Monday, December 9, 2013

Nelson Mandela--for young people

As people all over the world mourn the death of Nelson Mandela, it's a great time to take a look at some of the outstanding books to introduce children and teens to this iconic figure.

But first, I can't resist passing on my favorite of the many tributes to Mandela in the past days, from The Onion:

"JONANNESBURG--Following the death of former South African president and civil rights leader Nelson Mandela today at the age of 95, sources confirmed that the revered humanitarian has become the first politician in recorded history to actually be missed." (Note:  I can so imagine Mandela chuckling at this one!)

Please consider sharing one or more of these books on one of history's great men with your family or classroom:

Nelson Mandela (Kadir Nelson)
Kadir Nelson.  Nelson Mandela ( Katherine Tegen Books, 2013).  Kadir Nelson's moving text and monumental illustrations are a perfect introduction to Mandela for all ages.  This spare picture book presents a brief introduction to the outlines of Mandela's life.

Nelson Mandela:  Long Walk to Freedom, Chris Van Wyk, editor.  (Flash Point, 2009).  A picture book adaptation of Mandela's own autobiography.  More information than Kadir Nelson's book, but still suitable for elementary school children.

Floyd Cooper.  Mandela:  From the Life of the South African Statesman (Puffin, 2000).  Beautifully illustrated picture book for upper elementary school students.

Meg Belviso, Pamela Pollack.  Who Was Nelson Mandela? (Grosset & Dunlap, 2014) A new addition to the highly popular Who Was series, this comes out next June (undoubtedly it will be quickly updated with his passing).    This series of brief "chapter book" biographies is great for 3rd grade and up.

Yona Zelda McDonough.  Peaceful Protest:  The Life of Nelson Mandela (Walker Children's, 2006).  Reviews call this picture book biography "easy to read but engaging."

Barry Denenberg.  Nelson Mandela:  No Easy Walk to Freedom (Scholastic, 2014).  An updated version of an earlier biography of Mandela, this will go up to his recent passing.  Aimed at grades 5-8, this is an in-depth view of Mandela's life for young people.

In addition to these, there are several graphic novels on Mandela, including:  Nelson Mandela:  The Authorized Comic Book (2009) from the Nelson Mandela Foundation; Nelson Mandela:  The Unconquerable Soul, by Lewis Helfand, and manga-style Nelson Mandela (Great Figures in History series) from Y-Kids.

For middle school and high school students, as well as adults, I recommend:

Mandela:  An Illustrated Autobiography (Little Brown, 1996), an abundantly illustrated, abridged version (at a very manageable 200 pages) of Mandela's famous autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

On a lighter note, families will enjoy sharing Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales, personally selected by Mandela.  The stories come from all over Africa and are handsomely illustrated by a variety of artists.

I was fortunate enough to visit the beautiful country of South Africa two years ago and join all Mandela's countrymen in remembering and celebrating a great human being.  Rest in peace, Madiba.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Book Review: The Crane Wife, by Patrick Ness (Penguin, 2014)

Recommended for adults.

Release date:  January 23, 2014

Are you a a fan of Patrick Ness' fantastic Chaos Walking YA trilogy, or his more recent children's novel, A Monster Calls?  I am, and therefore was excited to have a chance to preview his new adult novel, The Crane Wife (published in Great Britain in 2013, but due to be published here in 2014).  The novel is loosely based on a Japanese folk tale of the same title, (and is also a title of an album by indie band The Decembrists) but Ness' novel weaves its own unforgettable and unique spell of magic, yearning, love, and loss on the reader.

The main character, George Duncan, is a lonely, divorced middle-aged American living in the London suburbs.  He finds his life transformed when he is awoken one night to a mysterious keening noise--a noise like nothing he's ever heard before.  To his amazement he discovers in his back yard an injured enormous white crane, with an arrow shot through her wing.  Somehow George manages to free the arrow, and the crane flies away into the night.

The next day in his printing store, the mystery continues when a beautiful young foreign woman, Kumiko, comes into his shop, seeking help with her artwork, enigmatic cuttings that seem to be made from pieces of white feathers.  George falls hopelessly in love with her, and wants nothing more than to devote his entire self to her, but she remains an enigma, refusing to share with George the details about where she comes from and why she has come into his life.  Will she disappear from his life just as suddenly as she entered it?

In order not to spoil the magic of this story, I won't go further into the details of the plot.  Suffice it to say that the book mixes fantasy and reality in a bittersweet way.  Where the two intersect is up to you--what is real and what is make believe?  What is love?  Read this magical novel to find out more!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Guest Post by author Helen Sedwick

The Inspiration Behind Ro, my Heroic Coyote
Guest Post by Helen Sedwick

Author Helen Sedwick
You might think a dog inspired me to create a coyote character, but actually it was a cat.

When I was writing COYOTE WINDS, a stray or feral kitten moved into our yard. About four months old, he darted past my window several times a day with a vole dangling from its mouth. He was thin, skittish and scruffy. 

I put out cat food, and the kitten hid in the bushes until I stepped away. Then he raced to the bowl and ate as fast as he could. Every day, I stood closer to the bowl until finally the kitten had to let me touch him before he could eat. To my surprise, and probably to his, the kitten was as hungry for touch as he was for kibble. Within days, he was pressing hard against my hand, rolling his head so I could scratch his favorite spots, purring deeply. Reminded that even animals want to be loved, I was inspired to create Ro, the coyote of COYOTE WINDS.  

At the opening of the novel, Ro, as a young pup, is caught outside in a dust storm. When thirteen-year old Myles finds him hours later, the pup is half-buried and limp from dehydration. So much grit has worked its way under one eyelid, it is swollen shut. Myles nurses the pup back to health, and they form the strong bond that so often connects a boy and his dog, or in this case, his coyote. 

When I wrote the chapters in Ro’s perspective, I tried to observe the world simply and without judgment, as I imaged an animal would do. His motivations are immediate--hunger, fear and the need to belong.  I wanted to capture the canine’s sense of play as Ro befriends the hog Spark Plug and “flies” in the back of the pickup truck. 

But Ro, like any interesting character, struggles with conflicts. He straddles the worlds of nature and man, accepted by neither. As much as he loves Myles, when he hears the wild coyotes Ro’s heart aches for the physical romp of the pack--shouldering his brothers in fake battles and sleeping in bundles of fur. But wild coyotes see him as a rival and attack him. When Ro skirts the farms of men, he hears bullets hiss through the grass around him.  

Mid-way through the novel, Myles drives Ro away because he fears the settled land has become too dangerous for the coyote. But Ro has nowhere else to go. He hovers nearby, watching as machines, fences, and dust take the place of grasses, mesquite and sage. He wants to warn the boy of a danger he senses, but doesn’t understand. Ro’s perspective gave me a way to observe the changing world without the overlay of human ambition to control it.  

COYOTE WINDS is set on the western prairie in the years leading up to the Dust Bowl. Many people do not know that the Dust Bowl was one of the worse man-made environmental disasters in history. Believing in the modern technology of the tractor and fertilizers, farmers plowed up dry, marginal land the size of Ohio in the 1920s. When drought hit in the 1930s, those vast acres of turned soil were lifted by the prairie winds, and the Dust Bowl was born. Ro provide me a way to describe that history through different eyes.

The longer I worked on COYOTE WINDS, the more I fell in love with Ro. He embodies my themes about loyalty to a person, a family, and a dream, and whether loyalty has limits.
By the way, coyotes have been successfully tamed in real life. Shreve Stockton, a writer and photographer in Wyoming, has a wonderful website about Charlie, her coyote which she adopted when he was ten days old.  


About that little kitten in our yard.  He has grown into a Budda-bellied, lushly-coated lap-lover who tolerates our dog’s overly enthusiastic affection and sleeps inside on cold nights. And he reciprocates our love by leaving slightly munched voles on the front steps. His name is Tomas.

Helen, thanks so much for contributing a guest post to The Fourth Musketeer.  I will think of Ro every time I see a coyote roaming around our Southern California neighborhood!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Review Coyote Winds, by Helen Sedwick (Ten Gallon Press, 2013)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

I live in a very urban area of Southern California, but one with a healthy population of coyotes.  It's not at all uncommon to see one loping down the street while you're out walking your dog, no matter what the time of day or evening.  And in the early evening, you can hear them calling to each other if you're in the right place at the right time.  Although coyotes are common enough throughout the United States, there aren't many children's books about them.  So I was intrigued to read Coyote Winds, which combines two of my favorite genres, animal stories and historical fiction.

Helen Sedwick's novel alternates between the stories of two boys, Andy, a suburban kid in Evanston, Illinois, and his grandfather Myles, who grew up during the Dust Bowl on the Colorado prairies.  Andy has grown up with grandpa's stories about growing up on a farm during the Depression, as well as his corny jokes; now that his grandpa has recently died, Andy wants to discover his grandpa's world.  First he does so through a box of mementos and writings from his grandfather, and later first-hand by traveling to the old homestead.

Through Myles' story, Sedwick skillfully recreates the Colorado prairies, where farmers believed that with enough hard work and modern farming methods, they could realize the American dream of prosperity for themselves and their families.  Or is the prairie the farmer's enemy, trying to take back what belongs to it?   Myles' story starts in 1930, when as a thirteen-year old, he rescues a half-blind coyote pup who's lost in a dust storm, taking the coyote home to raise.  Coyotes were the enemies of the farmers, who shot them if they caught them near their livestock.  Nonetheless, Myles is determined to raise and tame the pup, much like his father is trying to tame the wild prairie landscape.  Sedgwick occasionally switches gears to narrate the action from the point of view of the coyote, who she is careful not to treat as a human character, but instead as an animal who remains half-wild.

Sedwick's novel succeeds in capturing the imagination of the reader with appealing characters, the spirit of adventure in the West, and the adversity of life during the Dust Bowl.  We see this through the eyes of Andy, Myles' grandson, who stands in for the young reader.  It's a novel I had a hard time putting down.

Helen Sedwick's novel was inspired by her father's stories of growing up on the prairie in the 1930's.  An excerpt from the novel can be found at her website.  

from The Daily Coyote (

For a novel offering a completely different take on a coyote's story, you might want to check out adult novelist Elmore Leonard's very funny children's novel, A Coyote in the House, in which a coyote wants to trade places with a pampered German Shepherd movie star.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Hanukkah Book Giveaway!

I am pleased to share with my readers today a charming new book just in time for Hanukkah, The Eighth Menorah, written by Lauren L. Wohl and illustrated by Laura Hughes.  An autographed copy is available to one of my lucky readers courtesy of publisher Albert Whitman & Company (just leave a comment with your e-mail for a chance to win).

In this picture book, young Sam is looking forward to Hanukkah in a few weeks, but when he and his Hebrew school friends make homemade menorahs for family gifts, Sam is not sure what to do--his family already has seven menorahs at home.  He's sure they have no need of another one!  But by the first night of Hanukkah, Sam has found a perfect solution to his problem, one that involves his beloved Grammy.

Lauren Wohl has created a heartwarming story about family that many children will identify with.  When I was growing up, we had only one menorah in our house, but in my own home, we have at least seven, including one shaped like a hippopotamus that I purchased as a Jewish museum in Cape Town, South Africa!  So I can easily understand the dilemma for young Sam--how many menorahs does one family need?  But a gift made with love will always find a home somewhere.  The story includes a brief summary of the story of Hanukkah, as told by Sam's Hebrew school teacher Ms. Zuckerman; this background provides some context for non-Jewish readers.  The colorful, child-like art work provides a perfect complement to the text.

For more great Hanukkah books, check out The Fourth Musketeer's top Hanukkah selections from 2012 and Stacey Shubitz's post from The Nerdy Book Club on her top 10 Hanukkah books.  There's such a great selection these days--it's not for nothing that the Jews are known as The People of the Book!


Friday, November 15, 2013

Blog Tour: Vicki Wittenstein and FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND? and giveaway!

It's my pleasure to welcome to my blog today author Vicki Wittenstein, whose new book, For the Good of Mankind? tells the difficult but important history of human medical experimentation in a format suitable for middle school or high school students.  With the onset of the Common Core, Wittenstein's book is exactly the type of well-researched, provocative, and stimulating narrative non-fiction that teachers and libraries will be needing to put into students' hands.  Vicki was kind enough to answer some questions about her new book for The Fourth Musketeer.

Please leave a comment below with your e-mail address for a chance to win this fascinating new book!  (U.S. and Canada only, please)

1) What made you interested in writing a book for young people on the challenging topic of human medical experimentation?

Before writing for children and young adults I was an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan. Injustices have always angered me, particularly when powerless people are taken advantage of, whether because of lack of education, poverty, mental capacity, race, sex—or as in the case with human medical experimentation, all of the above. The past ethical abuses of human medical experimentation inflicted pain, humiliation, and even death to so many people without a voice. I wanted readers to hear the voices, debate the issues, and never forget about these people.

I also enjoy writing and teaching about history. A discussion of human medical experimentation necessitates following a span of hundreds of years, from ancient times to the present.  So readers can absorb important historical events throughout time. But alongside the facts, they can also gain an understanding of how society’s ethics and morals reflected the time periods and changed accordingly. For example, the brutal and inhumane experimentation of African Americans during the nineteenth century would not have occurred without the institution of slavery.

How can society learn from past mistakes? How will readers face present day ethical challenges, not only in science and medicine, but in whatever field they pursue? These are the questions I continue to think about and that inspired my writing.

2) In your book, you discuss the early history of medical experiments on humans, including research on slaves, children, prisoners, soldiers, and others.  Many of these stories will surprise contemporary readers.   Was there a particular experiment that you learned of during your research that you found most shocking?

Before researching the book, I had no idea about the secret U.S. government radiation experiments that occurred during the Cold War. Manhattan Project scientists furiously at work developing the atomic bomb didn’t understand the effects of radiation on the human body. They authorized hundreds of secret experiments on unknowing people. I was very disturbed by these experiments. Manhattan Project physicians injected plutonium into eighteen people who randomly ended up in hospitals under their care. Imagine how betrayed you would feel if you were one of those people or a family member! Hundreds of pregnant women at a Vanderbilt University clinic drank a tonic they thought was good for their unborn babies, but turned out to be laced with radioactive iron. And the list of abuses goes on . . . .

3) How would you compare the medical experiments done by Nazi physicians in the concentration camps to human medical research before that time?

Earlier experiments in the U.S. were most often part of a general quest for understanding.  Doctors were desperate for cures and treatments for deadly diseases, like smallpox and polio. That being said, though, doctors often pushed the boundary between ethical and unethical practices, and many people were harmed.

In the nineteenth century, African American slaves were often bought just for the purpose of experimentation, and they suffered tremendous pain and humiliation. It’s incredibly difficult to even fathom this kind of degrading and inhumane treatment. And without a doubt, we continue to bear the scars in our collective conscious.

Yet, as tragic as many of the experiments were before World War II, the Nazi horrors raised the bar on inhumanity to unprecedented heights. Earlier medical experiments in the U.S. were never part of a government-sponsored program to annihilate an entire group of people. The Nazi goal of exterminating all the Jews and other so-called “inferior” people granted doctors the freedom to do whatever they pleased with concentration camp inmates. In fact, as far as the Nazi doctors were concerned, dead bodies were often more useful than live bodies:  cadavers then could be dissected to observe the ravages from experimentation. 

4) You point out in your book that despite legislation to protect the rights of human subjects, there are many possibilities for abuse, particularly in research done by American companies abroad, where there are typically fewer safeguards.  After your research, do you feel the whole system is fundamentally flawed because it relies on the profit motive?

No question about it, the profit motive is a big issue. Pharmaceutical companies experiment abroad because it’s cheaper and because government officials don’t monitor clinical trials as closely as they do in the U.S. But I don’t think the system is fundamentally flawed. 

The hallmarks of the Common Rule require that subjects give voluntary and informed consent, that experiments maximize the subjects’ benefits and limit their harm, and that subjects represent a diverse range of the population. Researchers are required to balance the individual’s right to be free from harm with the need for medical advancement. So ethical conduct hinges on how researchers and companies interpret and follow the enacted legislation and how the research is monitored. Fairness rests in large part with the companies who conduct the research, the Institutional Review Boards who authorize and set guidelines, and the watchdog government agencies. Given the thousands of clinical trials conducted every year, it’s amazing that the system even works as well as it does.

5) While reading your book, I couldn't help but wonder about your feelings about medical research on animals, who are unable to give consent but still are widely used in many drug experiments.  Please comment.

This is a difficult question for me. I love animals, and personally, I could never inflict harm on animals or people. Yet, animal experimentation is critical for medical advancement, and is usually the first step before human experimentation. But experimentation on animals must be humane. Although my book doesn’t address animal experimentation per se, I did explain the role of antivivisectionists in the 1800s. They opposed experimentation on all living creatures, and their strong stance helped shape humane policies for ethical experimentation on people. Just as it was important to hear the voices of antivivisectionists then, it’s critical to listen to those against animal experimentation today. Ultimately, a balanced legal and ethical framework for animal experimentation (and all medical experimentation) stems from a continued debate on what constitutes humane practices.

Thanks so much, Vicki!  For more on Vicki and her new book, check out her other blog tour stops:

Mon, Nov 4

Tues, Nov 5

Thurs, Nov 7

Fri, Nov 8

Mon, Nov 11

Tues, Nov 12

Wed, Nov 13

Thurs, Nov 14

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Jacqueline Wilson Blog Tour: The Hetty Feather series

I am delighted to participate in a special blog tour celebrating the launch of beloved British children's author Jacqueline Wilson's most recent titles in ebook format in the United States.  As part of the launch, Random House is sponsoring a Rafflecopter giveaway to win a mini ipad!  To enter, you can do one of the following: answer the question, "if you win, which of the new Jacqueline Wilson ebooks will read first?  OR follow @JWilsonebooks on Twitter, OR Tweet "Win a mini iPad +10 ebooks from the UK's bestselling middle grade author Jacqueline Wilson @jwilsonebooks.  Here's a link to the rest of the blog tour stops if you want to check them out as well.  

Jacqueline Wilson is not nearly as well known in the US as she is "across the pond," so if you're not familiar with her, I'd like to tell you a little about her distinguished career in children's fiction.  In Britain she's known as the most popular writer for girls aged 7-15, and she's sold over 35 million copies of her books in the UK alone.  She served as the Children's Laureate from 2005-7 and was knighted by the Queen (or is it "damed" for a woman?) for her services to literacy in school.  Her books feature universal themes such as family life, friendship, and bullying that make them appropriate for children all over the world, and her stories are noted for their unique blend of realism and humor.

While most of her stories are contemporary, Wilson has written a number of historical titles as well.  Today I'm going to focus on her series of books which take place in Victorian England.  They feature an indomitable foundling, Hetty Feather, who's starred in three novels:  Hetty Feather, Sapphire Battersea, and Emerald Star.  (Links will take you to Wilson's new US website, which showcases new book trailers, excerpts from the books, and more).

Hetty's saga was partly inspired by Jacqueline Wilson's time as a fellow at the Foundling Museum, a museum telling the story of the Foundling Hospital.  Our heroine, Hetty, narrates her own saga in an unforgettable voice that immediately endears her to the reader.  Although our story begins in London in 1873, with her bright red hair, fiery temper, and her romantic inclinations, Hetty has much in common with another beloved heroine of children's literature, Anne of Green Gables.  Hetty, abandoned as an infant by her mother at the Foundling Hospital, was not to be at the hospital for long--stuffed into a large basket, she was carried away to the countryside, where she is raised as a foster child by kindly Peg and an assortment of foundling brothers and sisters.  She's especially close to her big foster brother Jem.  Jem even sneaks Hetty into a traveling circus, where we see Hetty's romantic nature in full force.  Hetty meets Madame Adeline, a glamorous circus performer who Hetty becomes convinced must be her mother when Madame Adeline picks her to ride on her horse with her in the circus ring.

But at the tender age of five, Hetty meets her cruel fate--she is returned to the Foundling Hospital to be educated and raised there until she is old enough to secure a respectable job as a serving girl.  Life at the hospital is hard--bullies abound, but Hetty learns to hold her own, and some of the staff are kind to her, especially the kitchen maid, Ida.  On the day of Queen Victoria's Jubilee, Hetty and the other foundlings have a special treat in store--an outing to the festivities.  For Hetty, it's a chance to see the Queen, and maybe to find Madame Adeline and her own mother.  What adventures will our feisty heroine have...and will she return to the Foundling Hospital?

If you fall in love with Hetty Feather in her first book, as I know most people will, do not despair--you can follow her further adventures as she grows up in two sequels, Sapphire Battersea and Emerald Star.  In Sapphire Battersea, Hetty is 14, has discovered who her mother really is, and begins the life the Foundling Hospital has prepared her for--as a scullery maid.  But fate has other things in store for Hetty--including a stint as a "pocket-sized mermaid" in a freak show.  And in the third book of the trilogy, Hetty seeks out her father--and a place where she will finally feel at home.  A companion novel to the Hetty Feather series, Diamond, has just been released this year as well.

I look forward to recommending Jacqueline Wilson's books to young readers at my library. The Hetty Feather series is a great choice for anyone who enjoys a story filled with everything from humor, adventure, and friendship to sadness and loss.  You will definitely be touched by her story!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Book Review: Starstruck, by Rachel Shukert (Delacorte Press, 2013)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Teenagers are fascinated by fame and the lure of Hollywood.  This phenomenon, of course, is nothing new, and in this historical novel set in the 1930's, author Rachel Shukert recreates the golden age of Hollywood for today's teen readers.  Our heroine, Margaret Frobisher, is a Pasadena debutante from a conservative old money family who loves going to the pictures and following the stars in the Hollywood gossip magazines.  When she's "discovered" at a Hollywood drugstore counter and invited to come to the (fictional) Olympic Studios for a screen test, her dreams are about to come true, or so it seems.  But things are not that simple--her parents are horrified at her decision and want nothing to do with her--proper society young ladies are certainly not supposed to make a career on the silver screen.  So she moves into the studio system, where she gets a new name, Margo Sterling, lives at the studio with other underage stars, and meets celebrities she only dreamed of in the past, including the dashing Dane Forrest (who appears to have been modeled on Clark Gable).

Shukert does a great job of evoking the days of the great Hollywood studios, when plump young starlets were put on amphetamines to slim down and then sleeping pills to let them sleep, gay men had to be completely in the closet to protect their image, and studio chiefs were in charge of everything to do with the stars' lives, down to who they would date and even marry.  Margo soon learns that fame is not all it's cracked up to be. Her idol, actress Diana Chesterfield, has disappeared, and Margo is cast in her place in a historical drama.  But what has really happened to Diana?  Several subplots are featured in this novel as well, including one involving a girl with a shady past as a paid escort who wants desperately to go "straight," and another subplot about Margo's studio friend Gabby (modeled on Judy Garland), who sinks into a world of drug abuse brought on by the studio bosses.

For those of us who grew up watching the great MGM musicals, many of these tropes will be familiar, but I suspect they are not familiar at all to today's teens, who will probably not even recognize the famous figures who are behind Shukert's fictional characters.  This is clearly the first in a series, and should appeal to girls who'd like to explore the meaning of fame in another era--one without cell phone cameras and 24 hour news cycles.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Book Review: Invasion, by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic, 2013)

Release date:  September 24, 2013

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Award-winning author Walter Dean Myers returns to historical fiction in this riveting new war novel about the D-Day invasion.  The novel opens in May, 1944, and Josiah Wedgewood and Marcus Perry are waiting in England for the invasion they know will come, but no one knows when.  Both are from the small town of Bedford Virginia, and both are putting their life on the line.  Josiah serves in the infantry and Marcus is in an all-black transportation unit.  They're practicing over and over for the invasion, but when they leave for real, none of them could imagine the horrors awaiting them on the beach.  Told in the first person by Josiah, this novel does not spare the reader in its descriptions of the horrors of war.  And it's not only the terrors of the beach landing that we learn about, but what happens after--the terror doesn't end for those few who survive the landing.  They still are fighting the Germans tooth and nail for every French village, and more and more of Josiah's comrades become casualties of the war.  Will Josiah and Marcus ever make it back to their loved ones in Virginia?

In an author's note, Myers writes that he conducted extensive interviews with WWII veterans for this novel.  Some of them wept when they described the 1944 invasion of Europe.  War is not an abstraction for this author--his own brother was killed in Vietnam, inspiring his novel Fallen Angels, and his son served as a military chaplain in Iraq during the Gulf War, which serves as the setting for his novel Sunrise over Fallujah.  Myers has woven the novels together by creating the character of Marcus Perry, father and uncle to characters in the other books in this trilogy.  All are freestanding novels, and can be read independently.

I highly recommend this novel for young people interested in history, World War II, and the realities of war.  The novel does contain swearing (consistent with soldiers' language) and violence fitting the theme.  Its brief length (212 pages) and powerful story and writing also make it a good choice for reluctant readers.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Mini-reviews of new and new-ish middle grade novels

Flora and Ulysses:  The Illuminated Adventures, by Kate Di Camillo, illustrated by K. G. Campbell (Candlewick, 2014)

Release date:  September 24, 2013.

This new novel by Newbery winner di Camillo will not disappoint her many fans. The genre-busting story involves a lonely 10-year old girl, Flora, who is obssessed by superhero comics. Without giving too much away, she rescues a squirrel who's been vacuumed by her neighbor's high-tech powerful vacuum cleaner, named Ulysses. Flora adopts the squirrel, who gets named after the vacuum cleaner (with a wink to Greek super-heroes of yore).  The squirrel has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts, transformed into a mini-super-hero himself, able to understand humans, lift up vacuum cleaners with one paw, and even write poetry. The unique friendship and adventures of Flora and Ulysses and their friends populate this delightful novel, which shines with a variety of perfectly realized characters. Kudos to di Camillo for her ability to create another small masterpiece of children's fiction.  The pencil drawings by K. G. Campbell are pitch perfect as well, combining traditional illustrations with graphic novel style elements.  

Elvis and the Underdogs, by Jenny Lee (Balzer + Bray, 2013).  

This is a hilarious and touching story of a 10-year old boy, Benji, who has been sickly from birth. Because he has a tendency to faint without warning, he is given a choice between wearing a god-awful enormous helmet to protect him in case of a fall, or a therapy dog. Needless to say, he chooses the dog.  The dog is not just your run-of-the-mill therapy dog, though--he's a 200 pound Newfoundland named Parker Elvis Pembroke IV whose whines and barks sound like spoken English to Benji--and only to Benji.. It turns out there's been a mix-up and Elvis was supposed to go to the White House to serve the president. Elvis is incredibly bossy and full of self-importance, but brings out the dog lover in everyone, bringing new friends and a whole new world to Benji. A real winner for middle-grade readers, this would also make a great read-aloud.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy) by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple (Dutton Juvenile, 2013)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

There doesn't seem to be a genre of children's literature that Jane Yolen is not a master of. She has published over 300 books, from endearing picture books such as the best-selling dinosaur series with illustrator Mark Teague (including How do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon and many others) to serious historical fiction about the Holocaust such as The Devil's Arithmetic.  She has won countless awards, and is beloved by parents, children, librarians, and teachers alike.  

In this new book for a middle-grade audience, Yolen and co-author Adam Stemple (also Yolen's son) address the theme of bullying in a unique way. Our hero, Sammy Greenburg, is a nerd with no friends--at least until he meets a new student known as Skink. While trying to outsmart the local bullies, the two form a unique band that plays klezmer/jazz/pop/rock fusion, and who should join them but the cutest girl in their class, Julia (and Sammy's secret crush). But when the school bullies beat up Skink for humiliating them in the cafeteria, Sammy decides he needs more help to defend himself and his friend.  Coincidentally, Sammy is studying for his bar mitzvah, and in the rabbi's study sees a book on golems, a mythical Jewish Frankenstein-type monster. Sammy can't resist "borrowing" the book, without the rabbi's permission. 

Fortunately for Sammy, his dad is a sculptor, so Sammy has access to great quantitites of clay from which to sculpt the golem.  But can he bring him to life?  As you might have guessed, the answer is YES, and Sammy is thrilled when the golem goes to school with him and even becomes the drummer in their band. But too much power can be as much of a problem as being powerless--can the Golem be controlled or will he have to be destroyed? An original take on bullying, this is a terrific novel that could be enjoyed by boys or girls.  And who can resist a klezmer/drum-playing golem???

And for more on golems, don't forget the stunning 1997 Caldecott winning picture book, Golem, by the late David Wisniewski, which retells the traditional legend about the golem created by the Rabbi of Prague in the 16th century to protect the Jews of the city.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Book Review: Dear America: Down the Rabbit Hole, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Scholastic, 2013)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

The heroines in Scholastic's Dear America series seem to have a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  In this new release, our heroine, Pringle Rose, moves from Scranton, Pennsylvania to Chicago right before the great Chicago fire of 1871.  Pringle and her younger brother, who is disabled, are orphaned when their parents are killed in a mysterious carriage accident.  Her father is a rich industrialist who has left her a fortune, but when Pringle overhears that her relatives are planning to institutionalize her brother, the two of them flee by train to a family friend in Chicago.  Not only does the author weave a suspenseful story about the fire and its aftermath, she weaves in a number of other social history themes:  the rise of the labor unions and labor unrest; women's rights; the treatment of disabled children at that period; and even the beginning of the animal rights movement.  As usual with this series, there is extensive back matter with more historical background, historical illustrations, photographs, maps, and in this instance, even recipes.

In this newest round of Dear America releases, Scholastic has contracted with some of our best writers for young people, and this particular volume is written by Newbery honor-winning author Susan Campbell Bartoletti.  Bartoletti is best known for her many nonfiction works on American and European history, including her most recently published historical work, They Called Themselves the KKK:  The Birth of an American Terrorist Group (2010).  She has also written a number of historical novels for young people as well as some picture books.

While critics often give short shrift to series books, the Dear America series is an example of one series in which the quality continues to be very high and the educational content well integrated into the narrative.  I hope Scholastic will continue to offer new entries in this series in the coming years.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Book Review: One Gorilla: A Counting Book, by Anthony Browne (Candlewick, 2013)

Recommended for all ages.

In my new job as a children's librarian I am fortunate to have many new picture books cross my desk each week.  While there are many that I like, there are few that I fall head over heels in love with.  One of the few that has captured my heart recently is One Gorilla: a Counting Book, a new release by Anthony Browne for Candlewick Press.

Anthony Browne has long been a favorite of mine; the internationally renowned author and illustrator is a former British Children's Laureate and is especially known for books about monkeys and primates, among my favorite animals.  But I don't hesitate to say that this new release is his most striking book ever.  Indeed, this is one of the most stunning picture books I've seen this year. It's an oversized picture book, with brightly colored paintings of our primate cousins, including the well-known (gorillas, chimps, orangutans) and the lesser known (macaques, colobus monkeys). Browne's artwork is at once highly realistic and almost photographic and also fanciful, with a palette that exaggerates nature's colors.  All of the primates are looking directly at the viewer or reader, connecting with us in an extraordinary way. The book ends by explaining that all these animals are primates..."all one family. All my family....and yours!" The book ends with a double page spread of humans from all different cultures, all colors and nationalities, stressing our commonality with our primate cousins.  Below is an example of the gorgeous two-page spreads from this book.  Don't miss it!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Nonfiction Monday Book Review Children of the Tipi: Life in the Buffalo Days, edited by Michael Oren Fitzgerald (Wisdom Tales, 2013)

Recommended for ages 5-12.  

What was life like for ordinary American Indian children growing up on the American plains?  In this handsome new volume from independent publisher Wisdom Tales, editor Michael Oren Fitzgerald pairs quotations from Indian chiefs and elders who lived in the days before native people were forced onto reservations with rare sepia-toned photographs to conjure up a nomadic way of life that vanished long ago.

The book does not unfold in traditional narrative non-fiction style; instead the editor has compiled two page spreads complete with quotations, antique photos as well as modern photos of artifacts of Indian life.  He covers a wide array of different topics relevant to children's lives.  These include:  mothers, play, story-telling, daily camp life, horses, great chiefs, and more.

Because there is no narrative from the editor as part of the text, the quotations and photographs together evoke a nostalgic view of the American Indian experience on the Plains.  The editor emphasizes the native people's spiritual connections to the land as well as lighter topics.  The book ends with beautiful color photographs of modern American Indian children at festivals, dressed in traditional garb, with the headline "But many traditions live on..."

An endnote provides more information about editor Michael Oren Fitzgerald, and a bibliography of his books for children and young adults.  I would have liked to see appropriate websites and books by other authors offered as resources as well.

With the implementation of the Common Core, there is an increased need for excellent nonfiction books for young people.  Children of the Tipi would certainly make a strong addition to classroom and library collections about American Indian culture, but it's also a volume that parents would enjoy sharing with their children at home.

Note:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Book Review: Auntie Yang's Great Soybean Picnic, by Ginnie Lo (Lee & Low Books, 2012)

For ages 6-12.  

In this picture book for older readers, the author remembers growing up in the American midwest, in rural Indiana, at a time when there were few other Chinese families around. When she sees her Chinese cousins in Chicago, they have Chinese lessons, time to play, and lots of dumplings. While driving from Indiana to Chicago, they discover a farmer growing soybeans, a food they dearly missed from China. They are thrilled and a tradition is born. They pick soybeans from the befuddled farmer (at the time soybeans were grown only for pig feed) and take them home for their family's first soybean picnic. Over the years, the soybean picnic becomes an annual affair, with more and more Chinese families invited to share the treat. Soon the event grew so big it had to be held at a city park. An author and illustrator's note tells more about the author's family, and the tradition of the soybean picnic. The narrative is illustrated with charming paintings done on handmade porcelain plates, which were then fired. A heartwarming story about immigrant families adapting their culture in a new country.
One of the ceramic plate illustrations

Monday, July 1, 2013

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Nelson Mandela, by Kadir Nelson (Katherine Tegen Books, 2013)

Recommended for all ages

With Mandela apparently on his deathbed, it's an appropriate time to take a look at this moving new picture book biography of the iconic South African figure by celebrated African-American author/illustrator Kadir Nelson. Nelson's magnificent paintings complement the poetic text, which begins by evoking Mandela's bucolic boyhood in the South African bush. At the tender age of 9, he was sent away to continue his schooling, the only one in his family to be chosen for Western formal schooling. His intellect was apparent even at an early age, and we see Nelson (a name given to him by British teachers) growing into a fine young man, a lawyer for those who couldn't defend themselves. Kadir Nelson describes the cruel policies of apartheid in simple terms suitable to a young audience, in a lyrical text that resembles free verse. The outlines of Mandela's life are all here--Mandela protesting with his fist raised in the air, Mandela tried and imprisoned, his people fighting for his release over the long years of jail, his triumphant return and election to president. But as usual with Kadir Nelson's work, it is the illustrations which overwhelm us with their quiet power. Highly recommended for adults as well as children.

For more on Mandela for young people, check out his own picture book autobiography, Nelson Mandela:  Long Walk to Freedom (Flash Point, 2009).  For older children and adults, I would also recommend the abridged version of Mandela's own autobiography, Mandela:  An Illustrated Autobiography (Little Brown, 1996), a fascinating and accessible version of his much longer autobiography published in 1994.  

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Review: Paris-Chien: Adventures of an Ex-Pat Dog, by Jackie Clark Mancuso (La Librairie Parisienne, 2013)

Recommended for ages 4 and up.

Picture books about dogs are a dime a dozen, but picture books about dogs in Paris--ooh, la, la, that's a smaller group.  I remember on my first trip to Paris, many many years ago, being flabbergasted that dogs were everywhere--including in restaurants, where they were treated with great respect.  But what would it be like to be an American dog in Paris?

In Paris-Chien (a pun on the French word parisien--OK, it took me a few minutes to get that one, and you have to pronounce Paris in French--par-ee--for it to work!), we meet Hudson, an adorable Norwich terrier who has recently moved to Paris with his American owner.  However, adjusting to a new culture is apparently as difficult for dogs as for people--Hudson didn't realize that French dogs spoke French rather than "dog"!  But no worries, his owner enrolls him in French language classes, taught by Madame Vera--a French poodle.  Soon Hudson is as happy as a clam--or maybe a baguette or croissant--in his new home, and even has a French girlfriend!

This is a delightful book that is sure to please dog lovers and Francophiles alike.  The book is peppered with French phrases, which are translated in a "petit dictionnaire" in the back (although there is no phonetic translation, so the author seems to assume that the readers will already know a little French).  Children and adults alike will enjoy the "fish out of water" story of Hudson adjusting to Paris, told with a gentle sense of humor.  The gouache artwork is particularly charming, and the color palette and flat, stylized technique evoke 20th century French artists such as Matisse.

Author Jackie Clark Mancuso was inspired to write this book by her own experiences as an ex-pat in Paris.  Hudson is a real dog, and you can learn more about him on his Facebook page.