The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA by Brenda Woods

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

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Summary:  Excited by his new birthday bicycle, Gabriel doesn’t pay attention to a red light until he’s directly in the path of an oncoming car.  Fortunately, Meriwether Hunter sees it and pushes Gabriel to safety, then manages to repair the mangled bike. Gabriel introduces Mr. Hunter to his grateful parents, and his dad offers the man a job at his car repair shop.  Hiring a black man is an unusual move for a white man in 1950’s South Carolina, and Lucas, the other mechanic and reputedly a member of the local KKK, doesn’t like it. Gabriel’s eyes are opened to the reality of his hometown as he watches the dynamics between the two men play out.  Meriwether tells Gabriel a secret: he served in World War II but must hide the fact because of the dangerous racism toward black servicemen. A near-tragic act of violence against Meriwether’s young daughter forges the friendship between the two families, but ultimately drives the Hunter family out of town to move north.  208 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Readers will share Gabriel’s discoveries of some ugly truths that lurk in the town his mother calls “a peaceful, pretty place”.  The treatment of African American veterans after World War II is an aspect of racism that many may not be aware of; the author’s note states that it was one of the driving forces of the civil rights movement.

Cons:  The villain’s demise seemed a little unrealistically convenient.

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Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Amy June Bates

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Gittel and her mother are immigrating to America from Russia, but when Mama gets turned back due to an eye infection, 9-year-old Gittel is on her own.  She has a piece of paper with her cousin Mendel’s address in America to help get her where she is supposed to go. After a long and sometimes lonely journey, Gittel arrives at Ellis Island.  She produces the paper, but after so many weeks of her clutching it, the ink with the address has turned into a big blue blob. While Gittel is waiting for the immigration officers to decide what to do with her, someone takes her picture.  After a night in an Ellis Island dormitory, cousin Mendel shows up. It turns out Gittel’s photo was in a Jewish newspaper, and he recognized her. They go home together, and a few months later Mama is able to join them. Includes an author’s note with information on the two women who inspired Gittel’s story, as well as a glossary and bibliography.  48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Kids will find Gittel’s story engaging and learn something about early 20th-century immigration and Ellis Island.  The happy ending seems a bit unrealistic, but it’s actually based on a true story.

Cons:  It’s a little long for a read-aloud.

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Meet Miss Fancy by Irene Latham, illustrated by John Holyfield

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons for Young Readers

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Summary:  Frank is excited to hear that Miss Fancy, a former circus elephant, is moving to Avondale Park near his home in Birmingham, Alabama.  Unfortunately, the “No Colored Allowed” sign at the park’s entrance prevents him from going to visit her. He can climb up in a tree and throw peanuts to her, but it’s not the same as getting to stroke her trunk the way the white kids can.  When Frank hears that Miss Fancy has been escaping from the park, he has an idea. He leaves a trail of peanuts from the park entrance to his house, and the next morning, Miss Fancy is at his front door! Using his bag of peanuts, Frank lures the elephant to the zoo, where he is rewarded by the police officer there with a ride on her back.  He triumphantly rides her all the way into the park. Includes an author’s note with additional information and a photo of the real Miss Fancy. 32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A lively, energetic story about a boy who uses determination and ingenuity to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem.  The colorful illustrations add to the fun.

Cons:  Although Frank’s wish comes true at the end of the story, the “No Colored Allowed” sign is still posted at the entrance to the park.

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The Bell Rang by James E. Ransome

Published by Aladdin

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Summary:  On each page, the bell rings, and the narrator’s family gets ready for another day of working in the plantation fields.  Her father gathers wood, her mother cooks, and her older brother Ben offers her a pat on the shoulder, a wave, and one day, a new doll that he’s made.  It turns out to be a farewell gift, because the next day Ben and two other boys are gone. The other two are caught two days later, but Ben never returns.  Did he make it to freedom, or die along the way? The family has no way of knowing, and the last page shows the girl looking at the bell, with a look that suggests she may be thinking of escape as well.  An author’s note tells how so many stories of enslaved people running away focus on the escape and not on the ones left behind. 40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  This simple but haunting story, taking place over the course of a week, gives a different and thought-provoking perspective on slavery.

Cons:  While most reviewers recommend this for ages 4-8, it might be appreciated more by kids in upper elementary grades.

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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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