A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata

Published by Atheneum

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Summary:  It’s 1946, and Hanako’s family is sailing to Japan.  While interned in American camps, her parents renounced their American citizenship, and the family is moving to her father’s parents’ farm.  Landing in Hiroshima, they are shocked to see the devastation wrought by a single bomb. They then travel to the farm where Hanako’s grandparents labor as tenant farmers, and try to start a new life for themselves.  But hunger and limited opportunity make her parents begin to question their decision to leave America. In the end, they must make an even more difficult choice, but it’s clear that the love of their family will sustain Hanako and her younger brother as they move forward into an uncertain future.  416 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  With five starred reviews and a National Book Award nomination, this book hardly needs a recommendation from me.  The writing is beautiful, and the story presents history in a way not often taught in the United States. The difficult decisions that face Hanako–should she give rice to the scarred Hiroshima survivor and his little sister or keep it for her younger brother?–would make this an excellent springboard for discussion.  I hope to see this with some sort of Newbery recognition. I listened to the audio version of this, and thought it was exceptionally well done.

Cons:  The cover and description of this book didn’t make me super excited to read it, and it may not be one many kids will pick up on their own.

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The Bravest Man in the World: A Story Inspired by Wallace Hartley and the Titanic by Patricia Polacco

Published by Simon and Schuster

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Summary:  When young Jonathan complains about practicing piano, calling it a “sissy” pastime, his grandfather tells him a story of a musician he describes as “the bravest man in the world”.  It turns out that, as a child, his grandfather inadvertently became a stowaway on the Titanic.  There, he had a string of incredible luck, getting mentored by violinist Mr. Hartley and cook Mrs. Weeks.  After a few lessons from Mr. Hartley, the boy got a chance to play for John Jacob Astor, who invited him to study at the Institute of Musical Art.  He’d live with Mrs. Weeks in New York. Alas, everyone’s jubilation was short-lived; that night the ship sank, and the boy barely escaped, with the haunting notes of “Nearer My God to Thee” played by the ship’s orchestra, including Mr. Hartley, serving as the soundtrack to the disaster.  Includes an author’s note about Wallace Hartley and his violin, which survived the sinking. 56 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Titanic history  buffs will appreciate this tale of life on board the luxury ship, as well as an account of the sinking.  As usual, Patricia Polacco tells a story designed to tug at the heartstrings.

Cons:  I confess I’m not a huge Polacco fan, generally find her books verbose and mawkishly sentimental.  Check and check on this one. Also, it seemed pretty unrealistic that the boy’s fortunes could turn around so dramatically in the few days the Titanic was at sea.

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Rachel’s Roses by Ferida Wolff, illustrated by Margeaux Lucas

Published by Holiday House

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Summary:  Rachel is excited about Rosh Hashanah, but not as thrilled to be wearing last year’s skirt.  When her aspiring dressmaker mother offers to add new buttons, Rachel goes to the store to see what she can find.  The cheapest solution is to get one card of buttons for her and her little sister Hannah, but Rachel wants something of her own.  When she finds three beautiful rose buttons, she arranges with the storekeeper to buy them when she’s earned the money–if she can get it before the holiday.  Rachel’s entrepreneurial spirit works well for her until she gets so busy with her errands that she loses Hannah. Finding her sister and discovering a surprise her mother has created help Rachel to understand what’s really important as she gets ready for a new year.  112 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  The close Jewish family and tenement living reminded me of the All-of-a-Kind Family series that I loved as a child.  There’s not a lot of historical fiction available for third graders, and this would make an excellent and accessible introduction to the genre.

Cons:  I was hoping for more information about Rosh Hashanah.  There’s a brief author’s note at the end, but not much detail about the history and traditions of the holiday or how it is celebrated.

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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

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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.

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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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