Ground Zero: A Novel of 9/11 by Alan Gratz

Published by Scholastic

Image result for ground zero gratz

Summary:  Brandon has been suspended from school and is spending the day of September 11, 2001 with his dad, who works at the Windows of the World restaurant in the World Trade Center.  When his father isn’t looking, Brandon sneaks out to buy a toy in the mall.  The World Trade Center is hit by a jet while Brandon is in the elevator, and he must find his way down 89 floors to escape–after trying to go back up to rescue his father.  In alternating chapters, readers spend the day of September 11, 2019 with Reshmina, a girl in Afghanistan who rescues an American soldier and pays a price when the Taliban finds out.  The two protagonists’ stories intersect at the end of the book, and each one gains a new perspective from meeting the other.  336 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Alan Gratz has produced another historical fiction novel filled with compelling characters and heart-pounding action.  In his characteristic style, he ends each chapter with a cliff-hanger, then picks up the narrative of the other character.  In his author’s note he mentions that it has taken him 20 years to feel ready to write about 9/11, and I think he was wise to wait.  The takeaway message questioning the ongoing American presence in Afghanistan might have been quite different a decade ago.

Cons:  I found Brandon’s story much more compelling and suspenseful than Reshmina’s, which had to provide a lot of context about Afghanistan that took away from the action.

Five (okay, six) more favorite chapter books

I struggled to get this list down to five–the random magic number I have chosen for each of these lists. I couldn’t bear to remove any of them, though, so here are the six.

The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman

Published by Viking Books for Young Readers

The Blackbird Girls: Blankman, Anne: 9781984837356: Books

There’s a lot to this book, and it’s probably not for every reader, but those who love historical fiction and strong girl characters will take Valentina and Oksana to heart as they form an unlikely friendship in the aftermath of Chernobyl.

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

The Only Black Girls in Town: Colbert, Brandy: 9780316456388:  Books

Another outstanding friendship story featuring Alberta and Edie who are navigating mean girls, seventh grade, and a mystery that reveals the racism in their town’s history that has persisted to the present day.

96 Miles by J. L. Esplin

Published by Starscape

96 Miles: Esplin, J. L.: 9781250192288: Books

I do not typically use the expression “holy cow” in a book review, but I did indeed do that when reviewing this gripping survival story that I read practically in one sitting.

The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung

Published by Levine Querido

The Boys in the Back Row: Jung, Mike: 9781646140114: Books

This book struck just the right balance between funny middle school story and touching friendship story and made me realize how rare it is to find a middle-grade novel that celebrates boys’ friendships. As the cherry on top, it’s a love letter to marching band geeks like myself.

The Mystwick School of Musicraft by Jessica Khoury

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

The Mystwick School of Musicraft: Khoury, Jessica: 9781328625632:  Books

I always feel a bit guilty that I don’t review more fantasy books; I’ll admit it’s not my favorite genre. Once in awhile, though, I find a great one. I spent a few pleasant weeks this spring listening to Amelia Jones’s adventures at Mystwick on Audible and doing jigsaw puzzles. Despite 2020’s reputation, it has not been without its happy moments.

Brother’s Keeper by Julie Lee

Published by Holiday House

Brother's Keeper: Lee, Julie: 9780823444946: Books

I would not have predicted that a survival story featuring a brother and sister escaping from 1950 North Korea would have made it on to my list of favorite 2020 books, but look, here it is.

The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman

Published by Viking Books for Young Readers

The Blackbird Girls: Blankman, Anne: 9781984837356: Books

Summary:  Valentina and Oksana are enemies at school, partly because Oksana has been taught to hate Jews like Valentina and her family.  When they wake up one April morning, it’s obvious that there’s been an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant where both their fathers work, but the residents of the town of Pripyat are unfazed by it.  In the next few days, though, the full horror begins to be revealed, and a series of unexpected events results in both girls being sent to live with Valentina’s grandmother, whom Valentina has never met.  The story is told in the alternating voices of the two girls, interspersed with a 1941 account of a girl named Rifka fleeing Kiev ahead of the Nazis.  As Oksana and Valentina become good friends and share their secrets, Babulya is recalling the friendship she formed with a girl named Feruza who rescued her back in 1941.  When Valentina and Babulya learn of Oksana’s troubled home life, they hatch a daring plan that tests the girls’ friendship, as well as that of Rifka and Feruza, still close after so many years.  Includes an author’s note with additional historical information, resources for those facing abuse, and a list for additional reading.  356 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This has been on my to-be-read list since March, and I’m so glad that I finally got around to it.  Featuring a cast of brave and resourceful young girls, this story makes the history come alive.  It’s definitely on my top ten list for 2020 middle grade novels, and I hope it will win some awards.

Cons:  Between all the historical events, the three different points of view, and the movement back and forth between 1941 and 1986, it’s a pretty complex story that younger readers might struggle with.

Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It: Pinkney, Andrea Davis,  Pinkney, Brian: 9780316536776: Books

Summary:  The three voices that “tell it” belong to Loretta Little, a sharecropper’s daughter growing up in Mississippi from 1927 to 1930; Loretta’s younger brother Roly, who narrates from 1942 to 1950; and Roly’s daughter, Aggie B., whose years span 1962 to 1968.  Inspired by the oral tradition, their narratives of hardship, poverty, love, and fights for civil rights are told in their own voices, supplemented by poems and illustrations.  Includes an author’s note; an illustrator’s note; additional information on the dramatic form; information on sharecroppers; thumbnail portraits and descriptions of real-life people who appear in the Littles’ stories; and a list of resources for further reading and sharing.  224 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  The Pinkneys have produced another work of art that is sure to get some attention at awards time.  The monologues are designed for reading aloud, and could be performed all together, or as individual pieces.  The poems and illustrations tie all three narratives together beautifully.

Cons:  I would have liked the information on the dramatic form at the beginning of the book.  I read this as one would a regular novel, and found it a bit of a slog.  It’s much more lively when considering it as a performance piece.

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

The Summer We Found the Baby by Amy Hest

Published by Candlewick

The Summer We Found the Baby: Hest, Amy: 9780763660079: Books

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.

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

Letters from Cuba by Ruth Behar

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

Letters from Cuba - Kindle edition by Behar, Ruth. Children Kindle eBooks @

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.

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

All He Knew by Helen Frost

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux All He Knew (9780374312992): Frost, Helen: Books

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.

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

Three Keys by Kelly Yang

Published by Scholastic Press (Released September 15)

Three Keys (A Front Desk Novel): Yang, Kelly: 9781338591385:  Books

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.

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

We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly

Published by Greenwillow Books

We Dream of Space: Kelly, Erin Entrada: 9780062747303: Books

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.

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

Gold Rush Girl by Avi

Published by Candlewick

Gold Rush Girl - Kindle edition by Avi. Children Kindle eBooks ...

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.  

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