“Beyond The Bright Sea” by Lauren Wolk

Image result for beyond the bright seaThe Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less:  When Crow was an infant, she washed ashore onto a tiny island located off of the coast of New England and a man named Osh found her and raised her as his own daughter.  Local rumor held that Crow had come from the leper colony on Penikese Island, but there was never any proof of this.  Now older, Crow has begun to question her origins and wants to know who her biological parents are.  She and Osh visit Penikese and there find the beginnings of a mystery that will bring great wealth but also great danger to their small island.

My Take: I greatly enjoyed Wolk’s novel Wolf Hollow and was excited about Beyond the Bright Sea.  I was impressed by Wolk’s description of  the Elizabeth Islands and I thought that she did an excellent job of situating the reader into the rhythms of Crow and Osh’s life on the ocean.  Wolk makes a good choice of framing the narrative around 3 characters, each with their own rough charm and simple decency.  Some of the mystery turns on events that are a little too neat and coincidental, and I believe that book would have been stronger with a twist along the way.  However, this remains a solid choice for young readers looking for a mystery or a historical fiction.

One Interesting Note About The Author: Lauren Wolk lives on Cape Cod and has visited many of the Elizabeth Islands.

 

Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Plot in Five Sentences Or Less:  Bud Calloway is an orphan who never knew his father and whose mother died a few years ago.   Bud springs himself from his next foster home and manages to hide out for a few nights outside the local public library.  But the road beckons, and soon Bud is on his way to Grand Rapids to find his father.  Along the way, he meets a lot of quirky characters who help him along in his quest.  He eventually encounters a grumpy jazz musician who doesn’t fit his model of fatherhood.


My Take:  
This is the first book that I had read by Curtis and I was not disappointed.   No landscape writer, Curtis’s strength lies in his ear for creating a character through the sound of their words.  I can certainly understand why this book won the 2000 Newberry Medal Award.  Bud is an artfully sketched out character who is as adept at survival as he is with the English language.  I appreciated Bud’s rituals to stay out of trouble with adults  and his humorous “Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself.”   I recommend this book to any 5th grader and above who can appreciate Bud’s interesting view on life.

One Interesting Note About the Author:   According to his website, after graduating high school in Flint, Michigan, Curtis worked in Fisher’s Body Plant #1, hanging 80 lbs. car doors onto Buick’s.

Lincoln’s Grave Robbers by Steve Sheinkin

ImageThe Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Jack Hughes and Terrence Mullen are low level crooks in the late nineteenth century who make their living pushing counterfeit money a.k.a. “coney.”  With the capture of their engraver, Hughes and Mullen devise a crazy scheme to raid Abraham Lincoln’s grave and hold his remains for ransom.  On their trail is Secret Service Agent Patrick Tyrell, who plants a ‘roper’ or turncoat in their midst to keep an eye on the grave robbing gang.  The action climaxes at Lincoln’s tomb one night when Hughes and Mullen attempt to pull off their heist.

My Take:  Sheinkin successfully bottles lightning in a jar again.  In Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, he recreates the fast pace and interesting narrative of his previous book “Bomb” (please see my review of that book here).  I would recommend this book to any teenager interested in a little known episode of history.  This book will hold their interest.

One Interesting Note About the Author:   When he was doing research for this book, the curators of the Lincoln Monument showed Steve around the grounds and let him see places that most tourists never get to see– “like the old dirt floor labyrinth under the monument where Tyrell waited, gun in hand, for the robbery to begin.”

Duke by Kirby Larson

ImageThe Plot In Five Sentences or Less:  Hobie Hanson is a 5th grader in Seattle, Washington during World War II.  His father is away fighting the Germans, so Hobie spends most of his time with his friends and his German Shepherd Duke.  Life is not easy without his dad around, and only becomes harder when Mitch Mitchell, the school bully, sets his eyes on him and challenges him to give up Duke for the Dogs for Defense Program.  Much to Mitch’s surprise, Hobie rises to the challenge and soon Duke is part of the war effort and on his way to the Pacific.  Hobbie finds that he now must adjust to life both without his dad and his dog.

My Take:  I found this to be a very straight forward book about a boy’s experience and sacrifice on the home front during World War II.  My one criticism would be that Larson could have risked introducing more strangeness into the story.  There was a lot of baseball and paper routes, what one might consider stock 1950’s Americana.  Still, for those looking for a good read about the connection between and boy and his dog, this is a good pick.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  According to her website, Kirby was born at Fort Lawton Army Hospital in Seattle, Washington. She cost $5.

Whistle in the Dark by Susan Hill Long

ImageThe Plot in Five Sentences or Less:  Clem lives in the mining country in the Ozarks of Missouri.  After his 13th birthday, he must leave school and join his father in the mines to make much needed money for the family.  Clem detests mining and is tempted to join his friend Linda Jean in her family bootleg business.  A string of family tragedies, however, reinforces the need for Clem to work the mines and he subsequently wonders if his life will ever change.

My Take:  This was a convincing and compelling account of families caught in the economic trap of lead mining in Missouri in the 1920’s.  Through the characters of Clem and his family, we appreciate how awful that life was and how few choices people had in that area of the country.  Long’s writing is plain and never devolves into sentimentality.  I applaud her for using the 3rd person point of view, rather than the more common first person.  Towards the end there are a few plot points that tie things up perhaps a bit too nicely, but overall this is a pleasant and educational read for ages 10+.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  As a child, Susan had the interesting habit of rating her days along a spectrum of 1-10.  Her rating was based on the requirements of “doing [her] homework, eat[ing] well, exercis[ing], practicing the flute, and doing something nice for someone.”  She no longer rates her days, but you may find out more about her at her website.

Fallout by Todd Strasser

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The Plot in Five Sentences or Less:  Recounts the experience of one middle American family during the nuclear standoff of 1963.  The plot alternates in time between the family preparing a nuclear fallout shelter and then actually using it during a nuclear strike.  9 people make it into the shelter and tensions run high as time passes.  The story is told from the point of view of a teenage boy whose father constructs the shelter.

My Take:  Fallout is enjoyable and also educates readers on the widespread fear during the early sixties of a nuclear strike.  Strasser does an excellent job of building up the anxiety and claustrophobia in the fallout shelter.  He also does not dodge the difficult topics of burgeoning teenage sexual feelings nor the bathroom issues involved with 9 people trapped in a room.  This cannot be considered strict historical fiction as there was never a nuclear strike on American soil during the 1960’s.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  Fallout is based on Strasser’s father constructing a bomb shelter in the family’s backyard in 1962.  Strasser revisits this in the author’s note at the end of the book.

Canary in the Coal Mine by Madelyn Rosenberg

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The Plot In 5 Sentences or Less:  Bitty is a canary that lives in the town of Coalbank Hollow, West Virginia in 1931.  Caged with other canaries in a boy’s room, the birds are daily taken to the mines and used as methane and carbon monoxide detectors.  The mines are dangerous for man and bird and alike, so Bitty concocts a plan to escape.  After springing himself, he makes his way to Charleston where he plans to somehow petition the state government to make mining safer.  Along the way he meets lots of new friends,  makes some enemies, and learns that changing the status quo is not easy.

My Take:  This is a solid anthropomorphic book in the spirit of E.B. White  or Dick King-Smith.  I learned a lot about mining and also about birds (before reading this I couldn’t tell a grackle from a crow).  Some readers may quibble about a bird somehow knowing to make their way to Charleston to legislate for mining conditions, but, hey, its a children’s book.  Ages 9+

One Interesting Note about the Author:   Madelyn’s first children’s “book” was called “Mommy’s Flying Birthday Cake.”  You may view a copy of it here.  

Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larson

 

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The Plot in 5 Sentences or Less:  After she failed at running her Uncle Chester’s farm, Hattie Brooks is now working in a boardinghouse in Great Falls, Montana in 1919.  Seeking to become a big city reporter, she makes her way to San Francisco with an acting troupe.  She also wants to meet one Ruby Danvers, who apparently was very close to her uncle, and find out the background of their relationship.  Through her pluck and determination, Hattie makes great progress in her career as a reporter, taking a ride in a new Boeing airplane and even meeting Woodrow Wilson.  But Hattie must eventually make a choice between staying in San Francisco or following her true love Charlie.  

My Take:  Having not read Hattie Big Sky, I still felt that this was a fine, well written book about a girl trying to make it in the big city in the early 20th century.  I can’t say that it was the most exciting book that I’ve read, the narrative is driven more by the relationships that Hattie makes rather than any action, but girls will find a lot to like in the character of Hattie.  Ages 9+

One Interesting Note About the Author:  According to her website, Kirby Larson originally wrote Hattie Big Sky inspired by her great-grandmother’s homesteading experience in eastern Montana.

 

 

 

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.

Father Groppi: Marching for Civil Rights by Stuart Stotts

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The Plot (in 5 sentences or less):  Father Groppi was a leader in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s in Wisconsin.  While he attended seminary as a young man, James Groppi worked in youth centers in underprivileged areas in segregated  Milwaukee where he learned about the travails of the African American population.  After becoming ordained, he traveled the south during the 1950’s and early 60’s where he witnessed first hand the violent racism of the south.  Deciding to bring the civil rights movement to Milwaukee, Father Groppi began organizing marches demanding treatment in equal housing and public education.  His most famous moments came when he marched a group of blacks over the Sixteenth Street Viaduct into the working class white enclaves.

 

My Take:  This is a straightforward book that will not only introduce young readers to Father Groppi’s struggles in Milwaukee, but also to the broader struggle of civil rights. Throughout the book, the author defines and explains terms and concepts such as “boycotts” and “civil disobedience” that may seem unfamiliar to younger minds.  If you are looking for a biography on a lesser known civil rights advocate, this would be an excellent choice. ages 10+

 

One Interesting Note About the Author:  Stuart Stotts is not only an author, but also a dynamic speaker, performer, and early childhood educator trainer!  Check out more about him at his website:  stuartstotts.com