The Land of Forgotten Girls

by Erin Estrada Kelly

Soledad Elia Madrid thinks she knows how the world ticks. It’s complicated, just as her family is. Mama’s dead. So is Sol’s sister Amelia, who drowned when Sol was seven. Evil stepmother Vea married Papa only because she wanted to come to the United States, and now Papa’s gone back to the Philippines, likely for good. Magnolia Towers, in Giverny, Louisiana, where Sol and her sister Dominga (Ming) live with Vea, is a dump. There are rats in the walls and the bathroom mirror has a bad luck crack. Class lines are drawn, with Sol and her friend Manny yelling insults at the parochial school kids. Adults in the neighborhood display their own distinctive quirks. And then there’s the story world that Mama left, with tales of Auntie Jove—is she real, or did Mama make her up? Kelly (Blackbird Fly) has created an array of well-honed characters. The plucky young narrator must learn to navigate the sometimes blurry borders between truth and fantasy, reality and longing. The prose is simple, often striking. Vea “talks in thorns.” A balmy afternoon is “the kind that makes you thirsty all day.” Past and present, real and imagined, intersect in this touching middle grade novel about friendship, community, and the power of sisterhood. The book ends on a note of hope while avoiding an overly tidy resolution.

Reviewer: Uma Krishnaswami

First Light, First Life: A Worldwide Creation Story

by Paul Fleischman

illustrated by Julie Paschkis

From different religious and cultural traditions come different creation stories, and this book weaves many together in a single narrative. In China, the world begins with darkness, while in Fiji, there is only water; and in Mali there is only a drop of milk. The God of Israel speaks light into existence, while the Raven of Alaska steals a ball of light and drops some for the people. When there was only water, the Nigerian Obatala creates land from a single snail shell. Egypt’s sun god, Ra, creates the first humans from his own tears; and Arizona’s Spider Woman mixes four different kinds of soil together, wraps them in a cape, and sings a song to create humans. In accounts of creators’ judgment, the God of Gabon calls thunder to work with lightning to set fire to the earth, and the water God of Mexico—one of several flood stories—floods the earth. As the flood recedes, the good people who had been spared begin life again. This fascinating compilation of stories proves surprisingly coherent and shows the commonalities among cultures seeking answers about the origins of the world. Bright and primitive illustrations evoke the cultures depicted, and one illustration flows seamlessly into another in clever two-page spreads. The Author’s Note at the beginning offers sources for further reading about creation stories.

Reviewer: Michele Hughes

Salt to the Sea

by Ruta Sepetys

World War II is nearly over but thousands of refugees have nowhere to go. Alternating voices from four perspectives tells their converging stories when three of their paths cross as they trek through eastern Prussia toward the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that might take them to freedom. Each of the narrators has something to hide: Joana, a Lithuanian nurse believes herself to be a murderer; Emelia, a Polish fifteen-year-old secretive, is pregnant girl; Florian, a young Prussian soldier has deserted the Army and is carrying a mysterious parcel; and Alfred, a German sailor assigned to the Wilhelm is delusional, full of himself, and devoted to Hitler. With the exception of Alfred, the characters are warmly human and likable. Alfred, on the other hand, is not but his story helps tell the German role in the late war and sets up events on the ship. Sepetys has crafted another meticulously researched historical fiction story. Her poetic prose moderates the harsh realities of war and the setting but does not mask them. The short chapters gradually disclose each refugee’s heart-rending story, as well as that of an older cobbler poet, a runaway boy, and a large, negative woman. By the time the refugees reach the ship, the reader should sense they are heading for disaster as Alfred has provided details on the ship’s capacity and actual load. The ending is, of course, inevitable but the connection to the characters will keep readers quickly turning pages to reach the book’s heartbreaking conclusion that does include loss of a character. Sepetys tells a beautifully written, little known, and important moment of history, while helping young adults experience the best and worst of humanity and the strong will to persevere and survive. Back matter includes an informative Author’s Note and a map.

Reviewer: Peg Glisson

Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph

by Roxanne Orgill

illustrated by Francis Vallejo

In 1958, a graphic designer named Art Kane had an idea: gather as many jazz players as possible in Harlem and take a photograph of them—for free. He put out the word and waited to see what would happen. The result is an iconic photograph published by “Esquire” magazine, now famous around the world. Jazz Day uses poems to tell the story of how the photograph was taken. These poems focus on particular aspects of the famous jazz musicians and of the not-so-famous kids living in the blocks of Harlem. Most of the jazz greats are represented here, including Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Maxine Sullivan. The poems are mainly in free verse, and their rhythms echo the tempo of jazz. So do the illustrations, which are realistic and richly hued (do not forget to take off the dust jacket and admire the artwork on the hard cover). The book includes an “Author’s Note,” explaining the inspiration for the poems, biographies of some of the musicians, the legacy of the photograph in books and film, source notes, and a bibliography. A copy of the original photograph is included. The author and illustrator have managed to combine a great, true story with the poetic and visual arts to produce a book that will become a collector’s item for readers young and old.

Reviewer: Leona Illig

The Sun is also a Star

by Nicola Yoon

Natasha Kingsley and her family are about to be deported from New York City to Jamaica, but she has lived most of her life in the United States and doesn’t want to go back. Daniel Jae Ho Bae was born in the U.S., as was his older brother, Charles Jae Won Bae. Their parents are here legally; Natasha’s are not. The likelihood of Natasha and Daniel ever meeting seems very unlikely, but meet they do as Natasha makes one last ditch effort to turn the tide on her family’s deportation. Daniel is in Manhattan to be interviewed for admittance into Yale, not that he wants to go to Yale or become a doctor. He’d rather learn more about writing poetry. But they do meet and end up spending most of the day together. Daniel is open to falling in love with Natasha, but she keeps resisting. What’s the use she thinks, but she can’t help herself. In the end, Daniel takes her to the plane and watches her fly away. For a while they keep in touch, but time and distance finally take their toll on the relationship—until ten years later. The story is complex and, at first, it is difficult to follow who belongs in which family; but soon the reader figures out who belongs where and starts rooting for the star-crossed lovers. Like Ms. Yoon’s first book, Everything, Everything, this story will pull readers in. This book discusses some tough issues, such as the U.S. immigration laws, ethnic/culture differences, and “coincidences.”

Reviewer: Sarah Maury Swan

Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer


by Heather Henson
illustrated by Bryan Collier

Stephen Bishop is a slave. Assigned by his master to explore Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave in 1838, Stephen has become an expert guide for tourists visiting the natural wonder. He has searched its trails, discovered eyeless fish and albino crayfish in its streams, and made the original detailed map of the explored parts—he was the first to cross a spot called the “Bottomless Pit.” Since little is known of Bishop besides his work, Henson presents him as he might want to speak to modern readers. Her poetic words convey his pride in his expertise, his fascination with the cave, and his utter frustration at being a slave. Only underground does he feel the dignity and authority that his knowledge gives him. He has even learned to read in the cave, as a result of tourists’ graffiti written with soot from candles on long sticks. (Visitors can still see his signature—“Stephen.”) Award-winning artist Collier employs a rich palette of browns and black for excursions underground, reserving blues and greens for time in the sun, as in portraits of Bishop, his wife Charlotte, and their son in front of the small slave house; especially beautiful is a page of collage framing Bishop’s face. Speaking directly to readers, he tells them that no one knows exactly how he died, but he’s still there as a spirit of the cave. “Sometimes you just got to lift your light a little higher…go beyond what’s written down to get to what’s been left untold.” Young (and older) readers can learn more from endnotes by Henson and Collier and from Elizabeth Mitchell’s novel, Journey to the Bottomless Pit (Scholastic, 2004) or, best of all, visiting Mammoth Cave National Park.

Reviewer: Barbara L. Talcroft

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle

by Janet Fox

To insure that the three Bateson children are safe from the Blitz in 1940’s London, their father has made arrangements for them to attend the Children’s Academy at Rookskill Castle in Scotland. A great danger awaits them at the castle, however. Lady Eleanor’s dark magic threatens to take their souls just as she has stolen the souls of other children through the centuries, using the charms on her chatelaine (“an ornamental appendage worn by ladies at the waist”). Both literally and figuratively, she loses a piece of her humanity with each soul that she takes. Before leaving for the castle, Kat Bateson, the oldest of the three children, is given a chatelaine by her great-aunt Margaret, who tells her it is magical. Kat, who is adept at math and logic, must use all her strength, knowledge, and newly-discovered magical skills to overpower Lady Eleanor before she takes Kat’s soul. Meanwhile, the children of the castle discover a Nazi spy is in their midst. They race to uncover his identity before he absconds with Lady Eleanor’s magic chatelaine. A strong sense of place, vivid characters, and spine-tingling suspense pervade this story of good versus evil. Children disappear, the wind howls, and strange noises come from the walls. Since her father works for the British government, and Kat’s human hand has been replaced with a powerful metal one, perhaps we will see a sequel. A fine mixture of historical fiction and fantasy.

Reviewer: Sharon Salluzzo

The Storyteller

by Evan Turk

The danger to a culture when its history-keepers are silenced is the foundational motif for this story of a boy who searches his city, in the kingdom of Morocco, for water to fill his cup. He encounters a wizened story-teller who begins to tell a fable to the boy about a family who always had enough water. The approach of a sand-tsunami that gathers out in the desert, and is rolling toward the city, alternates with the tale of an old woman who brings relief from drought to a village in the form of beautiful yarn that must be woven to realize the miracle. The boy repeats the story to the powerful storm. In the process, he empowers the people and together they drive off the desert spirits who threaten to destroy the land. The use of a culturally important craft (weaving) to rescue a land surrounded by desert delivers a powerful message about the importance of preserving beautiful and useful traditions in the midst of adapting to the technology of the future. The story design, of a story within a story within a story, is repetitive and circular, building from a story about a single weaver in a village to a city-wide uprising that defeats the storm, much like a carpet, woven from single threads, grows to cover an entire room. The illustrations, rich in cultural references in design and color, are framed in motifs that suggest carpet edges. The linear style blends with the weft and warp of a loom and produces a seamless visual that enhances the text. This story begs to be read over and over, each page offering new details for discovery on each encounter, like the complex patterns of a beautiful rug. Turk’s book concludes with an “Author’s Note,” that offers insights into why he wrote this story, and a list of resources labeled “Further Learning.” This book would be a good choice for story circle both as a way to introduce the culture of Morocco and as a way of initiating discussions with young children about why it is important to preserve and tell the stories of all cultures.

Reviewer: Hazel Buys

No Better Friend: Young Readers Edition: A Man, a Dog, and Their Incredible True Story of Friendship and Survival in World War II

by Robert Weintraub

“Courage is not having the strength to go on; it is going on when you don’t have the strength.” This quote by Theodore Roosevelt opens this 38-chapter middle grade edition of Robert Weintraub’s New York Times bestseller about Judy, the purebred Pointer, and her best friend, Frank Williams, a Royal Air Force radar expert. The two met in a Prisoner of War camp in Japan during World War II. In fact, it is not until 120 pages into the book that Frank and Judy meet. Judy’s life before Frank included traveling on British gunboats, being stranded on a desert island, traveling through jungles and imprisoned in Padang. She had had a litter of pups aboard a ship, and another while in a Japanese POW camp, and was essentially not only a heroic war dog but the world’s first therapy dog, bringing hope and comfort to soldiers and refugees she met along the way. The book has many photos and sidebars about the war and Judy’s story in light of these hardships is made even more remarkable. Written for a middle grade audience, the violence and desperate measures Frank had to take to keep Judy by his side for years are evenly paced throughout and the sidebars even include information on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, something not even considered following World War II. When the pair returned to London the Pointer was now known as “Gunboat Judy” or “Precious Pointer” and following her six-month quarantine (standard for all dogs entering the United Kingdom) Judy and Frank were honored in many ceremonies throughout the country for their service. Finally, the pair settled in Africa working on a food growing project for the British, where Judy had her third litter of pups and they spent two years together before Judy’s passing. The deeply touching relationship between Frank and Judy, as well as the historical details and uplifting stories of courage and survival, make this an unforgettable volume definitely worth adding to a collection.

Reviewer: Debra Lampert-Rudman

A Beetle is Shy

by Dianna Hutts Aston

illustrated by Sylvia Long

Some beetles can crawl through the eye of a needle. Some of them measure half a foot in length. Some dig and some hop. Some fly and some swim. All of them have incredible features that dazzle the eyes and ensnare the senses. Beetles come in every color of the rainbow, in incredible shapes, with astonishing abilities. Aston shares with readers’ insight about the character of these special bugs. Indeed, she skillfully explains their traits, but the narrative is not what makes this tremendous volume stand out. What truly resonates are the wonderful illustrations by Sylvia Long. With dexterity, artistry, and vision she depicts these creatures of the wild, bringing them and all their subtle nuances to the eyes of young audiences. The painted renderings make them accessible in ways that photography may not. An informational book worthy of any science teacher’s library, surely this one belongs in the hands of curious young people.

Reviewer: Remy Dou