of the family home and away from his days of stealing melons from patches and apples from stands to fill his belly.  When Malcolm gets a chance to leave his foster home and head to live with his half-sister in Boston, he jumps at the chance.  Boston and its neighborhoods are a buzz with activity and nightlife and Malcolm immediately joins the fray, turning his back firmly on the way he was raised.  Malcolm continues to explore the dangerous side of society by dealing reefer, drinking, and dating a white woman.  He moves to Harlem where the jazz is even more incredible and where he really gets into serious trouble.  This novel follows Malcolm from his childhood until he is imprisoned for theft at age 20 and eventually converts to Islam.

Shabazz is one of the daughters of Malcolm X and according to the Authors Note at the end of the book the story while fiction is firmly based in real life people and events.  The writing prowess of Magoon is also here in full force, directing a story that is a headlong dash into sex, drugs and jazz into something that speaks volumes about the intelligence and emotions of the young man at its center.  The result is a book that shines light on difficult years of Malcolm X’s life where he lost himself and then the tremendous results of having returned and found himself again. 

There is such emotion here on the page.  Malcolm’s heart shows in each interaction he has, each moment of losing himself that he manages to find.  It is a road map of hope for those who are lost to these moments in their lives that you can return and be better than ever.  It also shows the humanity behind the historical figure, the real boy behind the legend.

Powerful, gritty and honest, this novel expands what young readers know about Malcolm X and offers hope for those in their own crisis.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Candlewick Press and Netgalley.

Review: My Heart Will Not Sit Down by Mara Rockliff

my heart will not sit down

My Heart Will Not Sit Down by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Ann Tanksley

Inspired by the true story of a village in Cameroon donating $3.77 in 1931 to the city of New York to help feed the hungry during the Great Depression.  In this picture book version of the story, the main character is Kedi, a girl who learns from her American teacher that people in his hometown of New York City were going hungry due to the Depression.  Kedi could not stop thinking of the hungry children in America, even though they lived so far away.  Her heart would not sit down until she did something.  So she talked with the grownups in her village and all of them told her at first that nothing could be done, they had no money to spare.  But then, one by one, all of the adults gave coins to help the hungry children. 

The author’s note at the end of the book, tells more about the Depression and about the donation too.  It explains that even in the Depression, this small amount of money would not have had a large impact.  But for the villagers who sent the funds, it would have been a fortune.  This book is a lesson in following your heart, finding compassion for others, and making an important difference in the world, even if it is just $3.77. Children will easily understand both the sacrifice made by the villagers and the meager amount that was raised.  It makes the story all the more haunting.

Tanksley’s illustrations have a roughness and organic quality that really grounds this story in reality.  Done in watercolor, pen and ink, and oils, they are filled with rich color and show the poverty and the beauty of Cameroon.

Throughout the book, the phrase “my heart would not sit down” is used.  It evokes a yearning, a calling, an inner distress that could only be quieted by doing something to help.  It’s that feeling that we need to cherish in both ourselves and our children.  It would also make a very good discussion book about what makes children’s hearts “not sit down.”

Based on a true story, this book is a call to follow our unquiet hearts.  Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Alfred A. Knopf.

Review: The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

mighty miss malone

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

Deza loves school, loves to read, and dreams of being a writer.  However, the Great Depression is raging in Gary, Indiana and her father has been unable to find work for some time.  Deza finds solace in her best friend and in her teacher, who has offered to tutor them both when school starts again.  When her father is almost killed in a boating accident, he doesn’t return as the same funny, smart man.  Instead he is withdrawn and almost silent, deciding soon after recovering to head up to Michigan to try to find work.  Deza’s mother refuses to let the family be separated and takes Deza and her brother on the road to follow him.  Unfortunately, the journey to becoming a complete family again is not that easy, taking them on a long road that will challenge them all.

Curtis’ writing is marvelous.  He renders the Great Depression with great detail, giving modern readers a way to not only understand the past but tie it directly to our present.  He also shows us the depth of poverty in the Depression, offering a view not only of the shanty town but of the kindness that could be found there too.  Nothing is simple in this book, the setting and time is complicated and the characters are complex.

Deza herself is a stellar protagonist, who loses much but keeps on moving and caring deeply.  She is luminous in the book, made fascinating by the small touches.  Her life is filled with challenges, including her rotting teeth, but they make her stronger and become coping mechanisms that make her all the more memorable. 

The depiction of this African American family that falls on hard times is one of deep caring, expansive love, and incredible strength.  While her father may leave to find a job, readers will know that his reasons for doing so are complicated and very human.  One feels the same thing for all of the characters in the book, no matter how minor.  They all seem to be carrying their own stories with them, even if they are just in a few pages.  This is a world populated with human beings with pasts and futures. 

This book cut right into my heart and lived there as I read it.  When I finished it, I wept because of the power, the people, and the story.  This is a wrenchingly honest, beautifully written, and noteworthy novel that I simply adored.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.

Review: Born and Bred in the Great Depression by Jonah Winter

born bred great depression

Born and Bred in the Great Depression by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root

Winter tells the story of his father’s childhood during the Great Depression in this historical picture book.  Through the life of his father, he shows the poverty of the time.  Grandpa Winter searched for work in the area, often unable to find any, which meant that there was no money to help support the family of 8 children.  When he did find work, it was dirty and back-breaking labor.  This is contrasted with the simple joys of childhood as Winter’s father spent time outside exploring the woods and walking the railroad tracks.  The family grew most of their own food, eating lots of produce from the garden and canning excess to eat during leaner times.  There was little ease in their lives, but what they could find they used.  There was time as a family for music, chess and reading books.  There was time to explore the natural world.  This glimpse of history opens our eyes to the way we live today as well.

Winter’s words are compelling, inviting readers into the world of the Great Depression.  He manages to tell the story of the poverty through a lens that children will be able to relate to.  Focusing on the family life, including many people in each bed, there are definite contrasts with today’s economic problems.  Winter does not romanticize the Great Depression, instead he brings it to life through the history of his own family.  There is a lovely simplicity to the story that makes it all the more readable.

Root’s illustrations are done in pencil, ink and watercolor.  They have a softness to them that evokes the past.  The colors are subdued with the focus on telling the story through the images as well as the words.  Root manages to show the Great Depression through images that are beautiful, quiet and rich.

This historical picture book celebrates strength of family and overcoming hardship.  Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy received from Schwartz & Wade Books.

Turtle in Paradise

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm

Because her mother gets a job with a woman who doesn’t want a child around, Turtle has to move across the country from Pennsylvania to Key West to live with her aunt and cousins.  Set in 1935 during the Depression, the book captures the unique character of the Florida Keys as well as the poverty and joblessness of the time period.  Turtle finds herself surrounded by boy cousins who have started their own business that pays in candy.  They look after babies by pulling them around in a wagon for a few hours to give mothers a break.  They also have a secret diaper rash formula that helps keep them in business.  Their small town is filled with characters all with interesting nicknames.  Turtle discovers a lot during her summer in the Keys: the ties of family, the power of hurricanes, and how to find buried treasure.  This book is an ideal summer read.

Holm packs such a great story in this brief book thanks to her stellar writing.  It features a heroine who is smart, sassy, and very brave.  She has specific ideas about things and is never afraid to say them, even though they will have readers cringing at her bald honesty.  Holm beautifully creates a town of characters who are constantly surprising, always more complex than expected, and delightfully depicted.  Her writing is clean as an ocean breeze, moving along at a brisk pace.  Dialogue is at the heart of the book and is written with a great ear and accuracy. 

Highly recommended, this book based on Holm’s family history, offers a window into the Great Depression and into Key West with a Little Rascals feel. It would make an excellent read aloud but an even better beach read.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Random House.

Also reviewed by: