Winnie’s Great War by Lindsay Mattick and Josh Greenhut, art by Sophie Blackall

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Expanding on Mattick and Blackall’s 2015 Caldecott-winning Finding Winnie, this book uses a similar format of a mother telling her son about his stuffed bear.  The Bear in question, of course, turns out to be Winnie-the-Pooh, a real bear at the London Zoo discovered by Christopher Robin Milne and immortalized by his father, A. A. Milne.  Before Winnie (full name, Winnipeg) moved to the zoo, she spent a fair amount of time with Lieutenant Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian with the Canadian army, who bought her from a trapper.  The first few chapters tell how Winnie came to be with the trapper (including a Bambi-like scene in which the trapper catches Winnie’s mother and shoots her). Harry and Winnie traveled together as long as they could, but eventually Harry was in the thick of the war in England and had to leave Winnie at the zoo.  There’s an interesting blend of historical fact and fantasy, as Winnie experiences the war through the eyes of a bear cub and is able to talk to various animals she meets. Harry Colebourn was Lindsay Mattick’s great-grandfather, and photos and diary entries on the last several pages fill in some more historical details.  256 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This would make a great read-aloud for almost any elementary grade (although there are a few difficult passages to read about Winnie’s mother and the war).  The Pooh connection and Winnie’s wide-eyed view of the world make it accessible to younger kids, while the parts about war could lead to interesting discussions for older ones.

Cons:  I wish there were more of Sophia Blackall’s illustrations.

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Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood

Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  As the London Blitz begins, 13-year-old Ken Sparks is sent on the SS City of Benares as part of a group of 90 children evacuating to Canada.  He is glad to go, both to get away from the bombing and because he feels unwanted by his stepmother.  The ship is luxurious, and when the crew assures them they’ve passed the danger zone for torpedoes, the kids relax and enjoy themselves.  During the first night of “safety”, there’s an explosion, and all passengers are hurried to the lifeboats. The Benares has been hit by the Germans and is sinking fast.  Ken is assigned to Lifeboat 8, but forgets his coat, and after running back to get it, ends up on Lifeboat 12.  When the sun rises, they are alone at sea: six boys, one of their chaperones (the only woman), a Catholic priest, and a few dozen crewmen.  They drift for many days, enduring hunger, thirst, trench foot, and the unknown of whether they will live or die. There are many examples of heroism, and Ken plays a part in their rescue with his knowledge of different aircraft.  There’s a happy ending for Lifeboat 12, although many others were not so lucky, including all those assigned to Lifeboat 8. Ken gets a huge welcome home, assuring him that he is loved and cherished by his father, stepmother, and 3-year-old sister.  Includes many pages of additional information, resources, and photographs, including a reassuringly healthy one of Ken Sparks in 2015 at age 88. 336 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  This extensively-researched novel in verse will attract all kinds of readers with its edge-of-your-seat suspense and historical detail.  Fans of the I Survived series will enjoy this real-life World War II adventure featuring kids much like themselves.

Cons:  It was not particularly relaxing reading all the details of the many days at sea.  I do hope I never suffer from trench foot.

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Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransom

Published by Holiday House

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Summary:  There’s nothing good about Chicago, as far as Langston is concerned.  It’s 1946, and after the death of his mother, his father has decided to move north, happy to get a job in a paper factory and leave behind his sharecropping days in Alabama.  But Langston is picked on at school for being “country” and misses his mother and old home terribly.  Trying to avoid a bully one day, Langston gets lost and finds himself at the George Cleveland Hall Library.  His experience of libraries is that they’re for white folks only, so he’s surprised to learn that not only are other black people going inside, but that the library celebrates African-American culture. Quite by accident, he finds a book by his namesake, Langston Hughes, and discovers a writer who expresses much of his own longing for home.  Gradually, the younger Langston learns how he got his name and that his mother was connected to poetry and Langston Hughes as well. The library changes everything, and by the end of the story, young Langston and his father are beginning to create a new life for themselves in Chicago. Includes an author’s note with more information about the Chicago Black Renaissance and the Hall Library.  112 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This brief gem would make a perfect introduction to historical fiction.  Each character has been created with sympathy and insight, and the reader will learn about post-World War II Chicago along with Langston.  There’s also enough of Langston Hughes’s poetry included to make this a good jumping-off place for further exploration.

Cons:  A little more back matter about Hughes and the full text of some of the poems quoted in the story would have been a nice addition.

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The Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diane Magras

Published by Kathy Dawson Books

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Summary:  Drest has lived happily with her father, Grimbol (a.k.a. Mad Wolf) and her older brothers all her life.  She knows they are a war band who often go off to fight, yet she has been sheltered from knowing that ferocious and violent side of their lives. When they are all taken captive and carried away in a ship, it’s up to her to rescue them.  She finds a wounded knight from the raiding party, and takes him as her captive to help her find the way to the castle where her family members are prisoners. The journey is full of dangerous adventures, but Drest discovers a courage and tenacity she never knew she had.  She also hears stories of atrocities committed by her father and brothers and has to reconcile those with the loving men she has grown up with. There’s a happy ending, but also enough loose ends for a sequel, The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter, which is due out next March.  288 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Readers will keep turning the pages to read about Drest’s adventures, and in the process, learn more about 13th century Scotland.

Cons:  Don’t be surprised if readers start flinging medieval Scottish insults at each other, e.g., “You crab-headed squid gut” or “You rot-headed prickle fish”.

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The Titanic (Survival Tails, Book 1) by Katrina Charman

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Mutt is heartbroken when his owner, Alice, and her father leave for a journey to America.  He manages to follow them to the dock where they are boarding the Titanic.  With the help of a rat named King Leon, he manages to sneak aboard and begin his search for Alice.  Meanwhile, Clara, the captain’s cat, discovers three kitten stowaways and reluctantly becomes their guardian.  When the ship begins to go down, it’s up to Clara and Mutt to save the kittens, Alice, and maybe themselves. Includes a 5-page author’s note; a timeline of the Titanic’s voyage; additional information about the ship and the animals that were on board; and animal facts.  224 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  The story of the Titanic from the point of view of a cat or a dog?  This will undoubtedly be a big hit with the upper elementary crowd, and they will be eagerly anticipating book 2 which features the sled dogs that traveled with Ernest Shackleton to Antarctica.  Try this out on fans of I Survived and Ranger in Time.

Cons:  I feel as though I have read and watched enough Titanic accounts for this lifetime.

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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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