The View from the Very Best Place in Town by Meera Trehan

The View from the Very Best House in Town

Meera Trehan, Author

Walker Books US, Fiction, Feb. 8, 2022

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes:  Autisim spectrum, Diversity, Friendship, Mansion, Classism, Mystery, 

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Part thriller, part friendship story, part real estate listing, this witty and inventive debut explores the nature of friendship and home.

Sam and Asha. Asha and Sam. Their friendship is so long established, they take it for granted. Just as Asha takes for granted that Donnybrooke, the mansion that sits on the highest hill in Coreville, is the best house in town.

But when Sam is accepted into snobbish Castleton Academy as an autistic “Miracle Boy,” he leaves Asha, who is also autistic, to navigate middle school alone. He also leaves her wondering if she can take anything for granted anymore. Because soon Sam is spending time with Prestyn, Asha’s nemesis, whose family owns Donnybrooke and, since a housewarming party gone wrong, has forbidden Asha to set foot inside.

Who is Asha without Sam? And who will she be when it becomes clear that Prestyn’s interest in her friend isn’t so friendly?

Told from the points of view of Asha, Sam, and Donnybrooke itself, this suspenseful and highly original debut explores issues of ableism and classism as it delves into the mysteries of what makes a person a friend and a house a home.

Why I like The View from the Very Best House in Town:

Meera Trehan has penned a compelling and suspenseful story that involves vivid characters a a fast-paced plot. It is told from three different viewpoints — Asha, Sam and Donnebrooke, (the mansion) — that provide valuable insight into the story. Trehan’s storytelling is captivating and her beautiful writing will draw readers into the story.

Asha and Sam are memorable characters and have been best friends since they were young. They are on the autism spectrum, each with their own gifts. Asha is of East Indian heritage. She loves architecture and is enthralled with the quirky features of Doneybrooke, the mansion that overlooks the town. Sam is obsessed with killing monsters in his favorite Househaunt game. They compliment one another, making his attendance at Castleton Academy hard for the twosome. Prestyn lives at Donneybrooke and attends Castleton, where she befriends Sam for the wrong reasons — to hurt Asha. Prestyn is mean and scary. She manipulates Sam with dangerous psychological games, making this story a real thriller.

Donneybrooke views itself in a class of it’s own — a mansion like no other. It is boastful and filled with pride, but over time it softens and only wants to be a home that is loved and cared for by it’s owners. Donneybrook likes Asha best because she appreciates its unique beauty. There is a lot of growth in the characters, as each forges a path forward, including Donneybrooke. The book would be a great read aloud at home or school. There are many themes to think about and discuss.

Meera Trehan grew up in Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. After attending the University of Virginia and Stanford Law School, she practiced law for over a decade before turning to creative writing. She lives in Maryland with her family. The View from the Very Best House in Town is her debut novel.

Meera Trehan grew up in Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. After attending the University of Virginia and Stanford Law School., she practiced law for over a decade before turning to creative writing. She lives in Maryland with her family.  The View form the Very Best House in Town is her debut novel.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by Walker Books in exchange for a review. 

Book Buddies: Marco Polo Brave Explorer by Cynthia Lord

Book Buddie: Marco Polo Brave Explorer

Cynthia Lord, Author

Stephanie Graegin, Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Mar. 29, 2022

Suitable for ages; 6-9

Themes: Library, Borrowing books, Repurposing toys, Friendship, Bravery

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Marco Polo is a small felt mouse who used to be a Christmas ornament on Anne the Librarian’s tree. But now he’s one of the Book Buddies, toys that can be checked out just like books. Marco  Polo may be small, but he’s also a brave explorer looking for adventure — if only someone would check him out of the library.

Seth is a boy who visits the library with his dad and younger brother. He wishes he could be a little more brave especially when he goes on his first sleepover. But maybe a small explorer like Marco Polo is just the kid of friend he needs.

From Newbery Honor winner Cynthia Lord and celebrated artist Stephanie Graegin, here is the second title in a heartwarming series about a group of friendly toys at the library and the children who borrow them.

Why I like this Marco Polo Brave Explorer:

Children will be captivated by Cynthia Lord’s heartwarming Book Buddies chapter book series.  Marco Polo Brave Explorer is the second book, preceded by Ivy Lost and Found. It is the first series I’ve seen that pairs friendly toys with children who may need them to work through a difficult time. I love the idea that the toys are repurposed and given a chance to be loved again by more children. Such a great idea to check out a toy along with a book from a library.

The story is narrated in third person. Seth has been invited to Ben’s birthday party and sleepover and he’s not feeling very brave. What if he hears funny noises or wants to go home?  He doesn’t dare take his worn rabbit. Ben may think he’s silly or childish. Seth goes to the library to pick out a book and listen to the story time. The children are invited to find a book buddy and Seth spots tiny Marco Polo,  Anne the Librarian thinks Marco Polo is perfect for Seth and says that “brave explorers have big adventures.” And Marco Polo does have a big adventure when the Ben’s cat takes him off Seth’s pillow. He’ll have a big story to tell!  

The short chapters will engage children, as will Graegin’s lovely pen and ink illustrations on nearly every page. I look forward to more Book Buddy adventures with new borrowers. 

Cynthia Lord is the author of award-winning middle grade fiction titles such as the Newbery Honor Book Rules, and most recently Because of the Rabbit. She is also the author of Shelter Pet Squad chapter book series and the Book Buddies series. She lives in Maine.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by Candlewick in exchange for a review.

 

Pighearted by Alex Perry

Pighearted

Alex Perry, Author

Little Brown Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Oct. 26, 2021

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Pages: 304

Themes: Animals, Chronic illness, Family life, Pig, Science, Ethics, Humor, Friendship

Synopsis:

Jeremiah’s heart skips a beat before his first soccer game, but it’s not nerves. It’s the first sign of a heart attack. He knows he needs to go to the hospital, but he’s determined to score a goal and not let his heart condition get in the way.  Charging after the ball, he refuses to stop…even if his heart does.

J6 is a pig and the only one of his five brothers who survived the research lab. Even though he’s never left Room 23, where he has a bed, good food and a TV, he thinks of himself as a therapy pig, a scholar, and a bodyguard. But when the lab sends him to live with Jeremiah’s family, there are two other new titles he’s desperate to have: brother and family.

At first, Jeremiah thinks his parents took in J6 to cheer him up. But before long, he begins to suspect there’s more to his new curly-tailed companion than meets the eye. When the truth is revealed, Jeremiah and J6 must protect each other at all costs—even if their lives depend on it.

Why I like Pighearted:

Alex Perry’s novel is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, but it is the most original and entertaining story I’ve read in a while. It is a story about a boy with a fatal heart condition and a pig with a heart that could save his life. It is also a contemporary story that tackles difficult topics and pushes the boundaries of science and medical ethics, making it an excellent classroom discussion book. 

The story is narrated in the alternating views of the boy, Jerimiah, and the pig, J6. Jeremiah is a relatable character, especially children with chronic illnesses. Even though he has a fatal heart condition, he is a bright and compassionate boy who wants to be a normal kid. After the heart attack, a device is implanted inside his chest to help his heart pump. There are strict rules he has to follow to protect the device.  

J6’s pigs-eye view of the world is hilarious, since much of what he’s learned is by watching TV. (For me, J6 steals the show.) He may have a human heart, but he also may have a human brain. He is mischievous, cheeky, smart and opinionated. He has a lot to say, but the only sound that escapes him is: OINK. He will leave readers chuckling throughout the story with his pig-hearted narrative. It is Jeremiah’s little sister who teaches J6 to read and communicate with letter cards. He loves Jeremiah and they swiftly develop a brotherly bond. When J6 realizes that his mission in life is to give his heart, he worries about becoming “pulled pork on a bun served with French fries.” 

There is never a dull moment in this fast-paced, action-packed story. There are hospital trips, escape plans, searches for a refuge for J6, festival antics, hurricanes and floods. And there is a large cast of memorable characters who all play a significant support role in the story — especially his sisters, Jazmine and Justus, and friends, Adnan and Paloma. 

Pighearted is a hopeful story, with heart at its very center. The unselfish bond between Jeremiah and J6 is unbreakable. It involves a sacrifice each is willing to make for the other. But, I won’t say anymore. The ending is a whirlwind that I did not anticipate. Sorry, no more spoilers. This is a fun and engaging middle grade book, suitable for all ages!

Alex Perry used to teach middle schoolers in Houston, but now she writes books for kids everywhere. When she was six, she babysat a potbellied piglet, and she’s been obsessed with his cuteness ever since. She just had to get the messy little guy into a book, and now she has. She lives in Arkansas with a messy little human baby, her husband, and two huge dogs. Pighearted is her debut novel. She invites you to visit her website, or follow her on Twitter @Alextheadequate.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Copy reviewed from a library book.

Love You by Heart by Peter H. Reynolds

Love You by Heart 

Peter H. Reynolds, Author and Illustrator

Orchard Books, Fiction, Jan. 4, 2022

Suitable for ages: 3-5

Themes: Unconditional love, Children, Family, Friendship 

Opening: “I loved you by heart / even before I met you. / I loved you always. / I’ve always loved you.”

Publisher’s Synopsis:

I love every smile, every blink,

I love you by heart.

I love your toes, your head, your nose,

I love you by heart.

Celebrated, bestselling creator Peter H. Reynolds brings to life this ode to unconditional love with a delightful and poetic tribute to the rare and beautiful love that binds us together. From the intimate and unbridled love parents and caregivers have for their little ones, to the tremendous love of a lifelong friendship, and the boundless love of a grandparent — this is a heartfelt message to share with the people we cherish; like a song we have known all our lives, we love them by heart.

Peter H. Reynold’s whimsical and charming art conveys this deep expression of love with humor, tenderness, and heart. Love You by Heart is the perfect gift for Valentine’s Day and any day of the year and will become a bookshelf staple. Just right for new and expectant parents, baby showers, birthdays, graduations, and anytime you want to share a most heartfelt message of L-O-V-E!

Why I like Love You by Heart

Reynolds’s sweet book embraces the unconditional love of people we cherish in our lives. It celebrates the love new parents have for their little ones. “I love your good days…your blue days…your funny days…your grumpy days. Unconditional love is just that — a gift of the heart with no expectations.

Written in verse using simple phrases, the book is a perfect read aloud for young children before bedtime and will reassure them how much they are loved. Such a sweet way to put your child to bed. Reynolds’s beautiful and simple illustrations of hearts are ideal for very young children to grasp, without overwhelming them. This is a perfect gift book, which I sent to my two-year-old great granddaughter just before Valentines Day.

Peter H. Reynolds is the author and illustrator of many books for children, parents, and educators alike, including The Dot, Ish, the New York Times bestseller The Word Collector, The Peace Train and Our Table. He lives in Dedham, Massachusetts, where he owns a bookshop, the Blue Bunny. Learn more about Reynolds at his website.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.
 
*Reviewed from a purchased copy.

 

 

 

 

Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen by Kate McGovern

Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen

Kate McGovern, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Oct. 12, 2021

Suitable for ages: 9-12

Themes: Dyslexia, Secrets,  Learning differences. Bullies, Friendship, Family, Hope, Multicultural

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Maple is in fifth grade—again. Now everyone will find out she struggles with reading—or will they? An engaging read for anyone who has ever felt different.

Maple Mehta-Cohen has been keeping a big secret: she can’t read well. She has an impressive vocabulary and loves dictating stories into her recorder—especially the adventures of a daring sleuth who’s half Indian and half Jewish like she is—but words on the page just don’t seem to make sense to her. Despite all Maple’s clever tricks to hide her troubles with reading, her teacher sees through them all, and now she is repeating fifth grade.

Maple is devastated—what will her friends think as she starts the school year? Will they forget about her? She uses her storytelling skills to convince her new fifth grade classmates that she’s staying back as a special teacher’s assistant (because of budget cuts, you know).

But as Maple navigates the loss of old friendships, the possibility of new ones, and facing her reading challenges head-on, her deception becomes harder to keep up. Can Maple begin to recognize her own strengths, and to love herself—and her brain—just the way she is? Readers who have faced their own trials with school and friendships will enjoy this heartwarming story and its bright, creative heroine.

Why I like this book:

Thank you Kate McGovern for writing a realistic and heartwarming middle grade story for students who have reading and learning differences. It’s important that they see themselves in a smart, clever and witty main characters like Maple, who deals with the emotional and social impact of her reading difficulties. She’s embarrassed. Her long-time friends ignore her. She’s bullied. But she’s resilient.  

Maple is a creative and compassionate main character. She is a girl who loves big words and is an excellent storyteller. Her favorite author is Agatha Christie and she always has a mystery she’s writing and recording. But her BIG secret becomes too stressful to keep. She has to figure things out for herself. Her journey is believable as she learns to embrace her dyslexia and use it positively. It is an inspiring story about family, friends and hope.

I also love that Maple is Indian and Jewish (Hin-Jew as she calls herself) and constantly feels caught in between — never fully belonging on one side. Many readers will identify with her mixed ethnicity. 

Learning differences present in many forms, including dyslexia. To learn more information, McGovern suggests readers check out the  website Understood to learn about the 1 in 5 Americans who learn and think differently. And you’ll have to read McGovern’s book to discover the famous people who have learning differences.

Kate McGovern is the author of the young adult novels Rules for 50/50 Chances and Fear of Missing Out. She has worked in schools and education nonprofits in Boston, London, and New York City, including at the Harlem Children’s Zone, where she served as a reading specialist and directed Shakespeare productions with middle-schoolers. Her daughter, Priya, is the original “Hin-Jew” kid that Maple is written for. Kate McGovern lives in an Indian-Jewish household in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by Candlewick Press in exchange for a review. 

The Robin and The Fir Tree by Jason Jameson

The Robin & The Fir Tree

Retold by Jason Jameson, Author and Illustrator

Templar Books (Imprint Candlewick), Fiction, Nov. 21, 2021 (US edition)

Suitable for ages: 4-10

Pages: 64

Themes: Fir Tree, Robin, Animals, Friendship, Folktale, Legends, Holidays

Opening: “Long ago, in the North, there stood a forest. The trees of the forest grew tall and old, and many animals made their homes in and beneath them.”

Publisher’s Synopsis:

In a forest far away from the hustle and bustle of town grows the Fir Tree. The meadow he lives in is beautiful and serene, but the Fir Tree yearns for the excitement of the outside world. His friend the Robin brings him gifts and tells him stories of the places she’s been, the people she’s flown over, and the many things men construct out of wood.

The Fir Tree dreams of adventure and wishes to be something more. He imagines a new life as a ship’s mast, traveling the world by sea. When men come to the meadow with axes one day and cut him down, the Fir Tree is eager to be chosen for a new purpose. But the Robin worries. What will become of her strong, beautiful friend? In a lyrical story of friendship and rebirth, Jason Jameson brings a Christmas classic to beautiful new life.

The retelling of the little Fir Tree is both beautiful and heartbreaking. He lives in a magnificent meadow that is peaceful and surrounded by a wide variety of trees that change colors with the seasons, as his needles remain green.  And there are creatures large and small, including his friendship with Robin, who decorates his home with roses in the Fir Trees branches. But the Fir Tree is not content with everything remaining the same and longs to know what lies beyond the meadow. 

When the Fir Tree is selected for the town Christmas tree, he’s excited that people will be able to admire his beauty. But, his moment of glory is short-lived. Robin is a true friend and stays with his friend through the rest of the story. It is a sad story, but it also is a story of rebirth.  And the ending is hopeful.  

This is a beautifully packaged book with a heavy cover that is decorated in gold. The first letter of each new page is ornately designed. Jameson’s illustrations are stunning, with much detail for young readers to explore. This is a holiday book families will treasure for years to come. It also makes a perfect holiday gift.

Resources: This story is perfect to read after families decorate their trees.  If read in the classroom, teachers may want to compare Hans Christian Anderson’s story with this new retelling. It may make for some interesting discussions.  And, it would be interesting to ask kids to think about the message in this story. Have they ever felt like the fir tree?

Jason Jameson studied animation at the Royal College of Art and has more than fifteen years of experience in character development, design, and animation direction. He is the cofounder and creative director of Unanico Group, an award-winning media company, and has produced and animated several short films. He lives in London.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

*Review copy provided by Candlewick Press in exchange for a review.

Sloth and Squirrel in a Pickle by Cathy Ballou Mealey

Sloth & Squirrel in a Pickle

Cathy Ballou Mealey, Author

Kelly Collier, Illustrator

Kids Can Press, Fiction, May 4, 2021

Suitable for Ages: 3-7

Themes: Animals, Bicycle, Job, Pickles, Differences, Teamwork, Friendship

Opening: “Sloth. I want a bike,” said Squirrel. “I want a bike just like that. We could go FAST!” Sloth nodded s-l-o-w-l-y. 

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Sloth and Squirrel want to buy a bicycle that goes FAST.

So, they get a job. Squirrel works fast, really fast. And Sloth works…s-l-o-w-l-y. It turns out that getting a bikes is harder than they thought.

Starring two lovable and unlikely friends, this hilarious story is a celebration of teamwork, ingenuity and pickles. 

Why I love this book:

Opposites attract. Squirrel is quick and full of energy and speed. Sloth moves a lot more slowly, but is very deliberate. There are many obstacles along the way as they try to earn money to buy a bike. Eventually they come up with a very clever plan that suits them both.

Cathy Mealey’s message is simple, quirky and hilarious for children. It encourages kids to not to make swift judgements about someone else. Everyone has a different strength, a different pace and an unknown talent that may compliment the teamwork. This certainly is the case for Squirrel and Sloth. 

The narrative is delightful and full of fun words. Kids will gasp, they will commiserate with antics and failed attempts to pack pickles, and they will cheer as the two unlikely friends find their way through this pickle. The ending is endearing and funny as Squirrel and Sloth realize their dream in a very big way. A wonderful story about problem-solving and friendship!

Kelly Collier’s comical and colorful illustrations bring each character to life in a unique way. Be prepared to laugh out loud!

Resources: Do you like pickles? What is your favorite kind of pickle?  Like Sloth and Squirrel, can you think of the other ways that you can use pickles? Draw a picture of your idea. And if you wanted to buy a bike, how would you raise the money? Share your ideas. 

Cathy Ballou Mealey has never picked a peck of pickles, but she has been a crossing guard, pet-sitter and professional gift-wrapper, among many other jobs. Her favorite pickle is a crisp, tangy bread-an-butter chip. She lives with her family north of Boston, where she delights in watching silly squirrel antics and is waiting patiently for a sloth to appear. 

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

Ivy Lost and Found by Cynthia Lord

Book Buddies: Ivy Lost and Found

Cynthia Lord, Author

Stephanie Graegin, Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Sep. 28, 2021

Suitable for ages: 6-9

Themes: Library, Borrowing books, Repurposing toys, Friendship 

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Ivy the doll is the newest Book Buddy — a toy that can be checked out just like a book — at Anne’s library. But Ivy isn’t sure she wants to be borrowed.  She’d rather go back to when Anne was a little girl and Ivy was her favorite toy.  Fern, a child who visits the library with her stepfamily, also wishes things could go back to the way they were, when Fern had her dad all to herself. When Fern takes Ivy home, an unexpected outdoor adventure helps both of them find confidence and belonging in their changing worlds. 

This  is the first book of a charming new illustrated series about library toys and the children who borrow them, written by Newbery Honor winner Cynthia Lord and illustrated by Stephanie Graegin. 

Why I like this book:

Children will fall in love with Lord’s heartwarming chapter book — the first book in a series that pairs friendly toys with children who may need them to work through a difficult time. I love the idea that the toys are repurposed and given a chance to be loved again by more children. Such a great idea to check out a toy along with a book from a library.

I love that the book is narrated by Ivy. She shares her memories of playing with Anne in the garden, attending birthday parties, receiving new clothes Anne sewed for her, and cuddling with Anne on winter nights. But Anne grows up and Ivy spends lonely nights on a shelf, until she’s packed away in a box in the attic.  “Missing someone hurts,” says Ivy, who echoes Fern’s feelings with her new stepfamily. Many children will identify and find comfort in Ivy Lost and Found.  

The short chapters will engage children, as will Graegin’s lovely pen and ink illustrations on nearly every page. I look forward to more Book Buddy adventures with new borrowers. 

As I write, my grown daughter’s favorite bear, “Dink,” is resting on the bed behind my desk. He went to camp with her and was her best buddy! Maybe he is lonely and needs repurposing. 

Cynthia Lord is the author of award-winning middle grade fiction titles such as the Newbery Honor Book Rules, and most recently Because of the Rabbit. She is also the author of Shelter Pet Squad chapter book series. She lives in Maine.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by Candlewick in exchange for a review.

Twitchy Witchy Itch by Priscilla Tey

Twitchy Witchy Itch

Priscilla Tey, Author and Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Jun. 24, 2021

Suitable for ages: 4-8

Themes: Witches, Tea Party, Cleaning, Being yourself, Friendship

Opening: “In just ten minutes, the clock would chime tea o-clock. In just ten minutes, Itch the witch would have two witchy neighbors over for tea.”

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Tick, tock! / Three cups. / Tick tock! / Three saucers.

With nine minutes left, everything is ready. Or is it? As the clock counts down to tea o’clock, Itch the witch’s mind is in a tizzy: Is her house too twitchy? If her home to itchy? Zippity-zoom! Itch grabs a duster and broom. What spell will she say? The guests are already on their way!

Why I like this book:

Priscilla Tey’s charming story carries a sweet message for kids about how important it is to be yourself at all times. Witchy Itch’s neighbors love her home just as it is and have a grand time at tea.  

The language is entertaining and repetitive, includes a few tongue twisters and a lot of fun words: Swish, swash,  zipity-zoom, kaboom, witchity-woosh, ka-boosh, itchy, and twitchy. This will make for a delightful read aloud. It is a perfect seasonal read with Halloween approaching.

Tey’s lively illustrations are quirky colorful, and a tad eccentric. Just look at that cover! The expression on Itch’s face shows the growing panic she feels as spells go wrong and mayhem wins. I also love the mice, bugs, spiders. lizards and cute monkey that live in her home. Make sure you study each page because there may be some other hidden animals.

Resources: With Halloween approaching encourage kids to draw a picture of a witch doing something unusual and fun: having a pajama party, riding a skateboard, racing a car/broom, or sitting by a campfire roasting something. Be creative.

Priscilla Tey is a graduate of the  Rhode Island School of Design. Her first book for children, In-Between Thing, was called “unique and thought-provoking” by School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly praised her “quirky, ingenious, and highly disciplined” aesthetic. A native of Singapore, Priscilla Tey returned home after completing her degree and splits her time between illustrating and teaching.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website. 

*Review copy provided by Candlewick in exchange for a review.

Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman

Born Behind Bars

Padma Venkatraman, Author 

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction, Sep. 7, 2021

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: India, Prisoners’ families, Homeless persons, Street children, Friendship, Social justice issues, Hope

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Kabir Khan has been in jail since the day he was born because his mom is serving time for a crime she didn’t commit. Their cellmates are his only friends, and he’s never even met his dad. The one place he feels a little bit free is the prison classroom, where his teacher delights him with stories of the outside world’s wonders.

When the new warden announces that Kabir is too old to stay, he’s suddenly released — without his mom — to fend for himself on the city streets of Chennai. Fortunately, Rani, another street kid, takes him under her wing and helps him eke out a living, even sharing the tree she calls home. Plotting their future is difficult and dangerous in a world that doesn’t value low-caste kids like them, but Rani has enough confidence for two, plus a trusty slingshot that comes in handy for hunting meals and handling bullies. And she has a clever parrot, Jay, that talks.

This isn’t quite the life Kabir dreamed of; still, he’s discovered he’s not the type to give up. Justice needs to be served, and he’s determined to show the world that he — and his mom — deserve a place in it.

Why I like this book:

Padma Venkatraman’s compelling and hopeful novel sheds light on the life of children born to mothers in India’s prisons. Her powerful storytelling and vivid imagery draws readers into Kabir’s sheltered life in the prison and the extraordinary journey he embarks upon to find his family in Bengaluru. His story will touch readers’ hearts.

The setting is culturally rich. Venkatraman is a lyrical writer and there are many poetic turns of phrase. The chapters are short (three pages), which quickly moves the story and is perfect for that slightly younger group of middle-graders and reluctant readers.  For fans of The Bridge Home, a character from the story makes an appearance. 

The plot is dangerous and suspenseful from the moment Kabir leaves the prison. The police release him to a man who claims to be Kabir’s uncle. Something feels “off” from the start, and Kabir has to plan a fast escape from this fake uncle. Kabir meets Rani, a street-smart homeless girl who makes a living telling fortunes — she’s from the Roma community in India. She has a talking parrot, Jay, perched on her shoulder. Jay offers many moments of comic relief. Rani shares her home with Kabir — a Banyan tree inside the gates of a haunted mansion. Kabir discovers he can use his voice to earn money and his instincts to judge the people he can trust on the outside.  

Venkatraman exposes India’s broken justice system and it’s impact on children and families who are considered lower caste. They live in extreme poverty and are forgotten. She also shows the tension that exists between the Hindus and Muslims, and problems over water shortages due to climate change and draught. 

Growing up in India, Venkatraman’s memories of starving children provide the inspiration for her novels, Born Behind Bars and The Bridge Home.  Her stories are well-researched and she draws her stories from the tales of the children she meets while doing volunteer work with her mother at respectable children’s homes and schools. Most important, I love that she writes about a culture she knows so well. I hope we see more uplifting novels from her in the future.

Make sure you check out the Author’s Note at the end to learn more about Born Behind Bars.

Padma Venkatraman was born in India and became an American after living in five countries and working as an oceanographer. She is also the author of The Bridge Home, A Time to Dance, Island’s End and Climbing the Stairs. She lives in Rhode Island. Visit her at her website, and on Twitter: @padmatv, Instagram: Venkatraman.padma

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a purchased copy.