The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Published by Dial Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Picking up right after The War That Saved My Life ended, the story begins in the hospital where Ada is awaiting an operation on her clubfoot.  The surgery is successful; shortly afterward, Ada and her brother Jamie get the news that their abusive mother is dead, killed by a German bomb.  Susan is now the children’s legal guardian, and she moves the family into a cottage on Lord and Lady Thorton’s property.  Before long, Lady Thorton is forced to join them.  Susan needs a job, and Lord Thorton finds her one, tutoring Ruth, a Jewish refugee from Germany who is studying for her entrance exams for Oxford.  At first, everyone is unwelcoming to Ruth, unwilling to trust anyone who is German, but slowly she becomes a part of the makeshift family.  The inevitable tragedies of war teach Ada about courage, trust, and love, as she slowly starts to heal the scars from the years with her mother, and learns to embrace her new family and home.  400 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Here’s that rare sequel that is every bit as good as the first one.  So many memorable characters, all of whom must deal with multiple heartbreaks from the war, but do so with courage and grace.  Carve out some time before opening this up; it’s hard to put down once you start.

Cons:  Although this book is every bit as deserving of Newbery recognition as The War That Saved My Life, I would be surprised if the committee gives another award for the sequel.

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Auma’s Long Run by Eucabeth Odhiambo

Published by Carolrhoda

Summary:  Auma dreams of attending high school on a track scholarship and eventually becoming a doctor.  She’s at the top of her class, the fastest runner on the track team, and her father is earning good money in Nairobi to help his wife and four children back in their small Kenyan village.  One day he returns home unexpectedly, though, and before long, it’s clear he is too sick to work.  Like so many other adults in Auma’s village, her father wastes away and eventually succumbs to a mysterious disease.  Eventually, Auma learns more about AIDS, the disease that takes her mother within a year of her father’s death.  Determined to escape this fate herself, she refuses the marriages her grandmother tries to arrange, and gets a scholarship to one of the best high schools in her province.  After a year at school, though, her younger siblings are malnourished and doing poorly academically.  Auma decides to take time off from her own studies to work in Nairobi.  The story ends with her on the bus to the city.  Although her dreams have been deferred, it’s obvious she is determined not to let go of them completely.  An author’s note tells of her childhood in Kenya and current work with HIV/AIDS orphans in that country.  304 pages; grades 6-8.

Pros:  An inspiring story of Auma’s courage and strength to overcome incredibly daunting obstacles including poverty, disease, and a society that does not value girls and women.  Readers will learn about a world that is very different than most of their experience, and will come to have a better understanding first world problems versus third world ones.

Cons:  Some reviews recommend this starting at grades 4 and 5, but I would be hesitant to put it in my elementary library.  Auma thwarts a would-be rapist, and there are some pretty detailed descriptions of the sexually-transmittable aspect of AIDS.

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Rettie and the Ragamuffin Parade: A Thanksgiving Story by Trinka Hakes Noble, illustrated by David C. Gardner

Published by Sleeping Bear Press

Summary:  Rettie has to be mother and father to her three younger siblings, since their mother is sick with consumption and their father is fighting in World War I.  Life in their tenement building is difficult, all the more so when the influenza epidemic hits.  Their building is quarantined, and Rettie is worried that she won’t be able to get out for the Ragamuffin Parade on Thanksgiving.  This is an annual event for poor immigrant children to collect pennies from their more well-to-do neighbors.  Rettie works hard, helping to keep the apartment building clean and washing rags to earn some extra money.  Finally, the quarantine is lifted in time for Rettie to go to the parade.  Not only that, but the cold weather slows down the influenza epidemic, and the war comes to an end in early November.  Rettie joins the rest of America in celebrating Thanksgiving by using the pennies from the parade to buy her family apples and a pumpkin. Includes an author’s note about the Ragamuffin Parade, which may have been the inspiration for the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.  32 pages; grade 1-4.

Pros:  Part of the “Tales of Young Americans” series, this is a heartwarming story of a young girl persevering under difficult circumstances.  Readers will learn a lot of history from Rettie’s story, and the illustrations show a great deal of historical detail as well.

Cons:  Rettie seems a little too good to be true.

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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.