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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The Promise written by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe, illustrated by Isabelle Cardinal

Published by Second Story Press

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Summary:  Rachel and Toby have been in Auschwitz since the night their parents were taken away by the Nazis.  Before he left, their father gave Toby three gold coins.  Their mother told them to stay together no matter what.  Toby promised to take care of Rachel and not to spend the coins unless she absolutely had to.  When Rachel falls ill in the concentration camp, Toby realizes the situation is desperate enough to warrant using the coins.  She successfully rescues her sister from the sick ward, defying the Nazi guards and earning herself a beating.  The girls are allowed to stay together, though, and survive their imprisonment until the end of the war.  32 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  A beautiful and moving story about courage, loyalty, and hope during the most difficult circumstances.  The authors are cousins, the daughters of Rachel and Toby.

Cons:  Most reviewers recommend this book for grade 2 and up, but I would be hesitant to share it with kids under the age of 10.  The illustrations are kind of creepy, and the death of several characters at the hands of the Nazis is implied.

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Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Jerome is dead when the story begins, shot by a policeman.  The story then goes back to the morning and unfolds in alternating sections entitled “Dead” and “Alive”.  Jerome’s day, like many before it, includes an encounter with three bullies at his school.  He makes a new friend that day, though, and Carlos defends himself and Jerome with a realistic toy gun.  Later, Carlos lends Jerome the gun; when Jerome is outside playing with it he is shot twice in the back by a policeman.  In death, Jerome encounters another Ghost Boy who turns out to be Emmett Till.  He also finds his way into the police officer’s house, where the man’s daughter, Sarah, turns out to be the only person who can see him.  Together, they slowly learn about Emmett Till and other murdered black boys who appear to them as ghosts.  When Sarah’s father’s case is dismissed, both she and Jerome must deal with their emotions and figure out how to ensure that history doesn’t keep repeating.  A Day of the Dead celebration with both Jerome’s and Carlos’s families marks the beginning of healing for both families and hope that they can find a way to make Jerome’s death lead to a more peaceful world.  Includes an author’s note, discussion questions, and additional resources.  224 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  A powerful story that should lead to a lot of discussion.  Switching between the past and present draws the reader in quickly.  The story itself, as well as the history behind it, are horrible and disturbing, but are presented in ways that are appropriate for upper elementary and middle school students to read (with guidance).

Cons:  The police officer’s family, including Sarah, could have been fleshed out to make a more interesting story.  And it seemed like Sarah and Jerome would have just Googled Emmett Till instead of wondering what his story was and waiting for a librarian to show it to them online.

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