Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz by Michael Bornstein, with Debbie Bornstein Holinstat

Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz by Michael Bornstein, with Debbie Bornstein Holinstat
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Rating: 5 stars

This book was simply incredible. How could any book on surviving something as horrific as Auschwitz not be?

Michael Borstein was born in Zarki, Poland, in 1940, a year after his country fell to Nazi control. His father, a bold and courageous man, cajoled and bribed the Nazis in Zarki in order to protect his family in remarkable ways. But, eventually, his efforts ran short. His family was sent to Auschwitz when Michael was just a toddler. Thanks to the protection of his mother and then, when she was sent to a work camp in Austria, his grandmother, Michael was one of the 52 children under the age of eight who survived Auschwitz. 
 
I think young readers who already know something about the Holocaust, Auschwitz, and concentration camps will be surprised that Michael is released halfway through the book. The rest of the story is just as riveting--surviving the concentration camps was only part of his survival story. Staying alive in the weeks afterward by not overeating, not contracting any serious diseases, dodging cruel anti-Semitism, reconnecting with his family, returning to the place of his birth, and getting out of Poland, into Germany of all places, and then to America… There's a lot to this man's story. I'm so glad he shared it with the world.

Yes, this is a middle grade book. It is a true story, but Michael and his daughter admit to creating images and conversations that are based on fact, or inspired by fact, so those parts must be officially called fiction. You won't care. This account is simply riveting. I feel strongly that the book is appropriate for fourth or fifth grade students and older, and even better if read with an adult or near an adult who can answer those big questions, including the one that makes this book and the story of concentration camps relevant for all generations: How did this happen? And, an even more important follow-up: How can we be sure that it never happens again?

Of course the book is heartbreaking, but books that grip our hearts are the best kind, the most unforgettable. Michael's biggest lesson to readers is remarkably uplifting and empowering. His personal motto--his family's motto is: "This, too, shall pass." What a wonderful reminder to us all that all hard times, difficult situations, or challenging individuals in our lives will all pass. And to hang on and be strong until it does.

Here are a few of the MANY other middle grade books about WWII, the concentration camps, Nazi Germany, etc. A trip to your local bookstore or library will help you find even more:
  • Number the Stars by Lois Lowry *
  • Ted & Me (Baseball Card Adventure) by Dan Gutman *
  • Hedy’s Journey: The True Story of a Hungarian Girl Fleeing the Holocaust by Michelle Bisson
  • I Have Lived a Thousand Years: Growing Up in the Holocaust by Livia Bitton-Jackson
  • The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank *
  • A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen *
  • Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli
  • The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak *
* Books I've Read


P.S. The audiobook is fantastic. Highly recommend for time you'll be in the car with your young reader/s, though it is a sobering topic.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Dragons Rule, Princesses Drool! by Courtney Pippin-Mathur

Dragons Rule, Princesses Drool! by Courtney Pippin-Mathur
Little Simon: Simon & Schuster

Rating: 5 stars

My kids and I became fans of Courtney Pippin-Mathur years ago when we came across Maya Was Grumpy, a book where a girl's hair becomes wilder and wilder as she becomes grumpier and grumpier. With the help of one clever grandmother, both her mood and her hair are tamed. In addition to loving her work as an author/illustrator, Courney Pippin-Mathur helped me out at the Great Falls Writer's Day about two years ago, leading a workshop for young author/artists. What did these children do? They created their own dragons, then wrote stories about them. This book had just been sold, and dragons were on Courtney's mind.

But now, the book is finally out!

Dragons Rule, Princesses Drool! starts out with one small dragon, who wants to believe in his own strength and magnificence and importance. His flames "blasted into the sky, frightening everyone who came near!"

"Well, almost everyone."

"Well, almost everyone."
Except for two princesses. Our little dragon deems them "dangerous creatures" and watches in horror as his dragon playmates put on ruffled clothes and let the princesses fly on their backs. Although the dragons try the princesses's ways, they princesses can't seem to master the dragon's favorite things to do. They cannot eat dragon peppers. They cannot not burp. And they cannot breathe flames. Watching the transformation from mighty to silly of his dragon friends, our little dragon fears that the land will never be the same again--dragons will never rule like they once did!

He needs help, so he goes to the royal knight--who turns out not to care one bit about the princesses. He wants the dragons!

With all of his dragon buddies caught up in one big net, our little dragon has no one but the princesses to turn to for help. And you'll love how they help the dragons: with one big giant, flamey BURP!

The way this book plays on and dances around gender norms and expectations is cute and sweet and important. And, in the end, our little dragon is friends with the very princesses he first plots against. That sort of ending is not just satisfying for readers of this book, but also is pretty normal in real-life childhood adventures.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Please Please the Bees by Gerald Kelley

Please Please the Bees by Gerald Kelley
Albert Whitman and Company

Rating: I'd like to give it a 6!

I have 51 books checked out from our local library right now. We brought about half of them to the Oregon Coast last weekend--the hardback library picture books were augmented by paperbacks from our own children's library in an unsuccessful attempt to make my giant library bag a little lighter. Of all those books, this one is my favorite right now.

Meet Benedict. He's a simple bear. A creature of habit. Every morning, he wakes up at the same time. He stretches and yawns, opens his door, and collects the three jars of honey the bees deliver each day.

To fuel his day, he has toast with honey and tea with extra honey. Then he sets off practicing violin, baking honey cake, knitting, and running errands.

Until one day when there are no jars of honey on his doorstep. Instead, he sees dozens of bees, flying and steadying signs: "ON STRIKE!" No more honey. Benedict is beside himself. He doesn't know what to do, but he knows his days are impossible without his honey.

A bee buzzes up to him: "We need to talk!"

Benedict: "Talk? Humph! I let you all live in my yard. All I ask is for a few jars of honey. You should be grateful. Not go on strike!"

Bee: "A few jars? Buddy, we deliver three jars of honey to you every day. Every month! Every year! Do the math, Einstein!"

Benedict even learned how to harvest honey. 
At that moment, a lightbulb in Benedict's fuzzy bear head lights up. And he gets it. And as the bee explains the poor working conditions, high demands, the number of queen bees that have quit, and how many miles and miles they have to fly to find enough flowers to make their honey, Benedict understands the problem even more. At first, he's not sure what to do, although he knows--he agrees with the bee--that change is necessary. Then Benedict does some research, a little shopping, and a LOT of work.

The result? A spruced-up hive and a new plan of action where Benedict does a lot of the work himself. The bees drop their "ON STRIKE!" signs and get back to work.

The bigger result? A children's book that is up there with the great and clever classic Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type--both that book and this one apply a complex, usually-adult subject to a children's book in just the right way. Gerard Kelley created a book to put in the laps of children that inspires and teaches about the importance of taking care of the world's bees. But this book's illustrations go beyond Click, Clack, Moo...the illustrations of Please Please The Bees are sweet and gorgeous, clever and funny. They are downright perfect.

I only wish there was an author's note or resources on the back to show young readers what they can do to "please the bees!" But the Honeybee Conservancy has some ideas. Click HERE for them, right after you head to your local independent bookstore to buy this book.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Green Pants by Kenneth Kraegel

Green Pants by Kenneth Kraegel
Candlewick Press

Rating: 5 stars

The star of this book, Jameson, is going through a phase that I bet your children have gone through before: He wants to wear one thing day after day after day. That one thing for my Kiefer was a superhero t-shirt. That one thing for Jameson are his green pants.

In his green pants, he can do anything! He can dunk, dive, and dance.

What's the problem, you're wondering? His cousin and his lovely fiancee ask him to be in their wedding. Transfixed by her loveliness, he says yes. His mother then explains to him that being in a wedding means to walk slowly, pose for pictures, have good manners and...wear a tuxedo. That is black.

Jameson is caught in the throes of indecision. This brilliant picture cracks me up and accurately captures that moment we've seen and been in before:


Jameson's mother deftly maneuvers around Jameson's angst. She pats his shoulders, and says, "It is a tough decision, but I know you can figure it out."

Another brilliant moment in the book! (And, as I know that you know, so very tough to do in real life.)

Jameson chooses the tuxedo and is a model ring bearer throughout the wedding and reception. Until the music starts. And then, in a fantastic dance-leap, he changes out of his tuxedo pants and into his beloved green pants:



And then "Jameson danced as no one danced before."

This book is just brilliant. I'm sad to return it to the library!





Thursday, May 25, 2017

Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart


Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart
Scholastic Press

Rating: 5 stars

Jonathan Grisby did a bad, bad thing. Of course, author Dan Gemeinhart doesn't tell you what it is in the first few chapters. But let me tell you, you want to know right away, and this NEEDTOKNOW feeling is one of the many things that makes this new middle grade novel a complete page-turner. 

Scar Island opens in the exhilarating, emotional moments when Jonathan is being taken by boat to a school for bad, bad boys. Slabhenge Reformatory School for Troubled Boys is on a scrappy, barren island and Jonathan feels it's exactly where he should be, because from the first page of Gemeinhart's third novel we feel his guilt for whatever he's done to deserve this horrible consequence. 


Once he's on the island, Jonathan quietly befriends the boys who've been there longer. They help him navigate through the harsh rules of and unsympathetic group of grown ups at Slabhenge (what are these men like? They call the boys "scabs."). Just as he's found his way through the rules, a freak accident in the middle of an electric storm leaves the boys by themselves. What happens next is part Lord of the Flies and part Holes--the misfit boys have to figure out how to survive without the rules imposed by adults.

Jonathan finds his way through this challenge and the different personalities of the boys around him, but he also struggles to face the charges against him at home. It's this inner struggle that was most compelling for me. I kept reading because I wanted--no, I needed--to know what Jonathan had done to deserve being sent to Slabhenge. Jonathan's emotional journey from feeling guilt-ridden to forgiving himself is a strong one. He beats himself up like most children do (and adults I know would) for what turns out to be a very sad mistake. 

My ten year-old daughter read Scar Island and said, before I learned what Jonathan's did: "It's really bad, Mom." Later, after I finished the book, she said that because of the mistake, it should be for older readers. Her guess was 10-14. But the recommended age is grades 3 through 5 (though School Library Journal says a little higher, grades 5 through 8). I think grades 3 through 5 is about right. Yes, there is a child who dies in the wake of Jonathan's troubles. But I think the story is realistic and powerful because of this--and children will find the story sobering, empowering, and ultimately uplifting.


Note: This book is available in audio format; the performance by MacLeod Andrews was impressive--he made the grown-ups snarl in just the right way, and made the boys' experience trapped on the island come alive. I highly recommend keeping this book in mind for any long summer drive...though the youngest child in the car probably should probably be eight or so (why is this lower than the age/grade in above paragraph? Because you'll be listening right along with them, and you'll be there to answer questions and talk about Jonathan's mistake and its consequences right alongside your child).

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

I Just Want to Say Good Night by Rachel Isadora

I Just Want to Say Good Night by Rachel Isadora
Nancy Paulsen Books

Rating: 5 stars

Thousands of miles away from most of the readers of Rachel Isadora's new book in a small African village, parents are putting their children to sleep.

Including Lala, the main character in this book who, like many American children, wants to procrastinate on her way to bed. Rather than ask for a glass of water or another bedtime story, Lala wants to tell all the animals and things around her "good night."

"I want to say good night to the cat," Lala says.

"I want to say good night to the goat," Lala says.

"I want to say good night to the rock," Lala says. (This one made me smile--it would exasperate me if it was my own child.)

Each "good night" has a corresponding two-page, gorgeous illustration of the African village, cast in the warm colors of sunset, thousands of miles away from the reader. Thanks to the magic of a good book, the reader is transported to that village as Lala "good-nights" her way to bed.

Finally...

"Now!" her mother says.

Through one wordless two-page spread, we see Lala go inside, wash up, and get into bed. She has a book in her hand and, as she reads it, she whispers, "Good Night, Moon!"

You guessed it: It is the same book that most American children own or at least read. I love that last image--someone thousands of miles away reading the very same book the reader has read her/himself.

This book provides a perfect example of how to give a new twist to something that's done many times before. You've seen this before. You've read this type of book before. The type of book that closes out the day in a series of good-nights. But Isadora puts a great twist on this already-done story by placing her story in an unfamiliar setting, and then placing a familiar book in the hands of Lala.

It works beautifully.

My children and I are not strangers to Rachel Isadora. Her stories and pictures have filled my children's first years as readers. We only own one, but it is in Kiefer's bedroom, not downstairs on the children's library shelf--Nick Plays Baseball. Read my review of that book plus another one that Lorelei loved as a little girl, Lili at Ballet HERE.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook Press

Rating: 5 stars

I'm a big, huge fan of this author. Steve Sheinkin writes nonfiction middle grade books that are well-written, well-researched, fast-paced and informative--I really wish they were around when I was growing up. My favorite of his is Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon. C'mon, with a title like that, how can you not pick it up?! 

Undefeated is about Jim Thorpe, a Native American athlete who dominated almost any sport he attempted (baseball is the notable exception, as documented in the book). Born around the turn of the century, when Native Americans were being herded onto reservations and assimilated into white American culture, Thorpe was forced to go to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The story centers around the meeting of and relationship between Thorpe and Pop Warner. Warner, in case, like me, you're not a football fan, was a football mastermind who hailed from the top of society, having graduated from, then coached in, the Ivy League.

These two men could not have had more different backgrounds.

Yet, Pop Warner realized Jim Thorpe was the most gifted athlete he had ever seen. He knew that within moments of meeting Thorpe, after watching him outrun a pack of Warner's well-trained and well-seasoned football players. And so the two began their relationship, which has been lauded the "most winningest" combination in sports history.

Sheinkin chronicles Thorpe's rise in football, and how he crossed over to track and field to take advantage of his speed. From there, he volunteered to give decathlons a try. Turns out he was a shoo-in for such a demanding sport, and he represented the United States in that sport and the pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics. He was the first Native American to earn a gold medal. (Later, due to the fact that he accepted payment as a minor league baseball player, Thorpe was stripped of his medals.)

In addition to Thorpe's fascinating life and sports career, Sheinkin reports on the history of Native Americans in the United States. The chapters about how Native Americans were forced to schools such as the one at Carlisle, stripped of their birth name and given a "white" name, and then punished for remembering or practicing anything from their native tribes is eye-opening and humbling. In addition, Sheinkin writes about the early years of football. I'm pretty much the opposite of a football fan (don't tell my Seahawks-crazed neighbors that), but found that part of the book really interesting.

Clearly, this is not a book for really young children. But it is an excellent choice for curious, history-minded readers age ten or older, and could be read aloud to a slightly younger child (so that younger readers could have their inevitable questions about Native American policies answered right away).

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Lucia the Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza

Lucia the Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza
POW!

Rating: 5 stars

Lucia is a girl who can jump off the highest monkey bars at the playground and run faster than lightening. Still, the boys make fun of her for being a girl. They tease her that girls are nothing but "sugar and spice and everything nice." This makes Lucia mad.

"Spicy mad. KA-POW kind of mad."

But Lucia has a trick up her sleeve. Or, better still, an abuela on her side. Abu explains how, when she was younger, she was a luchadora. She fought in a ring with a mask over her face and a cape blowing behind her, mighty as can be. Outside the ring, she fought the good fight and helped others in need. She passes her mask on to Lucia. With the mask and cape, Lucia is transformed into Lucia the Luchadora. She's unstoppable! She inspires a bunch of other children to don masks and capes and come out to play just as hard as she does.

All is fine until one comes child out in a pink and white mask and cape. She is clearly a girl. The same boys taunt her, returning to their "sugar and spice" phrase. But Lucia comes to her rescue, pulling off her mask, letting her long hair escape.

See? Girls can be powerful players and kind-hearted souls--in one WOW moment.

I love this story of girl power and the illustrations are aaaaaa-mazing. But this book is special to me because I saw it when it was barely more than an idea. When it was a typed-up, double-spaced manuscript handed from one hopeful writer to another. The author, Cynthia Leonor Garza, and I were part of a critique group who met at a coffee shop in Fairfax, Virginia. We'd meet to exchange manuscripts, offer advice, point out problems, suggest improvements, and chat about squeezing in writing time while our children watched movies, played outside, slept.

Lucia is Cynthia's second manuscript (my fingers are still crossed that her piƱata story is published soon!) at our critique group, and I can't tell you how fun it is to read the final version, complete with gorgeous, vibrant illustrations by Alyssa Bermudez.

And now LOOK at this! She's got her debut picture book accepted, produced, and published. Congratulations, Cynthia, and keep fighting the good fight, Lucia!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Jake the Fake Keeps it Real by Craig Robinson and Adam Mansbach

Jake the Fake Keeps it Real by Craig Robinson and Adam Mansbach, illustrated by Keith Knight
Crown Books for Young Readers

Rating: 4 stars (my kids would give it a 5)

Here's a new middle grade novel, one that was written to tickle the funny bone of every child who reads it. It has two authors: one (Craig Robinson) is an actor/comedian; the other (Adam Mansbach) is the author of for-adults-only book Go the F**k to Sleep. It's a good one to know about: it's a slim book chock full of silly illustrations by cartoonish Keith Knight, so it's an easy read for a above-grade-level readers but also engages readers who are struggling a bit. There's a ton of incentive to read because readers are going to want to get to the next joke! This book will get passed around the car from one child to another.

But this book is also good to know about because it's a great audiobook--Sullivan Jones performs it superbly, with silly voices, big songs, amped-up reactions to things that he'd easily win a standing O from the children in the back of your car. You might want this audiobook for a long car ride this summer...

So what's it about?

Jake declares himself the dumbest school at his touchy-feely "smart school," a magnet school in a fictional city. He realizes that he wants to fit in, and in this school you've got to be weird to fit in, so he brainstorms schemes that are so funny I laughed out loud at them--and I know my children would have laughed even harder. 

Things come to a head during the school talent show, when Jake feels he's got no talent whatsoever. But he pulls out a great act when he remembers that one time someone thought he was funny. So he runs with it, and tries his first little comedy act, and it goes really well. He's found himself, he gets laughs and high-fives from all his classmates, and he feels like he finally fits in.

Parents should know that, like most comedians, Jake is irreverent and pokes fun at anything and everything. He might offend an adult at some point or another. My two eye-rolling points were: First, when he described a home-schooled child as socially awkward in what I felt was a demeaning way; second, when he said "Americans get type 1 diabetes just by looking at large drinks from 7-11" or something like that. 

But I admit that these statements were a little funny because they are a little true. And kids love to laugh. Kids NEED to laugh! And...you know, we adults do, too. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat and Mo Willems

The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat and Mo Willems
Disney Press

Rating: 5 stars

Four friends. Three cookies.

Is there any better start to a book? Because if you have ever been in a situation like this one, I assure you: it's a fiasco.

These four friends are beside themselves with despair. They think of possible solutions to the problem. Alligator suggests that the two little squirrels share one cookie. One squirrel states that Alligators shouldn't like cookies. Hippo suggests the cookies be allotted according to size. The final squirrel throws her hands up in the air--she's too overwhelmed with the thought of cookie loss to solve any problems.

Then, Hippo starts breaking the cookies. It's what he does when he's nervous, another friend explains. She can't help herself! She breaks them all once, and there are six half-cookies. A few pages later she breaks all of those in half. Suddenly, there are twelve quarters.

"TAKE THEM AWAY FROM ME BEFORE ALL WE HAVE ARE CRUMBS!" she screams.

Each animals grabs some cookies...and (I know you've guessed it) they each have three pieces of cookie in their hands.

Talk about a smile-inducing book right before bedtime! (Or anytime!)

I knew this book was going to great because:

  • The title: it had the word fiasco in it. And fiasco is such a great word--in general and for young readers to know.
  • It is written and illustrated by Dan Santat. He's the guy who created the gorgeous story and pictures in The Adventures of Beekle, so I knew he'd bring warmth and silliness to any and all characters in this book.
  • This book is in a new series called "Elephant and Piggie Like Reading! Series" This series is launched from the enormous success of the enormously wonderful Mo Willems' Elephant and Piggie books. While at first I was annoyed by the marketing of it, the books selected for this series are really great easy readers for readers who are making the big leap into reading by themselves.