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.

Trouble is a Friend of Mine by Stephanie Tromly

Zoe Webster, or Princeton as Digby calls her, has just moved to the small upstate New York town of River Heights. She’s skipped school on day one, not knowing how fast she’d wind up9780525428404 in detention. The trouble is, Digby is there too and he’s trouble. He wants her to help him find out who has been abducting young girls and he thinks it’s one of the town’s OB-GYNs, the one her mother goes to. She just wants to go back to go to a private school that will help her get into Princeton, and live with her dad and stepmom. Thus the nickname Princeton.

As much as Zoe dislikes Digby, she can’t help participating in his schemes, whether it’s going to the doctor with Digby and then downloading the his hard drive or breaking in at night to get Dr. Schell’s password, so Digby can open the encrypted files he stole.

Then there’s the weirdos across the street, an “end-of-the-world cult,” a bunch of kids that live in a mansion that supposedly runs an herbal tea business. The girls who wear prairie dresses are always cleaning and their driveway smells like chemicals while the boys  put bags with biohazard waste logos on them in their van.

This treat of a book is fast paced, funny, with close calls and plenty of sarcasm. As Zoe figures, “Preparing to survive a typical day of being Digby’s friend wasn’t that different from preparing to survive the apocalypse.”

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

Orbiting Jupiter is an elegantly written book, narrated by Jack, the Orbiting_Jupitertwelve-year-old son of an organic farmer and his wife. Set in rural Maine, the family has taken in a thirteen-year-old boy, Joseph Brook, as a foster child. Not only has Joseph been in juvie, but he is also the father of a baby girl named Jupiter. He is withdrawn and remote. Joseph won’t let anyone walk behind him, but Jack lets him know he “has his back.” He walks the 2 miles to school in the freezing cold with Joseph who gets harassed on the bus. Jack also teaches Joseph to milk cows and the cows take a liking to Joseph.  And Joseph shows Jack the planet Jupiter which he searches for nightly.

Despite the principal’s dislike of Joseph, Coach Swieteck, who’s back from Okay for Now, admires Joseph’s talent as do his math and English teachers. But Joseph wants so much to find his daughter whom he’s never seen but whom he loves.

Gary Schmidt is a tremendous author who creates real and unique characters all of whom are searching for something.  Watch him talk about Orbiting Jupiter

Winter by Marissa Meyer

WinterWhoo, I finished Winter, Book Four of The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer!  After a somewhat slow start, I sped through the last two thirds and I’m not a person that can sit in place for long periods of time.   It’s definitely a thriller, hard to put down.   All of the series are retold fairy tales and this on is based on Snow White,  Levana is like the evil, vain and hideous stepmother and her stepdaughter, the beautiful Winter.  Winter is fragile; she has Lunar sickness because she resists using her Lunar gift to control people’s minds.  She realizes what the effects doing so are.  Just like she refuses to use glamour the scars on her face which Levana made her inflict on herself.  Because of that she has nightmares, believes the walls to be bleeding and ceaselessly puts her childhood friend and loyal guard, Jacin, in danger.
 Cress, the third book in the series, ended with Emperor Kai being kidnapped on what was to be his wedding day.  He had agreed against his better judgement to marry Queen Levana in order to obtain the antidote to Letumosis, a type of plague, that was spreading to the Earth’s inhabitants.  Cinder knows better though, and along with the  sarcastic and egotistical criminal, Captain Thorne, kidnaps Kai and takes him on board the stolen airship, Rampion.  As Kai and the crew learn of Lunar attacks on his palace, he becomes determined to return to Earth to do his job.  There he sets up a plan to travel to Luna for the wedding, convincing the queen that it would be impossible to interfere.  Soon Kai and his chief advisor, Konn Torin, are back onboard the Rampion along with Cinder, Thorne, Cress, Wolf, and the lovable and sarcastic Iko,  and headed to Luna where Wolf hopes to rescue  Scarlet and all hope to put Cinder on the throne that rightly belongs to her.
Luna turns out to be very similar to the world of The Hunger Games, with various sectors kept apart to prevent rebellions and each having different industries or agriculture that feed supply the capitol, Artemisia, with its indulgent upperclass.  The wealthy even dress ridiculously, as they do in The Hunger Games.
I’d forgotten lots of details from the earlier stories, but without Meyer doing awkward replays, I was able to recollect who Cinder’s friends were and their own stories. But this book would be impossible to figure out without having read the first three. There are many twists and turns, as well as a few overly convenient meet-ups.  I really liked the way the short chapters change between recounting the events as they unfold for the main characters.  This becomes even more stunning as the events move toward crises.  As in the earlier books, all of the characters, cyborgs, androids, some of Levanna’s guards and Earthens have such human characteristics: fear,  doubt, senses of humor, sarcasm, loyalty and love.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

the rest of us just live hereSeventeen-year-old Mikey just hopes that his school isn’t blown up before  graduation,   so he can finish school and leave town for college.  Well he also wants to kiss Henna and take her to prom but there’s a new boy who just moved to town who wants the same thing.  Around the town are woods where the zombie deer hang out, like the one who lands in Mikey’s car when he and Henna run into him.  Occasionally an Indie kid. “that group with the cool-geek haircuts,” is killed.  And while all sorts of strange things go on like zombie deer, a demigod of cats and mountain lions, and iridescent blue eyes shining from the woods,  like the title says, “the rest of us just live here.” The bizarre elements are mostly confined to the edges, to chapter summaries with their own Indie characters.  The rest, the main body of the book is about Mikey, his friends and his family.

Mikey’s father is a drunk, his mother is a state senator who rarely has time for her kids except when she needs them.  His sister almost died from an eating disorder, his best friend is  a demigod and his friend Helene is about to go to Central Africa where there are wars going on, with her missionary parents.  It’s no wonder that he’s OCD in the worst way.  How Mikey and his friends get to graduation is a rollercoaster of an enchanting ride.  The Rest of Us Just Live Here is another wonderful book by Patrick Ness.

Li Jun and the Iron Road by Anne Tait

Li Jun and the Iron Road was adapted from the TV miniseries, The Iron Road.   Li Jun is  a young Chinese girl whose father Li Junhas gone to Canada to build the railroads.  After a time he has not been heard from or sent money, so Li Jun is sent by he mother to work as a servant for the first wife of the head of their clan in Hong Kong. When her mother dies, she is determined not to return to her abusive position, but to travel to Canada to work on the railroad and seek her father, Li Man.

LI Jun goes back to Hong Kong, disguised as a boy, and gets work in a firecracker factory.  There she also earns extra cash delivering laundry.  One of her customers, a kind man who is an alcoholic named Mr. Relic, becomes her tutor and teaches her Engllish.  Another mentor is Mr. Zhou from the fireworks factory.  In one of my favorite scenes from the book, Mr. Zhou teaches Li Jun how to explode a walnut shell without shattering the nut inside.  This will be a valuable skill when she becomes a railroad builder.

There is a lot to be commended in this book.  Baits can paint intimate scenes, like the one of her working with Mr. Zhou, or moments with her mother, but it all seems very rushed.  She seems to become an excellent English speaker overnight.  Her daily life in the railway is not fully explored and her relationship with Mr. James proceeds too quickly.

Nevertheless the story of Chinese railway workers, the discrimination, unsafe conditions, the lying and cheating that were used to get cheap labor is told.

I would give this 2 1/2 stars and recommend it to 4th and 5th graders.  It may have been intended for older audiences, but it lacks substance for it to be a praiseworthy YA read.

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar

fuzzy_mudAfter a short history of the once elegant building that now houses the Woodridge Academy in Heath Cliff, PA, Sachar jumps into the middle of a blustering, and somewhat gross, lunchtime conversation among some boys in the 7th grade about a hermit who lives in the woods next to their school.. Tamaya and some friends from the 5th grade are sitting with these boys when she enters the conversation and right away someone calls her a “real Goody Two Shoes.” She wonders when the rules changed, when it became bad to be good?

That very afternoon she expects to walk home with an older neighbor, Marshall. She is not allowed to walk to school or back alone, but he has decided to ditch his usual path. He is afraid of an encounter with a bully, Chad, who has been threatening to beat him up. She breaks the rules and follows him.  Not only do they get lost, but she has a bad fall. While Marshall goes off to a leg to find the way, Tamaya notices some fuzzy mudlike substance. At the same time, Chad appears and attacks Marshall. Chad threatens her as being next, but she grabs some of the mud and shoves it into his face.

All the way home and all night Marshall worries about meeting Chad. Then when Chad doesn’t show up at school the next day, he wishes Chad would just come in and beat him up. When the principal comes into the classroom to announce that Chad hadn’t gone home the night before, he freaks.

What they don’t know, but we do, is that there have been some secret government meetings about the goings on about 30 miles from the school at SunRay Farm where a scientist has been developing “a single-celled living creature that is totally unnatural to this planet… [in order to] burn them alive inside automobile engines.” These creatures were formed from DNA altered slime mold.

So begins an environmental disaster story that is exciting and scary. I love the way each chapter has an illustration with a petri dish that starts off empty, but begins to multiply exponentially. As Tamaya comes down with a rash, the incredible multiplication of the ergonyms is revealed with increasing figures from 2 x 1 = 2 to 2 x 32,768 = 65,536, giving us the sense that this threat is unbeatable.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to preview this wonderful book.

Bigger than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder

Just a few days after hearing her parents argue, or her mother yelling at her dad when the lights went out, and thinking that the argument had blown over Rebecca came downstairs for breakfast to find that her mother had all their mismatched suitcases laid out. Her mom told her they were going home, meaning they were leaving Baltimore for Atlanta and her gran. By the time she got home from school, the car was packed her two-year-old brother Lew strapped in his car seat, and she was
told to get in the car.

‘It’s time to go’, [mom] snapped. Then she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She let it out. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll see your father again. This isn’t the end of the world.’

But for twelve-year-old Rebecca, it was the end of the world. Torn from her father, her school and best friend without warning with her father running after the car, was pretty devastating for Rebecca. She stopped talking to her mother. Even when they arrived at Gran’s, she continued to boycott her mother. Looking for a phone to call her dad, she stumbled into the staircase to the attic where she found an old, red bread box. Having been wishing for all sorts of things, like her dad to show up, for a book. She found one in the bread box. Pretty soon she was wishing for all sorts of stuff that the bread box was able to proBigger-than-a-Bread-Boxvide, including money, candy for her brother, a phone, except it couldn’t bring her her dad.

Starting a new school, Rebecca, who “had never been the New Girl before,” was told to sit next to Hannah, the queen of the popular girls, and was introduced as Becky. She’d never been Becky, and never hung out with the cool girls. At home she hung out with Mary Kate; they read a lot, went to the park and liked to cook and bake together. Suddenly she found herself adopting the manners of the cool girls.

But at Gran’s she began to play with Lew and take him for walks in his stroller. She started to see that she wasn’t the only one that missed her dad. And she learned one of the reasons her mother had left home. It’s not long before all this accumulating stuff that doesn’t belong to her and being fake with her new friends blows up in her face.

At first I found the magic box kind of a strange plot device, but I still couldn’t put it down.  I realized that after an episode like she experienced, wishing and magical thinking would be about all that was left. In fact Snyder portrays the divorce and its effect on Rebecca and Lew incredibly vividly. Her Gran is supportive and loving but forthright about how Rebecca is going to have “to do some stretching.” In a way, he Gran is the person who provides her the support she needs during this chaotic period. After what could have turned into a disaster, Rebecca learns to speak for herself.

This is definitely a tear jerker. I decided to read it after reading a glowing review of Snyder’s forthcoming book, SWAN: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova . Even though they are totally unrelated, I’m very glad I read it.