Refugee by Alan Gratz

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Josef is a Jewish refugee from Germany headed to Cuba in 1939.  Isabel is leaving Cuba for Miami in 1994.  Mahmoud is fleeing Syria and heading for Germany in 2015.  All three of these children face enormous obstacles as they travel with their families across sea and land to try to find new homes where they will have peace and security.  Their stories are told in alternating chapters, with a cliffhanger at the end of each one.  All three stories tie together at the end.  Maps of each of the journeys are shown at the end, and a lengthy author’s note tells about the historical facts behind each tale.  There’s also a “What You Can Do” section, encouraging kids to donate money to UNICEF or Save the Children.  352 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Fans of the I Survived series will find this book irresistible, with the exciting storylines and courageous kids finding their way in an unimaginably frightening world.

Cons:  Occasional language and a graphic concentration camp description may make this better suited for middle school than elementary.

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Published by Dutton Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Osh found Crow as a baby, when the dilapidated skiff she was riding in washed up on his tiny island off the coast of Massachusetts.  At age 12, Crow begins to want to know more about her past.  Rumor has it she came from Penikese, the island that used to house a leper colony, and this causes most of her neighbors to shun her.  One notable exception is Miss Maggie, a neighbor who is like a mother to Crow.  Osh, Miss Maggie, and Crow take a trip to Penikese to try to find clues about her past, and meet up with a nasty man who claims to be in charge of the bird sanctuary there.  This trip and their encounter begin a chain of events that eventually include buried treasure, a violent crime, shipwreck, a long-lost brother, and Crow’s discoveries about her families…both the one that gave her up and the one that has loved her all along.  304 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Lauren Wolk’s follow-up to her Newbery honor Wolf Hollow does not disappoint in the least.  The story is well-paced, with fascinating details about life on the Elizabeth islands in the 1920’s, and well-developed characters.  Readers will take Crow, Osh, and Miss Maggie to heart, and enjoy the secrets that are slowly revealed as the story unfolds.

Cons:  Here it is the end of July, and this is only the second Newbery contender I’ve read this year and the first for fiction (I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Undefeated by Steven Sheinkin).  Anyone else have any thoughts about this?  Leave a comment if you’ve read something else that you think is Newbery-worthy this year.

Flowers for Sarajevo by John McCutcheon, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell

Published by Peachtree Publishers

Summary:  Drasko helps his father sell flowers on the streets of Sarajevo.  But when war comes to their city, his father has to go away to fight.  Drasko is left on his own, and the older merchants push him away from the prime selling locations to a corner of the square.  The only good thing about his location is that he backs up to a concert hall and gets to hear the orchestra play.  One terrible day, at ten o’clock in the morning, a bomb falls on a nearby bakery, killing 22 people who were waiting to buy bread.  The next morning, when the clock strikes ten, a cellist from the orchestra comes out to the street and plays a sad and beautiful melody.  He continues to play every day at ten o’clock for 22 days, one day for each person killed by the bomb.  Slowly, life begins to return to normal in the square again, and Drasko works hard to do his part to make it beautiful once more.  Includes information about the Balkan region and Sarajevo, an author’s note about the events that inspired this story, additional resources, and the words and music to the author’s song, “Streets of Sarajevo”.  The book comes with a CD that includes this song and Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, the song played by Vedron Smailovic, the cellist in the story.  32 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  A sad, moving, and ultimately hopeful story about a part of history kids may not know much about.  The muted illustrations complement the story.  The musical tie-in adds another interesting element to the book.

Cons:  Definitely a picture book for older elementary and middle school students, needing adult support to fully understand the story.

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

Summary:  Ruthie is happily adjusting to life in 1960’s Queens, New York, where her family has settled after escaping Castro’s Cuba.  She’s just been promoted from the “dumb class” and has a new pair of coveted go-go boots when her father surprises the family one night with a new car.  Off they go to visit family friends on Staten Island, but on the way home, tragedy strikes.  A car accident leaves five teenagers dead, a woman paralyzed, and Ruthie with her leg so badly broken that she is put in a body cast and bedridden for nearly a year.  Stuck in the family’s small apartment, having to use a bedpan, and unable to eat much for fear of outgrowing her cast, Ruthie is forced to draw on her own resources.  She discovers reading, writing, and painting, and comes to appreciate the friends and family members who work hard to keep her spirits up.  When she is finally released from the cast, she struggles to overcome her fears of reinjuring herself, and again learns to find the courage to leave her bed, venture outside, and eventually return to school.  She must heal from being broken, but as the title says, she learns to count herself lucky as well.  256 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Based on the author’s childhood experience, this is a story of immigrants struggling to find a home in America and a girl struggling to find her way through an extremely debilitating injury.  Behar writes unflinchingly of her fears and how she was able to keep pushing through them.

Cons:  My claustrophobia started kicking in around month 4 of the body cast experience.

Armstrong & Charlie by Steven B. Frank

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

Summary:  When “Opportunity Busing” comes to Charlie’s neighborhood school in 1970’s southern California, many of his friends’ parents opt for other schools.  But Charlie’s parents, who have experienced some prejudice against their Jewish faith, choose to keep Charlie at Wonderland.  Some 15 miles away, Armstrong’s parents decide to take advantage of the opportunity, and send their reluctant son to sixth grade at Wonderland.  Told in the alternating voices of the two boys, the story shows the two-steps-forward-one-step-backwards progress of school segregation.  Gradually, the two boys go from sworn enemies to a tentative truce to a close friendship.  Charlie, still hurting from the death of his older brother the previous year, eventually shares his pain with Armstrong, who in turn gives Charlie a taste of what his life in the projects is like.  By the end of sixth grade, they are almost like brothers, unsure if they will see each other again as separate junior high schools loom in their futures.  304 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Both funny and poignant, Armstrong & Charlie grabs the reader immediately with two distinct voices switching off every page or two. With lots of 1970’s era details (how could I have forgotten about click-clacks?), kids will get a taste of what school segregation was and how it affected ordinary kids of both races.

Cons:  While many fifth graders would enjoy this book, be aware that there is quite a bit of profanity, plus detailed discussions of French kissing and spying on naked women, before recommending it to them.

The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magic Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illuminated by Hatem Aly

Published by Dutton Children’s Books


Summary:  The first magic child is Jeanne, a French peasant girl who occasionally has “fits” in which she can see the future.  The second is William, a half-African giant of a boy with legendary strength, whose father dropped him off in a monastery when he returned from the Crusades.  The third is Jacob, a Jewish boy whose parents were killed when his village was burned down by some Christian kids/hooligans.  And the dog is Gwenforte, a greyhound who was accidentally killed by Jeanne’s parents when she was a baby, and who has reappeared near her grave a decade later.  Somehow these four find each other and begin a journey through 13th-century France in which they gain the reputation for being either saints or heretics.  They befriend a king, are rescued by an angel, and save the last copies of the Talmud after a massive book burning in the center of Paris.  Their story is pieced together by an unnamed listener, sitting in a tavern and hearing bits and pieces from various travelers.  Along the way, they learn that their friendship is stronger than the hate that divides those around them by class and religion.  A 14-page author’s note (“Where did this story come from?”) tells more about the history of the Middle Ages and some of the characters that appear in the book.  384 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Ironically, the most timely story of the year is one that takes place in 1242.  The prejudices, politics, and poverty are all as sadly familiar to us today as they were almost 800 years ago.  And the last chapter’s call to bear witness to what’s good in life is as inspiring to today’s reader as it was to Jeanne, William, and Jacob.  The “illuminations” on each page add to the Middle Ages feel.  If I were the Newbery committee, this book would get some recognition.

Cons:  The somewhat picaresque nature of this book, as well as the time period it’s set in, may make this hard to sell in a 30-second booktalk.

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

Published by Candlewick 

Summary:  Imagine Noah’s surprise when his parents pick him up from school one day, announcing that they’re leaving that night for a six-months stay in East Berlin where his mother will do research for her master’s thesis.  Not only that, but there are a lot of rules to follow, starting with the fact that Noah and his parents will have different names (Noah becomes Jonah), and Noah’s mom has made up a photo album called the Jonah Book, showing a fictional past for his life so far.  It’s 1989, and everywhere in East Berlin, people are watching and listening.  As Noah’s family settles in, he starts to suspect that his parents are doing more there than helping his mom get her thesis done.  He meets a girl named Claudia, pronounced Cloudia, and he nicknames her Cloud.  She calls him Wallfish after the German word for whale, a reference to his new name, Jonah.  Cloud has learned that her parents have been killed in a car accident while traveling in Hungary, but she is starting to suspect that this may not be true.  As 1989 draws to a close, events unfold very quickly throughout eastern Europe, and Noah, his parents, and Claudia are caught up in history as the Berlin Wall begins to crumble.  400 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  A fascinating story about an amazing time in German history.  The reader sees events unfolding through Noah’s eyes, supplemented with “Secret Files” that give more history and reveal a couple of secrets that help explain what Noah is experiencing.  A possible Newbery contender.

Cons:  Definitely a confusing plot; I was still unsure about Noah’s parents’ lives at the end of the story, as is Noah.  Also, the “Secret Files” seemed like an easy way out to explain the background of what was happening, rather than weaving it into the story.