Summary: The story begins on August 31 in a Long Island beach town during World War II. Julie Sweet and her younger sister Martha find a baby on the doorstep of the new library. Bruno is on a secret mission to New York City when he sees Julie, a former friend who has stopped speaking to him, and decides to follow her. The action then goes back to the beginning of the summer, and the three main characters tell the story in alternating voices. Bruno has a secret he’s guarding about his older brother Ben who’s away in the army. Julie is worried that her widowed father is about to get married again. Events unfold to bring all the characters back to August 31, when the reader finally learns where the baby came from. A famous woman makes a surprise appearance and helps Julie figure out what to do with the baby. The war isn’t over yet, and Ben’s fate is still uncertain, yet the three kids manage to find their way to a happy ending for the time being. 192 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: This brief story unfolds in short vignettes which prove surprisingly engaging and will draw the reader in quickly. This would make a good first historical fiction book for elementary students, as well as an excellent study of different points of view. The ending is heartwarming yet realistic for the middle of wartime.
Cons: Because this is such a short book, I would consider it a good choice for third or fourth grade. But the multiple perspectives and flashbacks could confuse some young readers who may need some help to understand what’s going on.
Summary: It’s December 1937, and Esther’s family in Poland has just gotten word from Papa that he’s saved enough money to bring one family member to Cuba. 12-year-old Esther manages to convince him that it should be her, not her younger brother, and she sets off on the long journey across the ocean to a tropical island she knows little about. Once there, she learns that her father is trying to make a living as a peddler, but is a terrible salesman. Esther looks for ways to make money, and discovers a talent for dressmaking. As she settles into her new home, she and her father make new friends including wealthy Cubans, a poor black family, and a father and son from China. Meanwhile, they hear of increasing atrocities against Jews in Poland, and work day and night to bring the rest of the family over. Esther tells her story through letters she writes to her younger sister Malka, and by the end of the book, she is able to share the letters with Malka in person. Includes an author’s note telling about her grandmother on whom this story is based and a list of resources. 242 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: I don’t always find the letter writing format particularly engaging, but this book drew me in almost immediately. Excellent historical fiction with compelling characters make this a great choice for a wide range of readers and a book likely to be considered for some awards.
Cons: Papa seemed a bit passive for someone whose family was depending on him for their survival.
Summary: When Henry arrives at Riverview in September of 1939, he is six years old, and has been deaf from an illness since the age of 3. His parents have been advised to institutionalize him, and after he failed the admissions test for the state school for the deaf (he refused to blow out candles when an administrator tried to communicate that instruction to him), he’s been placed at the Riverview Home for the Feebleminded. Unable to communicate or to understand what is happening to him, Henry tries to make friends and survive his days there, witnessing the abuse that other boys suffer for minor infractions. His family tries to visit him once a year, but is not always able to afford the bus fare. After World War II starts, a conscientious objector named Victor is assigned to Riverview, and befriends Henry. Victor reaches out to Henry’s family, and is instrumental in convincing them that their son belongs at home. Henry’s older sister learns about sign language, and after five years at Riverview, Henry is finally able to come home again and begin to learn to read, write, and speak. Includes notes on the poetic forms used in this novel in verse; a lengthy author’s note about the boy in her husband’s family who inspired this story, as well as poems written by another family member about this boy. 272 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Both Henry’s story and Victor’s were fascinating, and the intersection of their lives was a great relief after the first part of the story at Riverview. Helen Frost’s poetry brings the story to life, and the back matter makes it even more poignant.
Cons: I would have been interested in learning more about how Victor became a conscientious objector. It sounded pretty simple from the story, but as a Quaker, I know this is not always an easy process.
Published by Scholastic Press (Released September 15)
Summary: Mia Tang from Front Desk is back, along with her friends and family from the Calavista Motel. Mia’s family is enjoying owning the motel that they purchased at the end of book 1, but still have to work hard and pinch pennies. Meanwhile, Mia’s best friend Lupe is worried about the impending vote on Proposition 187, which will prohibit undocumented kids like her from going to school anymore. And Mia’s former enemy Jason Yao is trying to prove that he’s not like his parents and is worthy of the girls’ friendship. When Lupe’s parents run into trouble with the law and Mia and her friends experience racism at school, Mia must once again use her talents for writing and leadership to try to help her friends. Includes an author’s note on her childhood experiences with Proposition 187, and how current immigration policies closely resemble it. 288 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: I don’t often read sequels, but I am so glad I made an exception for this book, which proved to be every bit as good as the first one. I know from experience that Front Desk is a popular book club choice; Three Keys also has a lot of timely discussion topics presented in a kid-friendly manner. I’ll keep hoping for some Newbery love for Kelly Yang.
Cons: As much as I would enjoy using this in a book club, I think readers would benefit from starting with Front Desk to get the background for book 2.
Summary: Bird, Fitch, and Cash are siblings in the seventh grade (Bird and Fitch are twins, and Cash was held back a year), but their orbits rarely intersect. Bird is a good student, passionate about space exploration, who longs for her family to be closer. Fitch loves hanging out at the arcade playing video games, but struggles with his anger. Cash is feeling like he’s not good at anything after failing seventh grade the first time and getting cut from the basketball team. The story is told over the course of the weeks leading up to the Challenger launch in January, 1986. Each sibling’s story is told in alternating chapters, showing their perspective about this event and the other happenings in school and at home. The Challenger explosion shakes all their worlds, especially Bird’s. She starts to doubt herself and to give up on bringing the family together, and the boys finally begin to notice her contributions to their home. There’s not a definitively happy ending, but the three siblings discover a newfound appreciation for each other and a commitment to provide support for one another. Includes an author’s note and additional resources on the Challenger. 400 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Erin Entrada Kelly may add to her Newbery collection with this beautifully written book about three kids trying to figure out their lives against the backdrop of the Challenger disaster. Their family, which appears okay from the outside, is pretty dysfunctional with selfish parents who fight constantly and don’t seem to be too concerned with the fairly serious problems their kids are dealing with. The short chapters and three different perspectives keep things rolling along and will draw reluctant readers in quickly.
Cons: It was painful to read pretty much any interaction between the two parents.
Summary: Victoria (Tory) lives with her parents and younger brother, Jacob, in Providence, RI, where she chafes under the expectations of her parents and strict Aunt Lavinia. When her father loses his job and proposes going west with Jacob to seek gold, Tory sneaks on board their boat, revealing herself only when it’s too late to turn back. The three of them are dismayed by the primitive living conditions, filth, and lawlessness of San Francisco. Determined to improve their fortunes, Father leaves Jacob and Tory in a temporary tent home and heads out to the gold fields. Tory starts dressing as a boy and finding carpentry work to support her and her brother, while Jacob grows more and more despondent about their situation. One day, Tory gets delayed working; when she returns after midnight, Jacob is gone. She learns that he may have been kidnapped to be used as a cabin boy on a ship heading back east. Hundreds of abandoned ships, called Rotten Row, sit in San Francisco Bay. It’s up to Tory and her new friends Thad and Sam to figure out which ship Jacob is on and rescue him before it’s too late. Includes an author’s note and a map showing where ships from Rotten Row have been discovered in San Francisco. 320 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: You can always count on Avi for exciting, well-researched historical fiction, and this book really brings the California gold rush to life with lots of adventures and a winning heroine/narrator. The end definitely leaves open the possibility of a sequel.
Cons: Fond as I am of Avi’s The True Adventures of Charlotte Doyle, I was expecting more plot twists and edge-of-your-seat suspense than I found here.
Summary: 11-year-old Mary Lambert lives in Chilmark, a community on Martha’s Vineyard, where, in 1805, many of the residents are deaf. Mary and her father are deaf; her mother is hearing, as was her brother George, who died recently in an accident that Mary feels she caused. Their community is somewhat uneasily intertwined with the Wampanoag and black freedmen, and Mary is aware of the racism expressed by some of the people closest to her. Everyone in Mary’s life communicates through a sign language that has evolved on the island making the community distinctive enough to draw the attention of scientists. One of them, Andrew Noble, arrives from Boston to stay with the local minister and study the population in hopes of better understanding the cause of deafness. When Mary accidentally discovers a letter to Andrew asking him for a live specimen, she doesn’t realize that she is soon to become that specimen, kidnapped and taken to Boston for further study. Mary awakens to the fact that most of the deaf population outside of Martha’s Vineyard are treated as less than fully human, and she becomes desperate to find a way to communicate and get help. The story concludes with healing for Mary and her family, and with a vision of a brighter future for the deaf community. Includes six pages of notes about the history of Martha’s Vineyard, deaf education, sign language, and the Wampanoag. 288 pages; grades 4-8.
Pros: This is honestly a masterpiece of historical fiction that tackles so many different topics and doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. Mary’s mother and best friend both have racist beliefs that don’t change by the end of the story, yet also have qualities that Mary loves. This would make an excellent book club selection.
Cons: I found the beginning a little slow going as there was so much to introduce.
Summary: Ellie’s family has moved to a farm on a mountain in Maine after losing almost all their money in the Great Depression. Ellie and her father love the self-sufficiency of the farm, while her mother and older sister Esther hate it. When their father is hit by a falling tree and lapses into a coma, it falls on Ellie to do much of the work he did. Feeling alone, she wanders up the mountain to the home of a legendary “hag”, who turns out to be an ordinary old woman named Cate with a life-threatening leg injury. Ellie learns some occasionally stomach-turning healing techniques (maggots, vinegar poured into the wound) from Cate as she works to save her. Cate’s grandson, Larkin, becomes a good friend, and Ellie is finally able to tell someone her secret: she didn’t cause her father’s accident, as her family thinks, but she’s letting them believe it to protect Esther and her younger brother Samuel. While Ellie’s mother is suspicious of Cate, Ellie finds her friendship with the older woman and her grandson a lifeline, and is certain they can help wake up her father and restore him to health. 368 pages; grades 4-8.
Pros: Lauren Wolk has crafted another beautifully written historical fiction novel featuring a strong girl protagonist with a unique perspective and set of talents. This is sure to be considered for a second Newbery (like Wolf Hollow) or Scott O’Dell award for historical fiction (like Beyond the Blue Sea)
Cons: Usually I am a big Lauren Wolk fan, but this one didn’t grab me as much as her previous two. I found Cate, with her endless store of sage wisdom, a little too good to be true. It’s gotten starred reviews in journals and lots of 5-starred ones on Amazon, though so clearly I’m in the minority.
Summary: 12-year-old Sora lives under the oppressive Communist regime of 1950 North Korea, and the stiflingly low expectations for girls in her traditional Korean family. When war breaks out between North and South Korea, her father wants to escape to the south, while her mother is sure they won’t survive. When it finally becomes clear that their lives are in danger at home, the family leaves, racing the Red army through the cold winter weather. A bombing separates Sora and her 8-year-old brother from their parents and 2-year-old brother, and the two must travel alone, hoping to reunite with the rest of the family at their uncle’s house in Busan on the southern coast. Sickness, hunger, predatory strangers, and other harrowing obstacles make this a page-turning survival story. Includes a lengthy author’s note with additional information and photos on whom Sora is based; a glossary of Korean words; and a timeline of the Korean War. 320 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Anyone laboring under the delusion that historical fiction is dull will be disabused of that notion after reading this book. There is plenty of action and suspense. Sora is a fascinating protagonist: she’s smart and dreams of a future as a teacher or writer, yet still wants her parents’ approval and tries to be a good daughter (which means giving up school to take care of her brothers). There’s also lots of interesting information about the “Forgotten War” woven into the plot and in the back matter.
Cons: Just when you think you’re heading for a happy ending…well, I don’t want to give too much away.
Summary: Trevor has always worshipped his great-grandfather, Jacob, who fought in World War II as a 17-year-old. Trevor’s fascination of WWII has resulted in a room decorated with memorabilia and a passion for war-based video games. When Jacob announces he’s going back to the French village that he helped liberate to commemorate the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, Trevor is thrilled to be invited along. He, his reluctant father Daniel, and Jacob. make a journey that starts at Fort Benning, Georgia, and continues to Normandy, and on into the French countryside. As they get closer to their destination, Jacob becomes more distant and irritable; Daniel monitors threats against Jacob being made on social media; and Trevor notices a girl about his age who seems to be following them. Jacob’s war stories begin to take on a different tone, and by the time he finally reveals what happened in that French village, Trevor has learned some new truths about the horrors of war and what really makes a hero. 240 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Told in third-person narratives that switch between 2020 and 1944, the action really builds, and by the time the reader gets to the French village, it’s hard to put the book down. Gordon Korman and a World War II story make an unbeatable combination for middle-grade readers.
Cons: Through no fault of his own, Gordon Korman has created a story that would never have taken place. You will have to suspend your disbelief and pretend we live in a parallel universe where a 93-year-old man could have traveled to Europe during the spring of 2020.