The Courage Test by James Preller

courage-testThe cover of The Courage Test caught my eye and I had to read it.  Middle school student Will has plans for the summer. All-Stars starts this week and his
mother is pushing him out the door. Will Meriwether Miller is going to travel down the Lewis and Clark Trail with his father, a professor of American History. Will’s dad is a Lewis and Clark fanatic and has been working on a book about, you guessed it, Lewis and Clark for over ten years. Will was even named after them. He’s pissed at his dad  because he moved  out of the house and now has a new girlfriend. Will thinks that the idea of a trip is his dad’s, that he wants some together time. He is determined to be bored and unpleasant. Will’s dad though gets him to crack a smile with his jokes, Doritos and a trip to Will’s favorite restaurant, Denny’s, for pancakes.

Will is given a notebook in case he wants to take notes on the trip, something the the men on the expedition did that allows historians to know the way they got to the Pacific, what they traded and the fact that even though they packed for two years, along the way they ran out of everything. Skeptical at first, Will starts writing in it along the way. When they arrive at the Upper Missouri River they get supplies and a canoe and go for four days on the river. During the trip they meet a friend of his dad’s, a Nez Perce, he’s known since grad school. Will winds up paddling down the river with him the next day and Ollie teaches Will about the fate of his people.That day he sees an eagle and talks to Ollie about the bear he’s been dreaming about.

While it took Lewis and Clark two years to cross travel from Will and his dad make the trip in two weeks, driving, hiking, paddling and whitewater rafting. Along the way Will has to pass his own courage tests. These, along with developing a closeness with his dad and meeting a young girl and her enormous dog, help him to deal with issues that he will face in the near future.

The Courage Test is a quick and pleasant read, but somewhat predictable. I learned a lot of history about Lewis and Clark and the fate of the native people that they encountered and I liked the way it was woven into the story about Will and his dad’s trip. Also, Will’s encounter with a certain large animal is gripping as are some other moments in the story.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.wolf-hollow

I don’t mean the small fibs that children tell. I mean real lies fed by real fears—things I said and did that took me out of the life I’d always known and put me down hard into a new one….

     The year I turned twelve, I learned that what I said and what I did mattered.”
So begins Wolf Hollow, masterfully written by Lauren Wolk and drawing the reader right in.  It is 1943 and Annabelle and three generations of her family live on a farm in Pennsylvania.  She walks to school in a one room school house, but as the story begins, we learn that a bully has demanded money from her on her way home.  The bully, a new girl named Betty, has been “sent to the country because she was incorrigible.” Betty had stepped out from behind a tree in Wolf Hollow and stood in her path and threatened to beat her with a stick if she didn’t bring her something the next day.  Wolf Hollow had been named because men used to dig pits there to catch wolves who were killing chickens and such.   As Betty’s threats and escalate, she proves herself to be a “dark-hearted girl who came to our hills and changed everything.”
Instead of using the road to go from the hollow to the houses on the other side of Annabelle’s family’s farm, they often would walk across the fields.  Lots of people did.  But one person was different.  Toby was a veteran of WWI with his scarred left hand and his long oilcloth coat, carrying three rifles on his back. Toby lived in an old smokehouse which was hidden among trees and bushes.  annabelle met Toby when she was nine, outside taking photos.  As she slowly realized he was standing there watching her she took one of him.  He asked her if he could borrow it, and she gave it to him.  Toby would in time cover the inside of the smokehouse with his photos of the sky, the woods and the orchards.
Betty continues her hateful deeds, not unnoticed by quiet Toby.  When a rock is thrown and hits  Annabelle’s friend in the eye, Betty accuses Toby.  So when Betty goes missing, and Toby can’t be found, people begin to suspect him.  Not Annabelle though.

Review of the Day: They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel — A Fuse #8 Production

I’m really looking forward to this upcoming book!  Check out the great video and the SEPTEMBER 21, 2016 School Library Journal review by  

They All Saw a Cat By Brendan Wenzel Chronicle Books $16.99 ISBN: 978-1-4521-5013-0 Ages 4-7 On shelves now It’s funny. Unless you’re a teacher or librarian, a grown adult that does not work or live with children will come into very little contact with picture books. Then, one day, they produce a few kids and…

via Review of the Day: They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel — A Fuse #8 Production

Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

Nine year old Subhi is a Rohingya was born in a refugee detention camp in Australia, or perhaps on an island off the coast of the Australian continentthe-bone-sparrow. He lives in Family part of the center with his mother and sister but yearns for his Ba to arrive, to bring him stories, for he has never met him. His maá has been lying in bed, barely eating. Subhi is a dreamer, at night he dreams that items that float up to the tent are gifts from his Ba. Like a seashell that he holds up to his ear to listen for his Ba’s voice. He also savors stories, having learned to read when there was still a school at the center. His Maá used to tell him about life in Burma, about having their house burnt and not being allowed to go to school and his father being arrested for writing his poems. No more, now she just sleeps.
Subhi’s friend Eli and he share everything, stories, food, whatever. Eli protects him and involves him in running an underground trade market in the camp, but he makes sure that Subhi is safe. That is, until one day Subhi is careless. The detention center is guarded by men who Subhi calls Jackets. Most are brutal and corrupt, especially Beaver, but there is one man named Harvey who befriends Subhi and other kids, learns their names instead of calling them by number and gives them a wading pool on a scorching day.

Alternately the book focuses on Jimmie, a motherless girl who lives on the Outside, outside of the detention center. She lives with her dad and brother. Jimmie wears a bone sparrow necklace that belonged to her mother around her neck and she also has a notebook that her mother wrote, but she can’t read. Subhi also has a connection to sparrows, having seen one on his bed in his tent. His sister Queeny tells him that a sparrow inside the tent is a sign of death.

One night Jimmie sneaks into the detention center. Subhi has gone outside and sees her standing with her backpack, her book and her frizzed hair, so different from everyone in the camp. They begin a friendship based on Subhi’s ability to read her the stories her mother wrote her. This friendship has a remarkable effect on both of them; Jimmie brings him food and hot chocolate, things he has never tasted, and he gives her her mother’s stories. She also helps him get his voice when he needs it most.  With all the heartbreak of this novel, there are moments of humor.  Subhi has a toy duck, the Shakespeare duck, who talks to him and makes droll comments on his situations.

As I began to read this new work by Australian writer Zana Fraillon about a young boy and his mother and sister who live in a detention camp, I thought I was reading a dystopian novel. I decided to look up the term Rohingya, and learned that the Rohingya are a people who live in Burma, Myanmar, who are completely stateless. Myanmar does not recognize them as an ethnic minority, or as citizens, in fact using the name Rohingya by government officials is not permitted. They are referred to as “people who believe in Islam” and are not allowed to own land, receive higher education or to move freely. They are subjected to forced labor for the military. The United Nations calls them “the world’s most persecuted minority.” Many have escaped Myanmar Bangladesh where they are kept in detention camps, while others have escaped by boat to SE Asia. Australia refused to accept any Rohingya refugees, keeping them in camps instead and this motivated Fraillon to write her moving novel.

Given the refugee crises all over the world, this is an important book. Except for recalling the stories his Maá told him about why they had to flee Burma, I got the sense that not everyone in the camp were Rohingya. In a way, Subhi seems like Every Child. His cultural background is not clear to the reader. Perhaps that is because the camp has stripped them of everything, their beliefs and holidays. Subhi, though, has his stories and they give him strength. But in feeling for Subhi, we can empathize with all of the millions of refuges around the world.

My thanks to Disney/Hyperion for giving me permission to read this exceptional book.

Booked by Kwame Alexander

It’s been a while since I read a book told through poems and Booked by Kwame Alexander felt fresh and wonderful. I love the way that you get little nuggets of a character’s life, in bookedthis case Nick Hall, and he really comes alive.  Alexander uses his verse to bring the reader in and to make one feel totally present.

Nick and his best friend Coby are in eighth grade and are both soccer fanatics. They play together on the school team but are on different travel teams. Nick’s dad is a linguistics professor ‘with chronic verbomania” and he has written a dictionary called Weird and Wonderful Words. He’s on Nick to read his book, which Nick resents, and many of these weird words, like codswallop, logorrhea and onomatophobia, are used throughout the book and explained in a glossary at the back.

Nick stays up late playing Fifa online and daydreams about soccer in Honors English, till he’s busted. He finds out that his travel team is going to go to Dallas for a world youth soccer tournament, but just when he’s most excited, his world comes crashing down when his parents tell him that his fantastic, lively mom, a former jockey, is moving to Kentucky to do the work she loves, train a racehorse, that in fact they are separating.


It does not take
a math genius
to understand that
when you subtract
a mother
from the equation
what remains
is negative. (p. 59)

Poems like this one captures the essence of what it feels like for Nick to find out that his mom is leaving in so few words.

A lot happens in Booked though it is short. Nick likes a girl named April who is a frequent user of the school library. The librarian Mr. Mac, a former rapper, keeps putting books in Nick’s hands. And two brothers constantly bully him and beat him up. With help from his friend Coby, his parents, and others Nick comes to terms with his parents’ separation and how to deal with his other problems and lots more.  But the book ends with a big question regarding the contents of Mr Mac’s dragonfly box and only Nick knows.

The Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne-Jones

Tim Wynne-Jones has written a powerful gripping Historical Fiction/ Magical Realism novel for teens.  Seventeen-year-old Evan’s father has just died suddenly.  He died the day after saying that his father, from whom he’s been estranged since he was a teen, was a muremperor of any placederer.  Evan’s father Clifford E. Griffin III, left his Marine officer father to avoid fighting in Vietnam, but also because he was opposed to everything about his father.   He and Evan have lived a conflict free life in their home at 123 Any Place.  After his father’s death Evan becomes intrigued with a book that had been on the desk at which he found his father’s body.  With the book was  a letter from a man called Leonardo Kraft that seems to implicate Evan’s grandfather, Griff in the events written about.  Though he has called his grandfather to ask for help,  when Griff arrives a week early, Evan does not feel comfortable having him in the house.
Evan has been reading the book, a translation of a Japanese soldier’s diary.  The diary was written by a WWII Japanese officer, Isamu Ōshiro on a deserted Pacific Island to his wife.  In the diary he describes how he came to and survived alone  on the deserted island he comes to call “Kokoro-jima,” the Heart-Shaped Island.  He has come to call himself the Ōshiro calls himself the Emperor of Kokoro-jima. He also describes the mythological family ghosts and jinkininki, monsters who feed off the dead that also live on the island.   One day the jinkininki lead Ōshiro to a downed U.S. cargo plane and in it the crew members are dead.   Ōshiro realizes that the navigator has left the plane.  On the beach Ōshiro sees another monster, Tengu, about to attack the American soldier, Derwood Kraft.  They come to know one another and with little ability to communicate, become loyal friends and attempt to survive.
The tension is palpable as Evan reads the diary at night and hides the book from his grandfather during the day. Griff’s presence with his military bearing and manner toward Evan are terrifying.  The two stories, Ōshiro’s and Evan’s account of losing his dad and being terrified in his own home, are woven seamlessly together.

Likewise, the narration by Todd Haberkorn is spot on.  I found myself holding my breath when he spoke Griff’s voice.

The Choice: A Holocaust Remembrance Book for Young Readers by Kathy Clark

Set in Budapest, Hungary beginning on October 30, 1944.

As Brother Ferenc begins to counsel the boys in Hendrik’s class about their upcoming confirmation, he tells them that in the future their religious life will not be governed by cover80023-mediumtheir parents, but that they themselves will have to take responsibility for it, that they will have to make a choice to follow the church. Hendrik remembers his cousin’s Bar Mitzvah and his mind begins to focus on his family in the Jewish quarter, in Pest. Following his Uncle Peter’s detention and deportation to a work camp in 1939, Hendrik’s father had moved them to Buda. He and his parents had taken on Christian identities complete with false identity cards. He was told never to talk about his old life or the relatives they had left behind. From the moment he moved into their new apartment, Hendrik became best friends with Ivan, son of a ranking member of the Hungarian Nazi Party, the Arrow Cross. Brother Ferencs’ words cause Hendrik to wonder if his father’s decision had been the right one. Would his choice have been different?

Hendrik wants to sort all of this out for himself. He wants to confide in Ivan, who is preparing to join the Arrow Cross, but has second thoughts. He decides to visit his aunt and cousins in the Jewish Quarter in Buda and bring them food. After being asked for his papers, and finding a way to get over the ghetto wall being built around the Jewish Quarter, Jakob finds that life has changed. Jews are wearing yellow stars on their clothes, emaciated people are huddling in doorways. Jakob makes it to his aunt’s apartment where Aunt Mimi rushes to greet him but his cousin hides nervously in the shadows. When it becomes time for the Arrow Coss’s daily patrols, Aunt Mimi hurries him out, but as he is leaving, he runs into Ivan’s father. When asked what he’s doing there, he responds that he’s not Hendrik, but rather Jakob Kohn and a Jew. As Jakob and his family are being taken away in a truck, he sees his friend Ivan coming around a corner. Ivan’s father orders him to go back to their neighborhood and alert the patrols that the Vargas family is Jewish, and should be rounded up immediately along with their Christian housekeeper.

Jakob winds up being taken to Auschwitz, where he makes two friends though he understood that making friends was not a safe thing to do. Antol rescues him at his first roll call, and who, having been there for several months already seems to know how to survive the horror. The other is with an observant Jewish boy who teaches him Hebrew prayers. What keeps Jakob going, though, are his plans to seek revenge against Ivan when the war is over.

Jakob’s story is based on the experiences of the author’s father, Frigyes Porsht. Although ably told as a novel, there are several points that bother me.

One is the title, The Choice. I cringe to think that some readers may think that Hendrik made the “choice” to be taken by the Nazis. Clearly his own parents had failed to explain the situation to him, but how could a child have begun to understand.

The other problem I have with The Choice is the use of documentary photographs. Mostly they are pre and post war photographs of the city of Budapest, as well as barracks at Auschwitz. I found it strange that these were used; in some ways the story was more powerful than these photos which are somewhat grainy and taken from far away. These give the book the look of a nonfiction book and I wonder why it wasn’t written as such. Perhaps the photos were used to bar against holocaust deniers. In fact, the Holocaust is barely taught in high school these days. Young people first encounter it in literature.

As Jakob witnesses first hand the starvation, killing and gruesome humiliation of people he knows and other Jews, I would recommend it for grade 8 and up.

Towers Falling by Jewel Parker Rhodes

towers fallingWritten in time for the 15th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, this short book is written to explain these awful events to youth who were born after they took place. It is set in a school in Brooklyn, modeled on the school from which the events were able to be seen from classroom windows, a horrifying thought in itself. The three main characters, are 5th graders Déja, Ben and Sabeen; Déja is the narrator.

As an early assignment, they are asked to make an artistic rendering of their home, but as she and her family have recently moved into Avalon, a homeless shelter in the neighborhood, Déja has misgivings about revealing her situation. She does make a box of their room and places inside paper cuttings of the people in her family that her brother makes.  Though she is somewhat embarased by it, especially after seeing the large houses of her friends, Déja receives praise for including people in it, for seeing that family makes a home. As the class goes from discussing family to larger social units, eventually the topic of the hole in the skyline of Manhattan comes up for discussion. Déja has never heard of 9/11.  Her father becomes agitated when she tells him what they are studying  and wants to pull her out of this great new school.  She begins to wonder why he suffers from depression and can’t work and sets out to find the link between him and 9/11.

Sabeen also has a connection to 9/11 as she wears a hijab and is frequently targeted. Ben too is connected as his father fought in Iraq after 9/11.  So he sets out to help Déja find the answers she needs.

I found this to be compelling reading, particularly the beginning, as Déja reveals herself to the readers, becomes friends with Ben and Sabeen and they begin to work on assignments together. They are all well developed characters and it is great see their friendship grow.  The story is told with sensitivity and care as it is directed at children in the middle grades.  Only the resolution of the book did not feel as exceptional. I felt that something was lacking; it was abrupt.  However it leaves room for discussion.

It is hard to imagine that there is a whole new generation of kids who did not experience 9/11, but this book will do a great job of helping them understand the events of that September day fifteen years ago.


It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

Zomorod Yousefzadeh just wants to fit in.  Before she starts 6th grade at her new Newport Beach middle school, she changes her name to Cindy, a name she gets from the Brady Brunch.  Born in  Iran, she spent two years in Compton, Ca. before going back to Iran for a year with her parents and then returning to Compton, where  no one at her school could say her name.  Having moved back and forth so much their family motto is to not buy stuff that breaks easily.  They’ve just moved to a condo in Newport Beach.  To Zomorod, it seems like galaxies away though it’s only one hour by car.   Given the Rules for Condominium Living by the condescending landlady, her father tells her to translate it for her mother. She balks.  The welcome page shows a typical American family with a boy and a girl next to a barbecue.  Zomorod doesn’t think her family looks anything like the people in the picture, but she thinks that they can relate, since her family loves grilling.  Her father calls himself the “King of Kebabs.”

After the summer goes by pretty much friendless,  except with a short friendship with the51RRffOg3KL next door girl, also a Cindy.   As Cindy, she faces some humiliating days at the beginning of school,  and runs to her classes to inform her teachers about her name change before roll call.   Soon though she makes friends with Carolyn.  She loves going to Carolyn’s house whose mother make tacos and takes them Trick or Treating on  Halloween.   Carolyn gets her to join the Girl Scouts which leads to more friends.

Like many first generation American children, Cindy is embarrassed by her parents lack of knowledge about how things are done here.  It takes her a long time before she has her friends over  to her house.  She hates translating for her mother, and particularly dislikes the Iranian custom of taarof, the Iranian form of being polite and like extreme Southern hospitality, where you keep denying yourself and offering food or tea to guests.  In taarof, it is expected that the guest who says no, they don’t really mean it  and are just being polite.

Expecting to return to Iran, her mother refuses accommodate to life in California; she won’t make a huge turkey for the three of them for Thanksgiving and when she goes to buy camping equipment for Girl Scout camp, she’s annoyed that her father won’t buy her things that aren’t on sale.  But Cindy’s not a whiner; she makes the best of things.

Then, because the novel is set in the last years of  the 1970s, as the political situation with Iran gets increasingly bad over a year, Cindy and her parents begin to worry about their family members in Iran.  They are taunted and recieve threats from neighbors and strangers, including a dead hamster with a note, “ Go back to Iran,” which Cindy keeps quiet.  At school she hears she’s threatened and “Bomb Iran” becomes a popular song.  Cindy and her family turn inwards as the American hostage situation goes on for months and months.   Still jobless and with no hopes of finding employment, her father decides they must return to Iran as they cannot afford to live here.  That’s when Cindy and her family discover who their friends really are.

This semi-autobiographical novel is inspiring and delightful, it’s funny and moves quickly with its short chapters.  During her three years of middle school, Cindy goes from being a shy, timid girl, to one who can stand up for herself and her family.  In conjunction with the book, Dumas is starting a Falafel Kindness Project which will be up on her website soon.   She will post stories by students and educators about acts of kindness they’ve experience.  After all, In A Streetcar Named Desire Blanche DuBois said, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”  which Cindy posted in her room and which the author uses as a lead to her Acknowledgments.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

25614492Ruta Sepetys’ forthcoming book for teens, Salt to the Sea, is about the largest maritime disaster ever, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. First built by the Nazis as a cruise ship in 1937, and named for a Nazi officer, it was later requisitioned by the German Navy. On January 30, 1945 it was sunk by Soviet torpedo strikes while evacuating over 10,000 German civilians, Nazi officials and soldiers, 162 of them wounded, and crew. The ship’s capacity was 1,465. Septys captures the overcrowding and panic among the passengers and crew of whom only 1,252 survived. Not many people know about the Wilhelm Gustloff though more people died than on the Titanic.

The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was shrouded in secrecy partly due to the fact that it was a German ship carrying Nazi officials and their families, soldiers as well as civilians. It happened in the last days of the war in Europe and news accounts were focused on the allied victory. Not wanting to demoralize the German population anymore, the German government suppressed the news about it. Also, the captain of the Russian submarine, Alexander Marinesko, was facing court martial for his problems with drinking. He was posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union by Gorbachev in 1990.

The story focuses on a group of characters who have joined up to get to Gotenhafen, or as the Poles called it, Gdansk, before it fell into German rule and after it was returned to Poland. There they hope to escape the Red Army by ship. They are Joana, a young Lithuanian who came to Germany as a refugee and is a nurse with a big secret. There is a wonderful old man who is a shoemaker who has become a guardian of a young boy who lost his parents. Florian, who they call the Prussian, is really a German who unknowingly worked with those responsible for stealing art for the Nazis. He has fled them, is afraid for his life and has many secrets, including something he carries in his knapsack. The last is Amelia, a 15-year-old Polish girl who is pregnant, fearful and somewhat delusional. The story of their trek to the port of Gotenhafen, evading the Red Army and dealing with their own predicaments is moving. They were all, except one character who chooses not to board the Wilhelm Gustloff, sympathetic, but, except for Florian, seemingly in denial of the crimes committed by the Nazis. He actually is a positive character as he wants to get to Finland to tell about the Nazi theft of art.

I have a conflicted relationship with Ruta Septeys’ new book. I feel that the author turns a blind eye to the Nazi attrocities. Afterall, the city Gotenhafen contained a Nazi concentration camp, not mentioned in the book and it’s hard for me to sympathize with Nazi officials and soldiers in flight. The one openly Nazi character in the book is such a caricature of a Nazi that everyone else seems to be wonderful.

I cannot accept that there is a moral equivalence between the Nazis and the Soviets. When the Red Army marched into Germany and liberated the Auschwitz they had gone through a German occupation in which 2.6 million Soviet prisoners-of-war were starved in camps, another half-million mostly Soviet Jewish soldiers were shot. and a million Soviet civilians died during the siege of Leningrad. I find that this book simplifies what was an amazingly complex period of history.