Zinnia and the Bees, An Interview with Debut Author Danielle Davis

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MEET DANIELLE DAVIS,
AUTHOR OF
ZINNIA AND THE BEES
Written by Danielle Davis
Illustrated by Laura K. Horton
(Capstone Young Readers; $14.95, Ages 9-12)

 

Cover image from Zinnia and the Bees written by Danielle Davis

 

Yesterday, August 1st, was the debut of local L.A. author Danielle Davis’s new middle grade novel, Zinnia and the Bees. Today I’m totally tickled (but not stung mind you!) to share my recent interview with Davis as she weighs in on the who, what, when, where and why of her delightful magical realism story. But first I’d like to share some of my own thoughts. If you’re eager to get to the Q&A with Danielle, please feel free to scroll down. Below that you’ll also find a trailer for the novel. 

REVIEW

Zinnia, the main character in Danielle Davis’s Zinnia and the Bees, struggles with several relationships throughout this introspective, humorous, and totally absorbing book. It’s filled with many of those confusing, sometimes immobilizing emotions that I recall experiencing in middle school (which was called junior high back then). Added to that are accounts of several uncomfortable situations Zinnia finds herself immersed in which will surely resonate with today’s tweens. And though she may seem to avoid friendships, she ultimately realizes that those connections are what she really needs. Her mom, a widow, dentist and community activist, always seems otherwise occupied. She practically lives at her practice, leaves impersonal post-it notes and is more into her rescue dog than her daughter. Then there’s Zinnia’s brother Adam. The book opens with a wacky and wonderful yarn bomb episode that pulls readers into the story and demonstrates the siblings’ close relationship, despite the six years age gap.

Zinnia and the Bees book with wool and some beesOn that very same day, Adam skips out on Zinnia and her mom, no warning, no note, nothing to let her know where he’s gone. That, after all they’ve shared, hurts more than also losing her group of friends NML, Nikki, Margot and Lupita. When they were pals they were NMLZ, but now Z was on her own. That is until a clever and curious neighbor’s nephew comes to town for summer. Far from perfect, yet not easy to push away, Birch demonstrates to Zinnia the magic of nature and the transformative quality of a good friend. His timing couldn’t have been better because after a visit to the local ice cream parlor, where some ice cream got in her hair, Zinnia has attracted a colony of crazed and kooky honeybees who find what they hope will be temporary accommodations in her long curly hair.

As Zinnia tries to make sense of her brother-less world, she’s also trying to figure out a way to get the bees off her head. We get vivid glimpses of a close relationship Zinnia has with her aunt, without which would make her mom’s indifference more intolerable than it already is. After all, it was her mom who pushed Adam away.

The humor shines through when reading the perspective of the hiveless bees hanging out in Zinnia’s hair. They get a chance, every several chapters or so, to share their thoughts on being homeless. This gives readers a chance to get into the bee narrator’s head and think about bees in a whole, hysterical new way. I now bravely scoop dive-bombing bees out of my pool instead of letting them drown thanks to Zinnia and the Bees! (No bees were hurt in the making of this novel, but do not attempt a rescue if you are allergic to bees!)

Davis has crafted a quirky and creative story where the presence of yarn in many ways can be seen as a connector of people, as well as something safe and comforting. The bees represent a longing for home, and Zinnia’s need to be heard and loved unconditionally, like her brother. There are truly many layers to the story of Zinnia and the Bees making this debut novel from Danielle Davis such a sweet, satisfying and thoughtful read.

  • Review by Ronna Mandel

INTERVIEW

Photo of Zinnia and the Bees author Danielle Davis

Author of Zinnia and the Bees, Danielle Davis

Good Reads With Ronna: What was the genesis for Zinnia and the Bees

Danielle Davis 🐝: The idea for this book came from an image my husband passed along to me that had come to mind of someone with bees on and around their head. I was interested in fairy tales and stories that contained an element of the bizarre and even wacky, so the idea appealed to me immensely. With his permission, I ran with it (this is one of many reasons the book is dedicated to him). I wanted to know more about the way the bees might be a stand in for anxiety and navigating difficulties. And I wanted to know more about the person who found themselves in this predicament.

GRWR: Zinnia struggles with several relationships throughout the book and, after her brother Adam’s abrupt departure, she feels completely abandoned and alone. Then a swarm of hiveless honeybees takes up residence in her curly hair. Since the bees feature prominently in your story, can you talk about the significance of this magical realism element and how you decided to have two different perspectives recount the story?

DD 🐝: I was curious about Zinnia, but I was also curious about those insects. Disappearing bees were in the news quite a bit when I was first writing this story, and I’d heard about agricultural bees who traveled around with beekeepers to pollinate fruits and vegetables for humans (it’s a real thing!). So, I dreamed up a colony of bees who, while happy enough in their existence, felt like something was missing and yearned for freedom. I wanted to hear from them, and hoped readers would too. Writing the bee sections was really fun for me—they’re communal and existential and, I hope, hilarious (they always made me laugh!).

GRWR: A yarn bombing episode propels the plot line forward. Zinnia finds comfort in knitting and it feels like there is some symbolism with yarn. Was that intentional? Also, Zinnia has practically yarn bombed every item in her bedroom. As a child, were you a knitter like Zinnia? Is there any particular reason you chose knitting versus another craft since I know you share a lot of crafts on your picture book blog, This Picture Book Life?

DD 🐝: While the yarn symbolism was, admittedly, unintentional, it’s certainly there since yarn can provide comfort and so relates to the concept of home, which is at the heart of the novel. For me, I’d made Zinnia a knitter in the vein of any artist or maker (or writer) who experiences that sensation of flow when immersed in their preferred activity (plus, I’d recently learned about yarn bombing). For Zinnia, knitting is a way she soothes her anxiety, helps make sense of her world, and takes her mind off, well, everything. It’s a way for her to both focus and escape.I was certainly not a knitter—Zinnia is way more talented than I am! But for me, reading was similar to what knitting is for her. As a child, books were a way to soothe my anxiety, focus, and escape. Stories also, subconsciously I imagine, helped me make sense of the world.

GRWR: Your sense of place, your characters, voice, dialogue and plot all come together seamlessly to create, like the knitted lens covers for Birch’s binoculars, a cleverly crafted story. What was the easiest part for you to write and which is the hardest?

DD 🐝: Thank you, and what a neat question! Once I crafted this for a middle grade audience (I started it as something for adults—what was I thinking?), the first draft was pretty easy to write. I was emerging from a very challenging period in my own life, so writing the first draft of Zinnia and the Bees felt sort of effortless and full of joy as an extension of that unburdening. The interactions between Zinnia and Birch were natural and fun to write, as were the bee sections, where I could be as wacky and dramatic as I wanted. But all the revisions that followed, which were numerous and spanned years, were probably harder in general. And then working with my editor, Ali Deering at Capstone, was a little of both. She had brilliant ideas for making the story better in important ways and I got to prove to myself that I could create under her amazing direction and necessary deadline. The harder part was that having an editor meant I also had the pressure of knowing this was going to be a real, published book and that someone might actually read it someday. 

GRWR: Though I really like Zinnia and her aunt Mildred, I’m especially fond of Birch who is visiting his Uncle Lou, the neighbor, for the summer. The friendship that slowly grows between Birch and Zinnia is so satisfying. Is there one character you relate to the most or is there a little bit of you in each one?

DD 🐝: I’m super fond of Birch as well—such a patient, loyal friend. While I’m confident there are parts of me in Zinnia, she feels to me like her own person (yes, these characters totally feel like real people to me!). I have a real soft spot for Birch’s Uncle Lou and both he and Zinnia’s Aunt Mildred are examples of the positive, caring adults every kid deserves to have in their lives.

GRWR: Dr. Flossdrop, Zinnia’s mom, is a memorable character. She’s distant, domineering and definitely not warm and fuzzy like the wool Zinnia knits with or her brother Adam whom she adores. How did you develop this dentist who relates better to her rescue dog than her own daughter?

DD 🐝: I knew I wanted Zinnia and her mom to start out feeling as different as possible and then learn that, emotionally, they have a lot in common even if it’s hard to tell from the outside. As for a neighborhood activist dentist who adopts a terrier and brings it to her office? I guess I was going for zany, and someone who would be as infuriating as possible to Zinnia.

GRWR: Do you have a preference when it comes to picture books and middle grade novels and which one do you read more of yourself?

DD 🐝: As in childhood, in adulthood I first fell in love with picture books, and then found middle grade novels. I read and enjoy both consistently, but I’m a bit more immersed in picture books in terms of quantity because of my blog.

And The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is my very favorite book.

GRWR: Where is your favorite place to write?

DD 🐝: I usually write in my apartment. I like the ease and comforts of home (like having neverending cups of tea when working), but I can still hear the sounds of the city and know it’s there. I like to revise out somewhere, preferably a coffee shop.

GRWR: How long did Zinnia and The Beestake you from concept to completion?

DD 🐝: I began the story in 2008, wrote the first middle grade draft in 2010, I believe, and sold it to and edited it for Capstone in 2016, and now it’s out in 2017.

GRWR: Can you talk about your passion for literacy and your volunteer work?

DD 🐝: I’ve been lucky enough to have the ability to volunteer with both WriteGirl and Reading to Kids respectively here in Los Angeles. The former is an organization that mentors teen girls through weekly one-on-one meetups to write together. Plus, the monthly workshops are epic and full of working writers sharing strategies and stories with teens. (And, an amazing WriteGirl who’s headed to college this fall is interning with me over the summer!)

The latter holds reading and crafting events at L.A. area elementary schools one Saturday a month. It is a total joy to participate and each child gets a free book to take home as well. That’s around 800 books given to 800 kids each month! It’s a privilege to be a small part of what the organization is doing to serve kids in my city. I wrote about the experience a couple of years ago here.

GRWR: Can you think of anything else I haven’t asked about that you’d like to share with readers about either Zinnia and the Bees or you?

DD 🐝: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a huge treat to be featured on Good Reads With Ronna!

Visit Danielle’s website here.
Find her at Twitter here.
Find her at Instagram here.
Click here to see Danielle’s Facebook page
And click here to for her Pinterest boards.
Visit illustrator Laura K. Horton’s website here.

 

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Big & Little Questions (According to Wren Jo Byrd) by Julie Bowe

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BIG & LITTLE QUESTIONS
(ACCORDING TO WREN JO BYRD)
Written by Julie Bowe
(Kathy Dawson Books; $16.99, Ages 7-9)

 

Big & Little Questions book cover image

 

Find out about this fab new middle grade novel, Big & Little Questions (According to Wren Jo Byrd) in Christine Van Zandt’s glowing review. Good Reads With Ronna also wishes author Julie Bowe a very Happy Book Birthday today!

Over the summer, Wren Jo Byrd, a shy nine-year-old, was abruptly sent to stay with her grandparents while her Mom and Dad split up. Rather than confess what was going on to BFF Amber, Wren ignored her.

At the start of the new school year, Wren finds that Amber is best buddies with Marianna Van Den Heuval, the new girl in town; Wren pretends nothing has changed. However, Wren’s lies about her family become hard to maintain because she must split her time between two households. Wren doesn’t understand how this could be good for them.

Marianna, from the big city of Portland, blows into Wisconsin like a diva with an agenda. She peppers her dialogue with wonderfully realistic preteen talk, such as “We’re going to have So. Much. Fun!” Yet, Marianna’s bravado isn’t all it seems. Wren discovers some of Marianna’s secrets and begins a list of questions for Marianna—the only girl she knows whose parents are divorced. As Amber is swept away in Marianna’s coolness, Wren wrestles with what it means to be a friend and dreads what will happen when everyone discovers the truth.

Julie Bowe’s first-person voice captures Wren’s fears and the complexities in her life. The text is punctuated by definitions Wren looks up on her phone, such as to the word “happy” (meaning “content”) and then “content” (meaning “not needing more”). These lead her to wonder, “When did Mom and Dad stop being happy? . . . How come no one told me we needed more?”

Everyone has secrets; Big & Little Questions (According to Wren Jo Byrd), gives us a glimpse into why we hide our truths and the consequences we must endure when we choose to lie. This heartfelt story is about accepting change as friendships and families evolve beyond our control.

 

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com


Dreidels on the Brain by Joel ben Izzy for Readukkah

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DREIDELS ON THE BRAIN
By Joel ben Izzy
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

Dreidels on the Brain car

 

 

When I adore a book, and I did adore Joel ben Izzy’s Dreidels on The Brain, I tend to read every last word from the dedication to the acknowledgements. In doing so I happened to find this gem at the bottom of the copyright page:

“This is a work of fiction… and of friction–the kind that filled the author’s childhood. Although much is based upon actual people, places, and events from his life, he has taken great liberties in all these realms–as well as spelling–to recount a story set over the course of the eight days of Hanukkah, 1971.”
There’s more, but you’ll just have to get a copy to read on.

Ben Izzy is a renowned storyteller and Dreidels on The Brain is his first foray into fiction for kids, middle grade readers to be precise, and I hope he writes more. His ability to convincingly convey time, place, character, conflict and voice was not lost on this reader who grew up in that era. Dreidels on The Brain is so much more than a Hanukkah story. It’s a heartwarming coming-of-age novel filled with memorable laugh out loud moments and it seems to have fun with itself and the reader who will quickly catch on to all the zany things Izzy’s included. He’s spelled Hanukkah a ton of different ways and, when he gets the opportunity, does the same with ketchup. On top of this there are lots of jokes, insight into magic tricks, great cultural references, and just the right amount of Yiddish words added to an already winning mix.

As mentioned above, Dreidels on The Brain is set in 1971, Temple City, California, just east of Los Angeles with no temple to be found. The main character’s Jewish family (whose last name shall not be revealed here) actually attends a temple or synagogue in nearby Rosemead. Joel, the self-proclaimed funny-looking main character, is short, has braces, wears glasses, and is the odd man out as the school’s only Jewish student.

Nine chapters take readers through Joel’s eight days and nights of Hanukkah. Ben Izzy has managed to seamlessly weave magic, miracles, matzoh balls, and music from Fiddler on The Roof into an unforgettable story of a boy, on the cusp of adulthood according to the Jewish religion, wanting to be anyone, but himself. This all plays out over the Hanukkah holiday while touching upon faith, family, friends, and one particular female named Amy O’Shea. Readers will find it easy to root for the lovable protagonist and, like him and the message of his dreidel game, wish that a great miracle could happen there.

Joel, a tween with soon-to-be teen angst, is questioning his belief in God as he navigates his role as school dork, token Jew, and the youngest son in his family of five including two older brothers. His parents are struggling financially, but his mom never gives up hope for better times ahead. His dad, unemployed, is always on the verge of creating the next must-have invention, all while coping with his debilitating arthritis. Although it’s clear there’s much love in Joel’s family, as seen through the eyes of this twelve-year-old boy, there’s not much to be desired about his life. For example, he never gets a Hanukkah present as it’s simply not affordable. Joel does manage to make some spending money by performing magic tricks at parties, but when classmate Amy suggests they team up because an assistant will add to a magic show’s appeal, Joel finds himself falling for this girl he considers to be way out of his league.

The plot lines center around Joel having to perform a magic show at his grandma’s nursing home, his dad needing surgery over Hanukkah, and an invitation from the principal to present the Hanukkah story to the entire school at a special assembly. Will everything go according to plan convincing Joel that miracles can happen? “All I can do is answer the way Jews always do–with another question. Why not?”

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel for #Readukkah

Reluctant Readers Love Timmy Failure and Tom Gates Series

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TIMMY FAILURE & TOM GATES
RECOMMENDED BOOKS FOR RELUCTANT READERS

Huzzah and hooray! A world class detective and a passionate doodler are back in the continuing series of two popular Candlewick Press middle grade books.

If you’re not familiar with either either Timmy Failure or Tom Gates, please take a look at earlier reviews of previous titles right here at Good Reads with Ronna (see below). Both series are a hit with fans of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and employ a diary or journal style novel filled with pen and ink illustrations. The illustrations not only add to both series’ humor, but, as one of my students, a reluctant reader (and now big fan) told me: the illustrations increase his understanding and enjoyment. Both are recommended for ages 8-12.
So check out more hilarious adventures– and misadventures– of Timmy Failure and Tom Gates.

Timmy Failure: Sanitized for Your Protection (#4)Timmy Failure Sanitized For Your Protection book cover
Written and illustrated by Stephan Pastis
Candlewick Press; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

The young “ … founder, president, and CEO of Failure, Inc, the greatest detective agency in the nation …” is forced to go on a road trip to Chicago to help his mom’s boyfriend move, instead of working on his latest case: the theft of money from a school fundraiser. Extremely put out, Timmy endures miles of cornfields and country-western music with his mother, Doorman Bob, his polar bear ex-partner, Total, arch-enemy and “criminal mastermind,” Molly, and her family. Like the Pink Panther’s clueless Inspector Clouseau, the equally clueless Timmy accuses everyone but the actual thief and tries to elicit confessions from the innocent while advising them on their “Carmen Miranda” rights. Can Timmy solve the case while far away in Chicago? Can he trust Molly, one of his many suspects, to help him find the crook? Be prepared for “greatness!” Visit Candlewick Press for information on the books and see Pastis’ wonderful Timmy Failure website for more information on the series, the characters, trailers for each book, and activities.

Read Good Reads with Ronna’s past reviews of the Timmy Failure series here.
Tom Gates Everything's Amazing (Sort of) book coverTom Gates: Everything’s Amazing (Sort of) (#3) 
Written and illustrated by Liz Pichon
Candlewick Press; $12.99, Ages 8-12)

Tom has a lot on his mind and some big problems. Not his usual problems: an irritating older sister, an obnoxious classmate who is always trying to get him in trouble, school, teachers, and math homework. Actually, any homework.

No, he’s got much bigger worries than that. His birthday is coming up and no one seems to notice the wish list he’s conveniently posted on the refrigerator door. His weird, but sweet grandmother has promised to whip him up a special birthday cake. Not so good … she’s been known to mix jello and peas together. His parents have promised to take him and four of his friends to Dino Village for his birthday (where his father works). Four friends? No problem, he’ll invite best “mate” Derek, Norman, and two others. Things quickly go awry, when Amy, the girl he has a crush on, sees the invitations and asks if she can come … and bring a friend. He agrees before realizing the numbers (there’s that pesky math again) don’t add up to four.

His band, Dog Zombies, which includes Derek and Norman, has been “volunteered” by Principal Keen to perform at the school dance. The inexperienced trio, with only one previous engagement under their belts, is going to need a lot of practice. A lot! Even worse, Tom’s father, a loveable and delightfully quirky man, has been hired to be the DJ at the school dance. He plans to wear his dinosaur costume from Dino Village … and silver disco boots. Positively cringe-worthy.

Will this doodler and homework dodger get what he wants for his birthday? Will he figure out how to include Amy and his four friends at Dino Village? Will the Dog Zombies go up in flames at the school dance? And then there’s his father … and his grandmother’s special birthday cake. Read the book and be prepared for a laugh-out-loud experience!

Oh, in case you don’t speak British (“choon” means an excellent tune), Pichon has included a British to American glossary. Don’t forget to check out the recipe for Tom’s “Doodle Toast” at the end of the story.

Visit Pichon’s and Candlewick’s websites for more information on the author and the series as well as fun activities.

Check out Good Reads with Ronna’s earlier reviews of previous titles in the Tom Gates series:

The Brilliant World of Tom Gates (#1)

Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and other good stuff) (#2)

  • Reviewed by Dornel CerroVisit Dornel’s blog, Mile High Books, here.

Raymie Nightingale written by Kate DiCamillo

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RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE
Written by Kate DiCamillo
(Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo book cover

 

Reviewer Hilary Taber calls Raymie Nightingale, “A rare and hopeful song.” But after reading her review, you’ll discover, as with all DiCamillo’s books, it’s that and so much more

Raymie Clarke is preparing herself to enter the Little Miss Florida Central Tire competition. Her father has recently run off with a dental hygienist, and Raymie is determined to win so that he will see Raymie’s picture in a newspaper and will, of course, come back to his family. This is the initial plan, but like most plans it doesn’t turn out the way that Raymie originally intended. First of all she needs to learn how to twirl a baton in order to win the competition. It is during those baton twirling classes that she meets her “rancheros”, her new friends who become like family. Gritty, but sweet Beverly, and storyteller extraordinaire Louisiana, help her through this hard time. Maybe, just maybe, Raymie is more than just a little girl with a big dream to get her father to come home. Maybe, just maybe, Raymie is destined for adventures with her new friends that show Raymie that she is the hero of her own difficult time. Raymie finds that somewhere in her is a person who is stronger than the storms of life. She also learns that, with help from her friends, she can manage to make her way to a new life full of goodness and grace. It is a life that she could have never imagined when she began making her plans to turn things around. Kate DiCamillo delivers yet another wonderful novel that makes you believe again in the strong, incredible power of friendship and hope.

It is that rare quality of combining sorrow with sweetness that makes every book she writes life affirming. Every book is like watching a sweet spring creep over a winter world. Often as a children’s bookseller, I see an absolute faith placed in her books by the children who read them. Even though the story might be hard to read, the children show a willingness to take the journey with Kate. Time and time again I wonder what it is that they are feeling when they look at her books in their little hands. I think it’s something akin to knowing that she is telling them the truth. There is a certain peace in that. Kate tells us that life is hard, but you should always hope. Hope is real, hope is something to hold on to, hope is the stuff of life.

On a personal note I feel that Kate DiCamillo is the E.B. White of our generation. Like White she is adept in the art of condensing profound thoughts into short, but amazing sentences. I was honored to meet her recently and to have my copy of Raymie Nightingale signed. I think it’s worth noting that beyond the wonderful writing is a very brave writer. Kate has personally been through the very hard experience of having an absent father, and she has courageously taken up the task of writing about this time in her life. That had to be difficult. Ultimately I think her bravery in writing about this time in her life will help to heal others who have gone though something similar. So, here is to one amazing writer who is also incredibly resilient, just like Raymie.

Come back tomorrow to read Hilary’s interview with Kate DiCamillo to get the inside scoop.
Download a teacher’s guide here.
Download a book discussion guide here.

  • Reviewed by Hilary Taber

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

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CRENSHAW
by Katherine Applegate
(Feiwel & Friends; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Crenshawcover


Oh, this marvelous cover. The huge cat, the small boy, the dreamy purple all around them, and the feeling like they have known each other for a long time are all reasons that Crenshaw just pulled me in when I first saw it. Of course I knew that Katherine Applegate was going to write a terrific book because she wrote the Newbery Award winner, The One and Only Ivan. So, I just trust her to write something wonderful and she did!

Jackson, known to the family as Jacks, is a person who likes facts. In fact, he loves them. So when Crenshaw shows up one day Jackson is amazed and more than slightly freaked out. Crenshaw was Jackson’s imaginary friend when Jackson was a little boy. Jackson knows better than to believe in imaginary friends. However, now Jackson has a real problem because even though he wishes Crenshaw would just go away, it’s not going to happen. Crenshaw is going to stay for a while. It’s good that he does because Jackson is going to need his old friend again.

Jackson and his family aren’t doing well financially. Jackson’s family is going to have to make a decision about how they are going to cope with job losses and disabilities. It isn’t going to be easy to be able to make any sort of decision at all when there is hardly any money. Jackson and his family have had to live in the family minivan before, and Jackson is worried that they might have to do that again. While everything around Jackson seems out of control, Crenshaw is there. He’s a giant, imaginary cat and I’m so glad he is there for Jackson. Crenshaw guides Jackson. Crenshaw helps Jackson to find a way to tell a hard truth. Crenshaw likes purple jellybeans. Crenshaw is a cat that can ride a surfboard! In short, Crenshaw is a great friend.

There’s just tons to love about this book. It’s magical, full of facts (that’s what Jackson likes), full of imagination (that’s pretty much what Crenshaw is made from), and it has this amazing warmth to it. Jackson’s family may have financial troubles, but there is no deficit of love in this family. They love each other to the moon and back again. Crenshaw received well-deserved starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Horn Book. I’ll add another of my own. Highly recommended!

Read an excerpt by clicking here.

Click here to purchase CRENSHAW by Katherine Applegate

  • Reviewed by Hilary Taber

Cold War on Maplewood Street by Gayle Rosengren

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COLD WAR ON MAPLEWOOD STREET
Written by Gayle Rosengren
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

ColdWaronMaplewoodStreet

“War was something that happened in other countries, not here in the United States. Not in Chicago on Maplewood Street.” (p. 21).

On October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy delivered a televised address to the American people about the discovery of Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba and his response to that threat: a naval blockade of the island. In the tense days that followed, U.S. and Soviet warships sped to the island and the two Cold War superpowers stood “eyeball to eyeball.” The world hovered at the edge of a nuclear precipice.

As the story in Cold War on Maplewood Street unfolds, we meet sixth grader Joanna who loves her dog, Dixie, horses, and mystery books. She lives with her single mom in a basement apartment. Her beloved older brother, Sam, is in the Navy and her best friend, Pam, lives upstairs. She is attracted to the new student in her class, Theo, but too embarrassed to talk to him. However, Joanna has a lot to worry about. A latchkey child, she’s home alone frequently after school and fears that robbers may break into her basement apartment. She wonders about the strange lady in the upstairs apartment who always seems to be watching Joanna from her window … could the old lady be a spy? She misses Sam, but won’t write to him or read his letters, because he broke his promise to her that he would never leave like her father did. One of the popular girls in school is having a boy-girl party that Joanna’s mom feels she’s too young to attend.

President Kennedy’s televised speech triggers unpleasant memories of Joanna’s father and the disastrous last visit she had with Sam. As tensions mount between the two superpowers, fears at home grow. People begin to stockpile supplies and students practice air raid drills at school. Joanna worries about her brother’s safety and she finally begins writing to him. But he does not reply. Has he given up on her? Or is his ship involved in the blockade?

This middle grade historical novel is a dramatic, wonderfully crafted, coming-of-age-story set during a critical moment in history, as one young girl, standing between childhood and adolescence, struggles to understand the changes in her world. The author’s research into early 1960s America and the political crisis creates an authentic setting, which brought back many childhood memories for me. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are references to popular culture such as transistor radios, television shows (Broken Arrow), personalities (First Lady, Jackie Kennedy), and music (The Four Season’ Sherry Baby and Bobby Pickett’s Monster Mash).The author mirrors the growing tensions between the two superpowers with Joanna’s fears and concerns, but prevents the story from being swallowed up by events on the world stage. Day-to-day life continues for Joanna: school, homework, running errands, dinners with Pam’s family, and baking cookies with her mother. But life, as her mother reminds her, changes, and while some changes may be scary, others bring hope. Could mom’s new job improve the family’s lifestyle?

Visit Gayle Rosengren’s website for more information on this book and her previous title, What the Moon Said (Putnam, 2014). Rosengren has many resources for using both books in the classroom or with book clubs, including a list of books that Joanna might have read, and links to websites about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Highly recommended for ages 8-12.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro