‘They Called Us Enemy’ by George Takei is a graphic memoir that brings home the horror of racism and judging people by their race and is a must-read for teenager readers

I’ve read about the internment camps for Japanese Americans during WWII, and there are many historical fiction books for children that are set in those camps (see some listed at the end of this review), but George Takei’s powerful memoir instilled in me a broader sense of what this country was like when this atrocity was implemented — taking away the property and rights of American citizens because of their ancestry and separating them from their homes. Continue reading

Winter picture books that celebrate freedom and tradition for all kinds of young readers

There’s no better gift for a child than the gift of a good book. And nothing gets young children more excited about reading than good picture books. Reading good picture books with toddlers can instill in them a love of reading that will last a lifetime.

What better gift could you give?

“Lilah Tov Good Night” by Ben Gundersheimer (Mister G) and illustrated by Noar Lee Naggan is not a typical holiday book. There’s no Christmas tree, but there is a menorah. And even though we don’t see the family celebrating Hannukah, it’s clear that they’ve left their homeland for a new beginning, a beginning which includes a better future for their children, and a future where life will be better. The text is simple as the small family packs up a few belongings and leaves their tiny house, where there’s only a small wood stove for warmth and bread and turnips to eat for dinner. They travel far, and cross the water (reminiscent of the ocean that the author’s family, and many of our families, crossed to get to America) before arriving at a small house tucked in the shadow of a mountain. A new home and a new tomorrow. We see the small daughter tucked warmly in her bed, sleeping soundly, with the menorah on her windowsill. It’s a perfect story to share history and tradition with children. Except for the indigenous people, we are all immigrants here, and our ancestors (or we) came here for a better life. A simple, lovely story with beautiful illustrations. The illustrations cleverly use cool blues for the backgrounds while keeping the warm colors, tans and browns, as the focus for the family and the sleeping animals tucked in tight in their winter quarters. Mister G is also the author of the lovely “Señorita Mariposa.” (Nancy Paulsen Books)

“Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela!” by Alexandra Alessandri and illustrated by Addy Rivera Sonda is a picture book about New Year’s Eve celebrations that takes us on a journey to Columbia in South America, where we see Ava celebrate the holiday with her extended family. This book is not just about the holidays, though. It’s also about being shy — Ava is so shy with her extended family that she can’t bring herself to talk to them. Her cousins and aunts and uncles and even her grandmother seem like strangers. But as we learn about the Año Nuevo celebrations, we also learn about the Año Viejo, and we see Ava gradually become more comfortable with her relatives through her persistence and determination to enjoy the visit. It’s not only a story of the celebration of a different culture during a familiar holiday, it’s a touching story of overcoming painful shyness. (Albert Whitman & Co.)

“Raccoon’s Perfect Snowman” by Katia Wish is about four animal friends who are playing in the snow and building snowmen. One of the three, Raccoon, is a perfectionist. We all know someone like that — someone whose creations must be perfect, flawless. Well, Raccoon shares his rules with Rabbit, Fox and Mouse so that they, too, can build the perfect snowmen. But Raccoon has taken all the clean snow, and he’s used all the tools and the decorations, leaving his friends with less than optimal paths to build their own perfect snowman. Luckily, before it’s too late, Raccoon realizes his mistake and is able to bring the friends together on another project. This book is really about realizing what is important. A perfect snowman is not nearly as important as making friends happy, and that’s a perfectly important discussion that the reader can have with the children who need to hear this lesson. What is the author’s message? Children as young as three and four can start talking about that question and sharing their ideas. (Sleeping Bear Press)

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover books provided by the publishers for review purposes. 

‘Spellbreaker’ by Charlie N. Holmberg is a delightful blend of mystery and fantasy with a touch of romance

I have to begin by admitting that historical novels featuring an alternate fantasy world usually are not my cup of tea. But this novel, an historical/fantasy/mystery with a soupçon of romance set in Victorian England, grabbed me from the start. The main character, Elsie Camden, is a wonderful, complex creation: someone who has lost her family, managed to leave the workhouse where orphans go, and hidden her ability to be a spell breaker in a world where women don’t get to be wizards unless they are aristocrats. Above all, Elsie is a really, really likable character, and her Robin Hood-like tendencies make her even more admirable.

The world in which Elsie lives is in some ways very much like England was; but with the addition of magic spells, somehow it seems even more “British,” in the sense that the aristocrats are still the upper class wealthy, but added to the mix are wizards who, after they complete their testing, may also be eligible for a title, thus transforming them into members of the upper class. Continue reading

‘Fireborne’ by Rosaria Munda is a splendid combination of fantasy, friendship, political intrigue, and bloodshed

“FIreborne” by Rosaria Munda is a young adult fantasy with two main characters who alternately share their narrative. The story takes place nine years after a revolution that is very reminiscent of the Russian revolution, wherein the Czar and his family were executed. In a like manner, the “royalty” of Callipolis were murdered. These rulers were called dragonlords, and had their own dragons that served to terrorize their people, including their serfs, basically slaves, the lowest of the classes. Now, post-revolution, instead of being born into being a dragonrider because of your royal family, children of any class can be chosen by a young dragon to be a rider.

We meet Annie and Lee, two teenagers who met as children at an orphanage, and are now Guardians who ride dragons for Callipolis. We know from Lee’s narrative that he was Leo, and the child of one of the ruling dragonlords, Leon Stormscourge. During the bloody uprising, when the dragonlords and their families were murdered in a bloody coup, Leo was spared at the last minute. He ended up in an orphanage with Annie, who was left an orphan when her family was brutally murdered by Leon Stormscourge during a famine, when they couldn’t pay their share of taxes. Her family was barricaded inside their home and the home was set on fire by Stormscourge’s dragon. Annie was forced to watch.

How then, can Annie and Lee, as he is now known, be best friends? The novel reflects Munda’s ability to demonstrate the development of the relationship between those two rather than just telling us about it. We feel for both children as they depend on each other for moral support and affection. Lee ensures that the cruelest of the other orphans can’t take away Annie’s food or beat her. And when Annie depends on Lee, he feels a connection with another human, and he feels that he’s important to someone. Connections are important — especially since he has no family left. When both Lee and Annie are chosen by dragons to be dragonriders, they both eventually yearn to be the top rider, called the Firstrider. Of course, Lee had wanted that title since he was a young child, as it’s one of the few titles that carried over from pre-revolutionary times. But Annie wants it, too, and for a former serf to be declared Firstrider would be revolutionary.

Many of the other characters are complex and not all they appear to be. We meet Atreus, the First Protector, an intriguing character who seems to have the best of intentions when he foments the uprising and, in the name of justice, kills those who were his friends. He appears kind and noble at the start of the story when he saves the young Leo, but as we learn more about him, we wonder just what motivates him now, after the revolution is over. The other young Guardians who have been chosen by dragons to be riders are also multifaceted characters. The most negative and violent of them, a bully and a snob, turns out to be not quite what he seemed to be at first. Perhaps. As “Fireborne” is just the first in a series, there is much that remains to be determined regarding all the characters.

Will Annie and Lee ever act on their love for each other? As Guardians, they forsake ever having a family, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t fall in love. What will the future bring in terms of those of Lee’s extended family who escaped the country, but who are plotting to retake what they believe is rightfully theirs. This story provides the backdrop and the backstory of the two main characters and their country. And while Munda is a debut author, she has shown with the first book that she is capable of creating not only a fantastic world populated with dragons, but also a world in which all-too-human foibles torment its inhabitants just as happens in our world. And the next book in the series will build on what we’ve learned. I’m personally hoping for more about the dragons and their connection to their riders. We know that Annie has an especially strong connection to her dragon; I want to learn more about it.

Munda ends the first book in a satisfactory manner. There is an ending that gives us closure, but also much to wonder about, all of which will keep us waiting anxiously for the next book. We like Annie and Lee, and we want to know what the next step in their lives will bring. I would love to see this book used in high school or middle school and examined to compare this fictional world with the Russian Revolution and the reasons behind the latter. Obviously, no dragons were involved, but did Munda use details from history to make “her” revolution more real? It would be a fascinating study for readers of “Fireborne,” and they might enjoy the research.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.

Perfectly diverse picture books: One for a boy and one for a girl

It’s that time of year when we are thinking of holiday gifts. But these two 2020 picture books are perfect books for any time of year and any occasion. Both celebrate possibility – the possibility inherent in every child no matter the gender, no matter the color of their skin, no matter their religion. Each book celebrates the fact that we are all unique and we all have unique and unlimited possibilities.

“I Am Every Good Thing” is by celebrated author Derrick Barnes and illustrator Gordon C. James. The combination of metaphor and brilliant colors and powerful brush strokes make this a book that calls for reading and rereading again and again. Each reading of the prose and examination of the illustrations will elicit new observations and new discussion. This is definitely a book aimed at boys, and most of the illustrations are of Black boys, adorable boys, with bright colorful backgrounds. They are swimming and hugging little sisters and peering through microscopes and in space suits exploring the deep blue. The constant metaphor will cause teachers to salivate at the perfect text for teaching students what poetic language can be. “I am good to the core, like the center of a cinnamon roll. Yeah, that good.”

This book is sweet and beautiful, but there is one page that drew my attention. It’s the page that illustrates that sometimes, the first person narrator is afraid. He says, “I am not what they might call me, and I will not answer to any name that is not my own. I am what I say I am.” The first time I read the book, I simply looked at the illustration of a Black boy in a polo shirt with a star radiating from his head. I didn’t really stop to reflect on the background, behind the star. I certainly didn’t connect it with the text. And that’s my fault for reading it too quickly and missing the deeper meaning of that page. For behind the star, there are white faces that look angry. We don’t see much of it, and the emphasis is on the beautiful portrait of the boy who is looking forward, not towards the leering faces behind him. But upon reflection, I understand what the author communicates when the boy refuses to answer to any name that is not his own.

And that is something that many of us can relate to. While my own status as someone who is reviled by bigots and haters is less apparent because of my white skin, I have seen those chanting “Jews will not replace us” and other hateful words so recently that it still horrifies me. There are daily accounts of people of color enduring not just names, as the narrator denounces in the text, but dangerous, too often deadly, actions by the haters. This is a page that, unlike the positivity that characterizes the rest of the book, addresses the darker side of growing up as a male African American.

This is a book for those of us who want to share books with our children, grandchildren, and students, books  that vividly and powerfully declare that we are all the same. We all are unique. We all have desires and dreams and plans. We all deserved to be loved and cherished. We are all equal in these truths, and our children must be educated in this reality. (Nancy Paulsen Books)

“A Girl Like You” by Frank and Carla Murphy and illustrated by Kayla Harren is unabashedly aimed at girls. (There is a previous book, “A Boy Like You.”) In this book, the message is that every girl is unique, and every girl’s desires and looks and clothes and talents are unique, too. It’s about having empathy and friendship, and working hard whether it’s at fixing things, lifting weights, or studying the moon. It’s about following your dreams and picking yourself up when things go wrong. The illustrations are of diverse children with diverse skin colors, including some girls who are disabled and some who wear hijabs. The message is:

“And remember, the world needs a girl…
a caring and strong girl,
a bold and brave girl,
an unstoppable girl.
A girl like you.

This is a perfect choice for any girl who deserves a message about determination and spunk. In short, every girl. (Sleeping Bear Press)

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover books provided by the publishers for review purposes.

‘The Downstairs Girl’ by Stacey Lee is the kind of historical fiction that teachers love because it opens eyes and hearts

‘The Downstairs Girl” by Stacey Lee is not what I expected. I was looking forward to an historical fiction novel about class differences, but I wasn’t expecting a book so riveting that I would stay up all night to finish it. With tears in my eyes. 

There is so much that is magnificent about Lee’s writing that I’m almost at a loss regarding where to begin: the historical information that is so important and not something we are taught in school? The intertwining of racism from almost 150 years ago that is depicted so movingly — and so heartbreakingly? The story of a girl searching for her roots, and searching for a place in the world where she can use her talents?

When Jo Kuan loses her job at the millinery shop, a job in which she excelled, she can’t find work. In Atlanta twenty-five years after the Civil War, no one wants help that looks different from a red-blooded Southerner. Kuan’s Chinese ancestry means that she fits in with neither the whites nor the “colored” categories. She and Old Gip, her guardian since she was abandoned as an infant, are somewhere in between.

We learn that Old Gip has worked on the estate of the wealthy, blue-blooded Payne family since he came to America. Jo started working there also as a child, beginning in the stables and working her way up to housemaid, when suddenly one day, Mrs. Payne ordered her out of the house. For no reason. But now Old Gip says that she can go back to the Payne house as a day maid to Caroline, the Payne’s spoiled daughter, who is back from finishing school. Jo and Caroline have a tortured past, and while they grew up together, Caroline was cruel to Jo in countless ways. Caroline does not seem to have changed even after all these years. We follow the relationship between Jo and Caroline and Mrs. Payne as the relationships develop and long-kept secrets come to light.

We also learn about Old Gip and Jo’s living situation. It’s against the law for Chinese to own land or rent, but Old Gip had learned about a hidden basement that had been created by abolitionists, complete with hidden entrances and situated  under the house of the Bell family, owners of one of the Atlanta newspapers, the Focus. While Old Gip has taught Jo mathematics and other subjects, she learned about English through a speaking tube that led to the printing press part of the Bell home. Jo would pull out the sound-dampening wool and listen as the family discussed events, language, words, and stories. Jo feels she knows them all, especially their son Nathan, who is just two years older than she. But they have no idea that others live hidden below them.

When the Bells’ paper is in danger because of flagging subscriptions, they bemoan that the other Atlanta paper has an advice column that draws subscribers. They brainstorm about how they might create a similar attention-grabber. That sets off a spark in Jo’s mind. One of the reasons that she was fired from her job at the hat store was because of her opinions. She was a “saucebox,” as they termed outspoken women back then. Perhaps she could — anonymously, of course — be their advice giver, an agony aunt as it were. She delivers a few columns into their mailbox and is thrilled when they use her writing. At the same time, Jo realizes that if she were ever discovered, she could end up in jail because impersonating a white person is a crime.

Aside from the history lessons, the page-turning plot, and the fabulous depiction of the characters, Lee consistently demonstrates her ability to turn a phrase, to imbue her writing with lovely metaphors, and to make it all seem natural — because the first person narrator is a writer, a person of high intellect, and a person who is extremely perspicacious. In a different narrator, we might not find the narration believable, but because of Jo and her quick understanding, we don’t question it. And some of the writing is so delightful, we must smile and enjoy it.

“My, you are assiduous.”
I frown with the effort of remembering what that particular word means.
Assiduous meaning ‘hardworking.'”
“Yes, I know, young man,” I snap, wondering how I got caught in the same trap twice. “I’ve just never been fond of words that are led by an ass.”
His face tightens, as if with the effort of trying to hold something back. “Ah. Then I shall assay not to assault your ears.”

Throughout the book, the details and the description are magnificent. The writing is engaging, and the plot is intricately woven together with twists that are certainly unexpected but implied effectively with precise foreshadowing. Turning the pages and coming across a lovely metaphor is just one reason that we can’t stop reading, yet we don’t want the beautiful story to end. I smiled as I read and then reread, “Saturday arrives wearing a cloud shawl over her damp shoulders.”

While “The Downstairs Girl” is published as a young adult novel, it boasts enough depth and maturity that readers of all ages will enjoy it. It’s also a fabulous choice for a book club. I can’t wait to see what Stacey Lee writes next.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.

‘Christmas at the Island Hotel’ by Jenny Colgan brings readers back to the charming, isolated island of Mure

We get to spend the holidays at the charming island of Mure thanks to “Christmas at the Island Hotel” by Jenny Colgan. Colgan writes charming stories of people who are tired of huge, crowded, impersonal cities and long to escape to somewhere where the air is clean, the sky uncluttered by tall buildings, and the view peaceful and pastoral.

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‘The Water Bears’ by Kim Baker is a middle grade tale of belonging and dealing with PTSD

In “The Water Bears” by Kim Baker, Newt Gomez lives on an almost magical island, Murphy Island, with his family. The island had been a resort with unusual animals and a carnival atmosphere, and now a school is housed in what were the resort buildings. In the middle of the island is Gertrude Lake, where a Loch Ness-type creature named Marvelo is said to live. Newt’s father says he’s seen it, but Newt doesn’t believe it exists.

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Hopes, Dreams, Truths, and Real Christianity

Jon Meacham’s “His Truth Is Marching On; John Lewis and the Power of Hope,” is a stunningly powerful account of the life and career of John Lewis. Most often, when we describe events or behaviors as “shocking,” we are almost automatically communicating negativity: “… the shocking duplicity of this man,” or “the shocking cruelty of bigots.” But in the case of Meacham’s work, “shocking” carries many meanings and connotations that take us far beyond those negative implications of the word. It is, of course, an undeniable, all-too-obvious truth that 1960s Civil Rights workers like Lewis were cruelly abused physically and verbally, beaten to within inches of their lives, smashed viciously with clubs and truncheons, kicked mercilessly while lying semi-conscious on the blood-spattered ground, and generally treated like invading monsters from Hell. And to read the disgusting details of these acts of inhumanity is, indeed, shocking, even though we’ve seen and heard evidence of those brutal attacks before. Continue reading

‘Closer to Nowhere’ by Ellen Hopkins is a beautiful story that will break your heart and then fill it with love

Prolific author Ellen Hopkins is known for her young adult books that deal with tough subjects — especially drugs and the horrendous damage they can do to families and the lives of those who are caught in their tantalizing web. With her first middle grade novel, Hopkins hits a home run.

This is a story that, like her other books, is written in verse. It’s written from a dual point of view. We meet and get to know both Hannah and Cal, cousins whose mothers are identical twins, but whose lives couldn’t be more different. When we first meet them, Cal has lived with Hannah and her parents for a little over a year. It’s been a tough year for all. Continue reading

‘Anxious People’ by Fredrik Backman is a brilliant mystery and an insightful view of the human condition

“Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman is about us. It’s about every person who has ever doubted themselves, worried about not being able to do something, fretted about making a mistake, or looked at others with either awe or disdain. It’s a book in which all readers will be able to find themselves – for better or worse. But it’s also a book that every reader will feel better for having read.

With “Anxious People,” Backman gives us permission to be imperfect. The second paragraph in the story tells us:

“This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots. So it needs saying from the outset that it’s always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is. Especially if you have other people you’re trying to be a reasonably good human being for.”

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‘Death Rattle’ by Alex Gilly is a mystery that dives into detention centers, murder, and corruption

In “Death Rattle,” Alex Gilly takes us to Southern California. It’s not Hollywood and stars, though. It’s undocumented immigrants and a suspicious murder at a detention center that causes Nick Finn and his wife Mona, a human-rights lawyer, to investigate. When Mona gets threats, she knows she’s on the right track.

People around the investigation begin dying. When Carmen, the young woman whom Finn rescued from a sinking boat, is bitten repeatedly by a snake in a detention center and not given appropriate medical care, she dies. Mona is determined to get justice for Carmen, who was also brutally tortured by someone in the drug cartel before she escaped Mexico. Continue reading