Book review: Two roads, by Joesph Bruchac

Bruchac, Joseph. Two Roads. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2018. $16.99. ISBN 9780735228863. 320 pgs. Ages 10+. P8Q8

Cal Black and his Pop are “gentlemen of the road” and have been living as hobos since they lost their farm in the economic collapse after WWI. Twelve-year-old Cal likes this life and takes to heart the ethical code that real hobos follow. When Will Black, Cal’s Pop, who is a veteran of the war, feels a calling to go to Washington DC to join the Bonus Army. This is a historical event- around 45,000 WWI veterans protested at the capital to receive their promised bonus payment for their years of service to the country. When Pop goes to DC, Cal’s life changes forever. The Bonus Army is no place for a child- the protest is a dangerous one (they are fired on by General McArthur), so Cal is sent to a boarding school. The school Pop has decided on is the (fictional) Challagi Indian Boarding School- and at that point, Cal learns that he and his father are Creek Indians. This is a confusing time for him. He doesn’t understand why his father passed for white in the army, and why he never told Cal about their heritage. Once at the school, other Creek boys take Cal (now called Blackbird) under their wings and teach him about his Creek culture.

I found the themes of this novel really interesting. The combination of the losses and grief of the Great Depression, issues veterans faced at that time, the hobo code and lifestyle, Creek culture, and Indian boarding school life makes for an informative and emotional read. Cal’s attitude is very influenced by the hobo code and its ideas about chivalry, honor, responsibility, and good conduct, and this helps him through the difficulties of being away from his cherished father and in adjusting to a new and sometimes rough school.

I wonder if Cal’s experience at Challagi may not be a very accurate representation of the terrible treatment many young native people experienced in such places. Cal’s troubles seem to be resolved fairly easily, but the author does make a point to talk about how schools like this improved enormously at a certain point (before Cal attended), and of course, the book is intended for middle grade readers.

VERDICT: This book will be very much at home both in my library’s Native America collection and in the middle grade fiction section. I can think of several kids immediately who will enjoy reading about Cal and his life.

June 2020 review by Carol Schramm.

Book review: The Good Thieves, by Katherine Rundell

Rundell, Katherine. The Good Thieves. Simon & Schuster (BYR), 2019. $17.99. ISBN 9781481419482. 264 pages. Ages 8-12. P7 Q7

We all know that it is wrong to steal, but what if you are stealing something that belongs to your family? In 1920 New York, Vita finds out that Victor Sorrotore has swindled her grandfather out of his Castle and that a valuable jewel necklace with an emerald pendant is hidden inside. It proves much harder than Vita thinks to get the pendant back. Along the way, she meets some unusual friends who help her. Will she be able to recover the necklace and restore the castle to its rightful owner? Vita’s story includes a bout with polio that left her with a limp, her father being killed in the Great War, and being an orphan who is left to take care of herself. I looked up information about the circus in the 1920’s and the facts matched.

Verdict: Readers will be entertained and held in suspense as Vita meets new friends and tries a variety of things to retrieve her grandfather’s emerald pendant. The ending holds unexpected opportunities for some of the characters. This is a good read aloud for families or teachers.

May 2020 review by Tami Harris.

Book review: Secret Soldiers, by Keely Hutton

Hutton, Keely. Secret Soldiers. Farrah Straus Giroux, 2019. $16.99. ISBN 9780374309039. 309 pages. Ages 10-14. P8Q8

A true adventure awaits those who read Secret Soldiers. This historical fiction story follows the trials and tribulations of four brave boys who fought the Great War as sappers under the battlefields of Flanders. More than a quarter million underage British boys served in the four year conflict. The boys who served lied about their ages and volunteered to fight. This story follows the clay kickers, a specialized crew of soldiers digging secret tunnels under the battlefields of the Western Front. The narrative follows four boys, all white, as they struggle to work as a team and complete their secret mission beneath a raging war. The battles they face are both internal and external as they transform from boys to men in the choices they must make.

Verdict: This middle-grade historical adventure is a must for both the library and the classroom. The engaging story will appeal to both boys and girls alike, and has a message of strength and perseverance that young people can connect with.

March 2020 review by Denyse Marsh.

Book reviews: The Portal, by Kathryn Lasky

Lasky, Kathryn. The Portal. (Tangled in Time series, book 1). Harper, 2019. $16.99. ISBN 9780062693259. 361 pages. Ages 8-12. P7 Q8

You know that feeling you have when you are holding a book that has a magical adventure just waiting for you? From the cover until the last page, I was drawn in and enraptured. This historical fantasy follows the life of Rose who is orphaned and sent to live with her grandmother. Unfortunately, her grandmother does not always know who she is, which adds to Rose feeling displaced and not connected with family. Her grandmother’s greenhouse becomes a refuge for Rose. Unbeknownst to Rose, the greenhouse contains a portal which transports her back in time five hundred years to Hatfield palace. While living in the past, she meets Franny who has secrets of her own. I enjoyed the mix of present day and past intertwining. While Rose is in present time, she has to deal with three mean girls and her few friends band together to stand up to the girls. In the past, she finds a locket with her mother, a man and herself. Could this locket be a clue to her past and could it affect her future?  The three illustrations are black and white and include Queen Elizabeth’s dress, shoes, and an old bag and dress. I checked the facts about King Henry VIII and princess Elizabeth and the facts in the novel are true. This is book 1 of two in the Tangled series by Lasky, a New York Times bestselling author. The sequel, Tangled in Time : The Burning Queen, was released October 29th, 2019.

Verdict: Historical fantasy is one of my favorite genres and this novel delivered. With a balanced blend of the present–cell phones and texting–along with past, this novel is sure to keep a readers’ interest. Themes of mean girls, being an upstander, searching for one’s biological parent, and trying to find one’s place in life flow through this historical fantasy.

October 2019 review by Tami Harris.


Book review: A Slip of a Girl, by Patricia Reilly Giff

Giff, Patricia Reilly.  A Slip of a Girl. Holiday House, 2019. 234 pgs. Includes glossary. $16.99. ISBN: 978-0-8234-3955-3. Gr. 5+.  P8 Q8

This free-verse story is set in Ireland at the time of the Land Wars when Irish farmers were evicted from their land by the British.  The British landlords raised the rent on the land, forcing tenants unable to pay the rents off the land. They were then replaced by more profitable flocks of sheep. This situation was further complicated by potato rot, whole crops of potatoes were ruined, which resulted in starvation and death.  Anna and her family are just one of the families that were effected by all of this. Immigration to the United States was an option for those who could afford it. Anna’s two brothers and later her sister went to America.  Anna stayed behind taking care of her disabled sister after her mother passed away. The story is rich with the flavor of this time.

Verdict: This is one of the best told stories about this time in Ireland history.

September 2019 review by Carol Bernardi.

Book review: On Snowden Mountain, by Jeri Watts

Watts, Jeri. On Snowden Mountain. Candlewick Press, 2019. 193 pgs. $16.99. ISBN: 978-0-7636-9744-0. Gr. 7+. P8 Q8

Ellen loves her Baltimore school, the books, the subjects, all of it. In school she doesn’t have a lot of friends, they think she draws attention to herself as she always has the answer to the questions the teacher asks. When her father volunteers for active duty in World War II, just  as her mother has gone into another of her deep deep depressions, Ellen, out of options with no food or supervision, calls upon her distant Aunt Pearl for help.  Aunt Pearl takes Ellen and her mother to her remote home on Snowden Mountain, Virginia, a tiny city surrounded by trees and more trees. It is hard for Ellen to see the worth in this remote place without electricity or running water. This well written book deals with mental illness, child abuse, friendship, acceptance, and self discovery. Ellen learns that it is okay to be a young girl and accept the help that comes in many ways.

Verdict: The author writes with compassion of mental illness and with an understanding that the reader is able to connect to. The description of child abuse of one of the secondary characters was hard to deal with but when he finally stands up for himself I cheered.

October 2019 review by Carol Bernardi.

Book review: Words on Fire, by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Nielsen, Jennifer A. Words on Fire. Scholastic Press, 2019. 322 pgs. $17.99. ISBN: 978-1-338-27547-6. Gr. 6+. P7 Q8

Living in Lithuanian under the occupation of Russia and the Russian Cossack soliders is difficult. Audra is 12-years-old the year she learns what her mother’s and father’s secret missions entail. The Cossack soldiers break into Audra’s farm house and arrest her parents. She escapes with the secret package in a back pack. The package holds a book written the in Lithuanian language, a language banned by the Russian government. The Russians feel that banning these books the will erase the Lithuanian culture and language, making it easier for the Russians to assimulate them into their country. People like Audra’s parents have defied the Russians by smuggling books, in their language, to the people of Lithuania. They will do anything to get the books, even if it means your home will be burned and you imprisoned. This hurls Audra into a secret group who smuggle and hide books for the people of Lithuania.

Verdict: This book deals with many different topics, death of parents, the Cossacks, occupation by another country and the determination of a country to retain their language and culture. Nielsen melds these topics into a fast paced adventure that a portrays Audra as a courageous, heroic girl determined to fight the Cossacks at all costs.

October 2019 review by Carol Bernardi.

Book review: Allies, by Alan Gratz

Gratz, Alan. Allies. Scholastic Press, 2019. 322 pgs. $17.99. ISBN: 978-1-338-24572-1. Gr. 6+. P8 Q8

The Allied invasion of Normandy, France, the first step to set Europe free, comes to life in several stories told through the lives of his characters, beginning with two young American soliders in a landing craft heading for the beaches of Normandy. One of them is an American Jew, the other is a German American, but both keep these secrets to themselves. The fear that these two feel on the landing craft and their rush out to the beach, with bullets flying around them and men dying, was horrendous. Gratz’s other characters include a Canadian paratrooper, an African American medic, and a French resistance fighter. The story is told through these different voices which are brought together in the final charpter of the book. Gratz weaves this story which gives a true rendition of D-Day without foul language or sex.

Verdict: Buy it! I love the way the author is able to combine all of these different chracters to give a very clear dramatic senseof what this day was like.

October 2019 review by Carol Bernardi.

Book review: A Squirrelly Situation, by Jacqueline Kelly, illustrated by Jennifer L. Meyer

Kelly, Jacqueline. A Squirrelly Situation. (Calpurnia Tate Girl Vet series, book 5). Illus. by Jennifer L. Meyer. Holt, 2019. 100p. $15.99. ISBN 978-1-62779-877-8. Ages 8-11. P8Q8

Characters from Kelly’s Newbery Honor Book The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and the setting of early 20th century Texas have evolved into an easy series of chapter books in which Callie Vee, who wants to become a veterinarian, typically encounters wounded animals. In this book, her brother brings home an abandoned baby squirrel which is adopted by the family cat. The injury comes when Fluffy the squirrel breaks his tale in a slamming screen door. The book culminates in Emily’s discovery of why a small, lumpy squirrel weighs so much in the community contest to produce the heaviest squirrel.

Verdict: Fluffy’s escapade in the kitchen and the different reactions of family members to the new addition provide the humor in the book, and the black and white drawings enhance the delight of the book. A simple read with some adventure but not a lot of fright.

June 2019 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Captain Rosalie, by Timothée de Fombelle, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, translated by Sam Gordon

de Fombelle, Timothée. Captain Rosalie. Illus. by Isabelle Arsenault. Trans. by Sam Gordon. Candlewick, 2018. 60p. $15.99. ISBN 978-1-5362-0520-6. Ages 10+. P7Q10

As her father fights in World War I and her mother works in a factory, 5-year-old Rosalie believes she is on a secret mission spying on the enemy while disguised as a little girl. She goes to school early in her French village and sits in the back of the classroom with older children and listens to her mother read letters from her father in the evening. Rosalie’s life changes when her mother receives a blue envelope and the father’s letters stop coming. Determined to discover what has happened, she runs away from school to find the envelope and read the letters. Instead of the happy descriptions of life at home when her father returns her mother “read” from the letters, she finds the dirty, misery of her father’s life and the revelation that he has died. Watercolor and ink sketches accompany two-page spreads with dark backgrounds highlighted by Rosalie’s flame-colored hair or the blue ink of the letters.

Verdict: The grimness of war is relieved by the love of Rosalie’s mother for her daughter, the warm understanding by one of the older students for Rosalie, and Rosalie’s own resilience. A tremendously powerful story in quiet, spare tones.

June 2019 review by Nel Ward.