‘The Ethan I Was Before’ by Ali Standish

ethan i was beforeThe Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Ethan and his family are moving from Boston to a small town in coastal Georgia, seeking a new start after a traumatic experience involving Ethan and his best friend Kacey.  As Ethan learns to adjust to his new settings and to try to make peace with the past, he makes a new friend in Coralee, a lively girl who helps Ethan settle into his new life.  But being friends with Coralee also brings its own complications, some that remind him of his painful experience with Kacey.  As Ethan and Coralee’s friendship deepens, they discover that the past has a way of resurfacing in painful ways.

My Take:  This was an excellent read and I can understand it’s inclusion on a lot of mock Newberry lists this year.  Ethan’s pain is convincing and as readers we are pulling for him to find some way to resolve his grief and find solace in his new relationships.   Standish does employ some well worn tropes (the mean girl, the bully, etc.) but none of that should bother younger readers.  I definitely recommend this to anyone looking for good realistic fiction about trying to make peace with the past.

One Interesting Note About The Author:  According to her website, when Ali Standish was young, she and her mother would play a story game.  Ali would give her three things (like blueberries, a panda bear, and a snowy forest, for example) and her mother would be challenged to create a story out of it.

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

 

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The Plot in 5 Sentences or Less:  Georgie Burkhardt is a 13 year old girl living with her mom and grandfather in Placid, Wisconsin in the 1870’s.  When the book opens, Georgie is mourning the death of her older sister Agatha whose body has turned up miles away near Dog Hollow.  The body is too decomposed to be recognized, but it is wearing Agatha’s distinctive dress.  Georgie refuses to accept that her sister is dead and slips away one night with Agatha’s former beau Billy McCabe on a journey to Dog Hollow.   But seeking answers will put them in great danger and test Georgie’s bonds of sisterhood.

My Take:  This is an excellent YA mystery set in the mid west in the 19th century.  The characters are well developed and I did not find them artificial as I so often do in YA fiction.  Timberlake does an excellent job of expressing that Georgie is a strong female without making her into some over the top Katniss Everdeen.  I did think that the ending could be more mournful and therefore more poignant and open ended, but people love happy endings.   One Came Home makes me want to read more by Timberlake.  Ages 12+

One Interesting Note About the Author:  Passenger pigeons play a large role in this book.  Timberlake’s inspiration to write One Came Home  derived from her discovery of the rich history of this extinct bird.  In 1871, the largest nesting of pigeons ever recorded occurred in south-central Wisconsin.  The entire length of it was 125 miles long!

 

 

Muckers by Sandra Neil Wallace

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The Plot in 5 Sentences or Less:  Red O’Sullivan is a senior at Hatley High School in a mining town in Arizona in the fall of 1950.  He is also the quarterback for the Hatley Muckers, who haven’t made a push for the title since 1941, when Red’s brother Bobby was QB.  Bobby’s death in World War II exacerbated his father’s drinking and his mother’s loss of sanity.  Red hopes to redeem his school and his family by leading his team to the championship cup. But larger forces at work; the Korean War is raging, the mine is closing, and the school is shutting down.

My Take:  The Korean War.  The mine closing. The school shutting down.  The alcoholic father.  The insane mother.  The dead brother.  The corrupt priest.  Wallace piles on a mountain (no pun intended) of trouble onto the protagonist.  By the middle of the book, I began feeling like perhaps this was all too much, as if the book were a parody of some blue collar nightmare set in the southwest.  Or perhaps this was Friday Night Lights in Arizona.  I believe that a tighter focus on fewer problems may have yielded a more powerful read.  However, I commend Wallace for offering the reader an unfamiliar time and place in history.  Sports fans and history buffs may enjoy this book.  Ages 12+

One Interesting Note About the Author:  Sandra Neil Wallace was for many years an ESPN sports announcer.  According to her website, her favorite ice cream is Tiger Tiger (a mix of licorice and orange sherbert!).  It is a flavor easily found in Canada but not the United States.

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

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The Plot (in 5 sentences or less):  The year is 1946 and 13 year old Jack Baker from Kansas is sent to the Morton Hall Academy for Boys in Maine after his mother dies and his father returns to the Navy.  At his new school, Jack feels like an outsider but soon meets Early Auden, an eccentric boy who has a genius for such things as mathematics and small boat craft and is also constructing an elaborate story around the number pi.  As their friendship develops, Jack learns that Early is also mourning his brother, who was reported dead in France in World War II.  Over fall break, the two boys push off into the Kennebec River and go on a mysterious journey that will bring them closer to their lost loved ones.

My Take:  From the midpoint of the book until the end, Vanderpool injects a strong dose of magical realism, involving such things as pirates, anthropomorphic bears, and a volcano.  I was initially skeptical of these fantastical elements, but, towards the final chapters, I decided that the author had pulled it off.  I would consider this a very special book that explores the mysteries of grief.  There is a great deal of symbolism and meaning and Vanderpool draws heavily on fairy tale and archetypes to add depth to the narrative.  I found Navigating Early to be a profound exploration of how we search for answers in our bereavement.  (ages 12+)

One Interesting Note About the Author:  Vanderpool researched Navigating Early by visiting Maine and exploring lighthouses, a boarding school, and even taking a hike on the Appalachian Trail.  She did not see any bears.

 

 

 

The Ballad of Jessie Pearl by Shannon Hitchcock

ballad-of-jesse-pearlThe Story (in 5 sentences or less):  Jessie Pearl is a 14 year old girl living in rural North Carolina in the early 1920’s.  Her mother died a few years before and Jessie, bright and academically minded, promised to her mother that she would go to “teacher’s school” and make something of her life.  Her plans are complicated however, when her older sister Carrie, having recently given birth to a son, dies of tuberculosis and Jessie is now in charge of the child.  This, coupled with her feelings for local farm boy J.T., are strong reasons that pull on her to stay put.  Will Jessie Pearl settle down early and become a mom and farmer’s wife, or will she head to the teacher’s school in the mountains of Watauga County?

My Take:  I thought that this book was well written.  Hitchcock set out to write a story that brought to life her family’s trials in North Carolina on the eve of the Great Depression.  My own family haunted the mountains of the North Carolina-Tennessee border during this time, so that may have been one reason why I appreciated this book.  My one criticism is that I found myself wondering if the pace, while fine for an old man like me, was too slow for younger readers.  This may be a book that older readers, say 15 and above, can appreciate.   The theme and plot of this novel great reminded me of Katherine Paterson’s “Lyddie.”

One Interesting Note About the Author:  According to her website, the death of her sister in a car accident in 1999 provided the motivation for her to begin writing novels.  She decided that “life was too short for unfulfilled dreams.”

 

My Happy Life by Rose Lagercrantz and Eva Eriksson

My Happy LifeGenre: Realistic Fiction

Series? No
Audience Age: 7-9

Rating (1-5):  4

The story in no more than five sentences:  Dani, a girl who is about to start Kindergarten, lives with just her dad and their cat since her mom passed away.  She is very nervous about starting school, but becomes much happier after she befriends Ella.  They do everything together including swinging, trading bookmarks, and playing with Ella’s hamster Partyboy.  But in the middle of the year, Ella has to move away.  Dani is incredibly distraught until a series of events shakes her from her sadness and moves her towards other, different friendships.

The best part of the book in 1 sentence:  The strongest part of this book is Langercrantz’s plain writing style that perfectly expresses Dani slowly adjusting to her loss.  The pen and ink illustrations by Eva Eriksson also warrant mentioning.

 The worst part of the book in 1 sentence:  I honestly cannot think of anything outrageously bad about this book.

 1 interesting note about the author:  Lagercrantz and Eriksson are both Swedish and have been writing children’s books together for a long time.

Ways to Live Forever

If you’re looking for a book to make you cry, this is it.  Eleven year old Sam has leukemia, so he stays home everyday with his teacher Ms. Willis and his friend Felix, who also has cancer.  Sam likes to list facts about himself, such as he has always wanted to go up a down elevator or take a ride on an airship.

With these lists, Sam seems to be able to hold his world together against his disease, but this stability is tested when Felix develops an infection and is rushed to the hospital.  He passes away a few days later and in the following weeks, Sam’s health also deteriorates.  Sam’s parents struggle to grant him some final wishes, including taking a ride on an airship.

The final pages are extraordinarily touching.  I’d recommend to ages 9 to 13.  Themes include perseverance in the face of death and family bonding in a time of trial.