By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Synopsis: A 10 year old girl named Ada was born with a twisted foot and because her mother is ashamed of her deformity, she abuses and neglects Ada and never allows her to leave their tiny apartment in 1939 London. Ada hears that most of the children are being sent to the countryside to escape the anticipated bombings. Though her mother forbids it, Ada is determined to be among those children. She secretly, painfully, teaches herself to walk and on the day the train full of kids is scheduled to leave, she and her brother wake early and make the painful trip to the station. When they arrive in the countryside, no one will take them because, as Ada and her brother have only now begun to realize, they are much dirtier, shabbier, and weaker-looking than all the other kids due to their mother’s extreme neglect. Ada had never seen herself in a mirror and is shocked to discover that “the nastiest girl I had ever seen” was in fact her own reflection.
Finally they are taken in by a reluctant Mrs. Smith who, despite dealing with her own sorrows, surprises herself by being a good guardian. The children thrive under her care: for the first time in their lives they are bathed, go to a doctor, wear clean clothes, sleep in a bed with sheets and pillows, eat healthy meals, and best of all for Ada, play outside as much as they want. Eventually, their mother locates them and brings them back to London because she doesn’t want to have to pay for someone else to take care of them. But Ada is determined to go back to Mrs. Smith, whom she considers to be her real mother.
Review: I only write reviews for books that I really think people should read or I really think they should avoid. I’m reviewing this book because you need to read this. There are dozens of books on many perspectives of World War II; but none that I can think of that point out something positive that happened as a result of that horrible war. In this case, a young girl’s life takes a dramatic turn for the better as a direct result of the war. And even though this is by no means a thriller or a suspense novel, it is still a page-turner! I was immediately drawn to this determined young girl and because I wanted her to overcome her terrible surroundings, I couldn’t stop reading because I needed to find out what happens to her.
To me, in order for a story to be successful, it is extremely important that the main character undergoes some type of change; if things remain the same at the end of a book as they do at the beginning, there is no point to the story. In this book, Ada changes in many ways. She is cleaned and cared for, she learns to read and write, she finds her first real friends in a neighborhood girl and a yellow pony. Most importantly, she changes the way she sees herself. For her whole life she has been told she is rubbish and, not knowing better, she fully believes it. But when she is treated as though she has some value, she comes to have confidence and self-esteem. It’s wonderful to witness. It reminded me of Eliza Doolittle’s transformation in that it was both in her outward appearance but also in her own mind. This was a wonderful book.
Rating: 5 boots!
Recommendation: Perfect for kids age 9 to 12 and anyone who loves books in which characters undergo a major transformation.
By Chris Colfer
Published 2013, 438 pages
Summary: This is the first in a series of books in which 11 year old twins Alex and Connor travel to another world where exist all the characters from beloved, well-known fairy tales. Alex is happy to have been whisked away to this magical world—a world she describes as containing her only real friends. While Conner is dumbfounded and ever anxious to find a way home. With the help of a journal written long ago by an unknown man from the Charming Kingdom, the kids begin a quest to retrieve 8 different items from throughout the Land of Stories that are supposed to work together to form a Wishing Spell that will grant them their wish to go home. Along the way they meet many of the people and creatures they had only thought lived within books, including Cinderella, Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Evil Queen.
Review: What a fun book! The only trouble is how to categorize this, because it requires the reader to be fond of fairy tales, which might suggest a younger readership, like around age 7 or 8, but it’s pretty long and contains some concepts that are perhaps better understood by teens, such as falling in love, seeking revenge, and losing a parent. Then again, most fairy tales do contain these concepts in their original forms, so what do I know about appropriate reading ages?
We read this book aloud as a family and have been delighted by the sharp turns the story takes. It is such fun to see characters we have come to know so well through classic stories and Disney films. There are a lot of funny moments and a fast-paced rhythm that will keep any reader from getting bored. Mysteries abound as well, so you want to race to find out what happens.
Recommendation: Fun for the whole family. Excellent choice for read-aloud time.
Rating: For me, this is 4 boots. (For my 9 year old daughter, it is 5 boots – she LOVES this book. For my 12 year old son, this is 2½ boots—he finds it a bit predictable.)
Resources: There is a wonderful website devoted to this series: http://thelandofstories.com.
By Kate Milford
Published August 2014
- New York Times Bestseller
- National Book Award Nominee
- Winner of the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery
Summary: Eleven-year-old Milo’s hopes for a relaxing Christmas break are dashed when several unexpected visitors arrive to stay at the hotel he and his parents live in. When the cook’s daughter, Meddie, joins the group, Milo teams up with her to play a role-playing game in which they are detectives. The game becomes very real as the pair begins to solve actual mysteries that arise. What drew all of these seemingly separate individuals together at the same place at the same time? Who took the various items that have suddenly gone missing? And what’s the real secret behind the origins of the Greenglass House?
Review: I’m crazy about this book. First, I love stained glass windows; they fascinate me. The Greenglass House not only has stained glass windows, but the windows hold the key to mystery! How great is that. I love a good mystery and I really wasn’t able to solve this one. It had the spooky feeling of the board game Clue, where individuals seem to be unrelated and yet are thrown together by circumstance. Each person holds a separate piece to the puzzle and the pieces are revealed one at a time. Meanwhile, Milo has questions about his true parentage, since he is of Asian descent but was adopted by white people. So while he’s solving the mystery of Greenglass House, he’s also finding himself, with the help of a new friend.
Recommendations: Perfect for lovers of mystery (and stained glass windows).
Rating: 4 ½ Boots!
By Rick Riordan
Book One in the Magnus Chase series
Synopsis: In the tradition of Rick Riordan’s two other series that mesh ancient gods with the modern world, the Magnus Chase series brings the world of Norse mythology to modern day America, with the city of Boston being the central hub of “Midgard” (a.k.a. Earth–one of the nine worlds that branch off from the mythological World Tree.) In current day Boston, Magnus Chase is a teenaged boy who for the last two years has been living on the streets, following the mysterious death of his mother. Little does he know that his own death is imminent and will mark not his end, but only the beginning of his incredible journey through the realm of the Norse gods. His first stop after death is Valhalla, where those who die bravely are taken to spend their afterlife in eternal preparation for “Ragnarok”—the end of the world according to Norse myth. Along the way he learns his true parentage and meets beings he only thought lived in books, including Odin, Thor, Loki, plus giants, dwarves, elves, and more.
Review: I’m always reluctant to put books into gender categories, because, obviously, boys and girls can agree or disagree on what makes a good book. But in this case, I have to say, this felt like a boy’s book. Like Rick Riordan’s series about Percy Jackson, the main character is an adolescent boy, and most of the story contains perspectives and musings of the main character. There isn’t much change in perspective, we only see what he sees and think what he thinks. Also, the female characters are all pretty aggressive and battle-ready.
My 12-year old loves the two Magnus Chase books he has read and eagerly awaits the third book. He is crazy about this author and loves the idea of bringing mythological beings into the modern world. He asked me to read the first book so we could talk about it, so I did.
I was very pleased for the most part; there were times when I laughed out loud and had to tell anyone within earshot what was so funny. The story moved along swiftly and there were a good many twists and turns that kept me engrossed. I have no doubt boys would love this series; I think my husband would even enjoy it. But I would have a hard time recommending it to my female friends because there is nothing that really tugs at your heartstrings—not that that’s the only thing women want in a book, but it’s one characteristic among many that should at least make an appearance. I never really got attached to the characters, even Magnus, because I was never really brought into their troubles, their souls. For example, I didn’t care about the Valkyrie who lost her position because it seemed like a crazy job for a young girl to want in the first place. I was happy she was banished to the Earthly realm where I hoped she would stay in school and lead a normal life.
The lover of fantasy in me had a pretty good time but wished for more sensitivity and connection. The mother in me kept wanting to just give these teenagers a hug and hope that there was some kind of adult intervention that would lend them the support they needed. Teens are too young to be on their own in Valhalla, going to battle and being killed every day. So, while I totally get the appeal of the book, it’s not one I’d recommend across the board.
Rating: 4 boots
Recommendation: Boys ages 10 and up and girls who like action, weaponry, and body armor.
By Anne Frank
Synopsis: Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl living in Amsterdam, received a diary for her 13th birthday in June 1942. Less than a month later, her family went into hiding in order to evade capture by the Nazis. They lived with another Jewish family in the “Secret Annex” which was a collection of rooms in the back of her father’s office building. The families were able to live in safety there for over two years. During that time, Anne wrote in her diary regularly, recording facts about the war and what it was like to live hidden from society. They were apprehended in August 1944 and were separated and sent away to various concentration camps. Anne died of typhus while in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945. The camp was liberated in April. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was the only member of either family to survive. He was devoted to having Anne’s diary published so that their story would live on.
Review: You can’t write a review about a person’s diary. So I’ll just say why I think everyone should read this wonderful book. Anne states a number of times that she knows she can be completely candid in her diary because no one would ever read it. How wrong she was! But how wonderful it is to have such an authentic, honest, forthright account of Anne’s innermost thoughts during one of the most traumatic times in human history. Given the circumstances in which this was written, I was expecting writing filled with despair, anger, and fear. But instead, I was riveted right from the start by this bold, precocious, funny young girl. She writes not only about her struggles, but also about everyday occurrences in her daily life, many of which are quite ordinary and at times even humorous. She also makes insightful observances about her family and the other people in hiding with them. I found it remarkable that even through this tremendous trial, she still had many of the usual thoughts and emotions of a typical teenager. She writes about friends, boys she likes, fashion and etiquette, and her hopes and dreams for the future. She also comments astutely about politics, religion, and society in ways that shows she was definitely smart, observant, and quite knowledgeable about the world around her. This was a fascinating book, completely engaging from start to finish.
Here are some of my favorite excerpts:
“I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me!”
“My writing’s all mixed up, I’m jumping from one thing to another, and sometimes I seriously doubt whether anyone will ever be interested in this drivel.”
“I look upon our life in hiding as an interesting adventure, full of danger and romance, and every privation as an amusing addition to my diary. I’ve made up my mind to lead a different life from other girls, and not to become an ordinary housewife later on. What I’m experiencing here is a good beginning to an interesting life, and that’s the reason—the only reason—why I have to laugh at the humorous side of the most dangerous moments.”
“Earning happiness means doing good and working, not speculating and being lazy. Laziness may look inviting, but only work gives you true satisfaction.”
“People who are religious should be glad, since not everyone is blessed with the ability to believe in a higher order. You don’t even have to live in fear of eternal punishment; the concepts of purgatory, heaven and hell are difficult for many people to accept, yet religion itself, any religion, keeps a person on the right path. Not the fear of God, but upholding your own sense of honor and obeying your own conscience.”
And my favorite of all…
“It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
Rating: 5 Boots and then some
Recommendation: Everyone should read this. You will be richer for it.
By Kodi Scheer
Published 2016, 211 pages
Synopsis: A depressed teenaged girl goes on a trip to Paris with three of her French language classmates. Having recently lost her beloved brother and feeling neglected by her mother, the girl is convinced that she should end her life by jumping off the Eiffel Tower. She’s also determined to psychologically damage a classmate–one of the girls on the trip–who she thinks ruined her chances of getting a college scholarship. She puts her plan into motion by starting a game of truth or dare designed to “teach” the other girls–whom she believes are too privileged–about reality and hardship.
Review: I hate to write bad reviews; I really do. I was just going to skip writing this because I don’t have anything good to say. But I thought that I have the right to voice my opinion and maybe save someone from having to sit through this. This book had problems right from the start. The author never gave us the main character’s name, so when someone addresses her I didn’t realize whom they were talking to. I was like, “who’s Nessa?” It was extremely difficult to feel empathy for this girl, despite the fact that she lost her beloved brother. She just was not likeable at all. My own brother died at a young age and I can honestly say that even though my whole family grieved and felt terrible, none of us became vindictive, suicidal, or morose. Another problem–There were times when the mood would suddenly shift with no explanation. All of a sudden three of the girls were disgusted and angry with the fourth girl, Kat, for cheating her way through high school. I didn’t understand their anger and horrible treatment of her. Who cares that she cheated? That’s her problem, not theirs. And why in heaven’s name did Kat want pizza so bad after having been gang-raped? The whole plot was just too unrelatable. I didn’t like any of the characters and I didn’t understand their motives for most of what they did and said.
Rating: 1 boot
Recommendation: avoid this
By Katherine Applegate
Published 2012, 320 pages
Synopsis: Ivan is a Silverback gorilla who lives in a small enclosure at a roadside mall. The maintenance worker for the mall often brings his daughter to work with him. She befriends Ivan and an elephant who is forced to do tricks in order to drawn in more customers. The girl feels sorry for the lonely animals. When a new baby elephant is brought in and threatened with a claw stick, Ivan feels compelled to do something to protect her. With the help of the young girl, he paints a picture of a zoo and paints the word “home” on it. The huge painting draws the attraction of animal rights protesters who finally rescue the animals.
Review: Why did I wait so long to read this book? It’s fantastic. I love that it’s told from the perspective of the gorilla; we get some insight into what he might be thinking. The author based this book on the true story of a gorilla named Ivan who was also trapped in a roadside attraction and who was also a gifted artist. The language is very simple, sweet, and straightforward. The story unfolds a little slowly but I’m okay with the pace because it forces the reader to slow down and listed to what the gorilla has to say. I loved it. I won’t give away the ending; I’ll just say it was very satisfying. It’s terrible what these animals go through; I only wish there was maybe a little more about how these atrocities can be prevented.
Rating: 4 boots
Recommendation: A nice easy read for ages 9 and up.
Visit the One and Only Ivan website here: http://theoneandonlyivan.com.