The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl and The Button War

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Middle grade novels are wonderful, but I’ve had a steady diet of them for the past six weeks, and I’m looking forward to a summer filled with all of the “adult books” that have been piling up on my nightstand (and on the floor around it). I’m preparing to talk to kids about their summer reading selections and selecting novels for Buttonwood’s summer book club so my head is filled with eleven and twelve-year-olds having adventures, learning about their families, exploring new places, discovering social justice issues, and navigating friendships. Although many of them are excellent, there’s one that stands out: The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty. 

“Lightning Girl” is twelve-year-old Lucy Callahan who was struck by lightning when she was eight. The resulting brain damage results in acquired savant syndrome which, as I learned, can happen when someone has brain trauma and suddenly has new abilities. In Lucy’s case, she becomes a math genius. It’s kind of incredible actually. She recites pi to the 314th decimal and can solve any equation on the spot. Of course, she can pass middle school and begin taking college classes, but her grandmother, with whom Lucy lives, makes a condition before Lucy leapfrogs over middle school. She wants her granddaughter to: try middle school for one year, make a new friend, and try a new activity. Of course, Lucy figures out that not everything is as neatly resolved as a math problem, but more powerful than the “lesson” of the book is Lucy’s voice, distinctive and genuine. I liked her – and the supporting cast of characters – right away, and I didn’t want to leave Lucy when the book was over.

Completely different, but equally powerful, is The Button War by Avi. I reviewed this one for School Library Journal, and here’s an excerpt of my review:

“Avi’s intense and cautionary novel is a psychological thriller set in a hardscrabble Polish village during World War I. Patryk, the 12-year-old narrator, is one of a group of boys who meet nightly at the village water pump to share news and plan adventures, most of which are harmless dares. But on the night the Germans drop a bomb on the local schoolhouse, their lives are changed forever. A troubled boy named Jurek, whose parents died years earlier and who lives with his older sister, challenges his friends to steal the shiniest and most intricately designed military button. The winner, according to Jurek, will be the king. The king of what is unimportant to Jurek, a boy anxious to have control over something in his life….Avi has written a compelling and tautly constructed book that is a portal to grappling with the complexity of the human instinct to compete.”

A third grade student brought this to the Library this week. She wrote a message in binary code, and fortunately she included the letters on the side. The message which you can read in whichever language you choose, reads: I am reading a really good book.

Two more pictures to share….

First, one of Inly’s Children’s House teachers sent this to me after recess one day last week:

Sometimes I read a picture book to the middle school students at the beginning of class. It’s a quiet way for everyone to settle. Last week one of the 8th grade students asked if she could read:

The book she’s reading is Florette by Anna Walker – a story about blooming where you are planted.

Happy Reading – and Planting!

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The Nonfiction Writer’s Toolbox: A Conference at the John F. Kennedy Library

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This past Wednesday, I participated in the John F. Kennedy Library’s annual conference for educators, one of my favorite professional events of the year. This year’s theme was the Nonfiction Writer’s Toolbox, and we had an opportunity to hear from four of today’s most respected writers of nonfiction for middle grade and young adult readers: Tonya Bolden, Steve Sheinkin, Tanya Lee Stone, and Melissa Sweet. One of the day’s highlights was a panel discussion with the four authors and a facilitator, Mary Ann Cappiello, during which the authors discussed their subjects and their writing process.

“I’m drawn to people who have been presented to us in a simplistic way,” Bolden said, “like Frederick Douglass.” Bolden’s most recent book, Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass, A Monumental American Man, is a nuanced biography of the abolitionist, speaker, and writer. Bolden explained her process by saying that, in order to write a biography, the author needs to “become” another person and immerse themselves in the daily life of the era.

Sheinkin, the author of Bomb and Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War, among other award winning history books for young adult readers, echoed Bolden’s remarks. “I look for narrative and moral complexity,” he said. He talked enthusiastically about the role of libraries and actual books in his research process. “A good book with credible sources is better than Google, particularly at the beginning of the research.”  Sheinkin uses an admittedly low-tech strategy to organize his work. He takes notes on color coded index cards and puts them up on a wall, his way of “seeing the story.”  Melissa Sweet, the author of Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White, agreed with Scheinkin: “The computer is the last 5% of my work,” she said. “I find out everything I can about and subject and then reduce it,” Sweet said.

Like the others, Tanya Lee Stone is the author of numerous nonfiction books, among them: Who Says Women Can’t Be Computer Programmers? and Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream. She began her remarks by asking the participants to think about truth. “There is no absolute truth,” she said, before adding that her books are “as true as I can make it within my human ability.”

All of the authors agreed that the process of writing nonfiction is as creative as writing fiction. “The process of putting the puzzle together is creative,” said Sheinkin.

At the end of the panel discussion, each author gave us a preview of their new books:

Melissa Sweet is illustrating a poem by Kwame Alexander called How to Read a Book. She is also working on a project with Paul Fleischman, the author of Weslandia and Seedfolks.

Tanya Lee Stone’s new picture book about the history of Monopoly, Pass Go and Collect $200, will be published this July.

Steve Sheinkin is researching a book about the Women’s Air Derby, the first women-only air race which took place over nine days in 1929.

Tonya Bolden’s new picture book, No Small Potatoes, will be published in October. It is the story of a man born into slavery who ultimately became a potato farmer in Kansas.  She is also writing a sequel to her young adult novel, Crossing Ebenezer Creek.

I compiled this year’s conference bibliography, a resource for educators that highlights not only the participating authors’ books, but books to explore on similar topics and themes.

Selected Nonfiction for Young Readers An Annotated Bibliography

Compiled and Written by

Shelley Sommer
Inly School, Scituate, Massachusetts 

Prepared for

THE NONFICTION WRITER’S TOOLBOX For Exploring History and Other Subjects

A Conference for Teachers of Grades 3-8 and School Librarians John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
May 9, 2018

High quality nonfiction for young readers is more important than ever. With the increased attention on polarizing and alternative news, teaching students to be discerning about sources of information is vital to their civic education. The books below cover a range of subjects, from biographies of civil rights activists to the person who created the puppets for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. All of the authors used their own “toolbox” to shine a light on the struggles and accomplishments of people whose contributions and victories impact our lives today.

Below you will find a list of five books by each of the authors participating in today’s conference. Beyond that, we have highlighted themes drawn from two of each author’s books and provided recommendations of titles on similar topics by other authors to expand your lessons and suggest new avenues for your students to explore.

In the interest of space, I’m including only the list for Tonya Bolden in this post.

—————————–

Author: Tonya Bolden

 

Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty

New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2013. 128 pages
A combination of narrative and visual storytelling, Emancipation Proclamation is an account of the landmark document told through quotations from central participants, archival photos, engravings, letters, posters, maps, and newspaper articles. Grades 6-9

Capital Days: Michael Shiner’s Journal and the Growth of Our Nation’s Capital

New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2015. 96 pages
Michael Shiner was born into slavery in Maryland and spent most of his life in Washington D.C., where he was a laborer at the Washington Navy Yard for over 50 years, learned to read and write, and gained his freedom two decades before the Emancipation Proclamation. Shiner’s journal offers a fascinating look at the everyday experience of an African-American working man who was an eyewitness to historic events from the War of 1812 through the Civil War and into the 1870s. Grades 4-6

How to Build a Museum: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture
New York: Penguin Young Readers Group, 2016. 64 pages
The plans to build a museum honoring African Americans’ contribution to our country can be traced back to 1915, but the Smithsonian’s 19th museum opened over one hundred years later in 2016. Bolden’s book details the story of its creation, including the nation-wide effort to gather artifacts, pictures and documents for the NMAAHC’s collections. Grades 5-8

Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls

New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2017. 128 pages
This book presents brief biographies of a diverse group of African Americans, from the 1700s to the present day, and their impact on American history. They include magicians, a race car driver, and a female Civil War spy. One of Bolden’s profiles is of Katherine Johnson, a mathematician whose calculations were integral to the success of many NASA space missions. Generously illustrated with period photographs, prints, posters and cartoons. Grades 5-8

Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass, A Monumental American Man

New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2018. 208 pages
A middle school biography of the escaped slave who became a well-known abolitionist. But here Bolden tells a richer story about a man whose image is more familiar than his accomplishments. (He was in fact the most photographed American of the 19th century.) Opening with the story of Douglass starting his own newspaper, The North Star, Bolden follows his trajectory as a supporter of women’s suffrage, a diplomat, bank president, public servant, and world traveler. Grades 6-8

For Further Exploration

African-American Biographies

Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America by Andrea Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney
New York: Hyperion Books, 2012. 243 pages
The ten historical figures in this collective biography lived in different eras and each had an impact on American society. Although many of the subjects’ names may be familiar to students, Pinkney extends her portraits to include details on each man’s childhood before highlighting his achievements.

For Younger Readers:
Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 2009. 40 pages
Bass Reeves was born into slavery in Arkansas, but escaped into Indian Territory where he lived until slavery was abolished in 1865. Reeves ultimately became the first African-American deputy U.S. Marshal. He made over 3,000 arrests and was respected for his excellent marksmanship.

Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Jamey Christoph
Park Ridge, Illinois: Albert Whitman & Company, 2015. 32 pages
Born in Kansas in 1912, Gordon Parks was the youngest of 15 children. Inspired by a magazine he saw while working as a waiter on a railroad dining car, he bought a camera for $7.50 and became a prominent chronicler of the everyday lives of African Americans. In 1948, he become the first African-American photographer to be hired by LIFE magazine.

When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan and illustrated by Brian Selznick
New York: Scholastic, 2002. 40 pages
After being denied the use of Constitution Hall because of her race, singer Marian Anderson performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before 75,000 people on Easter Sunday, 1939. It was one of the defining cultural events of the 20th century and a milestone in civil rights history. She later became the first African-American soloist at the Metropolitan Opera.

Frederick Douglass/Freedom and Social Justice

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship by Russell Freedman
New York: Clarion Books, 2012. 128 pages
Both Lincoln and Douglass rose to prominence against enormous odds and they were equally committed to education as a path toward success. Freedman’s dual biography traces how the ideals of both men impacted the nation.

Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History by Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by Floyd Cooper
New York: Harper Collins, 2017. 40 pages
A solid and moving introduction to the well-known abolitionist and writer. Born into slavery in 1818, Douglass learned to read and used his education to build a new life for himself. “Once you learn to read,” he said, “you will be forever free.”

We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson
Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers, 2012. 176 pages
An account of the nearly 4,000 young people who marched in Birmingham to protest segregation. The youngest marcher was Audrey Hendricks, the subject of a picture book for younger students.

For Younger Readers:
Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by London Ladd
New York: Disney Publishing: Jump at the Sun, 2015. 48 pages
The life—and voice—of Frederick Douglass in Rappaport’s signature “Big Words” style.

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
New York: Atheneum Books, 2017. 40 pages
After participating in a 1963 march in Birmingham, nine-year-old Audrey Hendricks spent seven days in jail with other student activists. This book provides an accessible way for even the youngest reader or listener to understand the importance of young people in the Civil Rights Movement.

If you would like a copy of the entire list, please leave a comment and I would be happy to email it to you.  Happy Reading!

 

 

May Miscellany

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Last Sunday, we went to hear John Lithgow speak at the Kennedy Library. I had forgotten how many roles he’s played in movies and on TV: Terms of Endearment, Shrek, Third Rock From the Sun, and most recently, Winston Churchill in The Crown. As you might expect, Lithgow is an engaging raconteur. I especially enjoyed hearing his childhood memories of Yellow Springs, a small village near Dayton. “It was idyllic,” he said, “a midwest idyll.” He recalled trips to the Glen Helen Nature Preserve and Clifton Gorge, places my dad still visits. One of the most interesting things he told the audience is that, as a child, Coretta Scott was his babysitter – before she was Coretta Scott King. Yellow Springs is the home of Antioch College where Scott was a student. Lithgow said that he only learned of his famous babysitter as an adult when he met Mrs. King at a function.

Lithgow also talked about writing children’s books, telling the large crowd that he enjoyed making up stories for his younger sister when they were growing up. Later, when he had his own children, he wrote music for his son which led to a performance of children’s music and stories at Carnegie Hall. Lithgow was honest about capitalizing on his “Third Rock fame” to indulge his many interests, but what came through most clearly was his love of the written word in all its forms.

Yesterday, my husband and I were in Westport, Massachusetts where we found The Partners Village Store, a combination bookstore, gift shop, and cafe. While the bookstore is small, it is carefully curated.

I found a book of essays that is right in my “interest sweet spot.”  Where We Lived is by Henry Allen, who, I learned from the book, was “Intense. Mercurial. Bearded. A Marine veteran of Vietnam.” He was an art critic for The Washington Post for nearly 30 years and won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2000. This book includes short essays about the many places the Allen family has lived, beginning in 1557 in Wales through his family’s 1977 move to Takoma Park in Maryland. I am interested in exploring how place informs our identity, and I happily added Allen’s book to the toppling stack by my bedside.

You may have heard about the upcoming PBS series, The Great American Read. I’ve heard it advertised on NPR, but only checked out the website today. It’s an eight-part series that “explores and celebrates the power of reading, told through the prism of America’s best-loved novels (as chosen in a national survey).”  I’m all for a program that celebrates books and reading, but the list of 100 novels raises questions for me. There are obvious choices like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Charlotte’s Web, but the list also includes Fifty Shades of Grey and The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks.  I can’t wrap my head around Tom Sawyer being compared to Fifty Shades of Grey. It seems wrong for Wilbur and Charlotte to compete with The Shack by William Young.  I plan to tune in and assume right will prevail in the end!

Here’s a link to the whole list:

http://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/books/#/

Last week, I read Bob, the new middle grade novel by two of the most respected and talented authors of children’s books – Rebecca Stead and Wendy Mass.

It’s the story of a girl named Livy who, five years before the story opens, left a little creature named Bob at her grandmother’s house in Australia. Now ten-years-old, Livy returns to visit her grandmother and finds Bob in a closet where he has been looking forward to seeing her again. Livy has nearly forgotten the details of her first trip to Australia, but she quickly reconnects with the lovable Bob and agrees to help him figure out who he is and where he’s from. Told in alternating chapters from Bob’s and Livy’s points of view, it’s a sweet story of friendship and magic.

The best new picture book I read last week is Doll-E 1.0 by Shanda McCloskey. If you know a fan of Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty, this would be a good book to check out of the library. Charlotte is a tech-saavy kid. She helps her parents with their devices, and her bedroom looks like she’s planning to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. But Charlotte’s mom and dad begin to be concerned that their daughter is “too techy” so they buy her a doll. The doll seems like any other low-tech doll, but Charlotte makes a few changes that make her – and her parents – happy.

Finally, some of Inly’s younger students have discovered the Dog Man books…..

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

New Books – and Literary Flowers

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There are so many beautiful and sophisticated picture books being published – blends of fiction and nonfiction, illustrated books, and books that defy easy categorization. These hybrid books can be challenging for libraries because it’s not always clear how to shelve them, but when I get stuck, I put them on permanent display, concerned that if they disappear onto the shelf, they won’t be seen again. It seems like there’s a trend toward making thoughtful and well-designed books that exist in the space between children’s books and adult books that could be displayed on a coffee table.

We received two new picture books this week, and both could justifiably be put into the art section: Look at the Weather by Britta Teckentrup and Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall.  Either would be a perfect gift for your child, your mother, or your best friend.

Look at the Weather is a chance to do just that: 152 pages of paintings of every kind of weather: sun, rain, ice, snow – and extreme weather like rainstorms and tornadoes. It’s a nonfiction book, but poetic and awe-inspiring. What the book does best is instill a sense of wonder and curiosity about the weather beyond our daily check on which coat to wear. It reminds us of the weather’s power to create beauty and sometimes fear and destruction. The book has a larger trim size, giving the illustrations “room” to convey the mood of specific weather events.

If you know a child or adult interested in weather, this is the gift you have been looking for.

It’s hard to look at Sophie Blackall’s new picture book, Hello Lighthouse, without the temptation to get the scissors and cut out the pages to hang on your walls. Blackall’s pictures are cozy and warm, even old fashioned. It’s the kind of book to keep by your bedside so when the news of day gets you down, you can ease into the night by looking at Blackall’s warm and cozy scenes.

The story is about the daily life of a lighthouse keeper and his family before the keeper is replaced by a mechanical light. Even though the actual idea of being that isolated from the world is daunting, Hello Lighthouse makes a life of winding the clock and polishing a lighthouse lens seem like paradise.

Yesterday was beautiful, sunny and warm with signs of spring everywhere. I celebrated the new season by going to one of my favorite events: Books in Bloom at the James Library in Norwell.  Each year a group of devoted and creative people select a book to bring to life in flowers.  Here are a few I especially enjoyed:

Happy Reading!

 

A Cozy New Book, the Book Fair, and a Rainbow….

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I’ve long admired Cynthia Rylant’s work, particularly because she does everything well: picture books, early chapter books, middle grade novels, and poetry. Think of how many kids have learned to read with Henry and Mudge or Mr. Putter and Tabby. Her picture books, especially The Great Gracie Chase and The Relatives Came are crowd-pleasing read alouds.

Rylant also won the 1993 Newbery Medal for Missing May, a quiet novel about a young girl who discovers that love is more powerful than grief. Her books are gifts to children, parents, and teachers.

When I read that Rylant’s new middle grade novel, Rosetown, was being published this spring, I began poking around for an advanced reading copy – and I was finally able to read it yesterday. Once again, she has written a gem.

Rosetown is the story of Flora, a ten-year-old girl, who is experiencing lots of changes: her beloved dog has died, her parents have recently separated, and she is starting fourth grade. The place where she’s happiest is in a purple chair in the used bookstore where her mother works. There, Flora, can relax and curl up with an “extra-vintage” story. She also enjoys spending time with her close friend, Nessy, and Yury, a new friend from Ukraine. Although Flora is facing challenges, her parents are loving and supportive, and starting with the arrival of a new cat, things begin to turn around.

Rylant is especially good at taking a simple premise and making it meaningful.  She gently leads the reader like a wise and beloved guide and helps them navigate change. Taken together, from Mr. Putter to the Cobble Street Cousins, Rylant always keeps her focus on what’s most important: family and friends.

Here’s one of my favorite passages from Rosetown:

“And this is the story of any proudly owned used-book shop: that someone, at some time, has stumbled upon a kind of buried treasure within its shelves. But unlike shiny gold, which is taken instantly, the treasure – a vintage book – in a used-book shop is often left behind, to linger at the back of the mind for a while. Then there arrives the day when it becomes clear that the vintage book should belong to a certain someone.”

Rosetown won’t be in stores until May 8 so it was not available to purchase during last week’s Inly book fair, but many wonderful books were – thanks to our partnership with our own beloved bookstore, Buttonwood Books and Toys. The big sellers were: The Bad Guys, Dory Fantasmagory, Lucky Broken Girl, Like Vanessa – and brightly colored squishies. I knew squishies were popular – and it’s truly hard to resist “squishing” them, but we had a run on penguins and sleeping kittens….

Here are some pictures from the week:

This is my favorite scene from the book fair:

This picture – taken by one of the book fair volunteers – nicely captures the mood of the week:

It’s always nice to close with a reference to Charlotte’s Web, this one courtesy of a second grade student who used string and push pins to make this wonderful project:

Happy Reading!

 

Gardens: On Book Covers and in Stories…

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It’s 35 degrees today, so it’s understandably hard to believe that warmer days are just around the corner, but at least flowers are blooming on book covers. Looking at a display earlier this week, it was reassuring to see that even though it’s grey and chilly outside, there is color in the bookstore:

One of the novels I most enjoyed reading during graduate school was Philippa Pearce’s 1958 fantasy, Tom’s Midnight Garden. It was a book that I missed as a child, and I was happy to see it on a class syllabus. It’s a magical story of Tom, a boy whose younger brother gets measles, and so in order to escape the contagious illness, Tom’s parents send him to his aunt and uncle’s country house. Tom expects life to be quite dull, of course, but when he hears the grandfather clock chime 13 times, he knows there’s a possibility of adventure. Creeping downstairs so he’s not detected by his aunt and uncle, Tom discovers a garden where he meets a girl named Hatty. The garden – and Hatty – do not exist in “Tom’s time” though. He is in the Victorian era, and during his trips to the garden, Hatty grows up. There are elements of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, The Secret Garden, in Pearce’s novel. Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, has called Tom’s Midnight Garden “a perfect book.”

With that as a background, I was looking forward to French artist, Edith’s, new graphic novel adaptation of Pearce’s book.  I read it earlier today and it did not disappoint. In fact, it made me think that I may be able to entice some students to read the graphic novel version and then perhaps encourage them to read the original.  It also makes me want to re-read it.

Last weekend, I arrived early at Lucky Finn to meet a friend for coffee, and was greeted by this scene:

I didn’t know the people, and so of course, I introduced myself and asked permission to take their picture. We had a wonderful time talking about The Wild Robot, and realizing that we had several friends in common.  It was a moment that made me think of this short piece in Naomi Shihab Nye’s book, Honeybee: 

One of the many joys of my work is finding notes from students on my desk. This past week’s note was one of my favorites:

The best part of her note is the word “desparate.” What reader hasn’t experienced that panic when you realize you don’t have a book to read? During our spring break, this student’s mother sent me two pictures of her daughter enjoying vacation – reading on the beach and during dinner.

When we were in Italy last month, I was looking at a glazed terra-cotta sculpture by della Robbia. It was an out-of-the-way room in a museum. There were only three of us in this particular gallery when I happened to turn around and catch life imitating art:

Happy Reading – and Napping!

 

Four New Middle Grade Novels…

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One sign of spring in my house is the growing stack of middle grade and young adult novels by my bedside – books I’m considering for Inly’s summer reading list. As the calendar turns toward the end of the school year, I am reading the books I hope will find their way into beach bags this summer…

Here are the three I read this week:

Strongheart: Wonder Dog of the Silver Screen by Candace Fleming is a “based on a true story” novel about a dog who becomes a Hollywood star. In the silent film era of the 1920s, a film director named Larry Trimble is looking for a “fresh face on the big screen,” and decides to gamble not on a person, but a dog. After looking for the perfect canine talent in the United States, but not finding the right dog, Trimble goes to Europe and after nearly giving up his star search, he meets a German shepherd named Etzel in Germany. Etzel was a well-trained police dog and so, at first, he’s a bit aggressive: “Etzel leaped through the broken window and tore across the yard. Fur on end, teeth flashing, the dog sprang for Larry’s throat.”  Larry takes a chance on Etzel though, patiently training his active dog, and in 1921, Etzel – now renamed Strongheart – was in his first movie, The Silent Call.

In the style of Hugo Cabret, Strongheart’s journey is told in both words and pictures. Eric Rohmann, the Caldecott winning illustrator, makes Strongheart spring to life in his beautiful illustrations.

My favorite is this one of Strongheart eying a donut on a countertop.

Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callender is the story of Caroline Murphy, a 12-year-old girl growing up on Water Island, the smallest of the United States Virgin Islands. The island is so small that she takes a water taxi to her school in St. Thomas, where she feels friendless and “separate” from the other students. Caroline is also struggling to understand why her mother left their home abruptly and without explanation. When Kalinda, a new student from Barbados joins her class, Caroline’s life changes dramatically. At first, she is intrigued by Kalinda’s confidence and charisma, but mostly she is relieved that her days without a friend may be coming to an end. As they become closer, Caroline develops a crush on Kalinda that is confusing to Kalinda and something both girls are made to feel badly about. I like this book, mostly for its evocations of life in the Caribbean. As Caroline and Kalinda walk through an area popular with tourists, you can literally feel the heat and see the colorful souvenirs. I also appreciate that the center of this story is Caroline’s need to understand her mother’s disappearance. Although Caroline’s relationship with Kalinda is complex, the girls remain united in their quest to answer Caroline’s questions.

Like Vanessa by Tami Charles is also a middle grade novel, but I recommend it for the older end of that category, 6th through 8th grade. The story centers on Vanessa Martin, an African-American eighth grader who, after watching Vanessa Williams become the first black Miss America in 1983, is inspired to enter her middle school’s first-ever pageant.

Vanessa Martin’s life is not easy. She lives in Newark with her father who is not at home very often, her alcoholic grandfather, and her older cousin, T.J. When she decides to enter the pageant, she faces her father’s disapproval and mockery by the “popular” girls, but she also becomes closer to her cousin T.J., and gains the support and friendship of her music teacher, Mrs. Walton. More importantly, Vanessa becomes confident enough to find her mother and ask questions that have haunted her since her mother left nine years earlier. The novel’s strength is Vanessa. She has a rich and believable inner life. Her doubts about her body, her friendships, her family all struck me as genuine to a person that age, even if their personal external experience is very different.

And one more…..Paul Acampora’s new novel, Confusion Is Nothing New. This is an excerpt of the review I wrote for School Library Journal:

“A tribute to family, friends, and Cyndi Lauper, this is a story of a young girl’s search for answers and her journey towards a deeper appreciation of the people who love her. Fourteen-year-old white American Ellie Magari has never known her mother, who left the family soon after Ellie’s birth. Although Ellie’s father appears to be satisfied with their long-time understanding that they do not discuss Wilma “Korky” Korkenderfer, Ellie wants to know more. When she learns that her mother has died, her questions become more urgent; luckily for Ellie, there are people around her who may have some answers….Filled with references to 80s pop music, Acampora’s fast-paced and entertaining novel will satisfy lovers of family stories that have a touch of mystery.”

I have this week’s stack ready to go!

Happy Reading.