Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James Ransome

Published by Holiday House

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Summary: Ruth Ellen tells the story of traveling by train from North Carolina to New York City with her parents during the Great Migration.  They’ve left their lives as sharecroppers secretly, without telling the boss. After traveling to Baltimore, Maryland, the “Whites Only” sign is removed, and Ruth Ellen and her family can leave the colored car and explore the rest of the train.  They pass the time by playing cards, eating from a shoebox (they’re not allowed in the dining car until the sign comes down), and reading a book by Frederick Douglass. Finally, they arrive at Penn Station in New York, where the city lights and bright stars seem to offer promise for the future.  Includes an author’s note with additional information on the Overground Railroad. 48 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  This husband-and-wife team has produced a beautiful historical fiction picture book about a time not often written about in children’s literature.

Cons:  There were no dates given for Ruth Ellen’s journey or the Great Migration in general.

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Broken Strings by Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer

Published by Puffin Canada

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Summary:  A few months after 9/11, Shirli’s drama teacher decides to stage a production of Fiddler on the Roof.  Shirli is hoping to land the role of daughter Hodel, but instead is cast as Golde, the mother.  Disappointed, she throws herself into preparations for the show, turning to her grandfather, Zayde, to help her with props and costumes.  In his attic, she finds an old violin and a poster showing him performing with his family. Shirli knows Zayde lost his family during the Holocaust, but he has never shared the details with anyone, and has always seemed to dislike any kind of music.  When she asks him about the violin, he’s angry at first, but over the next several weeks, he slowly reveals the heartbreaking story he’s never told. When a catastrophic accident threatens to shut down the play, Zayde and Shirli are able to save it, and Zayde’s story ends up adding new layers of depth to the production.  Includes an author’s note with additional information about Auschwitz. 288 pages; grades 5-8.  

Pros:  Readers will be fascinated and horrified by this moving story.  Zayde’s story is revealed slowly, and interspersed with lighter chapters about the play and the budding romance between Shirli and her co-star Ben.  

Cons:  Shirli seemed at times a little too good to be true, and Zayde’s contribution to the play felt a little unrealistic.

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The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  “He’s gone.  They’ve killed him,” announces Ileana’s father on page one.  Slowly, we find out that “he” is Ileana’s uncle, a poet who has written protests against the Romanian government.  It’s 1989, and the secret police are everywhere. When Ileana allows an “electrician” into their home, and later discovers a bug in her bedroom, her parents decide she must leave the city for her own safety.  Ileana is a storyteller, and her move to a remote village to live with the grandparents she’s never met, fires up her imagination. As she tells the facts of her stay there–making a new friend, learning how to do farm chores, observing the Securitate slowly close in on the community–she weaves in a story about Brave Ileana, a princess who must find the courage to save her family.  As the villagers begin to hear of the revolution taking place in the city, they must all band together to save themselves–and Ileana is at the very center of their plan. 384 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This debut novel grabs readers from page one and pulls them right into the drab world of Communist Romania–but also shows the beauty and imagination of the country through the stories Ileana hears and tells.  

Cons:  It’s taken me awhile to get to this book.  The cover didn’t appeal to me, nor did the idea of having fairy tales mixed in with historical fiction.  I’m glad I made time for it before the end of the year.

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From a Small Seed: The Story of Eliza Hamilton by Camille Andros, illustrated by Tessa Blackham

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

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Summary:  Eliza is introduced as a strong girl, growing up in a big brick house with loving parents.  She likes to run and climb, but is also compassionate. She often sees an orphan boy and feels sorry for him, sharing her food when she can.  Later, she meets another orphan (Alexander Hamilton, although he’s not identified in the text), marries him, and works to help him found a new nation.  When tragedy strikes, and she and her eight children are left on their own, she remembers the orphan boy and starts the Orphan Asylum Society and the Hamilton Free School.  Throughout the story, trees are used as symbols from the young saplings Eliza sees as a child to the grove of tall trees that overlook her grave. Includes notes from the author and illustrator and three additional sources.  40 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  This is a brief and lovely introduction to the inspiring life of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, a bit more accessible to younger readers than Margaret McNamara’s 2018 book Eliza.  The tree symbolism works well, as do the muted illustrations.  

Cons:  The author’s note reveals that few details are known of Eliza’s life, and that her interactions with the orphan boy at the beginning are fictional, making this book straddle the line between biography and historical fiction.

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Allies by Alan Gratz

Published by Scholastic

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Summary:  16-year-old Dee Carpenter isn’t quite sure what he’s doing landing on Omaha Beach at the start of D-Day.  As the events of the day unfold, he has many narrow escapes and crosses paths with a wide variety of characters from Canada, France, Algeria, Germany, and, of course, the United States.  The reader gradually learns about Dee’s early life and the events that brought him to D-Day–events that could easily have led him to be fighting for the other side. Although Dee is the main character, others get a few chapters so that readers get to know quite a few characters in depth before they all meet up on the evening of June 6.  Includes a 14-page author’s note that gives additional information on many different aspects of D-Day and World War II that are touched upon in the story. 336 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This is sure to be popular with middle school readers, with non-stop action and narrow escapes starting almost immediately.  I liked the inclusion of some strong female characters.  The fact that Dee is 16 and the two main girls are 11 and 13 makes it relatable to kids.

Cons:  I was expecting a story like Refugee in which the three characters were given equal billing.  Instead, this was mostly Dee’s story, with a dizzying number of minor characters. I was interested in the French Resistance mother and daughter, but their story ended on page 72, and they didn’t reappear until the last chapter.

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White Bird by R. J. Palacio

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Julian (from Wonder) wants to interview his grandmother about her childhood in France during World War II.  She tells the story of growing up Jewish in occupied France. One day, Nazi soldiers came to round up all the Jewish children at her school.  She managed to hide, and was rescued by a boy named Julien. Julien was crippled from polio, and Sara and her classmates had always shunned him.  But he takes her to his family’s barn, where she hides for the next year, helped by his whole family. The two become close friends, and just as it looks like a romance is beginning, everything falls apart.  Julien is arrested by the Nazis, and Sara is discovered by the neighbors, whom Julien’s parents believe are German informants. Sara concludes by remembering Julien’s kindness, which she memorialized when naming her son, whose name has been passed to her grandson.  224 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Another engaging Wonder story, this one in graphic novel format, that celebrates kindness.  There are enough deaths and disturbing details about World War II to make this more of a middle school book, but those who loved Wonder will not be disappointed by this latest entry.

Cons:  This book has an odd binding that does not look it will hold up well in a library.  Apparently the “Wonder Story” sticker on the cover is reason enough to charge $24.99 for this title, but as a librarian, I don’t appreciate this combination of high price and fragile binding.

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Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

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Image result for home in the woods eliza wheeler

Summary:  Marvel, age 6, tells the story of her family which consists of her mother and seven siblings ranging in age from 3 months to 14 (she’s number 5).  Dad, she says, “lives with the angels now”, so the family has to find a new home. This turns out to be a one-room shack in the woods, which the family works hard to turn into a cozy home for the eight of them.  Through the seasons, they garden, preserve, chop wood, and trade with their neighbors to feed themselves. Their money covers needs, not wants, so after visiting the general store, the kids set up a play store outside their house.  A year later, spring arrives again, and Marvel sees the shack differently now: “warm and bright and filled up with love…like I feel inside.” The author’s note reveals that the narrative is based on her Aunt Marvel’s life; the family lived there for five years during the Great Depression.  She encourages readers to write down their own family’s histories. 48 pages; ages 4-10.

Pros:  I loved this cozy story about a family working hard and staying optimistic despite pretty bitter hard times (one illustration shows them all, including the mother, sharing the one bed in the house).  Kids will be especially intrigued to learn that this is based on a true story.

Cons:  After making the connection that Eliza Wheeler illustrated Holly Black’s Doll Bones, I couldn’t help noticing that all the family members looked slightly pale and Edward Gorey-esque.

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