Birdie’s Bargain by Katherine Paterson

Birdie’s Bargain

Katherine Paterson, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Oct. 19, 2021

Suitable for ages: 9-12

Themes: Moving, Separation, Iraq War, Crisis of faith, Friendship

Opening: “If you are wearing a T-shirt that says in big capital letters I ♥ JESUS, you shouldn’t be standing in the middle of the street bawling your eyes out. But that is exactly what Birdie was doing.”

Publisher’s Synopsis:

In a poignant and unflinching new realistic novel from the Newbery Medalwinning author of Bridge to Terabithia, a ten-year-old girl makes a deal with God for her father’s safe return from the Iraq War.

Birdie has questions for God. For starters, why couldn’t God roll history back to September 10, 2001, and fix things—so the next day was an ordinary sunny day and not the devastating lead-in to two wars? Daddy has already been to Iraq twice. Now he’s going again, and Birdie is sure he’ll die. At the very least, she won’t see him again for a year, and everything will not be OK. (Why do grown-ups lie?)

To save money, she, Mom, and baby Billy have moved to Gran’s, where shy Birdie must attend a new school, and no one but bossy Alicia Marie Suggs welcomes her. Doesn’t God remember how hard it was for Birdie to make friends at Bible Camp? Counselor Ron taught about Judgment there—and the right way to believe. Has Birdie been praying wrong? Why else would God break their bargain?

Readers of all faiths and backgrounds, especially children of military families, will identify with and root for the unforgettable Birdie, given inimitable voice by a master storyteller.

Why I like this book:

What a great opening (above). Katherine Paterson is known for her spectacular storytelling and great “first pages” that quickly draw readers into the story. You just have to know the “why” and keep on reading. But she’s also thoughtful and it shows in the depth of her characters, her plot and her glorious prose. 

Paterson’s keen sensitivity, compassion and penetrating sense of drama brings readers a moving story about Birdie’s father’s third deployment to the middle east and her fear for his safety. Separation is tough on military children and their families both emotionally and financially. Birdie’s mad at the world, refuses to go to the airport to say goodbye, and fears her dad’s luck has run out and  he won’t return home this time. So she is angry and has big questions for God — if there is a God. Readers will go through Birdie’s crisis of faith with her. 

Paterson creates realistic and memorable characters readers will love spending time with. Birdie is caring and resilient. She isn’t popular in her  new school and longs for a friend. She is befriended by Alicia Maria Suggs (Alice May) who claims to have a famous mother who is an actress. Their relationship is exhausting for Birdie. Alicia is bossy, obnoxious, and controls her. Birdie suspects something is seriously wrong at Alicia’s house and that her mother may be abusive. That would explain Alicia wearing make-up. So Birdie  has to make some hard decisions about how she can help Alicia. Thankfully she has Gran who is the rock in their family and is always ready to listen. She’s kind, patient and tough when she needs to be. Her teacher Mr. Goldberg is another kind and positive influence for Birdie.

I love that Birdie finds a diary her father gave her for Christmas. It’s been buried in an unpacked box. She calls is “Betsy Lou.” There’s a note inside from her dad that moves her. So she begins to write down all of the things that she’s doing so she can share everything he misses while he’s deployed. It also helps her count down the days until he returns. Readers will be able to explore Birdie’s deepest thoughts, anguish and fears. It helps Birdie cope during some challenging moments in the story. (Sorry, no Spoilers.) But readers are going to cheer for Birdie. 

Birdie’s Bargain is an excellent choice for middle grade libraries. 

Katherine Paterson, a two-time winner of the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award, has written more than thirty books, including Bridge to Terabithia, My Brigadista Year, and The Great Gilly Hopkins. A recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award and a former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, she lives in Montpelier, Vermont.

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.   

Evelyn Del Rey is Moving Away by Meg Medina

Evelyn Del Rey is Moving Away

Meg Medina, Author

Sonia Sánchez, Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Sep. 8, 2020

Suitable for ages: 5-7

Themes: Best friends, Moving, Separation, Memories,

Opening: “Evelyn Del Re is my mejor amiga, my número uno best friend. “Come play, Daniela,” she says, just like she always does. Just like today is any other day.”

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Evelyn Del Rey is Daniela’s best friend, her mejor amiga. But after today, everything will be different. After today, Evelyn won’t live in a mirror-image apartment across the street. Today Evelyn Del Rey is moving away.

The two girls spend on last afternoon together in Evelyn’s apartment, playing among the boxes, until the apartment is empty and it’s time to say their goodbyes. They promise to visit and keep in touch, and, though they will be apart, they know they will always be each other’s first best friend, their número uno.

Why I like this book:

Evelyn Del Rey is Moving Away is a touching story of about two best friends playing one last day together. They hide in big empty boxes, romp through the apartment, spin in circles, and hide from the adults.  As the house slowly empties everything familiar begins to disappear. They chat about how the many ways that they will keep in touch and seal their promise with heart stickers they press upon each other’s cheek.  A lovely reminder that best friends will always remain in our hearts even when they are separated by distance.

In Medina’s heartfelt story, she shows how the girls deep bond is mirrored with their similar apartments directly across the street from each other. And Sonia Sánchez’s glorious and emotive illustrations show a string that is strung from one bedroom window to the other — a reminder of their best friend heartstring connection. There is beauty and love on every page. This joyful account of friendship will charm readers.

Resources: Make sure you check out the teacher’s guide, activity guide and free coloring pages at Candlewick.

Meg Medina is the author of the Newbery Medal-winning book Merci Suárez Changes Gears. She is also the author of the award-winning young adult novels and the picture books Mango, Abuela, and Me, illustrated by Angela Dominguez, which as a Pura Belpré Book, and Tia Isa Wants a Car, illustrated by Claudio Munoz, which won the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award. The daughter of Cuban immigrants, she grew up in Queens, New York, and now lives in Richmond, Virginia.

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 copy provided by Candlewick in exchange for a review.

For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington

For Black Girls Like Me

Mariama J. Lockington, Author

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Fiction, Jul. 30, 2019

Suitable for Ages:  9-11

Themes: Idenity, African-American, Interracial adoptions, Family problems, Mental illness, Moving,

Opening: “I am a girl but most days I feel like a question mark. People throw their looks at me. Then back at my mama sister and papa. Who are all as white as oleander. Then they look back at me. Black as a midnight orchard.”

Bookjacket Synopsis:

Makeda June Kirkland is eleven-years old, adopted, and black. Her parents and big sister are white, and even though she loves her family very much Keda often feels left out. When Keda’s family moves from Maryland to New Mexico, she leaves behind her best friend, Lena — the only other adopted black girl she knows — for a new life. In New Mexico, everything is different. At home, Keda’s sister is too cool to hang out with her anymore, and at school, she can’t seem to find one true friend.

Through it all, Keda can’t help but wonder: What would it feel like to grow up with a family that looks like me? Keda has a constant dialogue in her head with the birth mother she never knew.

In this deeply felt coming-of-age story, about family, sisterhood, music, race, and identity, Mariama J. Lockington draws on some of the motional truths from her own experiences of growing up with an adoptive white family. For Black Girls Like Me is for anyone who has ever asked themselves: How do you figure out where you are going if you don’t know where you came from?

Why I like this book:

Mariama J. Lockington has penned an intimate and emotional debut novel that will touch reader’s souls. It is about a girl being adopted into an interracial family. The author uses many of her own personal experiences to share Keda’s inner turmoil of feeling both “loved and lonely” in her white family. This rarely-told story is long overdue and will resonate with many transracial adoptees.

There is beauty in Lockington’s book.  She is a very lyrical writer, so there are many poetic turns of phrases. Her writing tone is rich and and is enhanced with Keda’s musical lyrics, poems, letters, and a journal that carries her heart back and forth through the postal mail to Lena, her bestie. The journal is a lifeline and bond for both. It’s a creative inclusion in the narrative. The plot is multilayered and courageous.

The characters are authentic and complicated. Keda is deeply sensitive, observant and curious about her birth mother. At school she dislikes the never ending questions about her hair, her adoption, and her biological mother. Most of all, she doesn’t like the accusations of being “too proper” and “talking so white.” Keda’s life may feel complex, but she is resilient.  She is a talented song writer and her music is her freedom from  lonliness and hurt. She finds a soulmate in singer Billie Holiday’s blues music.

Making friends is easy for Eve, Keda’s older white sister. Eve is popular and distant, leaving Keda without a friend. Their family is musical. Mama is a prodigy – a talented solo violinist who left the stage when she started a family. Papa is a talented celloist, who heads out on a worldwide concert tour after their move to New Mexico. However Mama’s mental health issues emerge and spiral out of control. The sisters are thrown together to grapple with big decisions.

For Black Girls Like Me raises timely questions about race, identity, and mental health issues that will foster excellent classroom discussions. It is an outstanding work of fiction and belongs in every school library. Keda’s life may feel messy but it is full of courage, hope and promise.

Favorite Quotes:

“So you’re like Obama? An Oreo!” / Kinda. Wait. What’s an Oreo? / “You know when you’re all black on the outside but really white on the inside?” (Page 37)

Questions I have for black girls (with hair) like me: Who decides what kind of hair is beautiful? Do you ever just want to tell your mom: “White lady stop! You don’t know what you’re doing!” Do you remember the first black woman to ever washed your hair? What did it feel like? Did it hurt? Or did it feel like home? (Page 134)

“I am a girl becoming a woman. People throw their puzzled looks at me and I know they’re wondering: Who does she look like? But I am learning to say: Me. I look like me. I am a girl becoming a woman.” (Page 317)

Mariama J. Lockington is an adoptee, writer, and nonprofit educator. She has been telling stories and making her own books since the second grade, when she wore short-alls and flower leggings every day to school. Her work has appeared in a number of magazines and journals, including Buzzfeed News Reader, and she is the author of the poetry chapbook The Lucky Daughter. Mariama holds a Masters in Education from Lesley University and Masters in Fine Arts in Poetry from San Francisco State University. She lives in Lexington, KY with her partner and dapple haired dachshund, Henry.

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 library copy.

Imagine by Juan Felipe Herrera

April is National Poetry Month

Imagine

Juan Felipe Herrera, Author

Lauren Castillo, Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Poetry, Sep. 25, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 5-9

Themes: Poetry, Juan Felipe Herrera, Imagination, Migrant workers, Moving, Multicultural

Opening: If I picked chamomile flowers / as a child / in the windy fields and whispered / to their fuzzy faces, / imagine.

Synopsis:

Have you ever imagined who you might be when you grow up?

When Juan Felipe Herrera was very young, he picked flowers, helped his mama feed the chickens, slept under the starry sky, and learned to say good-bye to his amiguitos each time his migrant family moved on. When he grew up, Juan Felipe Herrera became a poet.

Why I like this book:

Doesn’t that cover just tug at your heart? This beautiful book is taken from Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem, “Imagine.” It depicts Herrera’s life as the  young boy of migrant workers spending time outside exploring nature, traveling across country with his parents in search of work, learning to read, write and speak a new language when he attends school. He is a curious dreamer who loves life, nature and words. As a teen his words become stories, poetry and lyrics to songs. As an adult, he  becomes the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017.

Written in free verse, each page begins with “If I picked…if I walked.. if I practiced…If I wrote ” and ends with “imagine.” His poetry beckons children to be dreamers of their futures — to “imagine” their own stories as they read his beautiful lyrics.  What stories will they write for themselves? Will they be poets, scientists, artists, lawyers, doctors and musicians? They only need to imagine what they can do.

Lauren Castillo’s ink and foam monoprint illustrations are warm and cozy and beautifully compliment  Herrera’s poem. Her earth-toned illustrations are in soft shades of tan and brown, with yellows, blues and greens highlighting each page. Make sure you check beneath the book jacket to discover a dreamy blue cover speckled with stars.

Resources: This book can be used in many different ways by educators. Different pages will inspire students. Encourage kids to pick a page and imagine who might they be when they grow up. The “If I…” prompts are a great opener for writing a few paragraphs about their stories. Other students may want to draw a picture about themselves and their story.

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 the publisher.

The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie

The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair

Amy Makechnie, Author

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Jun. 12, 2018

Pages: 336

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Brain injury, Memory, Family relationships, Moving, Farm life, Missing persons, Mystery, Friendship

Opening: “I was ten when Gaysie Cutter tried to kill me. It was just like her too — always leaving a bad first impression. Her idea of a welcome wagon came in the middle of July, during my first Iowa heat wave, which was as hot as you know what.”

Synopsis:

Ten-year-old Guinevere St. Clair is going to be a lawyer. She is the fastest girl in New York City. She knows everything there is to about the brain. And she wants to ride into her first day at her new school on a cow named Willowdale Princess Deon Dawn. Gwyn is definitely not the kind of girl you forget.

But that’s just what her mother has done — forgotten. Gwyn’s mother, Vienna, hasn’t been able to remember anything past the age of 13, since she suffered a hypoxic brain injury. Gwyn and her little sister, Bitty, don’t exist in Vienna’s mind. As Gwyn tells Vienna’s new nurse, “we’re practically orphans.”

Gwyn’s father is obsessed with solving the mystery of Vienna’s brain.  He moves his family from New York to Crow, Iowa, where he and Vienna lived as children. He hopes that going home to Crow and surrounding Vienna with familiar friends and family, will jog her memory and help in her recovery.

As soon as they arrive in Crow, Gwyn is hot on the trail of a different case — one she thinks can actually be solved. Farmer Wilbur Truesdale is missing and there’s only one person who could know what happened to him: her brand new next-door archenemy, Gaysie Cutter.

The more Gwyn goes looking for answers, through, the more questions she encounters — about Wilbur, about Gaysie, but also about the mother she’s never gotten the chance to know. Gwyn’s determined to hunt down the truth about everything, but what if the truth isn’t as simple as pointing the blame at someone? What if sometimes the most terrible things that happen aren’t actually anyone’s fault at all?

Why I liked this book:

Amy Makechnie’s debut novel is complex, heartbreaking and hopeful. Her great opening immediately draws readers into the story. The vivid setting, poignant narrative, suspenseful plot and extraordinary characters create and unforgettable experience for readers. Her storytelling is richly crafted and heartwarming.

Gwyn is a genuine and unique character with whom you feel an immediate emotional bond. She is smart, curious, imaginative and jumps to conclusions a little too quickly. Her mother’s hypoxic brain injury impacts Gwyn and forces her to grow up too quickly. The author beautifully weaves Vienna’s injury into the story as a part of Gwyn’s life experience — it’s hard to “not exist” in your mother’s eyes. In her pursuit to solve the mystery about Wilbur’s disappearance, Gwyn uncovers her mother’s past and realizes how much she is like her.

There is a cast of quirky secondary characters that add comic relief. There’s Gaysie, a giant woman who lives in a rundown house with a “backyard that looks like an art exhibit”and is known for burying dead things on her property. Gwyn become best friends with Jimmy, who is always up for an adventure, and Micah (Gaysie’s son), who likes to wear bright pink shorts, sparkling silver shoe laces and is a target for school bullies.  Gwyn’s dentist father, Jed, is devoted to his wife, and Nana, is protective and takes responsibility for everything that happens.

Teens looking for something new and creative, will find The Unforgettable Guinevere St Clair a suspenseful, powerful and entertaining read. The characters will stay with you long after you finish.

Makechnie’s story also touched me on a personal level. Like Gwyn’s mother, my brain was deprived of oxygen following an unfortunate mishap nearly 15 years ago. This is the first children’s novel I’ve read where a hypoxic brain injury is mentioned. It took me back to my injury and made me think about how difficult it was on my family, who was loving, patient and supportive during my years of recovery. Fortunately my children were grown. Brain injuries vary and each person has unique symptoms and outcomes.

Thank you Rosi Hollinbeck for reviewing and recommending this book to me on your wonderful website. 

Amy Makechnie grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, where shoe once tried to sail to the Mississippi River on a large piece of Styrofoam (she didn’t make it). The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair is her first novel. Amy nurtures her fascination with the brain and human body by teaching anatomy and physiology to high school students in a small New England town, where they dissect hearts and memorize long anatomical words. She is the mother of a wily flock of children, all of who provide daily inspiration for writing. You can visit her at her website.

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 library copy.

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Finding Langston

Lesa Cline-Ransome, Author

Holiday House, Fiction, Aug. 14, 2018

Pages: 108

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Loss, Single-parent families, Moving, Bullying, Poetry, the Great Migration, Chicago, History

Opening: “Never really thought much about Alabama’s red dirt roads, but now, all I can think about is kicking up their dust.”

Synopsis: Eleven-year-old Langston is a long way from Alabama. After his mother dies in 1946, and he and his father move to Chicago’s Bronzeville. Langston must leave behind everything that he cherishes — his family, friends, Grandma’s Sunday suppers, the red clay and the magnolia trees his mama loved so much. He misses the slow pace of life at home and how he could take his time walking home before he starts his chores.

Bronzeville is noisy. Their kitchenette apartment is just a lonely room with two beds, a table and chairs and a hot plate. Dinner is what daddy brings home and throws into a pot. At night, the sounds are loud. People talk loudly on stoops, music blares from radios, and huge rats run down the hallways. At school, Langston is teased for being too country and three boys bully him after school. But his new home has something his old home didn’t have: the George Cleveland Hall Library that welcomes the community, black and white.

The library becomes a refuge from the bullies and a place where Langston joyfully discovers another Langston, a poet whose words are powerful and speak to him of home. With the help of a kind librarian, he reads all of Langston Hughes’ poetry, discovers the power of words and is transported.  A neighbor, who is a teacher, also introduces Langston to other black poets. Through poetry Langston begins to understand his mother, uncovers one of her secrets and finds healing through his namesake.

Why I like this book:

There is so much beauty in Lesa Cline-Ransome’s coming of age novel. Langston will melt your heart as he deals with loss and loneliness, and struggles to find his voice through words and poetry. It is an inspiring story that is relevant today.

The story also gives readers insight into the Great Migration of black families in search of better jobs in larger cities, like Chicago and New York. They leave behind a slower-paced life and close family relationships, to live in sub-standard housing in noisy, concrete cities.

The chapters are short, the narrative is strong and the writing is lyrical. The plot is compelling and there are themes that will spark important discussions among teens and adults.  This is an important book to add to any classroom curriculum.

Favorite lines: Langston’s first visit to a public library.

I trace the letters on the covers of each and stop. One has my name. I pull it out and open to the first page.

I pick up my life

And take it with me

And I put it down in 

Chicago, Detroit,

Buffalo, Scranton.

Feels like reading words from my heart. (Pg. 21-22)

Lesa Cline-Ransome is best known for her award-winning picture books. Her most recent book, Before She Was Harriet, is illustrated by her husband, James Ransome, received six starred reviews, a Christopher Award, a Coretta Scott King Honor Award for illustration, and a nomination for a NAACP Image Award. Finding Langston is her first novel. Visit the author at her website.

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 library copy.

Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg

sweet-home-alaska-untitledSweet Home Alaska

Carole Estby Dagg, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction, Feb. 2, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 10 and up

Pages: 291

Themes: Great Depression, FDR New Deal Colony, Frontier and pioneer life, Alaska, Moving, Family life

Book Jacket Synopsis: Terpsichore and her family are going to be pioneers in Alaska! Times have been tough in Wisconsin during the Great Depression, and she’s eager to make a new start. Terpsichore has often dreamed about living like Laura Ingalls Wilder, but the reality of their new home is a shock. The town is still under construction, the mosquitoes are huge, and when a mouse eats her shoelace, causing her to fall on her first day of school, everyone learns the nickname she had hoped to leave behind: Trip.

Despite all this, Terpsichore falls in love with Alaska — and her sparkling, can-do spirit is a perfect match for the wilderness. When she discovers there is no library, she helps start one, and with the aid of the long hours of summer sunshine, she’s able to grow killer vegetables. With all these achievements, Terpsichore is sure she’ll be earning a new nickname in no time! The only problem is her homesick mom, who misses polite society. Terpsichore is determined to stay put, so she hatches a plan to convince her mother that Alaska can be a wonderful, civilized home…a plan that’s going to take all the love, energy, and Farmer Boy expertise she can muster.

Why I like this book:

Carole Estby Dagg writes a powerful story about the Great Depression and the 202 families that risked everything to settle Alaska’s real-life Palmer Colony in 1934. This lively and authentic story is about the harsh realities of life and work for any homesteader, let alone 11-year-old Terpsichore (Terp-sick-oh-ree) Johnson and her family. Dagg expertly explores the meaning of family relationships, friendships, hardship, pioneer cooperation, faith and home.

The setting is so realistic that readers will feel that they are living with Terpsichore a drafty tent city, traipsing through thick mud, slapping huge mosquitos, shivering through frigid weather and dealing with smelly outhouses. The plot is original and moves swiftly as the Johnson family claim and clear their land, build a log home, barn, and chicken coups, and plant their gardens. Life is harsh and full of obstacles. There is disease, loss and homesickness, but there is the midnight sun that reveals a beautiful landscape and grows very large vegetables.

Great characters make a book and Dagg has succeeded with Terpsichore, who is a brave, resilient, determined and independent narrator.  Her voice and spirit are strong. Although she may not have her twin sisters singing talent, Terpsichore makes a contribution that benefits the entire pioneer colony. She starts a library with the help of her two new friends,  Gloria and Mendel. They contact churches, scout groups, the Red Cross for books and supplies. When the colony needs a doctor and hospital, Terpsichore helps her mother send a telegram to Eleanor Roosevelt, who responds to their needs.

Sweet Home Alaska gives  readers an eye-opening glimpse into a portion of Alaska’s history they know little about.  Make sure you check out the Author’s Note about the early settlers of Palmer, Alaska, in the Matanuska Valley. She also includes some of Terpsichore’s Alaskan recipes and a list of resources. There is a lot of history packed into this novel, making it an excellent book for the classroom.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

Be Light Like a Bird by Monika Schroder

Be Light Like a Bird41Q13tYaniL__SX353_BO1,204,203,200_Be Light Like a Bird

Monika Schroder, Author

Capstone Young Readers, Fiction, Sep. 1, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Grief, Bereavement, Mother and daughter, Moving, Family relationships, Friendships, Birdwatching, Nature

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Wren buries roadkill to make herself feel better. Her ritual begins after her father is killed in a plane crash and she never has the opportunity to say goodbye. Her mother tells Wren to pack up her belongings and forces her to leave their home in Georgia and drive north on I-75 in search of a new life. Their first stop is in Chattanooga, Tennessee, then Wapakoneta, Ohio, and finally Pyramid, Michigan, near the Canadian border. With each stop, Wren starts a new school. By the time they reach Pyramid, Wren is determined that this is where their journey will end. She’s tired of being the new girl in school and she wants a place to call home. Her mom finds a job in a retirement home and Wren and her mother work to build a new life. Wren has a good feeling about Pyramid. She discovers a magical place in a forest with a pond and a lot of birds.  She pulls out a bird-watching journal her father has given her and begins to record her sightings. Wren discovers that her perfect place is called Pete’s Pond and that a developer is planning to destroy the area and turn it into a landfill. When Wren teams up with Theo, a nerdy boy at school, to work on a public issue project, she finds the perfect partner in her effort to save Pete’s Pond. Wren begins to find herself, learn about community, forgive those who don’t deserve it, rediscover family, and decide her own direction.

Why I like this book:

Monika Schroder’s has written a sensitive and emotionally deep story about how Wren deals the tragic death of her father. Although the book is about loss, it is also about friendship, courage and embracing life. It has a quirkiness about it that is refreshing. I especially like Schroder’s expertly written prologue and first chapter, which draw the reader into the story from the get-go. The narrative is expertly written in Wren’s voice.

Readers will be captivated by Wren’s unconventional character. She is a strong spirit who loves bird-watching, deals with both her father’s death and a comatose mother, outsmarts bullies, and takes on a major environmental issue. Wren’s mother works two jobs, refuses to talk about her father, and emotionally abandons her daughter. Their complex relationship begins to unravel as secrets and betrayals are revealed. Theo, who is considered the class nerd, proves to be a very resourceful partner. He understands the pain of losing a parent and is a good friend. Together they grow and become a powerful voice in the community. Randle, a Chippewa Indian who owns a junkyard for cars, adds a special twist to the story.

This beautifully crafted story is multi-layered and filled with vivid imagery. Schroder uses roadkill as a symbolic image to show how both Wren and Theo deal with their sadness in losing a parent. I have never seen anything like it before and it works well in this story. Wren buries dead animals. Theo takes pictures of roadkill. Both are looking for a way to come to terms with their heartache and find closure. The plot is distinctly realistic and fast-paced. The ending is unexpected and satisfying.

This is an excellent classroom discussion book as there are many substantive topics that can be discussed: grief, bullying, peer pressure, protecting the environment, and ancient Native American burial grounds.

Monika Schroder grew up in Germany, but has lived and worked in American international schools in Egypt, Oman, Chile, and India. She moved to the US in 2011. She is the author of My Brother’s Shadow, Saraswati’s Way (my review), and a The Dog in the Wood. You can find out more about Schroder on her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

Before I Leave

Before I Leave 51f0EHIqlrL__SY402_BO1,204,203,200_Before I Leave

Jessixa Bagley, Author and Illustrator

Neal Porter Book/Roaring Brook Press, Fiction, Feb. 16,  2016

Suitable for Ages: 2 – 5

Themes: Moving, Hedgehogs, Anteater, Animals, Friendship, Saying good-bye, Hope

Opening: “I found out we’re moving. Mom said I needed to pack”

Synopsis:  Zelda’s hedgehog family is moving far away. They pack boxes and prepare for their move.  She doesn’t want to move away from her best friend, Aaron, the anteater. Before Zelda moves, she wants to spend one last day with Aaron doing all of their favorite things together as if nothing is changing. They play tetherball, swing together, sail in a boat, build forts and eat ice cream cones. They bid each other a sad farewell and Zelda isn’t so sure about her future…until she arrives at her new home.

Why I like this book:

Jessixa Bagley has packed many sweet and tender moments into this story, which is less than 100 words. Each phrase is short and perfectly communicates Zelda’s anxiety and sadness about moving away from Aaron in a touching way. The author balances the sadness with the determination of the best friends to make lasting memories with each other before they say goodbye. Bagley weaves in the notion that best friends can survive moving away in a hopeful and memorable manner.  The ending is endearing. With minimal text, Bagley cleverly tells the story through her beautiful watercolor illustrations. They are expressive, warm, colorful and show the two friends having fun together.

Resources: This story is a great resource for parents to help explain the concept of moving and saying goodbye to a friend. It is also a gentle way to help a child share their feelings. Visit Jessixa Bagley, author of Boats for Papa, at her 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 Perfect Picture Books.

The Question of Miracles

The Question of Miracles9780544334649_p0_v2_s192x300The Question of Miracles

Elana K. Arnold, Author

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fiction, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Themes: Miracles, Grief, Moving, Friendship, Oregon

Book Jacket Synopsis: Iris Abernathy hates life in Corvallis, Oregon, where her family has just moved. It’s always raining, and everything is so wet. Besides, nothing has felt right since Iris’s best friend, Sarah, died. There’s nothing Iris wants more than to see Sarah again.

When Iris meets Boris, a mouth breather with a know-it-all personality, she’s not looking to make a new friend, but it beats eating lunch alone. Then Iris learns that Boris’s very existence is a medical mystery — maybe even a miracle — and she starts to wonder why some people get miracles and other don’t. And if one miracle is possible, can another one be too? Can Iris possibly communicate with Sarah again?

Why I like The Question of Miracles:

  • Arnold has written a compelling and emotionally deep story about how 11-year-old Iris deals with the tragic death of her best friend. Although Sarah’s death is the sad story, the book is also about friendships and embracing life. It is charming, funny and thought-provoking.
  • The subject of loss and grief is realistically tackled with honesty and sensitivity. Sometimes Iris feels Sarah’s essence around her. She hears noises in a downstairs closet and wants to believe it’s Sarah. Iris wants to know if her friend is out there somewhere. Is she okay? Is she scared? Is she alone? Did it hurt to die? Iris asks many universal questions in her search for answers. She wonders why bad things happen to good people. Why do miracles happen for some people like Boris, and not for others?
  • The story is character-driven and the characters are memorable. Iris is searching to understand her friend’s death so that she can find joy in life again. Boris is intelligent, a bit socially inept and a die-hard Magic player. Boris eagerly helps Iris search for answers –even if it is means visiting a psychic and talking with priests. Iris’s mother is a genetic researcher who is busy with her work. Her father is a stay-at-home dad, who calls her “Pigeon,” bakes bread, plants a huge garden and raises baby chicks in an incubator. He adds stability and quirky humor to the story.
  • This is a very unique offering on grieving for teens. It is a refreshingly quiet book that doesn’t provide answers, but gives readers time to ponder big questions and their beliefs. This would make an excellent classroom discussion book.

Elana K. Arnold: The Question of Miracles is her debut for younger readers. She is working on another middle grade novel, A Long Way from Home. She is the author of young adult novels, Sacred, Burning, Splendor and Infandous.  Visit Elana Arnold at her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

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