The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Published by Greenwillow Books

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Summary:  Boy has lived his life on a French manor that has recently been ravished by pestilence and other misfortune.  As a hunchback, he is frequently the object of bullying and ridicule. When a stranger named Secundus appears and tells Boy he is on a pilgrimage to collect relics of St. Peter, Boy is intrigued.  He thinks if he can get to Rome, he can ask St. Peter to remove the hump on his back and turn him into a regular boy. As the two travel together, meeting up with all kinds of adventure, it becomes clear that Boy is not a regular boy and never will be one.  He has a secret that he slowly begins to share, and by the end of their journey, both Secundus and Boy have been transformed. Boy ends up back home on the manor, but it is clear life will never be the same for him again. 288 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  An intriguing story that may appeal to fans of The Inquisitor’s Tale, which also takes place in France about a century earlier (1242 vs. 1350).  Boy is a kind and gently funny narrator, and Secundus is a fascinating character of mysterious origins who is transformed by traveling with Boy.  Beautiful woodcut illustrations appear at the beginning of each chapter.  A possible Newbery contender.

Cons:  These medieval French tales can be a hard sell for most elementary school crowds, and if I had to choose one to recommend, I would go with The Inquisitor’s Tale.

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Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant

Published by Beach Lane Books

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Summary:  Flora’s fourth grade year gets off to a rough start; her parents have recently separated, her dog died not too long ago, and the kids in her class seem a lot smarter and more confident than they did in third grade.  Flora is quiet and sensitive, and loves spending hours reading at Wing and a Chair Used Books, where her mother works three days a week.  As the year goes on, Flora makes a new friend, Yuri; gets a new cat, Serenity; and discovers her talent for writing.  When spring comes, her family changes once again, this time in an exciting new direction, and Flora is grateful for everything that has happened to her in the previous year.  160 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  A quiet, introspective book about a quiet, introspective girl growing up in 1972 in the small town of Rosewood, Indiana.  The characters are memorable, especially Flora, Yuri, and Miss Meriwether, the book store owner.

Cons:  Readers seeking a lot of humor/action/adventure may be disappointed.

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The Promise written by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe, illustrated by Isabelle Cardinal

Published by Second Story Press

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Summary:  Rachel and Toby have been in Auschwitz since the night their parents were taken away by the Nazis.  Before he left, their father gave Toby three gold coins.  Their mother told them to stay together no matter what.  Toby promised to take care of Rachel and not to spend the coins unless she absolutely had to.  When Rachel falls ill in the concentration camp, Toby realizes the situation is desperate enough to warrant using the coins.  She successfully rescues her sister from the sick ward, defying the Nazi guards and earning herself a beating.  The girls are allowed to stay together, though, and survive their imprisonment until the end of the war.  32 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  A beautiful and moving story about courage, loyalty, and hope during the most difficult circumstances.  The authors are cousins, the daughters of Rachel and Toby.

Cons:  Most reviewers recommend this book for grade 2 and up, but I would be hesitant to share it with kids under the age of 10.  The illustrations are kind of creepy, and the death of several characters at the hands of the Nazis is implied.

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Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Jerome is dead when the story begins, shot by a policeman.  The story then goes back to the morning and unfolds in alternating sections entitled “Dead” and “Alive”.  Jerome’s day, like many before it, includes an encounter with three bullies at his school.  He makes a new friend that day, though, and Carlos defends himself and Jerome with a realistic toy gun.  Later, Carlos lends Jerome the gun; when Jerome is outside playing with it he is shot twice in the back by a policeman.  In death, Jerome encounters another Ghost Boy who turns out to be Emmett Till.  He also finds his way into the police officer’s house, where the man’s daughter, Sarah, turns out to be the only person who can see him.  Together, they slowly learn about Emmett Till and other murdered black boys who appear to them as ghosts.  When Sarah’s father’s case is dismissed, both she and Jerome must deal with their emotions and figure out how to ensure that history doesn’t keep repeating.  A Day of the Dead celebration with both Jerome’s and Carlos’s families marks the beginning of healing for both families and hope that they can find a way to make Jerome’s death lead to a more peaceful world.  Includes an author’s note, discussion questions, and additional resources.  224 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  A powerful story that should lead to a lot of discussion.  Switching between the past and present draws the reader in quickly.  The story itself, as well as the history behind it, are horrible and disturbing, but are presented in ways that are appropriate for upper elementary and middle school students to read (with guidance).

Cons:  The police officer’s family, including Sarah, could have been fleshed out to make a more interesting story.  And it seemed like Sarah and Jerome would have just Googled Emmett Till instead of wondering what his story was and waiting for a librarian to show it to them online.

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The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

Published by Dial Books

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Summary:  Nishal has a relatively happy life in India with her doctor father, twin brother, and grandmother.  Her mother died in childbirth, so when Nishal receives a diary for her twelfth birthday, she uses it to write letters to her mom.  Soon there is plenty to write about; it’s 1947, and India has just won its independence from Great Britain.  The country has been partitioned into two countries: Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India.  Although Nishal’s mother was Muslim, her father is Hindu, and the family lives in the area that has become Pakistan.  They are forced to leave their home with almost nothing, and to undertake a dangerous journey to Jodhpur, India.  Almost dying of thirst along the way, witnessing fighting and killing between the two factions, Nisha draws further into herself, going from being a shy, introverted girl to completely mute.  In their new home, though, she begins to recognize the courage and strength she had to make the journey, and the ending promises a hopeful future for her and her family.  Includes an author’s note with more historical information and a glossary of words used in India and Pakistan that appear in the story.  272 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Excellent historical fiction told by a sympathetic character kids will relate to; I learned quite a bit about 20th-century history of India and Pakistan.  The refugee story is a universal one that is still being lived by millions of people today.

Cons:  The unfamiliar time and place may make this a hard sell to elementary kids.

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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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