Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  A man arrives at a lighthouse to take his new job as its keeper.  A cutaway illustration shows him busy, tending the light, painting the walls, and cooking food.  Despite his activity, he’s lonely, and often writes messages that he puts in bottles and tosses into the sea.  After awhile, a tender arrives, bringing supplies and the man’s wife.  They are happy together in the lighthouse, and eventually they’re joined by a third person, their new daughter.  Several years later, electricity comes to the lighthouse, and the family moves away.  A fold-out final page shows a little house on the coast, lights from its windows shining to meet the light coming from their old lighthouse home.  Includes additional information about lighthouses and the people who kept them going.  48 pages; ages 4-10.

Pros:  A lovely blend of fact and fiction, Caldecott winner Sophie Blackall makes life in a lighthouse seem indescribably cozy, while presenting each scene creatively (I especially admired the lighthouse cutaway, the shipwreck, and the circular images of the wife in labor).  Hello, my new favorite picture book of 2018!

Cons:  I suspect real life in a lighthouse was not this idyllic.  This sentence in the author’s note about foghorns particularly caught my attention: “Some lighthouse keepers learned to sleep through the din of the horn; others nearly went mad when the fog lasted for days.”

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Abraham Lincoln, Pro Wrestler by Steve Sheinkin (Time Twisters series)

Published by Roaring Brook Press

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Summary:  When fourth-grader Doc tells his teacher history is boring, he unwittingly changes history so that it really is boring.  Doc and his stepsister Abby discover Abraham Lincoln in an old supply closet at the back of the library, and Abe is ready to make the past as dull as the kids think it is.  Textbooks and documentaries change to show a mundane existence for Lincoln and his contemporaries, while Abe, Doc, and Abby shuttle back and forth through time.  Lincoln ends up in a present-day wrestling ring, while their gym teacher finds himself back in 1860, trying to address the crowds in Illinois who have just elected him President.  It all gets straightened out in the end, but Lincoln warns the kids that now that other historical figures have seen what he’s done, they’ll be up for their own adventures, setting the scene for the series to continue.  160 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  Kids will learn a little history and have fun with this goofy time-travel story.  A large font and lots of illustrations, some with cartoon bubbles, will draw in reluctant readers or those just moving up to chapter books.

Cons:  It’s a fun romp, but I hope Steve Sheinkin gets back to doing what he does best: writing fascinating histories for older kids like Undefeated and Most Dangerous.

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Hunger: A Tale of Courage by Donna Jo Napoli

Published by Simon and Schuster

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Summary:  When the potato crop fails for a second time in the fall of 1846, 12-year-old Lorraine and her family face a potentially deadly winter.  By November, they’re subsisting on cabbage and kale, and fever has hit their neighbors.  A chance meeting with the landlord’s daughter Susanna results in a sort of friendship between the two girls.  Susanna has been raised to believe that the Irish are lazy and complaining; Lorraine tries to convince her that their suffering is real.  Eventually Susanna comes up with a plan that provides Lorraine’s family and neighbors with some much-needed food.  It’s enough to get at least some of them through the winter, but before spring comes, tragedy has hit Lorraine’s family and many others.  Some families decide to take their chances on starting new lives in Scotland or North America, but in the end, Lorraine and her parents choose to stay in the country that they love.  Includes a glossary of Irish words, bibliography, and an extensive timeline of the history of Ireland.  259 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Readers will gain a clearer understanding of the history of Ireland and how prejudice played a large role in the tragedies that unfolded there in the mid nineteenth century.  Lorraine is a plucky narrator whose strength and love for Ireland shines through her difficult story.

Cons:  Much of the story is unrelentingly grim, unavoidable when writing about a period of famine and disease.  It’s hard to determine a recommended age group; a 12-year-old narrator suggests elementary, but the nature of the story may make it more appropriate for middle school and up.

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The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis

Published by Scholastic Press

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Summary:  “Little” Charlie Bobo (at age 12, he’s over six feet tall) believes the Bobo family has terrible luck.  After his sharecropper father dies in a freak accident, Charlie and his mother are at the mercy of Cap’n Buck, the terrifying overseer from the nearby Tanner plantation. When the captain tells Charlie and his mother that they owe him fifty dollars, Charlie has no choice but to join him on a journey to repay their debt.  He tells Charlie he’s in search of thieves who stole thousands of dollars nearly a decade ago; the “thieves” turn out to be fugitive slaves who escaped to Michigan.  When Charlie and the captain reach Detroit, they track down the couple who escaped, but their son, also 12 years old, is at boarding school in Canada.  Leaving the parents in jail, Charlie and Buck travel north, only to find that the attitude toward slave catchers is a bit different in Canada than in the U.S.  Charlie returns to Detroit alone, and discovers that he can’t bring himself to carry out his original mission.  He learns he has a kindness and courage that he’s never recognized before as he helps the family reunite in Buxton, Canada.  256 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Yet another masterpiece of historical fiction from Christopher Paul Curtis.  Charlie is an uneducated narrator who doesn’t always trust his interpretation of events, but has enough heart to begin to question the adults around him and to do the right thing in the end.

Cons:  Kids may need some guidance with the dialect and overt racism of Charlie’s world.

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Strongheart: Wonder Dog of the Silver Screen by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann

Published by Schwartz & Wade

Summary:  Move over Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford; Strongheart is center stage in this novelization about a real-life canine silent film star.  When 1920’s-era director Larry Trimble had the idea to make a movie about a dog, he traveled all the way to Europe in search of the perfect animal.  He discovered Etzel, a ferocious German shepherd police dog, and was able to see past the growling and snapping to an intelligent, loveable pet.  They teamed up with screenwriter Jane Murfin to produce six films, making Strongheart a celebrity.  He never lost his police dog instincts, though, and the end of the book has him standing in his own defense at a trial to determine if he killed a little girl or not.  Several of his youngest fans come to his aid, and not only Strongheart is declared innocent, he helps apprehend the real criminals.  (Don’t worry, there’s no real murder; it was all a money-making scam).  End matter includes the facts about Strongheart and his career, photos, a bibliography, and notes.  256 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Dog lovers will be enchanted with Strongheart, from his early days as a puppy forced to become a vicious police dog to his movie star career, and finally full circle to the father of his own puppies.  Illustrations on almost every page make this a good choice for reluctant readers.

Cons:  I was disappointed to learn that only one of Strongheart’s films, his last one, still survives.

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Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Renee Watson

Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Summary:  During the three years this book covers (1945-1948), Betty Sanders moves out of her abusive mother’s home and is adopted by a prominent Detroit couple who get her involved with community activism.  As junior members of the Housewives’ League, Betty and her friend Suesetta work to convince other African Americans not to patronize white businesses that have racist hiring practices.  The two girls lose a good friend because of their convictions.  Betty is also active in her church, Detroit’s Bethel AME Church, which hosted speakers like Thurgood Marshall and Paul Robeson.  Betty’s early life prepares her for her marriage to Malcolm X and her work as an educator and activist.  Her later years are described in a lengthy back matter section.  256 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Written by Renee Watson and Malcolm’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, this historical fiction book with its first-person narration, short chapters, and interesting cast of characters is an engaging and educational read.

Cons:  Readers not familiar with Malcolm X may not quite grasp the significance of Betty’s life.

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The Breadwinner: A Graphic Novel based on the original book by Deborah Ellis, adapted from the feature film directed by Nora Twomey

Published by Groundwood Books

Summary: Parvana lives in a one-room apartment with her family in Kabul, Afghanistan.  Following the takeover of the city by the Taliban, her history teacher father no longer has a job, and her mother, like all women, must stay hidden as much as possible.  Parvana helps her father as he earns money on the street reading and writing letters for people, but when he is arrested for selling books and sent to jail, she can no longer work.  As her family descends into starvation, Parvana decides to disguise herself as a boy to find jobs and try to get her father out of prison.  Danger and desperation are everywhere, and while Parvana succeeds on some level, it’s clear that many hardships lie ahead for her family beyond the last page.  80 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  A compelling story that celebrates one family’s resiliency in a dark and dangerous world.  I haven’t read the original trilogy by Deborah Ellis or seen the animated film from 2017, but this graphic novel will undoubtedly inspire many readers to seek them out.

Cons:  At 80 pages, the story was a little bare bones, and I’m sure excludes a lot from the original novel.

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