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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The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

Published by Dial Books

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Summary:  Nishal has a relatively happy life in India with her doctor father, twin brother, and grandmother.  Her mother died in childbirth, so when Nishal receives a diary for her twelfth birthday, she uses it to write letters to her mom.  Soon there is plenty to write about; it’s 1947, and India has just won its independence from Great Britain.  The country has been partitioned into two countries: Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India.  Although Nishal’s mother was Muslim, her father is Hindu, and the family lives in the area that has become Pakistan.  They are forced to leave their home with almost nothing, and to undertake a dangerous journey to Jodhpur, India.  Almost dying of thirst along the way, witnessing fighting and killing between the two factions, Nisha draws further into herself, going from being a shy, introverted girl to completely mute.  In their new home, though, she begins to recognize the courage and strength she had to make the journey, and the ending promises a hopeful future for her and her family.  Includes an author’s note with more historical information and a glossary of words used in India and Pakistan that appear in the story.  272 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Excellent historical fiction told by a sympathetic character kids will relate to; I learned quite a bit about 20th-century history of India and Pakistan.  The refugee story is a universal one that is still being lived by millions of people today.

Cons:  The unfamiliar time and place may make this a hard sell to elementary kids.

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Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  A man arrives at a lighthouse to take his new job as its keeper.  A cutaway illustration shows him busy, tending the light, painting the walls, and cooking food.  Despite his activity, he’s lonely, and often writes messages that he puts in bottles and tosses into the sea.  After awhile, a tender arrives, bringing supplies and the man’s wife.  They are happy together in the lighthouse, and eventually they’re joined by a third person, their new daughter.  Several years later, electricity comes to the lighthouse, and the family moves away.  A fold-out final page shows a little house on the coast, lights from its windows shining to meet the light coming from their old lighthouse home.  Includes additional information about lighthouses and the people who kept them going.  48 pages; ages 4-10.

Pros:  A lovely blend of fact and fiction, Caldecott winner Sophie Blackall makes life in a lighthouse seem indescribably cozy, while presenting each scene creatively (I especially admired the lighthouse cutaway, the shipwreck, and the circular images of the wife in labor).  Hello, my new favorite picture book of 2018!

Cons:  I suspect real life in a lighthouse was not this idyllic.  This sentence in the author’s note about foghorns particularly caught my attention: “Some lighthouse keepers learned to sleep through the din of the horn; others nearly went mad when the fog lasted for days.”

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Abraham Lincoln, Pro Wrestler by Steve Sheinkin (Time Twisters series)

Published by Roaring Brook Press

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Summary:  When fourth-grader Doc tells his teacher history is boring, he unwittingly changes history so that it really is boring.  Doc and his stepsister Abby discover Abraham Lincoln in an old supply closet at the back of the library, and Abe is ready to make the past as dull as the kids think it is.  Textbooks and documentaries change to show a mundane existence for Lincoln and his contemporaries, while Abe, Doc, and Abby shuttle back and forth through time.  Lincoln ends up in a present-day wrestling ring, while their gym teacher finds himself back in 1860, trying to address the crowds in Illinois who have just elected him President.  It all gets straightened out in the end, but Lincoln warns the kids that now that other historical figures have seen what he’s done, they’ll be up for their own adventures, setting the scene for the series to continue.  160 pages; grades 2-4.

Pros:  Kids will learn a little history and have fun with this goofy time-travel story.  A large font and lots of illustrations, some with cartoon bubbles, will draw in reluctant readers or those just moving up to chapter books.

Cons:  It’s a fun romp, but I hope Steve Sheinkin gets back to doing what he does best: writing fascinating histories for older kids like Undefeated and Most Dangerous.

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Hunger: A Tale of Courage by Donna Jo Napoli

Published by Simon and Schuster

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Summary:  When the potato crop fails for a second time in the fall of 1846, 12-year-old Lorraine and her family face a potentially deadly winter.  By November, they’re subsisting on cabbage and kale, and fever has hit their neighbors.  A chance meeting with the landlord’s daughter Susanna results in a sort of friendship between the two girls.  Susanna has been raised to believe that the Irish are lazy and complaining; Lorraine tries to convince her that their suffering is real.  Eventually Susanna comes up with a plan that provides Lorraine’s family and neighbors with some much-needed food.  It’s enough to get at least some of them through the winter, but before spring comes, tragedy has hit Lorraine’s family and many others.  Some families decide to take their chances on starting new lives in Scotland or North America, but in the end, Lorraine and her parents choose to stay in the country that they love.  Includes a glossary of Irish words, bibliography, and an extensive timeline of the history of Ireland.  259 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Readers will gain a clearer understanding of the history of Ireland and how prejudice played a large role in the tragedies that unfolded there in the mid nineteenth century.  Lorraine is a plucky narrator whose strength and love for Ireland shines through her difficult story.

Cons:  Much of the story is unrelentingly grim, unavoidable when writing about a period of famine and disease.  It’s hard to determine a recommended age group; a 12-year-old narrator suggests elementary, but the nature of the story may make it more appropriate for middle school and up.

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The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis

Published by Scholastic Press

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Summary:  “Little” Charlie Bobo (at age 12, he’s over six feet tall) believes the Bobo family has terrible luck.  After his sharecropper father dies in a freak accident, Charlie and his mother are at the mercy of Cap’n Buck, the terrifying overseer from the nearby Tanner plantation. When the captain tells Charlie and his mother that they owe him fifty dollars, Charlie has no choice but to join him on a journey to repay their debt.  He tells Charlie he’s in search of thieves who stole thousands of dollars nearly a decade ago; the “thieves” turn out to be fugitive slaves who escaped to Michigan.  When Charlie and the captain reach Detroit, they track down the couple who escaped, but their son, also 12 years old, is at boarding school in Canada.  Leaving the parents in jail, Charlie and Buck travel north, only to find that the attitude toward slave catchers is a bit different in Canada than in the U.S.  Charlie returns to Detroit alone, and discovers that he can’t bring himself to carry out his original mission.  He learns he has a kindness and courage that he’s never recognized before as he helps the family reunite in Buxton, Canada.  256 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Yet another masterpiece of historical fiction from Christopher Paul Curtis.  Charlie is an uneducated narrator who doesn’t always trust his interpretation of events, but has enough heart to begin to question the adults around him and to do the right thing in the end.

Cons:  Kids may need some guidance with the dialect and overt racism of Charlie’s world.

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