The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA by Brenda Woods

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

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Summary:  Excited by his new birthday bicycle, Gabriel doesn’t pay attention to a red light until he’s directly in the path of an oncoming car.  Fortunately, Meriwether Hunter sees it and pushes Gabriel to safety, then manages to repair the mangled bike. Gabriel introduces Mr. Hunter to his grateful parents, and his dad offers the man a job at his car repair shop.  Hiring a black man is an unusual move for a white man in 1950’s South Carolina, and Lucas, the other mechanic and reputedly a member of the local KKK, doesn’t like it. Gabriel’s eyes are opened to the reality of his hometown as he watches the dynamics between the two men play out.  Meriwether tells Gabriel a secret: he served in World War II but must hide the fact because of the dangerous racism toward black servicemen. A near-tragic act of violence against Meriwether’s young daughter forges the friendship between the two families, but ultimately drives the Hunter family out of town to move north.  208 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Readers will share Gabriel’s discoveries of some ugly truths that lurk in the town his mother calls “a peaceful, pretty place”.  The treatment of African American veterans after World War II is an aspect of racism that many may not be aware of; the author’s note states that it was one of the driving forces of the civil rights movement.

Cons:  The villain’s demise seemed a little unrealistically convenient.

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Wilma’s Way Home: The Life of Wilma Mankiller by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Linda Kukuk

Published by Disney-Hyperion

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Summary:  Growing up in Oklahoma, as one of eleven children, Wilma Mankiller knew her family was poor.  She was happy, though, spending a lot of time outdoors and with the close-knit Cherokee community.  When she was 10, her family was part of a government program to move Native Americans to the cities, and they relocated to San Francisco.  Wilma hated the city and missed her old home in Oklahoma. As an adult, she returned to her roots, moving back to the Cherokee community with her two daughters.  She worked as a community developer, listening to the people in rural Cherokee communities, and helping them get the resources and services they most needed.  In 1985, Wilma became the first woman elected chief of the Cherokee nation, a position she held for the next ten years.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator, a timeline, a pronunciation guide for the Cherokee words used in the text, and lists of additional resources. 48 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  A beautifully illustrated biography about a leader many kids may not know; the author emphasizes Wilma’s commitment to listening to her constituents to learn what they needed instead of forcing her own ideas on them.

Cons:  No photos.

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The Neighbors by Einat Tsarfati

Published by Harry N. Abrams

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Summary:  A girl gives a tour of the seven-story building, explaining what the door of each apartment looks like and what that says about the people who live there.  The first door has lots of locks on it; it’s home to a family of thieves with a love of ancient Egyptian artifacts. The muddy footprints around the second door indicate that an old man and his pet tiger reside within.  Whether these inhabitants are real or imagined is never clear, but each is portrayed in great detail on a two-page spread. The final apartment, #7, is the girl’s home, and seems to be pretty run-of-the-mill until the last page reveals a surprising secret about her and her family.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Kids will want plenty of time to pore over the fantastic illustrations of each apartment.  It would be fun to tie in some sort of art project where kids could design a door and then show the room that’s hidden behind it.

Cons:  I didn’t quite get the last page–is the girl a superhero like her parents, or are they planning on making her one some day?

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When Sadness Is At Your Door by Eva Eland

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Sadness, portrayed here as a large green blobby creature, can arrive unexpectedly and follow you around.  You might be tempted to try to hide it, but it’s better to give it a name and sit with it. Find activities that you both like to do, like drawing or listening to music.  Take it for a walk and let it know it’s welcome. One morning you may wake up to find that Sadness has gone, and it’s a new day. 32 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  This simple, concrete way of looking at sadness would provide excellent bibliotherapy for kids (or teens or adults) dealing with grief or depression.  The acceptance of sadness and hopeful ending makes it a peaceful, reassuring book.

Cons:  The story may seem a little oversimplified to those dealing with complicated emotions.

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Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary Schmidt

Published by Clarion Books

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Summary:  When the doorbell rings on the first day of school, the last person Carter Jones expects to see is a butler wearing a suit and a bowler hat.  But Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, a “gentleman’s gentleman” has come to look after the Jones family. And it turns out, they need some looking after.  Carter, a sixth grader, is the oldest of four, and as the story unfolds, the reader learns that number used to be five. Carter’s younger brother died not too long ago; their father was deployed overseas and didn’t make it home before Currier died.  Carter can’t forgive his father for that, or for another transgression that the reader slowly learns about. It’s pretty heavy stuff, but Mr. B-F helps Carter deal with it through the game of cricket. He takes Carter and his friend Billy to the middle school field one morning after dressing them in cricket whites, and practically hypnotizes the eighth grade cross-country team into joining them.  Before long, cricket fever has swept the school. A final showdown between Team Britannia and Team India provides a satisfying conclusion to the book and a chance for Carter to see the important role he has to play in his family. 224 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  In the first book of the year that may get some Newbery consideration, Gary Schmidt adroitly weaves a complicated, funny story that’s told by a reluctant narrator who only slowly reveals his past.  There are several layers to the story, and readers may need some help to appreciate them all, but it would make a perfect sixth-grade book club selection or read aloud.

Cons:  There was an awful lot about cricket in the story.

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Trapped in Room 217 by Thomas Kingsley Troupe

Published by Jolly Fish Press

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Summary:  When Jayla and Dion’s father gets a last-minute request to come do some work in Rocky Mountain National Park, the family goes on a week-long trip to Estes Park in Colorado.  They stay in Room 217 of the Stanley Hotel, which they soon learn is allegedly the most haunted room of a hotel rumored to be full of ghosts. On the first night, both kids see the ghost of a maid who seems to be looking for something in their room.  Further investigations and interviews with staff lead them to other ghostly encounters, including a creepy incident where they are trapped in a dark basement. Jayla’s wrong guess about what Room 217’s guest is looking for almost results in disaster, but with the help of some friendly hotel staff, peace is restored.  Includes a note from the author with more information about the Stanley Hotel. 136 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  Goosebumps fans will love this new series, which features real-life haunted places across the U.S. (Stephen King got the idea for The Shining when he stayed in room 217 of the Stanley).  The books are pretty short, with quite a few illustrations, making them a good choice for younger students and reluctant readers.

Cons:  The writing is a bit stiff, and there are some unexplained plot holes.

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Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Amy June Bates

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Gittel and her mother are immigrating to America from Russia, but when Mama gets turned back due to an eye infection, 9-year-old Gittel is on her own.  She has a piece of paper with her cousin Mendel’s address in America to help get her where she is supposed to go. After a long and sometimes lonely journey, Gittel arrives at Ellis Island.  She produces the paper, but after so many weeks of her clutching it, the ink with the address has turned into a big blue blob. While Gittel is waiting for the immigration officers to decide what to do with her, someone takes her picture.  After a night in an Ellis Island dormitory, cousin Mendel shows up. It turns out Gittel’s photo was in a Jewish newspaper, and he recognized her. They go home together, and a few months later Mama is able to join them. Includes an author’s note with information on the two women who inspired Gittel’s story, as well as a glossary and bibliography.  48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Kids will find Gittel’s story engaging and learn something about early 20th-century immigration and Ellis Island.  The happy ending seems a bit unrealistic, but it’s actually based on a true story.

Cons:  It’s a little long for a read-aloud.

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