The Plot: Bell is a kid who has spent most of his life in a colony on Mars. He and a dozen other people live a subterranean existence watching out for dust storms and waiting for the next supply ship. Conflict on earth has prevented contact with other small colonies on Mars established by other nations. When the adults in the colony are sickened by a strange illness, Bell and the other young people must find a way to reach out for help before their food and oxygen run out.
My Take: I often have trouble finding good science fiction books to recommend to young readers. Thankfully the ‘Lion of Mars’ is an enjoyable read and definitely falls squarely into the sci-fi genre. Holm does an excellent job giving the reader a sense of how important the relationships within the colony are to its survival. It was also interesting to contemplate how fascinated the young people were with Earth. It certainly drove home the point of how much we take for granted on our beautiful planet.
One Interesting Note About The Author: The impetus for this book came from Jennifer Holm’s father who was a fighter pilot during the Korean War. Nursing a lifelong interest in space, Jennifer learned that many of the early astronauts were also Korean War pilots.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: The green boat comes to the island once a year with a new child and then ferries the eldest child on the island away — thereby obeying the rule that only 9 children may live on the island at a time. But this year seems different for Jinny because her best friend Deen is leaving, thereby making Jinny the elder and breaking her heart at the same time. In Deen’s place arrives Ess, an adorable tangle of black curls whose responsibility for care falls to Jinny. As Jinny bonds with Ess and learns how to raise a child, she begins to question the rules of the island and why the children are even there in the first place. Jinny soon learns, however, that with curiosity often comes trouble.
My Take: Children stranded on an island inevitably brings to mind the book Lord of the Flies, but most of the similarities between the two novels end there. Much like William Golding, Snyder is interested in examining power structures, but her focus is more internal. The character of Jinny is growing, changing, and coming to new realizations — this change is more central to the theme than any fighting between the characters. Orphan Island is therefore in some ways more like Peter Pan or the Chronicles of Narnia than the Lord of the Flies. It is a book about childhood and the anxieties of it coming to an end. It is the realization that one can’t stay safe and comfortable forever. I applaud Snyder for not giving the reader easy answers to complicated questions and for making characters that defy pat generalizations. At the end of the book, we are not certain whether Jinny’s choices were wise or stupid, selfish or selfless. This troubling ambiguity makes great reading, so I would happily suggest this book to any mature middle grade reader that is ready to struggle with deeper questions.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Laurel Snyder is a terrible gardener and loves black licorice.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: War is approaching and Peter’s father must go off to fight. Before he leaves, he forces Peter to leave his pet fox, Pax, in the woods; it is not welcome at his grandfather’s house where Peter must stay for the time being. After leaving Pax and traveling to his grandfather’s, Peter is wracked by guilt and decides that he must journey to find his fox. Alone in the woods, Pax learns the way of the wild foxes and learns that as the war draws closer, the animals must travel to safety. Both Peter and Pax find themselves on a journey on which they will discover much about themselves.
My Take: I thought that this was an engaging book from the first page. Pennypacker manages to relate the story of a child’s attachment to his pet in a way that is heartfelt but not sentimental. I also appreciated that she portrays realistic fox behavior but also uses a deft amount of anthropomorphism to draw in the reader. The foxes came across as both believable animals and interesting characters. I found that the narrative slowed down a touch when Peter sought refuge at a hermit’s house, but I thought the ending was sheer magic and more than made up for it.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Pennypacker is also the author of the Clementine book series.
The Plot (in 5 sentences or less): This nonfiction book follows the journey of two young men, Marshall Bond and Stanley Pearce, as they journey into the Klondike during the gold rush. Starting in the summer of 1897, they make the decision to head for British Columbia only a few hours after gold rumors began flying. Sailing to Skaguay, Alaska by ship, the men put together an outfit and journey over the White Horse Trail, over several lakes, and into the waters of the Yukon River. They arrive in Dawson City in the fall, build a cabin, make connections and begin doing the hard work of staking and working a mining claim.
My Take: I was impressed by the use of primary source material, the letters of Bond and Pierce, throughout the book. Selected passages from the letters are interesting and understandable to modern younger readers. The authors’ own writings that are interspersed between the letters adds a fuller picture of the arduous Klondike journey. The generous amount of photographs and maps also add to the appeal. I would absolutely recommend this book to younger readers interested in the gold rush of the late 1890’s. Ages 12+
One Interesting Note About the Author(s): Kim Richardson is the great-great-grand nephew of Stanley Pearce. In the summer of 2010, David Meissner retraced some of the journey of Bond and Pearce into the Klondike. He stated that “every step of the trail made me appreciate the toughness of these stampeders.”