Allies by Alan Gratz

Published by Scholastic

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Summary:  16-year-old Dee Carpenter isn’t quite sure what he’s doing landing on Omaha Beach at the start of D-Day.  As the events of the day unfold, he has many narrow escapes and crosses paths with a wide variety of characters from Canada, France, Algeria, Germany, and, of course, the United States.  The reader gradually learns about Dee’s early life and the events that brought him to D-Day–events that could easily have led him to be fighting for the other side. Although Dee is the main character, others get a few chapters so that readers get to know quite a few characters in depth before they all meet up on the evening of June 6.  Includes a 14-page author’s note that gives additional information on many different aspects of D-Day and World War II that are touched upon in the story. 336 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This is sure to be popular with middle school readers, with non-stop action and narrow escapes starting almost immediately.  I liked the inclusion of some strong female characters.  The fact that Dee is 16 and the two main girls are 11 and 13 makes it relatable to kids.

Cons:  I was expecting a story like Refugee in which the three characters were given equal billing.  Instead, this was mostly Dee’s story, with a dizzying number of minor characters. I was interested in the French Resistance mother and daughter, but their story ended on page 72, and they didn’t reappear until the last chapter.

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White Bird by R. J. Palacio

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

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Image result for white bird palacio

Summary:  Julian (from Wonder) wants to interview his grandmother about her childhood in France during World War II.  She tells the story of growing up Jewish in occupied France. One day, Nazi soldiers came to round up all the Jewish children at her school.  She managed to hide, and was rescued by a boy named Julien. Julien was crippled from polio, and Sara and her classmates had always shunned him.  But he takes her to his family’s barn, where she hides for the next year, helped by his whole family. The two become close friends, and just as it looks like a romance is beginning, everything falls apart.  Julien is arrested by the Nazis, and Sara is discovered by the neighbors, whom Julien’s parents believe are German informants. Sara concludes by remembering Julien’s kindness, which she memorialized when naming her son, whose name has been passed to her grandson.  224 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Another engaging Wonder story, this one in graphic novel format, that celebrates kindness.  There are enough deaths and disturbing details about World War II to make this more of a middle school book, but those who loved Wonder will not be disappointed by this latest entry.

Cons:  This book has an odd binding that does not look it will hold up well in a library.  Apparently the “Wonder Story” sticker on the cover is reason enough to charge $24.99 for this title, but as a librarian, I don’t appreciate this combination of high price and fragile binding.

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Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

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Image result for home in the woods eliza wheeler

Summary:  Marvel, age 6, tells the story of her family which consists of her mother and seven siblings ranging in age from 3 months to 14 (she’s number 5).  Dad, she says, “lives with the angels now”, so the family has to find a new home. This turns out to be a one-room shack in the woods, which the family works hard to turn into a cozy home for the eight of them.  Through the seasons, they garden, preserve, chop wood, and trade with their neighbors to feed themselves. Their money covers needs, not wants, so after visiting the general store, the kids set up a play store outside their house.  A year later, spring arrives again, and Marvel sees the shack differently now: “warm and bright and filled up with love…like I feel inside.” The author’s note reveals that the narrative is based on her Aunt Marvel’s life; the family lived there for five years during the Great Depression.  She encourages readers to write down their own family’s histories. 48 pages; ages 4-10.

Pros:  I loved this cozy story about a family working hard and staying optimistic despite pretty bitter hard times (one illustration shows them all, including the mother, sharing the one bed in the house).  Kids will be especially intrigued to learn that this is based on a true story.

Cons:  After making the connection that Eliza Wheeler illustrated Holly Black’s Doll Bones, I couldn’t help noticing that all the family members looked slightly pale and Edward Gorey-esque.

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A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata

Published by Atheneum

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Summary:  It’s 1946, and Hanako’s family is sailing to Japan.  While interned in American camps, her parents renounced their American citizenship, and the family is moving to her father’s parents’ farm.  Landing in Hiroshima, they are shocked to see the devastation wrought by a single bomb. They then travel to the farm where Hanako’s grandparents labor as tenant farmers, and try to start a new life for themselves.  But hunger and limited opportunity make her parents begin to question their decision to leave America. In the end, they must make an even more difficult choice, but it’s clear that the love of their family will sustain Hanako and her younger brother as they move forward into an uncertain future.  416 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  With five starred reviews and a National Book Award nomination, this book hardly needs a recommendation from me.  The writing is beautiful, and the story presents history in a way not often taught in the United States. The difficult decisions that face Hanako–should she give rice to the scarred Hiroshima survivor and his little sister or keep it for her younger brother?–would make this an excellent springboard for discussion.  I hope to see this with some sort of Newbery recognition. I listened to the audio version of this, and thought it was exceptionally well done.

Cons:  The cover and description of this book didn’t make me super excited to read it, and it may not be one many kids will pick up on their own.

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The Bravest Man in the World: A Story Inspired by Wallace Hartley and the Titanic by Patricia Polacco

Published by Simon and Schuster

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Image result for bravest man in the world polacco

Summary:  When young Jonathan complains about practicing piano, calling it a “sissy” pastime, his grandfather tells him a story of a musician he describes as “the bravest man in the world”.  It turns out that, as a child, his grandfather inadvertently became a stowaway on the Titanic.  There, he had a string of incredible luck, getting mentored by violinist Mr. Hartley and cook Mrs. Weeks.  After a few lessons from Mr. Hartley, the boy got a chance to play for John Jacob Astor, who invited him to study at the Institute of Musical Art.  He’d live with Mrs. Weeks in New York. Alas, everyone’s jubilation was short-lived; that night the ship sank, and the boy barely escaped, with the haunting notes of “Nearer My God to Thee” played by the ship’s orchestra, including Mr. Hartley, serving as the soundtrack to the disaster.  Includes an author’s note about Wallace Hartley and his violin, which survived the sinking. 56 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Titanic history  buffs will appreciate this tale of life on board the luxury ship, as well as an account of the sinking.  As usual, Patricia Polacco tells a story designed to tug at the heartstrings.

Cons:  I confess I’m not a huge Polacco fan, generally find her books verbose and mawkishly sentimental.  Check and check on this one. Also, it seemed pretty unrealistic that the boy’s fortunes could turn around so dramatically in the few days the Titanic was at sea.

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Rachel’s Roses by Ferida Wolff, illustrated by Margeaux Lucas

Published by Holiday House

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Summary:  Rachel is excited about Rosh Hashanah, but not as thrilled to be wearing last year’s skirt.  When her aspiring dressmaker mother offers to add new buttons, Rachel goes to the store to see what she can find.  The cheapest solution is to get one card of buttons for her and her little sister Hannah, but Rachel wants something of her own.  When she finds three beautiful rose buttons, she arranges with the storekeeper to buy them when she’s earned the money–if she can get it before the holiday.  Rachel’s entrepreneurial spirit works well for her until she gets so busy with her errands that she loses Hannah. Finding her sister and discovering a surprise her mother has created help Rachel to understand what’s really important as she gets ready for a new year.  112 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  The close Jewish family and tenement living reminded me of the All-of-a-Kind Family series that I loved as a child.  There’s not a lot of historical fiction available for third graders, and this would make an excellent and accessible introduction to the genre.

Cons:  I was hoping for more information about Rosh Hashanah.  There’s a brief author’s note at the end, but not much detail about the history and traditions of the holiday or how it is celebrated.

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Just South of Home by Karen Strong

Published by Simon and Schuster Books

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Summary:  Neither Sarah nor Janie is happy when Janie’s mom leaves her with Sarah’s family while Mom goes off to do a Hollywood screen test.  Janie thinks she’s stuck with a bunch of hicks in Warrenville, Georgia, while Sarah doesn’t appreciate Janie’s condescending attitude.  In a desperate attempt to keep her cousin entertained, Sarah takes her to the old Creek Church, a town landmark with a troubled history of racial violence.  Rumors of “haints” prove to be true when the girls are confronted by a mysterious young boy. With the help of Sarah’s brother Ellis and his friend Jasper, the kids have to figure out who the boy is and try to save him from the evil ghostly forces that are threatening to engulf him.  It turns out that it’s not just the church that’s haunted, and as the four uncover family and town secrets, they learn that the past must be confronted to move ahead into the future. 320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  An engaging family and friendship story with a touch of historical fiction and a good ghostly mystery.  The historical part could spark some interesting discussions.

Cons:  This book didn’t strike me as nearly as scary as I was led to believe from the reviews.  I was hoping to shelve it in the “Scary” section of the library, but I think “Mystery” may be more appropriate.

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