Muckers by Sandra Neil Wallace


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


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:




Bomb: the Race to Build-And Steal-The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin


The Plot (in 5 sentences or less):  Tipped off by European physicists in 1939 that it was possible to create an extraordinarily dangerous bomb, FDR signs the order which sets off the race to create this powerful weapon before the Nazis do.   Brilliant physics professor Robert Oppenheimer puts together a team of world class talent and brings them to Los Alamos, New Mexico.  Meanwhile, Russian agents scramble to cultivate spy connections to penetrate the military base and steal the secrets behind the atomic bomb design.  Concerned that Nazis are ahead in the race to build the bomb, partisans attack a heavy water producing plant in Norway to to inhibit German efforts.   The final chapters of the book cover the story of the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan and the devastating effects.

My Take:   I was lucky enough to hear Steve Sheinkin speak at the Virginia Library Association’s Conference in Williamsburg, VA on September 27 when he accepted an award for this book.  It is definitely well deserved.  Bomb is tightly written and reads like a fiction thriller.  I read it in probably two sittings and simply did not want it to end.  My one critique of the book is its use of conversational dialogue throughout.  I always question when historical non-fiction books use quotes: how do they know that they said exactly that?  Still, this is a mild criticism for a wonderful book.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  Steve Sheinkin started his career by editing and writing textbooks.  Disenchanted with how many interesting stories that he had to leave out of the history books, he began writing history books for kids in which he could keep all of the fascinating odds and ends.



Etched in Clay: the Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet by Andrea Cheng

etched-in-clay-andrea-chengThe Story (in 5 sentences or less):  Dave is a slave purchased by Harvey Drake in Augusta, Georgia in 1815.  Harvey takes him to Pottersville, South Carolina and not only teaches him pottery, but also how to read.  Over the span of years, Dave suffers greatly as his loved ones (including two wives) are sold away.  Dave begins carving words and poems into some of his pottery, a small act of sedition and outlet for his grief.

My Take:  I wondered if this book would be able to measure up to the quality of the Caldecott Honor book “Dave the Potter;” I believe that it does.  Written in short chapters of verse in 1st person, the poetry is never intrusive or self conscious, but rather breathes real life into the characters.  The poems are lean and spare, but sketch out the characters enough so that we grieve at the tragedies in Dave’s life.  I’d recommend this book to readers ages 11+ who are interested in knowing what being a slave feels like.  An appendix explains the life and times of Dave from an historical perspective.

One Interesting Note about the Author:  Andrea Cheng’s interest in Civil Right’s issues began at an early age when, growing up in Cincinnati, she remembers “sitting in the front yard with [her] friends, most of whom were African American, and hearing the sounds of the 1968 race riots just a few blocks away.”

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.”


Hammer of Witches by Shana Mlawski

Genre: Historical Fiction

Series? No

Audience: ages 9+

Rating (out of 5): 3

The Story (in 5 sentences or less):  Growing up in his Uncle Diego’s house in 15th century Spain, Baltasar often heard stories of the famous Moorish warrior-sorcerer Amir Al-Katib.  Thinking them to be nothing but stories, Baltasar is deeply confused when he is picked up by the Malleus Maleficarum, an arm of the Inquisition devoted to hunting sorcerers, and interrogated as to the whereabouts of Al-Katib.  During his interrogation, he finds that he also possesses magical powers, capable of summoning creatures from ancient stories.  Searching for answers, Baltasar discover’s that he is in fact the son of Al-Katib and that he must journey west to fight an evil that “threatens to destroy the world.”  Baltasar procures a position on the Santa Maria, captained by Christobal Colun,  on which he will sail towards the west, across the ocean in search of his father and the answers to his past.  

 My Take:    This is a book, much like A Wrinkle In Time, of a character searching for their father.  I give high marks to Mlawski for creating a multi ethnic protagonist who is searching for answers to their heritage.  This theme seems apt as much today as it was back in 1492.  One criticism is that as the book progresses, as more and more characters are introduced, I felt like some of them were redundant.  Was it necessary to encounter two island tribes?  Could not the character of Catalina be completely stricken and make for a tighter book?  Consequently, the final third of the book feels heavily weighted to me, and there were moments where I had to slow down to keep everyone straight.  

One interesting note about the author:  According to her website, Shana has read every Goosebumps and Baby-sitters Club book!  Quite a feat indeed!



The Ravenmaster’s Secret by Elvira Woodruff

ImageSynopsis:  The year is 1735 and the place is the Tower of London.  Forrest Harper is an 11 year old boy who is the son of the prison’s Ravenmaster.  His days are spent tending to the birds, playing with his rat catching friend Ned, and providing meals to some of the prisoners.  Forrest longs for adventure and receives some when a group of Scottish prisoners are sent to the tower.  Amongst them is a girl named Maddy who soon fills Forrest’s ear up with tales of her home in Scotland.

As the day of Maddie’s trial and execution approaches, Forest and Ned are tempted to become part of a plot to help her escape.  But there is so much at stake.  If they are caught, it would surely mean death for them and great shame for Forrest’s family.  What will they do?

Personal Reaction:  Because I enjoy reading about history and other cultures, this was a quick and easy read for me.  Woodruff packs this book with bullies, thugs, and shady people.  She also does such an excellent job of building characters and moving the plot along that I truly wanted for Forrest, Ned and Maddie to prevail.  After I hit the midway point of this book, I just burned through the rest. I had goosebumps as I read the final pages.  I’m not sure that I can give a book higher praise than that.

Themes include father-son relationships, testing of friendships, freedom vs. captivity, bullying,  the limits of patriotism, the morality of public executions, child labor, and child cruelty.

225 pages; published 2003

Taste of Salt: A Story of Modern Haiti by Frances Temple

     I often enjoy books that immerse me in other times and cultures, especially when I know very little about them.  Having little knowledge of modern politics in Haiti, Frances Temple’s A Taste of Salt was an engaging and eye opening book for me.

 The story centers around two young characters: Djo and Jeremie.  Djo is a young man who has grown up in the streets of Port Au Prince.  Abandoned by his family from an early age due to their poverty, Djo finds a home at Lafanmi Selavi, a shelter set up by the Catholic priest Jean –Bertrand Aristide.   Having a little schooling, Djo is able to become a teacher there, instructing the other street boys in reading and writing.  As time passes, Titid (Aristide) begins speaking out more and more on the injustices in Haiti.  Titid and his street children, including Djo, are marked for attack by the prevailing political order and their terrifying henchmen the Tonton macoutes.   But there are other threats as well as Djo learns when he is kidnapped, and transported to the Dominican Republic to cut cane on a sugar plantation.

Jeremie, a young woman in Port Au Prince, is also born into poverty, but her home life is more stable.  Her mother and aunt push her to work hard in school in the hopes that she will pull herself out of La Saline, the name of the slum in which she lives.  With this in mind she wins many awards in school, but she finds that she cannot escape the brutal political violence of Haiti.  After witnessing a massacre at a voting location and then the destruction of Titid’s church St. Jean Busco, Jeremie realizes that she must use her energy to help transform Haiti.

I thought that this book was an excellent read because it was both entertaining and educational.  I particularly enjoyed reading about Djo’s resourceful ways in which he deals with the horrendous life of cutting cane in Dominicae.  A Taste of Salt was published in 1992 and won the Jane Addam’s Children’s Book Award.  I’d recommend it to any young reader who wants to know more about Haiti, how underprivileged people cope with a dictatorial regime, and whether change is possible in broken societies.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin

Ten year old Sasha Zaichik’s greatest dream in life is to become a Young Soviet Pioneer.  His father works for the State Security and joining the Pioneers would make Sasha’s father proud and be an important step in following him in becoming a good Communist under Stalin.  The mother having passed away years before, Sasha and his father live in a komunalka, a communal living apartment.

Sasha’s life changes when police show up one night and arrest his father.  Their room is taken over and Sasha is thrown out in the snow.  Turned away by relatives that same night, Sasha looks forward to the next day at school when he will become a Young Soviet Pioneer in the initiation ceremony.

But Sasha’s luck does not improve at school.  While carrying the Soviet banner, he accidentally breaks the nose off of a Stalin statue.  Hiding the misdeed, Sasha’s actions set off a school wide emergency as the administration struggles to pin the blame on someone.

Yelchin does an excellent job capturing the fear, paranoia, and dark humor of the U.S.S.R during Stalin’s reign.  I found particularly compelling the anger and resiliency of Sasha’s classmates.  These children, so beyond their years in their concerns, do everything they can to baffle, in their own small way, Stalin’s system of terror.

An excellent choice for children interested in Soviet history.  I would also recommend to a parent or a teacher trying to show students what a society is like without freedoms and liberty.   A Newberry Honor for 2012.  Ages 9+

Tofu Quilt by Ching Yeung Russell


This is a verse novel narrated by a young girl set in the 1950’s and 60’s in Hong Kong.   Written almost as a verse diary over several years, the reader gains a glimpse into the girl’s life.  Her family subsists mainly from her father’s tailoring business, but work ebbs and flows.  When the father is not working, he makes patchwork blankets that the girl calls ‘tofu quilts.’  Despite money being tight, her mother manages to send the girl to private school where she develops a love of books.  Her dream is to grow up someday to become a writer.

Family tensions are explored as the girl describes her father’s family becoming upset with the mother for sacrificing so much on the narrator’s education.  Gender is also touched on as relatives counsel the girl to respect her elders and to one day obey her husband.

Readers will appreciate the unique verse form of this novel.  I did not find this book to be particularly interesting, but I did appreciate the clean, elegant writing style.  For ages 8+