Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt

Cover image for Just Like That

Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt (9780544084773)

In the summer of 1968, Meryl Lee’s best friend died. Her parents decided to give her a fresh start at St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for girls, a boarding school in Maine. Meryl Lee doesn’t fit in with the wealthy girls around her, finding all of the rules and expectations stifling. Meanwhile, Matt Coffin is also on the Maine coast, except he is living in a decrepit shanty trying to survive. He is on the run from a criminal gang whose leader murdered his best friend. Matt works on the fishing boats, earning just enough to feed himself and heat his small shanty. After Matt is attacked and nearly killed, the headmistress of St. Elene’s takes him in. They start to form a family along with one of the fishermen who takes Matt out on the water. Meryl Lee is also finding that she can make friends in different ways, though the blank of grief is often waiting to overtake her. Soon the two will meet, discover one another and find that they are drawn together in grief and hope.

Every new book by Schmidt is a delight. This one is a heart stealer of a book where readers will adore both Meryl Lee and Matt as well as the adults who care for them both. As Meryl learns again and again, friendship starts in a variety of different ways, as long as you are open to it. Readers will leave this book more open to discovering amazing people in their lives who were there all along.

The historical setting works particularly well to keep Matt able to stay hidden as long as he does. It also plays a role in events at St. Elene’s with staff getting into trouble for publicly expressing their political beliefs and the Vietnam War taking the brother of one of the girls who works at the school. Schmidt explores grief with a deep empathy and kindness but also with a cracking sense of humor at times.

Deeply sad, often lonely but also full of hope and friendship. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Clarion Books.

Review: The Stranded Whale by Jane Yolen

Stranded Whale by Jane Yolen

The Stranded Whale by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Melanie Cataldo (InfoSoup)

In the fall of 1971, Sally and her brothers were walking home from school along the dunes in Maine. Sally spotted a big gray thing on the beach and realized that it was a stranded whale. The children grab their sweaters and use them to keep the whale wet. One of the brothers ran off to call for help and people from the community arrived with buckets. They tried rocking the whale to get it back to the ocean, but she was too big and they were too weak and small. Sally stayed by the whale’s huge eye, even as it breathed its final breath. The children were seen as heroes for what they did that day, but Sally knew that it would be so much more wonderful to have been able to see the whale return to the ocean.

Yolen writes with such poetry about nature that you are right there and experiencing it alongside Sally and her brothers. Yolen captures the world of the beach in her poems, showing all of the small living things that Sally dashes by on her way to the ocean with her sweater. Most evocative are the scents of the whale, who smells “of fear and deep water” at first. Then the whale last breath:

The sigh smelled like seaweed,

like lobsters in Dad’s traps,

like gutted fish on the pier.

Such imagery that captures in a subtle way the scent of death too.

Cataldo’s illustrations make sure to keep the scale of the enormous whale consistent from one page to the next. On some pages there is an expanse of grey flesh with one huge eye looking out. The effect is humbling, showing that nature is both bigger than us and also a part of us too. The illustrations are beautifully done, playing light and dark against one another as the whale slowly perishes.

A brave book that does not shy away from grief or wonder. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord

Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord

A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord

Released May 26. 2015

The Newbery Honor winner returns with another winning book for young readers. Lily can’t catch her blind dog Lucky when he escapes and runs away across the blueberry barrens in Maine. Just when she is sure he will make it all the way into traffic, Salma appears and gives the dog her sandwich and chips in order to rescue him. Lily returns with a pork pie for Salma’s family who live in the work camp on the blueberry farm, migrant workers harvesting the berries during the summer months. Soon the two girls are friends, Salma helping Lily decorate her bee houses that Lily sells to try to make enough money to get Lucky an operation to restore his vision. When the pair decide to have a booth at the blueberry festival in town, Salma also decides to compete in the beauty pageant, the first migrant girl to do so. Both girls by the end of the summer have to face hard truths, but they face them together as friends.

Lord creates short and very readable books that are deceptively readable, making them seem light and airy. But this book is anything but that, dealing with tough subjects like the death of a parent, migrant workers, racism, and difficult decisions that come with having an aging pet. Lord manages to weave all of these elements together into a strong and vibrant read that children will love. Given its short length and deep topics, it would make an ideal read aloud in an elementary classroom.

This book has two strong female protagonists. Told in Lily’s voice, the story shows how she has faced loss in her life and how it continues to impact her world. Lily is open to being friends with Salma, but she is not open to others telling her what to do with Lucky. That change comes hard to her and is only possible with the growth she achieves in the course of the novel. Salma is in many ways the opposite of Lily. Salma’s world revolves around her art but also around the tension of being a migrant worker and not having a place to call her own. Still, both girls overcome their challenges to be much more than stereotypes.

Strong writing, tight plotting, two strong girls and one amazing dog make this a book worth reading and sharing. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic Press.

Review: Listening for Lucca by Suzanne LaFleur

listening for lucca

Listening for Lucca by Suzanne LaFleur

Siena and her family move to Maine from Brooklyn to help her little brother Lucca.  He doesn’t speak, using only gestures to communicate with them.  Siena isn’t sad to move, since she didn’t have lots of friends to leave behind.  Maine should be a new start for all of them.  When they arrive at their big old house on the beach, the family gets to work fixing it up.  But both Lucca and Siena believe that the house is haunted by a family that used to live there.  Siena finds a pen on a high shelf in her closet that seems to connect her to a young girl who used to live in the house.  She also dreams about the girl’s brother Joshua as he fights in World War II.  The stories of the two families have striking similarities that give Siena the idea that she may be able to not only fix the present but also the past.

I adored this book.  LaFleur tells a story of mystery and ghosts where the past is just as alive and changeable as the present.  Throughout the book has a sweetness and wistfulness to it that makes it a pleasure to read.  I also appreciated the way that Siena has a tie to the past through her collection of lost items.  LaFleur builds her story carefully, so that each element makes an innate sense as it happens.  Beautifully done.

The characters are strongly written.  Siena is a heroine who can be prickly at times, but has the courage and talents to make a difference.  She is an incredible older sister, loving and attentive, but is much more critical of herself.  Her parents and younger brother are just as fully realized in the story.  The friends that Siena makes in town all also have touches that make them whole as people.

This lovely book transcends genres with its mix of mystery, historical fiction, and fantasy.  It’s a winning combination.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Wendy Lamb Books.