Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park (9781328781505)

Hanna and her father travel by wagon in 1880 to a small town in the Midwest where they plan to sell dress goods. Hanna though has another plan, one that her father doesn’t support, to design, sew and sell dresses for the women in town rather than just selling the materials. Hanna also wants to graduate from school, but that is not without a lot of controversy in the town. Hanna is half Chinese, her Chinese mother died in California, and her father is white. While her father is entirely accepted by the town, Hanna faces prejudice on a daily basis. In fact, most of the other students drop out of school when it is clear that Hanna will be allowed to attend. Meanwhile, their family shop is being built and stocked. Hanna and her teacher work on a plan to get her to graduate by the end of the year, though it seems less like a solution for Hanna and more of a way around the controversy she creates. As the opening of the shop nears, Hanna will face one of the most daunting and frightening moments of her life and must figure out how to keep it from ruining their future.

In her afterword, Park explains her connection as a child to the Little House on the Prairie book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her book clearly pays homage to the best of that series, set in a similar community with characters who echo some of the most iconic from the series. But Park takes the opportunity to right a lot of what is wrong with that series. She carefully includes Native Americans in the book, paying attention to all they have lost by this time in American history and to their language and way of life. This is beautifully done.

Park also creates a space for Americans of color on the prairie, showing that the settlement of America was done by more than the white people we usually see depicted. She works with the prejudice, stereotypes and aggression that people of color faced then and continue to face today. This is a book that un-erases people from history.

Marvelous, timeless and important. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Clarion Books.

Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte

Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte

Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte (9781338255812)

A deaf author writes the story of a deaf protagonist living on Martha’s Vineyard in the 19th century in a community with many deaf residents where the majority of people use sign language when they speak. Mary has never known any other place than her beloved village on Martha’s Vineyard where her deafness is not seen as a disability. Her great-grandfather came from England and settled on the island over a hundred years ago. So when a scientist intent on figuring out the cause of the deafness of the island community enters their world, he is first welcomed. Mary and her best friend decide to follow him around, since Mary has noticed him saying derogatory things about the deaf. When Mary gets too close, the scientist reveals his frightening plan of taking a “live specimen” from the island. Mary is taken to Boston, where she discovers the harshness of being a prisoner and being unable to communicate with anyone about her plight. Mary’s fight to survive and be understood speaks to what we see as disabilities even in our modern world.

This ownvoices novel is a rich glimpse into the world of the deaf community and its long history in the United States. Based on the history of Martha’s Vineyard, the author’s note mentions how she recreated the sign language used on the island which is no longer in use. Her care with acknowledging the land issues between the white settlers and the native tribes of the island is evident on the page. She offers detailed accounts of the community itself, giving a deep understanding to the reader of the warmth, love and acceptance of the community. That is then shown in stark contrast with the reactions of the rest of the world. 

The writing is frank and clear. The author speaks about how she comes at English from a different angle, both as a deaf person and being bilingual. She also shares in sign language conversations some direct translations that allow hearing readers to better understand how conversations flow in that language. The characters are all seen through Mary’s eyes, including her parents. Mary shines at the center of the novel, her experiences and perceptions make up the story, which at times is incredibly difficult to read as Mary is abused and veers towards despair of ever seeing her family again. 

This historical novel is both important and impressive. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

Catherine’s War by Julia Billet

Catherine’s War by Julia Billet

Catherine’s War by Julia Billet, illustrated by Claire Fauvel (9780062915603)

This graphic novel from France is a reworking of a novel based on the experiences of the author’s mother during World War II as a Jewish child during the Nazi occupation. Rachel lives at a children’s home in Sevres, France in 1942. Her parents are still in Paris. The children’s home allows its students the freedom to study what they are interested in. Rachel loves photography and developing and printing her own images. She begins to document her experiences of the war. Soon as the danger gets closer, Rachel changes her name to Catherine and gets a new identity. She moves from place to place, leaving friends behind, finding new ways of life with each new place she lands. She works on a farm, helps the Resistance, and along the way finds time to take pictures and find places to develop her film. She even manages to fall in love with a boy who loves photography the way she does. Still, she must leave him behind as well, as she continues to try to find a safe place in a world hunting her down. 

Based on her mother’s story, this graphic novel is a dazzling mix of danger and hope. Billet does not minimize the constant danger the Jewish children found themselves in, hiding in cellars and gaining new identities, missing their families horribly. This book is not an adventure across France, but a fearful dash from one safe place to the next, each move causing more loss and anguish. Billet uses hope and the joy of photography to show that life continued despite the war, but always impacted by it. 

The art is marvelous and the story works really nicely as a graphic novel which keeps the pace fast. All of the danger and the moves from place to place spiral past the reader, as new people step forward to offer Catherine a safe place to live for even a brief period of time. The journey and the devastation are one and the same, even when walking through beautiful French landscapes, there is a sense of loss and dread.

A marvelous balance of resilience, tenacity and war. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from library copy.

Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James Ransome (9780823438730)

Ruth Ellen and her family left the South to head north to New York. Some African-Americans made the trip on foot, some drove but Ruth Ellen and her family took the train. They got the last seats in the colored car, and settled in for the long journey. They left secretly, not telling her father’s boss or their landlord that they were leaving. More and more people filled the colored train car as they traveled northward, many of them left standing because all the seats were taken. Ruth read to her mother from the book her teacher had given her about Frederick Douglass. As they got to Maryland, the separation of white and colored was removed, and Ruth and her family moved to get seats in less crowded parts of the train. Some white people didn’t want them sitting near them, but others were friendly. Their trip continued all the way to New York City where they would make their new future. 

Told in the voice of Ruth Ellen, this picture book is a very personal look at the deep changes in the South after slavery that created the opportunity for the Great Migration to the north. On these pages is a clear optimism about their future, their new opportunities coming to fruition. The book is focused specifically on the travel north, beautifully weaving in elements from Frederick Douglass’ experience as he journeyed north fleeing slavery. 

The illustrations are done in paper, graphie, paste pencils and watercolors. Ransome has created illustrations that are richly colored, show the poverty of the south, but also capture the rush of the train towards the north and opportunity.

This historical picture book shows a moment of deep change in America. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Holiday House.

Review: Village of Scoundrels by Margi Preus

Village of Scoundrels by Margi Preus

Village of Scoundrels by Margi Preus (9781419708978)

Based on the true story of a remote village in France that resisted the Nazi invasion in their own way, this novel is a testament to bravery in the face of seemingly unrelenting evil. The story focuses on several teens who live in Les Lauzes, France in 1943. They go to school, sleep in the local dormitories, and also help in the resistance. Some of them are Jewish, hidden in plain sight with the other teens and children. Others are from the village and know the terrain and area so well that they can be messengers. Still others spend their nights getting people safely across the border to Switzerland. Meanwhile, there is a rather inept policeman who tries to figure out what is going on. He is almost as young as the others, but focused on proving himself and defending his country. As the teens take more and more risks, they learn that resistance is a way through paralyzing fear and towards freedom.

Preus has written such an engaging tale here, with so many of the elements based on real events. In fact, the more unlikely the scenario, the more likely it is to be true. This makes reading the epilogue at the end of the book great fun as one discovers the real people behind the characters. The simple bravery of all of the villagers by taking in Jews and others, hiding them in their homes and barns, and helping them escape is profound. There is a delight in seeing where items were hidden, in realizing the power of forgery, of accompanying these characters on their travels to help people survive. 

A large part of the success here is Preus’ writing which contains a strong sense of justice and resistance in the face of the Gestapo. Even as some children are being taken away, the others gather to sing to them, standing in the face of the Nazi force directly. There is no lack of sorrow and pain though, with parents lost to concentration camps, children never having known safety, and arrests being made. Still, there is a joy here, of being able to fight back in some way against overwhelming odds.

A great historical novel with strong ties to the true story. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Amulet.

Review: The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer

The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer

The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer (9781534430686)

Ileana was a storyteller who collected stories, but stories were dangerous in Communist Romania. When her uncle disappears and their apartment was bugged, Ileana’s father destroyed her book of stories that she had been collecting for years in order to protect them all. Then her parents decide to send Ileana off to live with her maternal grandparents whom she has never met. The rural village is very different from the city that Ileana grew up in. After a period of anger, she gradually adjusts to life in there. But there is no escape from the brutality of the Romanian government. Ileana discovers her uncle, broken and ill, hiding nearby. When he is rescued by her grandparents, Ileana is given a valuable set of papers to protect. As the government tightens its hold on the country and on Ileana’s village, she finds herself at the center of her own story where she can choose to be a heroine or not.

Kramer’s middle-grade novel is nearly impossible to summarize because it is so layered and has such depth. The book focuses on the Communist period of Romania’s recent history and yet also has a timeless feel that pulls it back into a world of folklore and tales. The focus on storytelling is beautifully shown, illuminating not only Ileana’s mother’s story but the entire village’s history. There are stories that are dangerous, ones that connect and a single one that must not be told, but serves as the heartbeat of the entire community.

This book has a lot of moments that are almost tropes, like Ileana being sent to live with her grandparents in the mountains without knowing them at all. But in the hands of Kramer, these moments become opportunities to tell a story that is unique. Readers will be surprised again and again by the directions this novel takes and the stories it tells. It’s an entirely fresh and fascinating book.

Proof that stories are powerful, both to connect and to fight back. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.

 

Review: The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys (9780399160318)

Daniel and his parents travel to Madrid for his father to complete an oil deal with the dictator, Franco. Daniel’s mother is from Spain and he speaks fluent Spanish. A budding photojournalist, Daniel is competing for a prestigious photography award, one that will allow him to go to journalism school even if his father won’t pay for it. But Spain is not the country he expected to find, particularly when he starts to photograph it. A single photo of a nun with a dead baby gets the attention of Franco’s police as well as of the man who is developing Daniel’s film. As Daniel looks more closely at the real story of Spain under Franco, he discovers a deep connection with Ana, the maid assigned to his family’s rooms. He meets Ana’s brother, who is helping his friend become a matador, something usually not done by those living in poverty. Ana’s entire family is working to keep a roof over their heads and dream of eventually moving out of the slums of Madrid. All is complicated by politics, violence, threats and power, where survival may be all they can hope for.

A simply amazing book that will take readers deep into Madrid in the 1950’s and 1960’s where Franco’s dictatorship makes rules for everyone to live under, suppressing ideas and freedoms. Madrid herself plays a large role in the story, captivating even with such a smothering society. Pleasures are found, such as photographs, candies and dinners out but they are hauntingly contrasted with the poverty in Spain. Ana and Daniel’s existences are vastly different with the American simply expecting things that are only available to the wealthiest in Madrid.

The romance between Ana and David is pure bliss. Naturally building and hemmed in by the strict societal rules, it has the deliciousness of a Victorian romance. The two characters are different in so many ways, and yet also have a strong ethical code, a willingness to stand up for others, and an ability to sacrifice themselves that pulls them together along with their physical attraction for one another.

Skillful and haunting, this look at Spain’s history is vivid and unflinching. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Philomel.

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.

Review: Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai

Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai

Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai (9780062229236)

Hang has lived with the fact that she was responsible for her little brother being taken away to American in the last days of the Vietnam War. She had hoped for them both to be taken together, but instead he was ripped screaming from her. Now, six years later,  Hang has come to the United States herself and is determined to find her little brother by following the only clue she has, an address on a card. Not finding anyone at the address, Hang is helped by an urban cowboy, LeeRoy, who longs to ride in rodeos and follow his dreams. LeeRoy is quickly caught up in Hang’s quest and the two of them discover her brother with some lucky help along the way. But that is just the beginning of a summer spent laboring on a farm together, learning about the work of being a cowboy, and finding ways to connect their pasts and their present.

The first chapters of the this book and many of them throughout are so laced with pain and ache that readers will feel it in their own bones. Lai tells the story of Hang in bursts of memory, escaping from the tight hold Hang has over them. The reader and Hang are powerless as the searing memories escape, glimpses of the truth and eventually the full story of a girl strong enough to survive pirates, parasites, icy water, and war. Lai takes two very unlikely protagonists and creates a love story for them, one that captivates with its honesty and originality.

Hang is one of the most remarkable protagonists I have read in years. Far from being broken by her wartime trauma, she continues to fight back, literally at times. She is raw, sarcastic and not defined by her past, but still continuing to be haunted by what happened. She is complicated and so profoundly human. Lai made a brave and smart choice to write Hang’s accented English with Vietnamese typography, echoing Hang’s own notebook that tells her own English is pronounced. Readers will struggle along with Hang at first, but join LeeRoy in understanding her quickly.

Painful and traumatic, this book is filled with sweat, work and more than a little love. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperCollins.