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If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson

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If you come softlyAlmost impossible to believe, but this book is now twenty years old. Published in 1998, If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson has been popping up 0n young adult must read lists year after year. I just reread this book, thinking of those twenty years as I read. Is this book just as powerful as the first read in 1999? A resounding yes! Miah and Ellie’s story is relevant, moving, and powerful. This is the story of two teenagers who are forbidden to be together. In that sense, the story is simple. And yet it is so much more than that because of the depth and clarity that Woodson creates in her exploration of racism in this novel. Miah and Ellie have to navigate the world around them, the world that reacts to their relationship even as they cannot understand the people around them see race before they see the person inside. The language is both quiet and vivid. Miah and Ellie’s story will definitely stay with the reader. Years later, all of this story came back to me as I read, along with all of the emotions I remembered when I read it for the first time. Still powerful. Still heartbreaking. And still relevant.

Martin Rising: Requiem for a King by Andrea Davis Pinkney & Brian Pinkney

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Martin RisingJust published and so very beautiful! (And just in time for honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) Readers will love Martin Rising, Requiem for a King is a must read! Andrea Davis Pinkey has written a moving requiem that details the final months of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. Told through poetry, Pinkney tells the stories of these months through three sections, Daylight, Darkness, and Dawn. The poems are powerful and spiritual, staying true to Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of peace and spirituality in a journey toward a better future for all. Brian Pinkney’s artwork is stunning – colorful, expressive, and full of emotion. The word that comes to mind in reading the requiem together with the artwork is lyrical. This beautiful book deserves a place on every classroom bookshelf and school library, so all children can learn and rejoice in this beautiful rendition of King’s life and work. One finishes the book with a feeling of hope and optimism: it is dawn, and we know that so many people carry forward Martin’s dream and vision. Do not miss the author’s and illustrator’s notes at the end of the book, along with the historical notes, photos, and time line.

Top Ten Middle Grade Books of 2017

Top Ten Middle Grade Books of 2017

 

So many fabulous books in 2017! Working on my list is always a challenge. Only ten books! So without further waiting, here we are:

Beyond the Bright Sea

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk was simply amazing. My hopes for this book were high, considering how much I loved Wolf Hollow last year. Absolutely pleased to report that I was not disappointed in the least! I couldn’t put this down. Crow’s story is compelling and important. Wolk’s book will have you thinking about family, identity, and the bonds that are the most important in our lives. Beautiful.

 

Orphan IslandLaurel Snyder’s book Orphan Island will leave you wanting a sequel. Truly, I did not want this book to end and I wanted to know more about all of the children and of course, what happens when they leave the island. For this is an unusual island of just nine children, who have an idyllic and quiet life on the island, where the days are spent playing, finding food, and taking care of each other. Except for one day each year, the Changing day, when the boat arrives, empty but for one new young child, who arrives at the island just as the oldest child gets into the boat and leaves. What happens if the oldest child doesn’t leave? No one knows. This story is beautifully told and of course, magical and mysterious.

Refugee

I listened to Refugee by Alan Gratz a few months ago. Admittedly, when I started listening I saw the number of hours on Audible and thought this book would take me awhile. But no, it didn’t. Once I started listening, I could not stop because I was captivated by these three stories. The refugees fleeing are from different times and places, but their stories are connected in surprising ways, and by the hope and determination that each story reveals through these memorable characters. Josef in 1939, boards a ship with his family, trying to escape the Nazi regime, while Isabel and her family get into a boat in Havana, Cuba in 1994, and finally, in 2015, Mahmoud and his family flee from Syria, searching for safe refuge in Europe. Readers will connect with these characters and their search for freedom and safety.  I found myself with tears in my eyes, unable to stop listening. This book stays with you after you finish reading. WOW.

 

The Dollmaker of Krakow

Krakow is a magical place in this novel, and also one of heartbreak and sadness during World War II. The Dollmarker of Krakow by R.M. Romero is a breathtaking novel that had me astounded at how Romero blended the magical with the horrors of the Holocaust, creating a story that was compelling and hopeful. The dollmaker of Krakow has magical powers and when the Germans overtake Krakow and began moving Jews out of the city, these magical powers come to take on a new life of possibilities. While the story involves the fantastical, what I found truly compelling about this book was the thread of hope that motivated the characters, in the face of horror, hope continued on and pushed ahead. A beautiful book. Read it. Fall in love with Karolina and all of the characters. And remember the stories of the Holocaust that should never be forgotten.

 

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate is truly a reading experience. Magical and beautiful. This is the story of a red oak tree, the Wishtreeneighborhood “wishtree” that had stood watching the neighborhood for years and years. Red, the tree, is wise beyond her years. While humans are caught up in differences and problems, Red sees the possibilities and the hope of friendship and family. This book will lead readers to think about friendship and inclusion, learning about others and the similarities that connect us rather than differences and division. Wishtree is a beautiful story.

 

The Names they Gave us

Emery Lord’s novel The Names They Gave Us is the story of Lucy Hannson, a teenager whose mom just found out that her cancer returned. This throws Lucy’s world into a spin of changes, and instead of her normal summer camp job at the church camp, her parents send her to a camp for kids who have been through troubled times. While Lucy is hesitant at first, she finds true friends and connections with her fellow counselors and the kids in the camp. She also discovers the difficulties of secrets, and how important family is in our lives.

 

 

I was anxious to read Katherine Paterson’s new novel, My Brigadista Year, and I loved every minute of it. Lora is thirteen years oldMy Brigadista Year and determined to join Castro’s national literacy campaign, where she travels into the impoverished countryside in order to teach families how to read. She believes in her mission with a force that is to be admired. This is an amazing coming of age story and includes details about this little known period of history in Cuba as well as the author’s note.

 

The Stars Beneath our Feet

Legos, stars, and friends. The Stars Beneath our Feet by David Barclay Moore will take you into Lolly’s world, including the pain he and his mother are feeling at the loss of his older brother in a gang shooting. The world of Harlem and the vibrant characters bring this book to life in a way that is gripping and powerful. Lolly’s life includes difficult choices, and also surprising friendships that help him see what is important in life and the family that stays by his side. The story was believable and also surprising, leading the reader on a journey through the streets and the schools of Harlem, the ups and downs of friendship and the challenges of growing up. Definitely a book that will appeal to older readers as well, in the young adult category as well.

 

Three Pennies

Melanie Crowder’s story of young Marin, a girl who desperately wants to know why her mother gave her up for adoption. She moves from foster home to foster home, while carrying three pennies and the tiny book I-Ching with her, all while wondering if she can ever find her mother again. Even when Marin lands in a lovely home with a caring, attentive foster mother, she still wonders about her biological mother and the life that could have been. An interesting and accessible read for young students, who will have a lot to discuss and think about with the big ideas floating around in Marin’s story. Highly recommended for the classroom library!

 

Clayton Byrd

The blues! When I finished Rita Williams-Garcia’s novel Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, I had no doubt that this book was in my top ten list. Clayton Byrd loses his beloved Cool Papa Byrd, a blues musician and adored grandfather. Clayton wants to be a “true bluesman among bluesmen” more than anything. The loss of Cool Papa Byrd sends Clayton on a journey of discovery, with music and interesting characters along the way. Readers will love this story – a slim novel that carries so much in it. And the writing will make your heart happy!

 

 

I loved so many books in 2017, can’t wait to see what is next in the new year! Happy 2018 to readers everywhere!

When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

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When I was the GreatestFirst off, the cover was intriguing: the outline of a gun, knitted in bright stripes. Woah. When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds definitely grabs your attention and holds it, as you meet an array of interesting and complex characters, all in Ali’s neighborhood. The neighborhood also includes drugs and guns, but these things don’t interest Ali or his friends Noodles and Needles. They have their own ambitions and interests, which don’t include the gang lifestyle. Ali’s mother and sister are both remarkable and interesting, with intelligence and a little bit of sass on the side. With Ali’s family and friends, these boys manage to make the right decisions even when things are tough. This is definitely a book about heart and friendship, the kind of friends that have your back and keep you true to yourself, faults and all. I thoroughly enjoyed Ali’s story and I can easily see why young readers will want read his story. As to be expected with Jason Reynolds, a great read overall with characters that stay with you after you set down the book. *Note: I listened to this book on Audible and it kept my attention! The voice!

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

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Ms BixbyOh my this book! What a story – yes, the story of a truly unforgettable teacher and the students who honor this teacher. Ms. Bixby is the teacher you never forget. The one that you don’t want to fail, the one who inspires you and treats you with respect. The one who makes a difference, somehow, in each child’s life. So when Ms. Bixby tells her class that she is ill – and that she won’t be able to finish the school year – the news is devastating. Three students, Topher, Brand, and Steve, begin to tell their unique stories about what Ms. Bixby means to them, and why they devise a plan to give Ms. Bixby the perfect day. Using multiple perspectives gives this story a complexity that helps the reader understand just how special Ms. Bixby truly is. How she was able to teach each child and see what they needed. Topher, Brand, and Steve are all complex characters themselves, and Anderson creates their world and their stories with care, detail, and an authenticity that is to be admired. Their voices are unique and unforgettable. The story unfolds in a way that leaves the reader surprised, intrigued, and truly on the edge of their seat. Oh, and you will laugh out loud when you read their adventures as they relentlessly pursue their mission of the perfect day for the most amazing teacher. Definitely a fun read! Thank you, Ms. Bixby! And thank you Topher, Brand, and Steve!

Three Pennies by Melanie Crowder

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Three PenniesThree Pennies by Melanie Crowder is the story of a young girl in search of her mother. Marin is just 11 years old, but since the age of 4 she has been moved from one foster home to another, carrying three pennies and a pocket sized book I Ching with her at each move. This book of change is her constant companion. Marin longs to find her birth mother, who abandoned her years ago. In each foster home, Marin stays quiet, trying to stay out of the way and wait for an opportunity to find her mother. But with her mother’s parental rights about to be terminated, Marin finds herself in a potential permanent foster home with Lucy Chang, a doctor who would like to be Marin’s mom. Marin could have a family and a true home. This means that Marin’s life could dramatically change – and what about her mother? Marin desperately wants to find her mother and convince her that they could be together again, so she takes off on a journey of clues, a seaside cliff, and paper wishes. All of the character’s stories collide in a way that is surprising and also realistic. Each character has to overcome their own challenges, making this a worthwhile and intriguing read. The story moves along with the point of view of Marin, an owl, and Gilda the social worker. The writing is strong – lyrical and poetic. The emotional journey rings true and each character is complex and well-rounded. Young readers will enjoy Marin’s story and find much to discuss in these pages. Most importantly, Marin will find a place in each reader’s heart. Happy reading!

Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

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Goodbye DaysSo I have to be honest. I loved The Serpent King so much that I cried, and then I reread and cried again. And when Jeff Zenter published a second book, I was a little hesitant. I loved Lydia, Dill and Travis. Part of me just couldn’t wait to read the new book, and part of me was worried that I just couldn’t love it like I loved Lydia, Dill, and Travis. I waited. Then I requested Goodbye Days from the library (yay for some time to read during summer) and decided to be optimistic. And honestly, as soon as I started reading Carver’s story, I was hooked. Really. Truly. Hooked. As in….I stayed up past 1am even though I didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before because I HAD TO FINISH. And this story was absolutely, one hundred percent different from The Serpent King. Yet after finishing it, I found some similar themes and ideas floating around in my head. Friendship. Being okay with yourself, mistakes and all. Grief. Figuring out who you are. Making sense of the world. Nana Betsy (a lovely character) tells Carver, “Funny how people move through this world leaving little pieces of their story with the people they meet, for them to carry. Makes you wonder what’d happen if all those people put their puzzle pieces together.” And so begins the idea behind Goodbye Days. Through this process of spending time with Carver’s friends’ families and sharing stories, we see the grieving process through the power of storytelling. Perhaps what I loved most about this book (and what I think teenagers will appreciate). Stories have power. While Carver’s life will never be the same and he will always live with his actions, it is through stories that his friends remain and he finds strength. “All of this ending and beginning is the only thing that’s infinite” — and in between all of the endings and beginnings are stories.

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

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Orphan IslandSomehow, before even finishing this book, it was already on my potential Newbery list, because WOW. So much depth. Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder will hold you in suspense, you might even find yourself holding your breath while you read. The premise is unusual – a mysterious, beautiful, magical, idyllic island where 9 children live by themselves. Each year, a Changing occurs when a boat appears with a new young child and the oldest (“Elder”) child gets into the boat and leaves. The story opens with a Changing, and Jinny is now the Elder who has charge of the newest arrival, a young girl named Ess. She has one year to teach Ess everything she needs to know on the island, how to swim, read, get food, stay safe – all about survival. But Jinny wonders beyond the approaching Changing when she will climb into the boat and wave good-bye to all that she knows in the world. What awaits her? Does she have to leave? What will happen to her? “Somewhere out there, beyond the boat, was more. Jinny couldn’t see it yet, but it had to be there.” This is a story of survival, where children are in charge and are independent, without the aid of grownups, definitely appealing to kids. But it’s also a story that asks big questions about growing up, letting go, family and siblings, childhood, and that amazing journey toward adulthood. So much to love in this book – the character are complex and fascinating, the writing is captivating, and the magical story will keep you in suspense. I won’t be surprised at all to see this book on the best books of the year come December.

Balderdash! John Newbery & the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books by Michelle Markel

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The Newbery Award isBalderdash something I look forward to each year. And this picture book is definitely a must read for anyone who follows the Newbery Award! Michelle Markel created a wonderful tribute and contribution to children’s literature with BALDERDASH! John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books. John Newbery was an author and publisher of children’s books in the 18th century. Contrary to most authors and publishers at the time, Newbery believed that children’s books should engaging, entertaining, and fun. This picture book biography celebrates Newbery’s contributions to children’s literature – reflected through the boisterous and imaginative illustrations. FUN is at the heart of this book, and what a beautiful reminder of the world of possibilities in children’s literature — books full of games, stories, math and science (John Newbery was a big proponent of science books for kids). Teachers who run Mock Newbery Clubs in their classrooms will appreciate this addition to their unit, helping students learn about John Newbery and the reasons behind this prestigious award. Definitely check out the ALA Newbery Medal Home Page and read about the past awards (you’ll probably have to add some books to your TBR book lists!). I also wrote about the 2017 Honorable Mention Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk in my Top Ten Middle Grade Books of 2016.

 

Words With Wings by Nikki Grimes

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Garvey’s Choice, by Nikki Grimes. Thinking about this book sent me back to reread Grimes’ 2013 book, Words With WWords with Wingsings. If you haven’t read this book, you are in for a treat. It is a slim novel in verse about a young girl, Gabby, who is a daydreamer. Gabby captures the heart of the reader in just a moment, with her desire for peace, quiet, and happiness in her family and her life. Gabby’s spirit is the driving force in this book, asking the question of what will happen to her and can her daydreams turn into writing? Mr. Spicer is Gabby’s teacher, and he recognizes her talent and potential. He reaches out to Gabby and truly changes her life – inspiring teachers and readers everywhere!

Be sure to check out Nikki Grimes website and read more about the book. Keep this book in mind when recommending books to young artists who will appreciate Gabby’s story and the power of art & the imagination. Also a wonderful book for a read aloud in the classroom!

Read! Enjoy!

 

 

“Some words

sit still on the page

holding a story steady.

Those words

never get me into trouble.

But other words have wings

that wake my daydreams.”

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