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.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

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.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

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.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

My Brigadista Year by Katherine Paterson

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  When 13-year-old Lora announces that she wants to leave school for a year to become part of the volunteer army teaching literacy in Castro’s new Cuba, her parents are completely opposed.  However, her abuela speaks up in her favor, and ultimately Lora is allowed to go.  The young people who go with her are under constant threat from rebels hiding in the mountains who want to see the program fail.  Lora almost decides to quit and go home a few times, but her host family and the new friends around her keep her resolve strong, and eventually all her students are reading.  At the end of the year she returns home, but her life has been changed forever.  An epilogue tells readers what happened to Lora and the people she taught; a lengthy author’s note tells more about the history of Cuba, the brigadistas, and the success of the literacy program.  160 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Readers will be inspired to learn how one person can make a difference–and one who is close to their own age, no less.  It was interesting to read about Castro’s rise to power and his ideals for Cuba from the point of view of Cubans.

Cons:  The story starts off a bit slow, with the pace picking up when Lora is on her way with the brigadistas.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

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.

If you’d like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

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.

If you’d like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

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.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.