A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata

Published by Atheneum

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Summary:  It’s 1946, and Hanako’s family is sailing to Japan.  While interned in American camps, her parents renounced their American citizenship, and the family is moving to her father’s parents’ farm.  Landing in Hiroshima, they are shocked to see the devastation wrought by a single bomb. They then travel to the farm where Hanako’s grandparents labor as tenant farmers, and try to start a new life for themselves.  But hunger and limited opportunity make her parents begin to question their decision to leave America. In the end, they must make an even more difficult choice, but it’s clear that the love of their family will sustain Hanako and her younger brother as they move forward into an uncertain future.  416 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  With five starred reviews and a National Book Award nomination, this book hardly needs a recommendation from me.  The writing is beautiful, and the story presents history in a way not often taught in the United States. The difficult decisions that face Hanako–should she give rice to the scarred Hiroshima survivor and his little sister or keep it for her younger brother?–would make this an excellent springboard for discussion.  I hope to see this with some sort of Newbery recognition. I listened to the audio version of this, and thought it was exceptionally well done.

Cons:  The cover and description of this book didn’t make me super excited to read it, and it may not be one many kids will pick up on their own.

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The World Ends in April by Stacy McAnulty

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Eleanor gets annoyed when her Grandpa Joe insists on drilling her and her two younger brothers on survivalist techniques to prepare them for impending doom.  But when she runs across a website with a Harvard scientist claiming an asteroid is heading for Earth, she begins to have doomsday predictions of her own. Enlisting the help of her friend Mack, she forms the Nature Club, using the innocuous-sounding name as a cover to hide her real intentions of preparing her classmates for the end of the world as they know it.  Getting ready to survive Armageddon distracts Eleanor from the fact that visually-impaired Mack is seriously considering going to a school for the blind, and before long she finds herself enjoying meetings of her new club. But as the doomsday clock keeps ticking, fewer people believe her predictions, and Eleanor finds herself taking desperate measures to ensure her loved ones are ready.  Includes an author’s note; information about asteroids; and tips for how to build a survival kit. 368 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  What better group to prepare for a dramatic end to the world than a bunch of middle schoolers?  Stacy McAnulty creates a funny, endearing group of misfits who all have their own reasons for wanting the distraction of the world ending to keep them from their everyday worries.  The fast-paced plot and interesting discussion potential would make this a good book club choice.

Cons:  I didn’t warm up to Eleanor as much as I did to Lucy in McAnulty’s The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, and I grew increasingly frustrated with her refusal to believe the mounting evidence that the scientist was a quack.

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Boy-Crazy Stacey (The Baby-Sitters Club series) by Gale Galligan, based on the novel by Ann M. Martin

Published by Graphix

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Summary:  When Stacey and Mary Ann are invited to go to Sea City with the Pike family as mother’s helpers, they can’t for a two-week vacation at the Jersey shore.  But when Stacey develops a massive crush on Scott the lifeguard, Mary Ann gets stuck with all the work. Not surprisingly, Scott breaks Stacey’s heart, and further tween-age drama ensues.  Mary Ann and Stacey eventually patch up their friendship, and the two of them meet a boy babysitter and his cousin, who are closer in age than the lifeguard. A fun double date (complete with first kiss in the Tunnel of Love) leaves Stacey feeling good about her trip. 176 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  Long-time blog readers know that I find the Baby-Sitters Club books as irresistible as the Jersey shore on a hot July day.  The non-graphic version of this book has always been one of my favorites (I’m not too proud to admit it was first published shortly before my 25th birthday…), and I was excited to see it was next up on the Graphix reissues.  It’s a good retelling of the original, with artwork that perfectly captures the Jersey shore.  

Cons:  I thought I was just being nitpicky with my irritation over the way Gale Galligan draws open mouths, but then I saw an Amazon review that mentioned the same thing.  When she doesn’t draw teeth, it looks like a brown blob on the character’s face.

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Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Pérez

Published by Kokila

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Summary:  When wealthy Lane DiSanti is facing a summer of family separation and boredom, she decides to form a club.  She reaches out to three other girls who are strangers to her: Ofelia, whose mother works for Lane’s grandmother; Aster, who is nervous about starting school after years of schooling with her grandfather; and Cat, whose passion for birds has gotten her kicked out of a girls’ club called the Floras.  The girls band together to help Cat in her quest to get rid of the hat made of real bird feathers that the Floras have used for years. The girls begin a campaign of civil disobedience, with each one facing consequences unique to her situation and influenced by her heritage (Cat and Ofelia are Cuban American and Aster is Bahamaian American).  Told in alternating third-person points of view, the story follows the girls through increasingly daring pranks and the end shows that even getting caught and being separated at summer’s end won’t be enough to slow them down. 384 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  In her follow-up to The First Rule of Punk, Celia Pérez has written a story full of girl power and interesting insights about racism and privilege that could possibly be in line for some awards.  The varying perspectives and quirky characters reminded me of Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo and Hello, Universe by Erin Estrada Kelly.

Cons:  Clearly I’m in the minority, but I wasn’t a huge fan of either of the aforementioned books (that is one bitter review I wrote of Raymie Nightingale), and I didn’t love this book as much as I thought I would based on The First Rule of Punk.  I liked and appreciated it, but it took me awhile to get into it, I had some trouble keeping the characters straight, and I felt like the ending could have been more satisfying.

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Stargazing by Jen Wang, color by Lark Pien

Published by First Second

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Summary:  Christine’s not sure how she feels when Moon and her mother move into the cottage on Christine’s family’s property.  Moon is an artist who does her own thing and doesn’t fit in with Christine’s family or their Chinese American community.  But she also opens up new possibilities for Christine, introducing her to K-pop, nail polish, and dancing. Christine eventually gets to see a more vulnerable side of Moon, learning how Moon’s beloved father died when she was six, and how Moon sometimes has visions of celestial beings that she believes will one day take her away.  When Christine gets jealous of Moon’s popularity and plays a mean prank, Moon collapses and the truth about her visions comes out. Christine feels terrible about what she’s done to her friend, but by the end, they have learned to forgive each other. Includes an author’s note telling of her own childhood experiences that inspired this book.  224 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  A beautiful graphic friendship story that will appeal to fans of Raina Telgemeier, Jennifer Holm, and Victoria Jamieson.  Both Moon and Christine are multidimensional characters who will resonate with many middle grade readers.

Cons:  The artwork wasn’t quite as spectacular as Wang’s The Prince and the Dressmaker.

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Wildfire by Rodman Philbrick

Published by The Blue Sky Press

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Summary:  When Sam’s summer camp in Maine is evacuated due to wildfires, Sam misses the bus when he runs back to get his phone.  Trapped in a forest that is rapidly being engulfed by the flames, he goes on the run to survive. The discovery of an old Jeep at an abandoned cabin saves his life, allowing him to outpace the fire, at least temporarily.  Later he meets Delphy, another lost camper a few years older than Sam. As the two of them combine their wits to find a way to safety, the reader gradually learns details about Sam’s late father and his mom’s hospitalization.  It’s a nail-biting race to the finish as Sam and Delphy face one obstacle after another. Includes additional information about wildfires, with tips and resources for surviving. 208 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Another title for those who enjoy the “I Survived” series.  The action is pretty much non-stop from Sam’s ill-fated evacuation in chapter one to the high-speed Jeep race to safety on the final few pages.  The fast pace combined with short chapters make this a great choice for reluctant readers.

Cons:  I found 12-year-old Sam’s ability to teach himself how to drive a Jeep in about two minutes while surrounded by fire a little hard to believe. 

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Rachel’s Roses by Ferida Wolff, illustrated by Margeaux Lucas

Published by Holiday House

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Summary:  Rachel is excited about Rosh Hashanah, but not as thrilled to be wearing last year’s skirt.  When her aspiring dressmaker mother offers to add new buttons, Rachel goes to the store to see what she can find.  The cheapest solution is to get one card of buttons for her and her little sister Hannah, but Rachel wants something of her own.  When she finds three beautiful rose buttons, she arranges with the storekeeper to buy them when she’s earned the money–if she can get it before the holiday.  Rachel’s entrepreneurial spirit works well for her until she gets so busy with her errands that she loses Hannah. Finding her sister and discovering a surprise her mother has created help Rachel to understand what’s really important as she gets ready for a new year.  112 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  The close Jewish family and tenement living reminded me of the All-of-a-Kind Family series that I loved as a child.  There’s not a lot of historical fiction available for third graders, and this would make an excellent and accessible introduction to the genre.

Cons:  I was hoping for more information about Rosh Hashanah.  There’s a brief author’s note at the end, but not much detail about the history and traditions of the holiday or how it is celebrated.

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