A Book Review, and Interview with Author Chris Baron
by Karol Silverstein
★Starred Review – Booklist
In The Magical Imperfect, Etan has had trouble speaking since his mother checked into a hospital to get well, and his friends at school don’t know what to make of his silence. Baseball is about the only thing he can share with his father, but luckily, 1989 is looking like a good year for their Giants. Spending time with his immigrant grandfather, a shopkeeper in the local village, is much easier for Etan. Though his family is Jewish, their small hometown north of San Francisco is home to many refugees from various countries, so he’s exposed to many different cultures.
On an errand to deliver items for one of his grandfather’s fellow shopkeepers, Etan meets Malia, a girl who has severe eczema and began being homeschooled when the bullying at the local school became too much. These two outcast kids have an instant connection and build a moving friendship. Etan’s grandfather has a small supply of clay from “the old country,” which is supposed to have curative properties. Could the clay possibly cure Malia’s eczema? Etan wonders. Malia has tried many medicines and “cures” and is more interested in connecting with and learning from the nature that surrounds her, particularly the trees. Malia also dreams of singing in the town’s talent contest—unthinkable before she met Etan. As the talent show—and the World Series—draw closer, Malia practices her performance with Etan’s encouragement and Etan secures some of his grandfather’s “magic clay,” hoping it will help a particularly bad eczema outbreak Malia is experiencing. If only the scary tremors would let up…
As was the case in author Chris Baron’s 2019 debut All Of Me, the gentle unfolding of character and emotion through evocative verse is again on full display in The Magical Imperfect. The juxtaposition of Etan and Malia’s small tremors of growth with San Francisco’s devastating 1989 earthquake provides a potent metaphor for how life can shake you up but not necessarily knock you down. I worried a little that this book might delve into “magical cure/disability that needs to be fixed” territory that hampers many books with disabled and/or chronically ill characters and can actually be harmful to that community. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Etan’s clay isn’t really the magic fix he’d hoped for, and I believe both kids come to realize that acceptance and small victories are, in the end, what matter most.
Ultimately, the intertwined themes of love, culture, baseball and just a touch of magic . . . or is it faith? . . . make this a wonderful and wonder-filled read.
Karol Silverstein: The Magical Imperfect is set around the time of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. How and at what point in the writing process did you decide on that time period? What led to this decision?
Chris Baron: This is a great question with a very twisty-turny answer. Let me see if I can straighten it out enough. Just like in All of Me, this book takes place in the Bay Area, where I went to middle school. This place is just a part of me. The setting lives in my heart—from the ocean to the redwoods and beyond. I’d experienced earthquakes before, but somehow this one, in the middle of the World Series seemed to disrupt life in such an unpredictable and deep way. This story is all about the ways in which life is disrupted for the people in the story in unexpected ways by things that are beyond their control. Something as a big as an earthquake is terrifying, but it also has a chance to bring people together.
Karol: Baseball, music, food, and cultural traditions are wonderfully intertwined in your book. Can you talk about how you worked with these themes to tell Etan’s story?
Chris: Intertwined is actually a beautiful word for this. I think all of these things are intertwined in the story. When we hear a song, we feel the beat and hum the melody. We can remember the words no matter how long it’s been. Not only that, if the song has a special meaning to us, the music and the lyrics come together to fuel the memories that bind us together. I think it’s the same with cultural and sacred traditions, (which of course include food). The traditions, the tastes, the people—they become intertwined in who we are. They connect us. Even though Etan and Malia are from different cultures, and even though traditions might look different, they find that their values are actually intertwined.
As for baseball: Baseball is its own tradition—a symbol, an activity played at every level, and just a very fun game. For so many of us, baseball represents normal life, but it’s powerful enough to bring so many kinds of people together. For Etan, baseball is one of the only ways he can connect with his father. When things get tough, they at least can talk about baseball.
In 1989, when a unifying tradition like the world series was shaken by an earthquake, it caused many of us to feel scared and uneasy, but the quake also brought many people together. I tried to weave that into the backdrop of the story. There is so much news coverage from that day, and it’s fascinating to watch. I wanted to explore what it would be like for this close-knit town to experience this event together. I also have to confess that writing poetry about the earthquake was all-consuming. I think I wrote one hundred pages of “moments’ from the quake, but of course only a few made it into the book.
Karol: Both Etan and Malia have health conditions. What drew you to create characters with selective mutism and eczema, respectively? If you don’t have personal experience with these conditions, what type of research did you do?
Chris: Great question. I have the deepest respect and empathy for those of us who live with these health conditions. Both selective mutism and eczema are extremely complex.
I wrote about the life of an artist’s family quite a bit in All of Me. But there was one behavior that Ari didn’t express that Etan does in The Magical Imperfect. In the book, Etan stops speaking when his mother has to leave because of her severe depression. He didn’t choose it. His anxiety came on suddenly, and like most kids his age (and especially in 1989), he doesn’t know how to recognize it. In Etan, I am writing a character I know well—someone who suffers from anxiety. Because my mom is an artist, we moved all the time. Whenever I moved to a new town, a new state, a new school, I may have seemed calm on the outside, but inside of me was a storm of emotions: There was always joy and excitement of moving to a new place, new friends, new adventures, but of course it was all mixed together with the brutal pain of being taken out of one life (routine, friendships, and environment), and then suddenly dropped into another. I suffered from anxiety. I didn’t know how I would fit. For a kid, it can be a complete loss of control. Often, the way I reacted to this loss of control was to find something I could control. It was sometimes eating, but it was also something quieter. I found myself often unable to speak, so I embraced that. I stopped talking at school. I was quiet. I kept all my words to myself. Eventually, I found friends and teachers I could trust who helped me through it, and slowly the words came out.
Eczema is very complicated. Most people have rashes that itch, but as my wife Ella deCastro Baron explains it, she has itches that rash. Ella has had extreme eczema off and on her whole life. Her memoir,Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment(2012) is all about a life lived with eczema. When we first got married, she had eczema that ravaged her body from head to toe. The triggering effects of the condition caused so many secondary problems: depression, insomnia, isolation, and hopelessness. If you know Ella, then you know that she is a luminous, hilarious person full of life. Watching her deal with chronic bouts of eczema has been some of the hardest parts of our life together (and still are at times). In The Magical Imperfect, Malia experiences a similar bout of eczema. It’s so bad that she is isolated from school because of the way other kids treat her and because of her own discomfort.
The healing process for both of these conditions is not simple magic. In each case, it’s a complex journey, but the hope itself leads to moments of magic that provide joy and healing from the most unexpected places. That’s a big part of what I explored in the book.
I also want to note. Even though these conditions are integrated into my own life, I did more research than I expected. I know that these conditions vary from person to person, so I talked to many. I interviewed doctor friends about both subjects, and a few others who have firsthand experiences with these conditions. I also read Christina Collins’sstunning book, After Zerowhich I highly recommend.
Karol: The “magic” in your book is very much left up to your readers’ interpretation. Can you discuss what role you feel magic plays in helping Etan and Malia get to a better place emotionally by story’s end?
Chris: I know one thing I hope readers don’t take away—the idea that magic is some sort of cure for everything. Without too many spoilers, I would say that the magic in the story connects the many worlds of the characters. There is ancient magic from the worlds more connected to Etan’s grandfather and the other immigrants in town, but also hidden everywhere. This is the part I had the most fun writing. I think the magic is crucial for Etan and Malia—not because it cures things—but because it provides hope and makes it tangible in their everyday lives. The story is rooted in the idea that magic is all around us—that if we might only stop and listen—pay attention—we will see and hear the trees, or discover the ancient things living right beside us.
But also—I love trees—and I know that they are made of magic.
Looking for the perfect stuck-at-home, want-to-read-a-classic book? It’s Hugh Lofting’sDoctor Dolittle: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1(three different tales of Dolittle’s world travels, accompanied, of course, by his animal friends). Don’t let the 700+-page size scare you away; the short chapters and Lofting’s comical illustrations move the stories along quickly. A middle-grader will feel a great sense of accomplishment after reading this huge book that’s “fully updated for the modern reader by the author’s son, Christopher Lofting.”
Kids may know the various Dolittles represented on the screen, but the real character supplants the others. The literary Dolittle isn’t handsome or debonair; instead, it’s his good-natured, kindhearted personality that quickly wins you over. I like that this Dolittle is a bit on the short and tubby side, it adds to the humorous appeal. Picture a slightly clownish man squished into a matador’s outfit as he tries to bring the cruel sport of bullfighting to an end. Fortunately, he can talk to animals, and always seems to have luck on his side.
Children can explore this world’s appealing mix of reality and fantasy such as the Pushmi-Pullyu, a nearly extinct two-headed creature. These classic tales, “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle;” “The Story of Doctor Dolittle;” “Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office,” will especially delight children fond of animals. Lofting connects with readers, drawing them into his imaginary world. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that the stories were originally written as a series of letters to his kids from the front lines during World War I. Though penned in wartime, his entertaining stories resound with the peaceful love of people and animals from everywhere around the globe.
Serafina, our favorite, fierce heroine, is back in the fourth installment of this New York Times best-selling series, Serafina and the Seven Stars, and we sure have missed her. The Serafina books seamlessly blend fantasy, mystery, and thrilling spookiness. Set around 1900 at Biltmore Estate in the Great Smoky Mountains area of North Carolina, these books include real people and historical details.
Serafina once lived unnoticed in the mansion’s basement with her father. Now Master Vanderbilt gives her free roam, counting on her as Biltmore’s protective guardian. While her best friend, Braeden, is seemingly away at boarding school in New York, the estate’s momentary quiet shatters with nonsensical crimes. Serafina prowls the premises trying to keep everyone safe. When someone she trusts appears to have taken an evil turn, Serafina must hurriedly solve who or what is behind the crimes before matters become insurmountable.
The Serafina books are one of my top middle-grade series of all time because of the amazing setting and period details, close family bonds, fierce friendships (with a dash of romance), and mysterious happenings that keep you guessing until the end. In a word, the Serafina books are awesome. The “STAY BOLD” motto echoes strong girl-empowerment messages throughout this series and complementary book, Willa of the Wood.
Because young readers engage with the content, these books are being taught in over a thousand classrooms nationwide; comprehensive teaching material is available online. If you’re new to the series, explore Beatty’s website for video book trailers, interviews, and much more. You can also read my interview with the author.
In the new middle grade novel, All the Greys on Greene Street, twelve-year-old Olympia is trying to solve a mystery with her two friends, Alex and Richard. She knows her father, an art restorer, has left the country. She knows why her mother hasn’t gotten out of bed since her father left. And she knows something is amiss with an art piece her father and his business partner and devoted friend, Apollo, have been working on restoring. What she doesn’t know is why her father decided to leave so suddenly and why there are people knocking on the doors of her parents’ Soho loft, demanding answers.
All the Greys on Greene Street is Laura Tucker’s debut novel, a historical fiction story set in 1981 when Soho’s large industrial lofts housed artists instead of chain stores and the subway cost 75 cents. Narrated in first-person by Olympia, (Ollie to her family and friends) Ollie is a keen observer, and tries to make sense of the complex adults in her life. She is devoted to her parents and to Apollo, whose studio she visits and who cares for her like his own child. When her father leaves, Ollie tries but can’t rally her mom to get out of bed. She hides her mother’s depression, trying to move through her world as if everything is fine. For weeks, she gets herself to school, concentrates on school projects and eats lots of canned soup. She refuses to ask for help or even share what’s happening with her mom. She manages to convince the neighbors that things are okay, but her friends discover her secret. Ollie pleads for secrecy, but Richard and Alex refuse, and betray her trust. Ollie is just beginning to work through her feelings when catastrophe rocks their neighborhood.
Like the title suggests, Ollie has the eye of an artist. Everyone in her life encourages her to look closely at her world and really try to understand what is happening. Kelly Murphy’s pencil illustrations help the reader see what Ollie sees and what she draws. And the writing is beautiful. There are no easy answers and there is no villain, just friends trying to do their best with what they have. Tucker offers some very smart history and art lessons imparted with the lightest touch. Apollo teaches Ollie about color and craft and the lessons will stay with the reader, as much as they impact Ollie.
Kids and parents were different in 1981 and these sixth graders are allowed to navigate New York City in a way that tween and teen readers with hovering helicopter parents might be surprised by. But even with absent parents and independence, Ollie and her friends are never alone. Their own friendship, their strong community and their neighbors keep them safe. Readers might be tempted to compare Ollie to Harriet, from Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. They both have keen observation skills, but Ollie is softer and savvier than Harriet. Ollie’s biggest lessons are about how to ask for help, and friends who become family and how some of life’s hardest questions have more than one answer.
Reviewed by Guest Reviewer Cynthia Copeland Cynthia Copeland is a television and digital producer, who is always writing on the side. She is currently writing a YA contemporary novel. She lives in Pasadena, California with her family. Follow her on Twitter at @listenupbucko and she’ll share the small mystery that author, Laura Tucker revealed to her about the novel, All the Greys on Greene Street.
When is a Holocaust book not a Holocaust book? When it’s Searching for Lottie, a contemporary fiction, historical and mystery novel that beautifully and sensitively conveys the connectivity the past has with the present. Author Susan L. Ross’s multi-layered story, which won the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award and is a PJ Our Way selection, also emphasizes the importance of individual identity, the supportive role of family and friends, and the power of music.
Twelve-year-old Charlie (Charlotte) Roth has an assignment for 7th grade social studies, a family history project. She’s chosen to research her namesake, Great-Aunt Lottie (Charlotte) Kulka, a violin prodigy who likely died during the Holocaust. While living in Vienna, Charlie’s grandmother, Nana Rose (who was Great-Aunt Lottie’s younger sister) and Lottie’s mother escaped to safety in America. “When the Germans invaded Austria, the Jews were at the mercy of the Nazis.” Far from home, Lottie was not as lucky. She had been sent to continue her music studies in Budapest, Hungary so when her mother and sister fled Austria after her father’s arrest, Lottie vanished without a word and was always presumed dead.
Once Charlie begins digging into the past, her Nana Rose starts to reveal some details from the past that even Charlie’s mom wasn’t aware of. First there is the old black and white photo of her namesake. Then, when Charlie is given a diary and eventually a necklace that once belonged to Lottie, bits and pieces of the past begin rising to the surface causing Charlie to wonder whether her Great-Aunt might still be alive. Could she still be in Hungary? Or America? Charlie’s mom reminds her that “The Holocaust was a tragedy that touched every Jewish family,” and there may not be a happy ending. However, with the encouragement of her friends and family, and despite what she may discover, Charlie vows to find out what really happened to Lottie. It’s clear Charlie is going to be learning about herself and her family as much as she will about her long lost relative as her journey into the past continues.
Unusual incidents and people are discovered along the way that pull the reader into the story and make them feel invested in the outcome. It turns out that Lottie had played with the Vienna Philharmonic. Charlie, also passionate about the instrument, would like nothing more than to please her devoted Nana Rose by being selected for the concertmaster position after her upcoming audition. As Charlie prepares for the big day, her crush on a fellow musician, Devin, could become a distraction from both her violin dreams and her genealogical journey but she perseveres.
The many interesting and exciting things happening in every chapter serve to keep Charlie’s mind off the audition and Devin. There is never a dull moment as Charlie delves deeper into the mystery of Lottie’s disappearance. Exploring every lead for her family history project will ultimately give her a greater understanding of how the Holocaust impacted survivors and children of survivors, in Charlie’s case, her grandmother and mother. “‘After I had children of my own,'” ‘Mom said softly,’ “‘I realized––or at least, I understood a bit better—that my mother had to bury the sad parts of her life in order to live happily.'”
Ross has created a vibrant and resourceful young girl in the character of Charlie. Her hunt through history to uncover hidden truths about Lottie, if successful, will surely solve decades of doubt and we’re all rooting for her. It was hard for me to believe that, though based on Ross’s family, all the characters were fictional. They felt so real, their situations so possible. It’s helpful to read the Author’s Note to learn about Ross’s story inspiration. I found myself heading over to the Ellis Island Archives as I was reading the novel because, like Charlie, and the author, I too, have many unanswered questions about my Eastern European family.
Searching for Lottie will get tweens thinking and hopefully talking about the Holocaust, about their own heritage, and how we often need to look to our past before moving forward. I recommend this novel as it’s not only one of hope and inspiration, but it powerfully demonstrates how one determined young girl can make a difference.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Happy Book Birthday to Searching for Lottie by Susan L. Ross
WILLA OF THE WOOD Written by Robert Beatty (Disney-Hyperion Books; $16.99, Ages 8-12)
In Willa of the Wood, a middle-grade fantasy novel, twelve-year-old Willa is one of the last woodwitches in her Faeran clan. Willa lives with her mamaw, who teaches her how to communicate with plants and animals. Their kind are called “the old ones” by the Cherokee and “night-spirits” by the white-skinned homesteaders. Though Willa’s streaked and spotted skin blends into natural surroundings, she is as real as any other creature.
The year is1900 and, in the Great Smoky Mountains, Willa’s world is changing. The day-folk build unnatural dwellings from the carcasses of murdered trees and hunt the forest’s animals with their killing-sticks. The Faeran dwindle under the strict rule of their deified leader, the padaran. He demands that the young ones steal from the day-folk. Willa is the clan’s best thief because those who don’t return to Dead Hollow with a full satchel are denied food or physically punished. The padaran convinces them, “There is no I, only we.”
When Willa’s discoveries make her question the padaran’s decisions, she must choose between subservience to her clan’s new ways or accept the consequences of defiance.
The book’s twists will keep you guessing! Beatty pulls you into this captivating world with depth of setting and by showing us Willa’s many facets. Because of the scenes involving death, the padaran’s cruelty, and other complex issues, younger children may benefit from reading this book with an adult. Rich in story and detail, Willa of the Wood satisfies with its conclusion and promises to make readers eager for the next installment.
Willa of the Woodis the first book in a new series by Robert Beatty, known for his #1 New York Times best-selling Serafina series.
FRONT DESK Written by Kelly Yang (Arthur A. Levine Books; $16.99, Ages 8-12)
★Starred reviews – Booklist, Kirkus and School Library Journal
Where do I possibly begin with Kelly Yang’s FRONT DESK?
FRONT DESK is a timely and needed narrative for so many reasons. And Yang, as demonstrated in her debut novel, is one heck of a storyteller. She’s destined to be anauthor that kids and adults clamor to meet so they can soak up her pearls of wisdom. Drawing from firsthand experiences and keen insights from when she arrived in America as a Chinese child immigrant along with her parents, Yang’s tale provides many kids a chance to find themselves and find hope inside the pages of this moving middle grade historical novel.
It’s 1993 when we meet our heroine Mia Tang. At 10-years-old, Mia is one of the most empathetic, intelligent, persevering characters of this age I have seen in a long time. The truth is there are so many like her whose voices deserve to be heard. I am grateful to Yang that tweens now have a chance to get to know this plucky protagonist and her struggles. Mia’s family are employed at a hotel with unpleasant owners after working for a short time at a restaurant where they were taken advantage of, then fired shortly after. While the hotel seems like a dream come true at first with free rent, the negatives and danger of managing the hotel take their toll on the family.
One of the moments that broke my heart is when Mia is sitting with one of the “weeklies” at the motel she helps run with her parents. The “weeklies” stay at the hotel for a week at a time, paying a lump sum. An older Black gentleman, Hank, is sitting slumped over, defeated by yet another instance in his life where he is targeted for a crime he did not commit simply because he isn’t White. He’s been labeled for so long that at this point he has no more will to fight. He exposes this vulnerability to Mia, and it is a powerful and haunting exchange. Hank isn’t feeling sorry for himself, nor is he bitter or angry when he has every right to be. He’s just tired, the kind of tired you cannot possibly understand unless you’ve been judged by the color of your skin your whole life. Mia later advocates for him and shows us how you are never too young or too old to stand on the side of justice and equality for all.
Resiliency. Mia and her family, along with the “weeklies” and some other friends, have this in abundance. Even when their own families decline to help them in their hour of need, their community rallies around them so they can take control of their destinies.
I dog-eared many pages to go back and look over for this review, and I’m still at a loss as how best to describe my favorite parts because there are so many. I’ve also purchased more than one copy of this book to give to others. It is one of those stories that will creep into your heart and linger there for quite a while.
FRONT DESK needs to be in every school library and as many homes as possible.
THE CARE AND FEEDING OF A PET BLACK HOLE Written and illustrated by Michelle Cuevas (Dial BYR; $16.99, Ages 8-12)
“The story began on an afternoon the color of comets, with a girl dressed all in black. A sad girl. A girl with a hole in her heart, and darkness on the horizon.” The year is 1977 and eleven-year-old Stella Rodriguez, the protagonist in The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Holeby Michelle Cuevas,loves science. She’s fascinated by the upcoming Voyager launch and visits NASA to give Carl Sagan a recording to take to space—one of Stella and her (deceased) father, laughing and telling jokes. The Voyager will carry all the “wonderful sounds of Earth” but Stella’s younger brother, Cosmo, asks “Are there sad sounds too?”
Stella’s turned away at NASA, but a black hole who seems to want to be her pet follows her home. She names him Larry, short for Singularity, a place of infinite gravity at the heart of a black hole. Using puppy training books, Stella learns to care for and train her black hole. When, like all unruly pets, Larry consumes inappropriate things, Stella realizes he could serve as a repository for items she wants out of her life along with their corresponding memories. Maybe nothingness is better than the pain of remembering.
Cuevas’s illustrations intersperse her text, adding visual interest. When Stella enters the black hole, the pages turn black. The interstellar adventure inside Larry is riotous fun involving the kids, their puppy, the smelly classroom hamster, an assortment of discarded things, and the family’s bathtub. The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole is an entertaining and lighthearted story surrounding the gravity of Stella’s aching grief.
Eventually, Stella realizes even if she has a hole in her center “that’s okay, because it’s full of such beautiful, beautiful things.” In the clever appendix, “A Beginners Guide to the Care and Feeding of Black Holes,” Stella Rodriguez graciously summarizes all she has learned.
LEO, DOG OF THE SEA Written by Alison Hart Illustrated by Michael G. Montgomery (Peachtree Publishers; $12.95, Ages 7-10)
We’re delighted to be included in Peachtree Publishers’ Blog Tour for Alison Hart’sLeo, Dog of the Sea, the fourth installment in this action-packed series available April l.The Dog Chronicles series introduces young readers to the important yet often overlooked roles our canine companions played in major historical events. Please read on for more info about the book and giveaway.
After reading the first few pages of Leo, Dog of the Sea, prepare to be instantly swept aboard the Trinidad, one of five ships in the Spanish armada under the command of Captain General, Ferdinand Magellan. The date: August 1519. In 14 fast-paced, engaging chapters, readers will join the ship’s rat-catching canine, Leo, who narrates the treacherous voyage around the globe as Magellan navigates the seas looking for a route to the Spice Islands. They’ll also meet a motley crew and a colorful cast of characters and can decide for themselves who is worthy of friendship and loyalty and who is not to be trusted. While Leo certainly becomes the most endearing of the lot, Pigafetta, Magellan’s Italian scribe, and Marco, a young stowaway are sure to be favorites, too.
Hart has once again created an observant and compelling character, this time in Leo, a dog reluctant to get close to any human. Now embarking on his fourth voyage to foreign lands, Leo has a wealth of seafaring experience making his detailed descriptions of all things sailing related both realistic and believable. And while five vessels set out in search of a westward route, only one will complete the entire three year journey intact.
When the armada sets off, readers learn that reporting directing to Magellan is master-at-arms, Gonzalo Gomez de Espinosa who will, according to Magellan, “… carry out my orders and assure that the laws of Spain and navigation are obeyed.”This man is the epitome of cruel and Leo and Marco must steer clear of him to save their skins. Keeping notes on everything that occurs, good and bad, is Pigafetta who takes to the boy and dog early on, helping them survive during the perilous trip. It doesn’t hurt that Leo displays bravery in the face of adversary on numerous occasions. And Marco, stoic and astute, proves to be an invaluable companion and page. The story revolves around all the various ports of call visited, the inhabitants encountered and the obstacles faced by Magellan and his crew along the way. Those include every type of weather condition imaginable including violent storms or lack thereof, thievery, hunger, deadly disease, mutiny and murder.
I knew little about Magellan before beginning the book and found myself eager to find out more as I approached the story’s end. Fortunately there are 19 pages of information Hart has included to fill interested readers in on the rest of what happens after her story finishes as well as other fascinating facts about seafaring in the 16th century. From ship dogs to conditions onboard, the back matter in Leo, Dog of the Sea is as riveting and educational as the rest of the book. Illustrator Michael G. Montgomery’s artwork adds to the book’s appeal. His pencil illustrations provide just enough detail to give readers a real taste of the clothing and equipment of the time period, while zeroing in on the key action of a chapter. I guess in closing I have to say that, unlike days out a sea for Magellan’s armada, with no wind blowing for weeks on end, this middle grade historical fiction chapter book is never, ever boring. Get a copy today at your local independent bookseller or enter our great giveaway below. Thanks for stopping by the blog tour. Here are more blog posts to check out, too! 3/27: Kid Lit Reviews 3/28: Librarian’s Quest 3/30: Boys to Books 3/31: Ms. Yingling Reads
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Other books in this series: Darling, Mercy Dog of World War I; Murphy, Gold Rush Dog; Finder, Coal Mine Dog. Please read our review of Darling, Mercy Dog of World War I, Book One in the Dog Chronicles series by clicking here.
Click here for a Teacher’s Guide. Click here to read a Q & A with author, Alison Hart.
Please leave a comment on this blog post for your chance to win one (1) copy of Leo, Dog of the Sea, courtesy of Peachtree Publishers, MSRP value $12.95. One or two words for comment will not be considered valid entries. Giveaway ends 11:59p.m. on April 18. The winner will be chosen via Random.org on April 19th. For an extra chance to win, follow Good Reads With Ronna on Facebook here and let us know you did. Want to increase your chances? Get an additional entry into the giveaway by following this blog on Twitter or tweeting about the giveaway. Must be U.S. resident to enter. The winner will be notified via email. Good luck!
DREIDELS ON THE BRAIN By Joel ben Izzy (Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)
When I adore a book, and I did adore Joel ben Izzy’sDreidels 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?”
This historical fiction book asks the question, “Do Presidents Have Challenges?” and answers with “You’d better believe it.” Jurmain goes on to explain that those challenges can be personal or national or sometimes both. For Franklin Delano Roosevelt or FDR as he was known, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, it would not seem that life would present him with many challenges notes Jurmain. “He was rich. He was smart. He was popular.” He also happened to be the cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States, who served as an important role model for the career-driven FDR. Destined to do “big stuff,” the younger Roosevelt got into politics first in New York then moved on to running the Navy. It was even looking like he might make a run for governor.
Then, in 1921, at age 39, FDR’s legs were paralyzed by Polio, an illness that at the time had no cure. Rather than wallow in self-pity, the solution-oriented Roosevelt was determined not to give in to the disease. He used leg braces and crutches and exercised to strengthen his leg muscles as best he could. And when he wasn’t up to task, Franklin’s popular wife, Eleanor, got involved making speeches on his behalf. As his health improved, Franklin decided to run for governor of New York, making him the first disabled person to seek office. Franklin, when hearing people’s objections, responded with his typical can do attitude. “The governor of New York State does not have to be an acrobat.”
The start of the Great Depression immediately following the NYC Stock Market crash of 1929 or Black Friday as it was known, meant millions of people lost their jobs. Not one to be easily discouraged, Franklin felt he could do something to lift America out of its troubles. In 1932 he became the 32nd President of the United States. At his inaugural speech, FDR gave hope to Americans with his famous line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Then he got about the business of putting Americans back to work by creating a government jobs program, giving seniors Social Security benefits and creating funding for the unemployed. He even took to the radio with his “Fireside Chats” to speak directly to the American public. He went on to be elected (a total of four times) and watched the nation rise from the depths of despair. And though he still could not walk, he was responsible for putting the country back on its feet again.
Nice Work, Franklin!reminds readers of the power of positive thinking. Thanks to his can do approach and record of success, FDR will always be a role model for students. Jurmain aptly chose to highlight some of Roosevelt’s most important contributions to American society in a straight forward manner that is both informative and encouraging. Rather than attempt to cover his entire presidency, the author has concentrated on his first term in office, a pivotal time in U.S. history. Day, who has twice teamed up with Jurmain on some other presidential themed picture books, captures not only Franklin’s appearance, but his personality as well. The scenes he illustrated depict a nation desperate to recover and on the verge of great change. Two outstanding spreads for me were the one showing the endless lines of jobless men waiting for soup, and the inspiring image of Roosevelt standing up at his swearing-in ceremony ready to give his inaugural address. Between Jurmain’s anecdotes that demonstrate Franklin’s determination to overcome his challenges, and Day’s artwork resulting from “weeks sketching at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park,” Nice Work, Franklin!will make a welcome addition to any classroom.
“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.
Lizzie Kennedy, 13, lives in a house on her aunt and uncle’s fashionable Nob Hill estate with her widowed father and her brother, Billy, 16, once her best friend, but now surly and secretive. Their beloved servants, Jing and Maggy, also reside with them. A brief prologue gives the readers some insight into Lizzie’s world at the dawn of the 20th century and the ominous developments to come:
“In the Palace Hotel, electric lights blaze as ladies in shimmering gowns and gentlemen in black waistcoats waltz in a ballroom gilded with gold.
In the bay, a steamer from Honolulu is fumigated, scrubbed, and smoked … and given entry to the port of San Francisco.
At the dock … rats slip off the ship. They scurry onto the wharf and climb the sewers to Chinatown …”
Thanks to her aunt and uncle’s wealth, Lizzie is able to live a fairly privileged life. However, her strict and proper Aunt Hortense insists that she attend finishing school. Lizzie is not interested in becoming a society lady. She prefers science to etiquette, and, much to Aunt Hortense’s chagrin, enjoys assisting her doctor father with his house calls.
Stories begin to surface about the large numbers of dead rats found in Chinatown, and soon that community is quarantined. Despite her father’s and her uncle’s insistence that there is no plague and the quarantine is unjustified, Lizzie has her doubts. One day she discovers that Jing, the family’s cook, has smuggled his son Noah out of Chinatown and has secretly hidden him in the servants’ quarters. However Jing is now missing. Did he get caught up in the quarantine … or something worse? Stunned by the discovery that Jing has a secret life, Lizzie promises the frightened boy, Noah, that she’ll help keep his secret and try to find out what has happened to his father.
As dead rats and plague rumors mount, Lizzie boldly attempts to determine the veracity of the plague rumors and secretly undertakes some dangerous trips to Chinatown to find Jing. Her friendship with Noah and her trips to Chinatown, help her realize the gender, racial, and class inequalities which exist in her society. When Lizzie realizes she can’t find Jing on her own and illness strikes close to home, help comes from some surprising quarters.
Like her earlier Newbery award-winning work, Al Capone Does My Shirts, Choldenko’s middle grade novel, Chasing Secrets, is a wonderful coming-of-age-story that blends historical fiction, mystery, and humor, while providing a fascinating glimpse into San Francisco’s colorful past. Complex topics (some sadly similar to today’s concerns) of inequality, medical science, and immunology are made accessible to young readers through Lizzie’s experiences.
The author, a long time resident of the San Francisco Bay area, concludes with a note about the historical background, a chronology of the plague, and notes which provide information for further reading. Visit Choldenko’s website for more information about her work and find a fascinating Writing Timeline and Educator’s Guide for Chasing Secrets too.
They say to never judge a book by its cover. Never! That said, go ahead and soak in the deliciously dark and clever art design on Julie Berry’s The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place. The artwork perfectly captures the mood of this caper: a rich, Victorian-era romp led by a cast of seven unforgettable students, topped with dashes of suspense and dark humor. Dark, because the caper revolves around the young ladies of St. Etheldreda’s School for Girls discovering their irritable headmistress and her brother, murdered. Darker still, because for these girls, the thought of being sent away from school and each other is worse than the alternative: covering up a murder.
Therein lies the heart of the story—the sisterhood. These seven spirited girls, living in 19th ,century England, have been made to feel like misfits. It’s why they were sent to boarding school. It’s why each of them was given their own demeaning moniker: Disgraceful Mary Jane, Dull Martha, Dear Roberta, Stout Alice, Smooth Kitty, Pocked Louise, and Dour Elinor. While at school they found comfort in friendship, and strength in their alleged weaknesses. So keeping their sisterhood intact is worth a few morbid shenanigans.
“I suppose they’ll find other schools for us eventually,” Pocked Louise said. “New mistresses, new nasty girls to make us miserable.”
“We have gotten along so beautifully here.” Dear Roberta sighed. “It’s something of a miracle, really. We aren’t simply boarding school mates. We’re like a family.”
“We’re better than family,” Disgraceful Mary Jane corrected. “Families are full of aunts and brothers and parents. We’re sisters.”
But author Julie Berry does not make the cover-up easy on the girls. There are bodies to bury. Nosy neighbors to placate. Financials to attend to. And let’s not forget: their headmistress was murdered, so somewhere, someone is waiting for a sign the poison found its mark. The litany of challenges set before the girls is enough make the book a page turner, but it’s a rewarding read on other merits, too.
Berry does an amazing job with the Victorian period. The school setting, character mannerisms, attitudes, clothing, and dry (yet distinctly biting) humor all wrapped around the who-done-it plotline make it delightful for the senses, too.
The glue that holds this fast-paced romp together is the bond between the girls. They all have different personalities, and at times, have disagreements. As a reader you begin to feel like an unofficial member of the sisterhood, standing quietly by, privy to these high-stakes discussions. You understand the level of loyalty and respect they feel for each other.
For readers who crave a little romance, there are a few moments. There’s the neighboring farm boy, a broad-shouldered constable, and a mysterious newcomer.
But really, this story is about the sisterhood. That, and gasping every few pages, wondering how in the world they’re going to get themselves out of this. I really enjoyed tagging along with this Scandalous Sisterhood.
Finding Hope and Strength in a Time of Trial: How I Became a Ghost written by Tim Tingle, reviewed by Hilary Taber.
“…that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again, and again, and again.”
– Tom Hanks as Walt Disney from the movie Saving Mr. Banks
Without compromising historical accuracy, author Tim Tingle draws upon his considerable imagination and talent to tell the story of a young Choctaw boy named Isaac. The book How I Became a Ghost (The RoadRunner Press, $18.95, ages 8-12) relates the story of Isaac’s journey along the Choctaw Nation’s Trail of Tears in the year 1830. This is a truth telling tale that reveals the extreme hardships endured by that nation, but it also remains a hopeful story, full of heroism and adventure.
The first lines pulled me into Isaac’s story, “Maybe you have never read a book written by a ghost before. I am a ghost. I am not a ghost when this book begins, so you have to pay very close attention…” With these magical lines the reader is transported into Isaac’s world. Isaac has two wonderful parents, an older brother named Luke, and a lively dog called Jumper. As the story unfolds, we find that Treaty Talk has resulted in the forced relocation of the Choctaw tribe from their land in Mississippi. As Isaac watches different members of his tribe say goodbye to the land, he suddenly finds that he has the ability to foresee how they will die. Later, he also is able to communicate with members of the tribe who died along the way, and who have become friendly ghosts. These ghosts gently help him to come to the realization that he will soon be a ghost as well. Isaac makes sure that his family knows that this will happen to him. When he does become a ghost it turns out that it isn’t a departure from his family at all. Isaac finds that his family can still see him and he can still speak with them.