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.

Review: A Slip of a Girl by Patricia Reilly Giff

Slip of a Girl by Patricia Reilly Giff

A Slip of a Girl by Patricia Reilly Giff (9780823439553)

This verse novel tells the story of a girl surviving the Irish Land Wars between the English landowners and the Irish tenant farmers. Anna has grown up on their family farm, but their family struggles to make the required payments to stay. Around her, she sees other families being forced from their homes, the houses themselves knocked down to prevent them from staying. After her mother dies, Anna and her father sometimes have to poach fish to keep the family fed. Their potatoes are not thriving either due to too much rain. When an encounter with the English Lord’s rent collector turns violent, Anna and her father are arrested. Anna manages to escape, taking her baby sister with her to find her aunt in a distant town. Anna must draw on her own resilience and courage to save her entire family.

Giff’s verse is well-written and evocative. She brings the world of Ireland after the Great Famine to life. Giff stresses the dire problems facing the Irish farmers as they struggle to make enough from their farms to feed their families much less pay the landlord. By showing Anna as a member of a larger community, Giff is also able to show the various results of not paying rent. The use of historical photos is key, because one can hardly believe that they would use a battering ram to decimate a home rather than let it stand. The brutality of that act among others shows the merciless nature of the situation in rural Ireland in the 1890’s.

Anna herself is a dynamic heroine. Desperate to learn to read, she meets with the local school teacher in the evenings, reading the book she found outside as well as his books. She never sits idly by, always helping her family and trying to improve their lot. She even joins in with the Irish protests to secure their own land, another act of bravery and defiance.

A strong historical verse novel with a great Irish heroine. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Holiday House.

Review: Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis

Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis

Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis (9781536204988)

Based loosely on the story of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Mary, this graphic novel is remarkable. Margaret has been on the island since she was a baby, cared for by the nuns that live there, not knowing who her parents are. The island has only a few residents, including goats and chickens. The nuns help those whose ships sink or crash making their way around the island, and they take in political prisoners as well. In fact, when Margaret is old enough to be curious, she discovers that the nuns are all political prisoners on the island who became nuns after being sent there. Things change when William arrives, the first person Margaret has ever known who is about her own age. But their friendship is short lived and he is taken back to Albion. The next person to arrive is Eleanor, the deposed Queen of Albion, sent to the island by her sister who is now queen. Margaret struggles to connect with the aloof Eleanor, even after her own origins are revealed as being entwined with Eleanor’s. As Margaret learns more about politics and royalty, she is caught up in a web of power that she has to find her way through or lose everything she holds dear.

This is not a slim graphic novel, but more of a tome. Meconis tells a sturdy tale, a graphic novel that reads fully as a novel with well-developed characters whose motivations are cleverly concealed but are always understandable when all is revealed. Margaret has a bucolic upbringing on the island, filled with the care of the nuns, their strict rules, and helping with the animals. As she learns the truth, the book changes around the reader, the beauty of the island becoming more like the prison it is.

The pairing of an imaginative world with roots in real history makes for an incredible read. Those who know the English history will love the parallels between the stories, glimpsing that history often enough to keep it well-rooted. Margaret is a great lens to view the history through, providing context to the world around her as she learns things alongside the reader.

A stellar graphic novel for middle grades. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

Review: The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee (9781524740955)

As a Chinese-American living in Atlanta in 1890, Jo veers between being invisible to being openly shunned. She even lives invisibly in an underground secret room with Old Gin, the man who has raised her. Fired from her millinery job due to her race, Jo returns to her previous job as a maid for the entitled daughter of one of the wealthiest men in town. From her underground chamber, Jo discovers that the newspaper publisher who lives in the house above is having difficulty. A competing paper has a new advice column that is getting a lot of attention. So Jo sets out to anonymously fill that role as Miss Sweetie. As her column gains attention and controversy due to her distinct take on race and women’s rights, Jo finds herself caught up in a mystery that may force her to reveal all of her secrets.

Lee writes about an interesting moment in American history. After Chinese people were brought over to replace African-Americans as slaves on plantations, they also fled the hard work and disappeared into urban areas. These Chinese-Americans then had to figure out how to get by in a world that saw only black and white, not other races. Jo finds herself at the heart of these struggles as she navigates the world of the South in the late 1800’s. Laws were changing, and certainly not for the better around her. It’s a captivating look at an almost invisible group of people who should not be forgotten in the history of our nation.

Jo is a marvelous protagonist. Lee does an admirable job of making Jo’s more progressive views make sense and not be too modern. Bound by the society around her, Jo is regularly reminded of her status and that helps the reader also understand the restrictions that Jo finds herself living in. Still, Jo fights for what she needs and figures out ways to move ahead and help those she loves. She is undaunted, brave and fierce.

A superb historical novel that looks at race, gender and America. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from ARC provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.

Review: A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata

A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata

A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata, illustrated by Julia Kuo (9781481446648)

Award-winning author Kadohata tells the story of a Japanese-American family forced to return to Japan after World War II because of their Japanese ancestry. After spending years in an internment camp in the United States, twelve-year-old Hanako and her family move to Japan to live with her paternal grandparents. They travel by ship first and then train until they reach the decimated city of Hiroshima, where her grandparents’ farm lies outside. All of Japan is poor and hungry, with black markets and children begging on the streets. Hanako meets her grandparents for the first time, discovering that her grandfather is very like her little brother who is five years old. Her grandmother is stooped over from the hard work in the fields. Hanako must face learning a new language, attending a new school in a different country, and trying to find a way forward for her entire family. It’s a lot of pressure, but Hanako learns steadily to adjust and change.

Kadohata’s novel for children tells the untold story of Japanese Americans forced to repatriate to their country of origin and renounce their American citizenship. It also gives an unflinching look at the aftermath of World War II in Japan, particularly with its setting near Hiroshima. That dark setting is juxtaposed against the warmth and beauty of discovering loving grandparents and building a new relationship. Yet there is a constant sense of loss in the book and a teetering feeling that things may suddenly change at any moment.

As always, Kadohata’s prose is beautiful. She vividly depicts Japanese life during the 1940’s and the unending work of being a tenant farmer. In the midst of all of the sorrow, loss and confusion, she places a loving family who are willing to sacrifice for one another and for brighter futures for the next generation. Through this family, there is intense hope broadcast on the page.

An important and vital book about the horrors of war and its aftermath on individual families. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.

Review: The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins

The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins by Gail Shepherd

The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins by Gail Shepherd (9780525428459)

Lyndie is definitely not a good Southern girl, much to her grandmother’s despair. She tends to find trouble easily and not make friends quickly. When her father loses his job, they move in with his parents. Lady, Lyndie’s grandmother, has specific ideas of how Lyndie should act and even creates a strict schedule for her that gives her no free time. But somehow on Lyndie’s first day of school, she finds an injured fawn on the way to school and ends up not making it to school that day. Lyndie’s best friend is a do-gooder whose family takes in a boy from a local juvenile detention facility. As Lyndie gets to know him, they become friends and share secrets with one another. When Lyndie chooses to put family before friends, she could lose everyone.

The voice in this novel is unique and confident. Set in 1985, the characters are grappling with the impact of the Vietnam War on the men in their community. The book looks at the results of the war and how one suicide can ripple through several families. Shepherd does not make this simple or easy, she allows it to stand in all of its complexity and gives us a young history buff to explore it with.

Shepherd creates an entire world in her writing, one that invites readers in to deeply feel for and cheer for Lyndie even as she makes plenty of mistakes and missteps. Lyndie is a champion though, and readers will completely understand her motivations as she chooses one direction or another. Happily, Lyndie is her own person, filling her days with the history of the region, exploring news on microfilm, and finding ways to live in a new home with rigid expectations.

An exceptional debut novel that invites readers to care just as deeply as Lyndie does. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Kathy Dawson Books.