The School’s On Fire!: A True Story of Bravery, Tragedy, and Determination by Rebecca C. Jones

Published by Chicago Review Press

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Summary:  Written for the 60th anniversary of the tragic 1958 fire at Chicago’s Our Lady of the Angels school that killed 92 students and 3 teachers, this book traces the fire from the first moments it started in a garbage can until it raced up a waxed wooden staircase  and quickly engulfed classrooms on the second floor.  The author interviewed a number of survivors, all of whom were in large classes (up to 60 students) supervised by a single teacher, usually a nun. Often, they had to make a fast choice whether to stay in a smoke-filled classroom, hoping help arrived in time, or jump out of a second story window.  Almost everyone lost siblings, cousins, or friends, yet the students were discouraged from talking about their grief for many years afterward.  The fire gained national attention and led to many changes in how schools dealt with fire safety.  Includes a section on what to do in case of fire, as well as a list of additional resources. 176 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This is a compelling, if horrifying, story that grabs readers right away and holds their attention as the narrative moves quickly, along with the fire, from one classroom to the next.  Includes plenty of photos.

Cons:  The cover picture is kind of odd, particularly the weirdly creepy nun in the foreground, and doesn’t really convey the full extend of the tragedy.

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Peace and Me: Inspired by the Lives of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates by Ali Winter, illustrated by Mickael El Fathi

Published by Lantana Publishing

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Summary:  Twelve Nobel Peace Prize winners are profiled, along with the man who started it all, Alfred Nobel.  Winners are presented in chronological order, beginning with Jean Henry Dunant in 1901 and finishing with Malala Yousafzai in 2014.  Some will likely be familiar to kids (Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela), while others are less well known (Fridtjof Nansen, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Shirin Ebadi).  The first two pages show an interesting timeline, with each person’s name and year shown on a sailboat on the Pacific Ocean.  The last two have a world map showing the country of origin for each recipient.  32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  An interesting and important collection of people for kids to know about.  The collage-style illustrations are fascinating, with lots of details to notice.  Kids will enjoy finding the girl on the cover who appears in every one.

Cons:  Only 12 of the many interesting recipients are profiled.

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Ski Soldier: A World War II Biography by Louise Borden

Published by Calkins Creek

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Summary:  Growing up in Sharon, Massachusetts, Pete Siebert taught himself to ski on an old pair of wooden skis he found in his parents’ barn.  As he got older, his parents took him and his sister to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where he became a proficient racer and vowed to one day open his own ski resort.  After graduating high school, he enlisted in the army, the 10th Mountain Division of soldiers on skis. After training in the Colorado Rockies, the division was shipped overseas to Italy, where they took part in a daring nighttime attack on Germans in the Apennines Mountains.  Pete was wounded so severely doctors weren’t sure he would walk again, but he was determined to ski. He persevered and recovered enough to make the 1950 U.S. men’s ski team. And in 1962, his boyhood dream came true when he opened the Vail Ski Resort in Colorado. Includes additional information about Pete Seibert and the 10th Mountain Division, as well as a list of sources.  176 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Told in verse, with plenty of photos, this story will appeal to skiers and World War II buffs.  It’s a quick read, but the story is engaging, and readers will learn a lot about Pete and an unusual chapter in military history.

Cons:  The cover makes the book look kind of old.

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Have You Heard About Lady Bird? Poems About Our First Ladies by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

Published by Disney-Hyperion

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Summary:  As she did for the Presidents in Rutherford B., Who Was He?, Marilyn Singer has written a poem for every First Lady from Martha Washington (“‘Lady Presidentess,’ dear wife of our first leader,/did not bemoan, she set the tone,/for all who would succeed her”) to Melania Trump (“She learned languages, changed her name,/married into fortune, embraced new fame”).  Each is accompanied by a picture of the First Lady in some scene from her term. Includes a page on “Being the First Lady”, several pages of thumbnail portraits and brief profiles of each woman, and a list of sources for additional information. 56 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  These easily accessible poems are a fun way to introduce kids to the wide variety of women who have served as First Lady, and the way the job has changed over time.

Cons:  Some of the poems about the less well-known First Ladies may be a little confusing to kids without any background knowledge.

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What Do You Do With A Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan by Chris Barton, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

Published by Beach Lane Books

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Summary:  From an early age, Barbara Jordan had a powerful voice.  As she grew up, she had to figure out how she would use it: as a teacher?  A preacher? Finally, she decided to become a lawyer. But the work bored her.  She moved into politics, instead–or at least she tried to. It took three attempts, but she finally won a seat in the Texas Senate.  From there, her voice took her to the U.S. Congress. She used that voice to speak out against Nixon in 1974. Barbara’s star was rising, but, unknown to the public, she suffered from multiple sclerosis.  She retired from Congress in 1979 and moved back home, where she taught at the University of Texas. Jordan died in 1996, but her legacy lives on through her former students. Includes an author’s note, timeline, and additional sources.  48 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  One huge benefit of doing this blog has been learning about so many inspiring people whom I have heard of but didn’t really know much about.  Here is a perfect example, and it is beautifully and imaginatively illustrated by Caldecott honoree Ekua Holmes.

Cons:  Too bad Barbara Jordan isn’t still around to lend her inspiring voice to the current political discourse.

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Rice from Heaven: The Secret Mission to Feed North Koreans by Tina Cho, illustrated by Keum Jin Song

Published by little bee books

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Summary:  A girl and her father work with a group from their church to send rice from their home in South Korea to hungry people in North Korea.  The girl’s father grew up in North Korea before escaping to the south, and has told her what it was like growing up without enough to eat. Their group fills and ties bags of rice to balloons that they will launch over the border.  As they work, some of the villagers try to stop them, telling them that they’re helping the enemy. But the girl defends them, saying that the children of North Korea are so hungry they eat grass and bark from trees; her words seem to cause a change of heart in at least one of the boys.  At the end, they launch their balloons into the night sky. The group won’t ever know if their food reaches its destination, but the girl envisions children waking up in the morning to find rice from heaven. Includes information about this event, which the author took part in, additional facts about the history of Korea and its division into two countries, and a list for additional reading.  40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  Kids will be fascinated by this unusual story, and will learn a lot about both North and South Korea, particularly if they read all the back matter.  The luminous illustrations are realistic but have a slightly surreal, dreamy quality to them.

Cons:  Some parts of the girl’s storytelling come across as a bit stilted.

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The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John Hendrix

Published by Harry N. Abrams

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Summary:  Growing up in Germany in a family of scientists, Dietrich Bonhoeffer went his own way, showing a keen interest in theology at a young age.  At age 12, he lost his older brother in World War I and began a lifelong quest to understand human suffering in the light of his Christian faith.  When Hitler came to power in Germany, Bonhoeffer found himself with increasingly difficult choices to make. He founded the illegal Confessing Church to support those who opposed Hitler’s takeover of the German churches.  When that was shut down, he decided the moral choice was to join forces with those who sought to assassinate Hitler, and was part of two unsuccessful attempts before being arrested. He spent a year and a half in prison, ministering to other prisoners and guards and refusing a chance at escape because of the danger it would bring to his family.  Finally, Bonhoeffer was found guilty of trying to kill Hitler, and was executed on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before Hitler committed suicide.  Includes an author’s note, bibliography, notes, and an index. 176 pages; grades 6-12.

Pros:  I’ve read a lot of good reviews of this book, and I was not disappointed.  It’s kind of like a graphic novel, with the text well-incorporated into the black, turquoise, and red illustrations.  The rise of Hitler is chilling, and the lessons to be learned from the complacency of those in power in Germany can’t be overstated.  Hendrix clearly wants readers to think about how those lessons can be applied to today’s political situations. Bonhoeffer’s faith and humanity in the face of an increasingly inhumane world is inspiring to say the least.  Both the Newbery and Caldecott committees should give this book consideration.

Cons:  Some of the print was so small I had to take my glasses off to read it.  (If you’re over 45, you’ll understand what I’m talking about).

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