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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Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis

Published by Walker Books

Image result for queen of the sea dylan meconis amazon

Image result for queen of the sea dylan meconis

Summary:  Margaret has spent her whole life in an island convent, cut off from the rest of the world except for twice-a-year visits from a ship bringing supplies.  When she is six years old, a boy named William and his mother arrive with one of the shipments. They stay for several years, and the two children become good friends; when William’s mother dies, though, he decides to leave and seek his fortune in the larger world.  Soon he is replaced with a new visitor–the mysterious Eleanor, accompanied by the cruel nun Sister Mary Clemence. As Margaret grows older, she starts to learn the secrets of the island and its inhabitants, including her own shocking story that changes everything. Based on the early years of Queen Elizabeth I (fictionalized as Eleanor), this story ends on a cliffhanger as Eleanor and Margaret prepare to escape the island to an uncertain fate.  393 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  I’ve never predicted that two graphic novels would win the Newbery in a single year, but this and Jerry Craft’s The New Kid are two of the best books I’ve read this year.  There are so many details about the history of the early Elizabethan period and convent life here, all unobtrusively woven into the story so that readers won’t even notice that they’re being educated.  And the characters are all so memorable that I wasn’t as challenged to keep them all straight as I sometimes am with graphic novels. I am praying to Saint Elysia for a sequel.

Cons:  It’s a heavy book and seems like the kind of pages that will quickly begin to part with the binding.

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Spy Runner by Eugene Yelchin

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

Image result for spy runner eugene yelchin

Image result for spy runner eugene yelchin

Summary:  Jake McCauley is a patriotic American at the height of the Cold War, wanting nothing so much as to have his father back with the family.  His dad was MIA in World War II, and all Jake has is a blurry photo of him holding Jake as a baby. When his mother unexpectedly rents out his dad’s old study to a Russian named Mr. Shubin, Jake is sure he’s a spy, and is determined to reveal his true identity using techniques from his favorite comic, Spy Runner.  The kids at school hear there’s a Russian in his house, though, and Jake gets labeled a Communist and is ostracized by his former friends.  A man with gold teeth lurking outside his house at night, a black Buick following him all over town, and Shubin’s odd behavior turn Jake’s life upside down, as he becomes increasingly determined to find his father, unmask Shubin, and prove he is a loyal American once and for all.  352 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Middle grade novel or Cold War film noir?  Eugene Yelchin has carved out a unique niche with this suspenseful story.  The narrator (Jake) seems clueless and unreliable at the beginning, ridiculously suspicious of everyone, but a dozen plot twists later, his paranoia starts to seem well-founded.  Yelchin’s blurry black and white photos of 1950’s suburbia add appropriately bizarre and sinster touches to this fast-paced thriller. A Newbery contender?

Cons:  It’s a pretty intense plot, with Jake almost getting murdered more than once by an potpourri of menacing characters.

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I wrote a book!

Remember the book A Wonderful Year by Nick Bruel?  Me neither.  It was the first book I reviewed on this blog on February 20, 2015, and I don’t think I’ve looked at it since.

Three days later I posted a review for The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, a book I still book talk many times a year and count among my favorite books of all times.

That’s the way it goes with reading.  Some books are just more memorable than others.

So when I realized that I’ve published almost 1,400 reviews, I decided it was time to do some weeding.  In a week or so, I’m going to take down the reviews from 2015 and 2016.  In preparation for this,  I’ve gone through all the books I’ve written about and picked out the ones I feel have stood the test of time.

I’ve compiled them into a book called Hit the Books: The Best of Kids Book A Day, 2015-2018.  There are about 150 books included; each entry has the summary I wrote on my blog and why it was included on the list.  They’re divided into eight sections: picture books, early readers, early chapter books, middle grade fiction, graphic novels, poetry, biography, and nonfiction.

I also put together ten lists of “Read-Alikes” from the books I’ve reviewed on the blog.  So if you have a fan of Diary of A Wimpy Kid or Raina Telgemeier, you can get some ideas for other books they might want to try.

Let me know if you find this book helpful.  Who knows, I may put together a second edition in another year or two!

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How I Became a Spy: A Mystery of WWII London by Deborah Hopkinson

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Bertie has just started volunteering as an air-raid messenger in London.  His first night on the job, he comes across a young woman lying unconscious in the street.  He runs to get help, but when he returns, she’s gone. He also briefly meets an American girl about his age and finds a notebook in the snow.  Eventually, he and the girl, Eleanor, become friends; it turns out the young woman, Violette, used to be Eleanor’s tutor and had given her the notebook for safekeeping.  The two learn about Violette’s work as a spy in France, but her writing turns into code before they can learn why she was back in London. With the help of David, a Jewish friend of Bertie’s whose parents are missing back in Germany, they get to work cracking the code.  Bertie is also harboring a guilty secret about his own family, which gradually is revealed throughout the story. The three kids, inspired by Sherlock Holmes, crack the codes and do their part in helping the cause of the D-Day invasion. Includes lots of information on codes and some back matter that gives further historical information.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  World War II buffs will enjoy this action-packed story about kids who play an important role in the outcome of the war; the codes add a fun hands-on element.

Cons:  I found it hard to believe that Violette would have written about her top-secret life in as great detail as she did, and that the kids were able to break the code.

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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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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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Image result for gittel's journey

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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