Dancing in the Dark by Shoshana Mael

Daniella and Rikki Coleman are sisters and best friends, and they have a secret. Hardly anyone outside their family knows about the skeleton in their closet, and the teens want to keep it that way. For their mother, Aviva Coleman, is bipolar, with its attendant extreme mood swings, and is often delusional. Rikki and especially Daniella are so keen on hiding this reality that friends rarely come to their home. The girls are so successful that the only other people who are privy to the embarrassing secret are the Kaddens and their daughter Kayla (Rikki’s closest friend), who have witnessed their mother’s erratic behavior.  Daniella, seventeen months older, has no problem with lying to friends, family, teachers, and anyone else. The night Aviva Coleman is admitted to the hospital, both girls are relieved.

But other things are happening in their lives. Rikki, a good student with a penchant for having fun, is a dance head for this year’s school production. She throws herself into this delightful role: when she’s dancing, the tense reality of her life fades away. Unfortunately, Daniella does not share her younger sister’s intellectual and social abilities. She’s often in the principal’s office for one infraction or another. Yet, the strain of coping with their family situation and shielding their beloved little brother Uri takes a toll on both siblings. When it becomes apparent to the faculty, especially Rikki’s teacher Mrs. Zilber, that something is amiss, things come to a head. Rikki finds herself seeing guidance counselor Mrs. Moskowitz, and she begins to envision a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel. She knows Daniella also needs help, but it isn’t until the Coleman secret is revealed at school that teachers and principal start the ball rolling. As unfortunate truths come to light, the girls embark on a painful journey and make discoveries about themselves, their parents, and their world.

First-time author Shoshana Mael’s hard-hitting novel not only brings home the realities of living with a mentally ill family member, it sheds light on what it is like to suffer from the disorders that make up the condition. Her goal, based on her social worker experience with distressed teens, of creating a story that packs a strong emotional punch has been realized. Surprise revelations and nonstop action make this a can’t-put-it-down novel.  Rikki’s voice rings true. All the people in her world are believable, from dancer Ayelet with a secret of her own to Mrs. Baumgarten who steps in to guide the sisters. Readers discover, along with the Daniella and Rikki, that even if there is not a rosy solution to every difficulty, life is good. We can expect more great things to come out of this remarkable author’s pen.

Published by Menucha Publishers, Inc., in 2013

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Grandma by Jessica Shepherd

“I’m Oscar and I have the best grandma in the whole wide world.” With this introduction, readers meet a special little boy and his very special grandmother. Oscar describes all the things they do together: play outdoors, read books, smell the flowers they planted, even wash dishes. Grandma has a way of making every activity fun.

But then Grandma begins to change. She often forgets things (even something as important as Oscar’s birthday!) and has trouble performing simple tasks. As Grandma needs more and more attention, Oscar’s dad says she has to live where people can care for her. In a touching scene, after Grandma leaves, the sad, lonely little boy sits alone in her chair. Only when the family visits Grandma, and Oscar meets the “fun” caregivers (who even remember the flavors of cupcakes she likes) and discovers all the wonderful things about the place, is he reassured.

First-time author Jessica Shepherd’s poignant story simply yet eloquently describes the changes that occur when an elderly family member is affected by dementia. Oscar’s unhappiness when his beloved grandma is angry or confused and his discovery that they can still have good times together bring home the day-to-day realities for both patient and family members. Colorful illustrations by the author capture the mood of the story and are a perfect complement to the text.  Youngsters in Oscar’s situation will be reassured, and all children can relate to the little boy. An afterward describing dementia and its effects, addressing the concerns kids may have and listing ways family members can help someone with the disorder round out this treasure. A must-have for every children’s collection and a vital book for any child who has a family member with dementia.

Published by Child’s Play in 2014

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Grandma (Child’s Play Library)

Let’s Meet Community Helpers by Rikki Benenfeld

A young brother and sister introduce readers to the people in the community  who help us in many ways. As the children prepare for an outing with their mother, the mail carrier arrives. Once on the way, they meet a police officer, watch as firefighters respond to a call, see an ambulance race past, cross the street with the assistance of a crossing guard, and go to the library. “The librarian knows just what I need/And finds a book I want to read!”

While they go to the bus stop for a trip to the park, the family greets  a sanitation worker and acknowledges the bus driver. And at their destination, the kids in the midst of their play tell us about the park keeper. In a sweet conclusion, the children express their gratitude to community helpers: “They help us in ways both big and small, And I make sure to thank them all!”

This simple picture book makes the work community workers perform understandable to even the youngest readers and listeners. Laminated pages make it child-friendly and durable. Bright illustrations and rhyming text combine to make Rikki Benenfeld’s story one kids from toddlers to preschoolers will enjoy time after time. A delight.

Published by Hachai Publications in 2013

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Never Ever by Jo Empson

“Nothing ever happens to me!” is the plaint of a little red-haired girl. As she walks along a country path, lamenting the lack of anything exciting in her life, unusual things are indeed happening. Pigs resting in a field dotted with haystacks display wings and take off. A purple gorilla emerges from tall grass when the little girl walks past. As she repeats her “Never, ever” complaint, more creatures emerge and follow her: a roaring lion and turtles masking as stepping stones in a stream. Even after the oblivious child is accosted by a hungry alligator, she exclaims, “See? Told you! Nothing exciting EVER happens to me!”

Jo Empson’s very humorous tale begs to be read aloud. Kids will have a blast pointing out the creatures of which the protagonist is comically unaware. Simple, repetitive text makes this a perfect book for beginning readers. Colorful, slightly abstract illustrations add to the whimsical quality of the story. As to the red-haired girl’s complaint, the rib-tickling conclusion provides an answer. If only she were as savvy as the readers of this gem. Never Ever is a Moonbeam Children’s Book Award Winner, and deservedly so. Ages 4-6

Published by Child’s Play in 2012

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Never Ever

The Acrobat by Alborozo

An acrobat is very unhappy. When he performs in the circus, nobody pays attention to him. They watch the astounding Adele and other performers. So the acrobat decides to leave in search of a more appreciative audience.

When he sees a park, the acrobat decides it would be a good place to be noticed. So he performs his routine: he juggles, tumbles, and more. But nobody notices, so the disgruntled acrobat decides to feed the birds instead. When he does, a marvelous thing happens. And everyone notices.

With sparse text and expressive pictures, Alborozo tells a tale that will strike a chord with any child who wants to be noticed and appreciated. The simple wording (one or two short sentences on each page) and abundance of white space make this an inviting story for preschoolers and beginning readers. Kids will applaud the acrobat even as his new audience does.

Published by Child’s Play in 2013

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Momo and Snap Are NOT Friends! by Airlie Anderson

Momo  is a monkey. Snap is an alligator. Each is cheerfully strolling along when they meet. “Eek!” exclaims Momo. “Ack!” says Snap. So begins a battle of wills of sorts. With demonstrations of their relative attributes, Momo and Snap try to outdo each other: When the monkey flexes his arms and says “Grrr!” the alligator does the same and responds “Arrrgh!” The two not-friends display their many “talents:” when Momo juggles bananas, Snap balances them on his snout.
While the critters are catching their breath after a test of swimming and fish-catching prowess, Snap sees danger approaching. Three lions (with the comment of “Yum!”) have set their sights on the monkey and alligator. Snap grabs Momo and finds a hiding place where they stay until the lions run off. The tickled now-friends express their delight  with a “Heh heh!” and a “Hee hee!” and seal their friendship with “Oo-ooh ah-ahh!” and “Ra-ra-ra! Rrrooaar!”
Airlie Anderson’s delightful not-quite-wordless book tells the story of Momo and Snap with hilarious sound effects and vibrant, expressive illustrations. Kids will giggle at the pairs’ antics as they try to best each other and become pals. It’s sure to be a favorite with preschoolers and budding readers alike. Ages 3-6
Published by Child’s Play in 2013

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Momo and Snap (Child’s Play Library)

MA-Zel Tov: You’re Married, Now What? by Esther Gross

It is not often that this reviewer includes “adult” books (as opposed to those appealing to children and young adults), but occasionally one comes to my attention that I believe should be shared. This is one such book.

You don’t have to be newly married to benefit from this little volume. The author offers, in alphabetical format, words of wisdom designed to keep us focused on what is important in marriage, and in life. Passages in poetry and prose succinctly guide readers from the chuppah through the ups and downs, joys and challenges that are part of everyone’s marital existence: “Display your appreciation in a tangible way:/A small gift on a no-occasion day,/Illustrates more than an artist can portray,/And significantly more than text messaging can convey.”  “Unite as allies to achieve a common goal./ Exchange the haughtiness of ‘I’ and ‘me’/ with the nobleness of ‘us’ and we.’/Marriage is two complete halves of one complete whole.”

Accompanied by beautiful photographs, Esther Gross’ new offering joins her previous works in helping us traverse the terrain of our lives and interact positively with others along the way. It belongs in every Jewish home.

Published by Feldheim Publishers in 2013

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

As Endangered opens, Sophie is on her way to her mother’s Congo bonobo sanctuary. While riding through the capital city of Kinshasa, she rescues a young bonobo from a trafficker, but has no idea what she has gotten herself into. The fourteen-year-old American quickly learns the ramifications of her action (including giving impetus to wildlife traffickers to hope for more “customers” for their wares). Sophie, even as she realizes the lack of wisdom involved in acquiring the youngster, falls in love with little Otto.

However, facing her mother’s displeasure is the least of Sophie’s worries. The civil war that is raging in Congo is coming closer. On top of that, her mother leaves to return a group of adult bonobos to the wild, and rebels invade the sanctuary during her absence. Sophie is forced to leave with her young charge and make her way through the inhospitable jungle. The girl is offered two chances to return to the United States and safety, but chooses to stay rather than abandon Otto.

Powerful is too mild a word to describe Eliot Schrefer’s masterpiece. He deftly brings the plight of both bonobos and the Congolese people (and all animals threatened by poachers and traffickers and people living in war-ravaged countries) to light. Sophie is not perfect–her judgement is faulty on several critical occasions–but her courage and dedication make the teen a heroine readers will cheer for. Every character, human or animal, who comes into Sophie’s world is believable. The author does a phenomenal job of describing the horrors of the conflict and the atrocities of those involved, yet not making them too horrific for a young teenage audience. Schrefer shows that he understands the bonobos and their world. If Endangered makes you weep, it also makes you believe that a few good people can better our world–and all its inhabitants. Ages 12 up.

Published by Scholastic Press in 2012

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The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann

For two years, Alex Stowe has known he was an Unwanted: a designation received because he drew a picture in the dirt. This common childhood activity is not allowed in Quill, where creativity is considered a weakness and detrimental to society. So Alex knows that the year he turns thirteen he will be handed over to the Eliminators and his life will come to an end. And his twin brother Aaron, a Wanted, will attend university and face a bright future.

However, Alex and the busload of Unwanted children are in for a surprise when they reach their dreaded destination. For they are met by a variety of amazing creatures and the very unusual Mr. Today. With the words “How does it feel to be eliminated?” the flamboyantly-robed gentleman welcomes the stunned arrivals to Artimé: a picturesque land where Unwanteds not only live but flourish, and the artistic leanings that landed them there are not only condoned, but nurtured.

As Alex and his friends acclimate themselves to the wonders of their new home, they meet Unwanteds who have lived and grown up in Artimé since their own “purges.” While the recent arrivals struggle to overcome negative emotions (now that they are allowed to feel anything) about Quill and those who sent them to a terrible fate, they learn that the danger has not passed. For the day may come that Artimé will be discovered by the Quillen powers that be, and all of her residents must be prepared to fight to defend their land. Unfortunately, the threat is realized, and humans and magical creatures alike are forced to devise methods to defeat an enemy bent on the destruction of all they hold dear. When it becomes apparent that Alex’s ambitious twin Aaron is involved in the attack, the teen must come to terms with the discovery–and prove to his fellow Artiméans where his loyalties lie.

As the second book in the series opens, the residents of Artimé, under the guidance of their beloved Mr. Today, welcome any Quillens who wish to join them. True to the magical nature of the mansion in which everyone dwells, there is space for all. Yet, the opening of the land does not mean the threat from Quill is at an end, as a new attack is launched with tragic results.

But the renewed danger is not all that is occupying Alex’s thoughts. For Mr. Today has informed him of the need to designate a successor–and he believes the fourteen-year-old is the best choice. Alex is understandably reluctant to agree to such a monumental undertaking, but there is little time to dwell on the request. After two unconscious children wash up on the shore in a makeshift raft, those with healing talents endeavor to revive them. Who they are and where they are from is a mystery begging to be solved.

In the meantime, back in Quill, Aaron (now out of favor as the old regime has crumbled) longs for the days when Necessaries provided for all the Wanteds’ needs before they flocked to Artimé and a better life. Discovering that there are others who share his sentiment, the “evil twin” formulates a plan to invade the creative settlement and reclaim what the disgruntled Quillens feel is their right.

Lisa McMann has created a place that is magical in every sense of the word. Her vivid descriptions bring colorless Quill and vibrant Artimé to life. Readers will feel the gentle breeze off the sea, visualize the talking and moving statues, and empathize with the Unwanteds as they enthusiastically throw themselves into their reimagined life and deal with new and conflicting emotions. Alex is a believable character whose transformation from disillusioned boy to mature teen is heartwarming. The friends, teachers, and creatures populating the world of Artimé become real to readers, and we genuinely care about them. The residents of Quill are as multidimensional as their Artiméan neighbors. The Unwanteds is a series that is sure to enchant fantasy and dystopian enthusiasts alike–and anyone else who appreciates a meaningful, unforgettable story.

Published by Aladdin in 2012

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Island of Silence (The Unwanteds)

 

Nan’s Long Journey by Leah Fried

 

Nan’s world is in turmoil. Marauders are roaming the streets of Berlin, destroying Jewish-owned businesses. On the same terrifying night, the ten-year-old hears her father and Aunt Gertrude having a heated discussion. The country is not safe, especially for those of Jewish descent. Nan’s father feels his daughter should go to Switzerland to live with his mother. After all, the child’s late mother was a Jew. Despite Aunt Gertrude’s protests, the decision is made to send Nan away from the only home she has ever known.

After a harrowing train trip from Germany to Switzerland, Nan is met by her grandmother’s chauffeur and driven to the home of the Baroness Amelie Schmidt. Friedrich’s friendly demeanor is offset by the coldness of his employer. The Baroness has never reconciled herself to her son’s abandoning his medical studies and marrying a Jew. If not for the fact that Nan is of noble descent, the child would not be welcome.

The obvious disapproval of the Baroness is not the only thing making Nan’s life an unhappy one. She misses her father terribly. To make matters worse, Nan discovers that the anti-Jewish sentiment that abounded in Germany is present in Switzerland as well in the form of an influential classmate. With everything happening, it is no wonder that Nan wonders if life will ever be normal–or happy–again.

Leah Fried, the author of a number of heartwarming tales, tells the story of Nan’s journey to safety, and to self-discovery, with sensitivity. The reader feels the turmoil surrounding the young heroine and is privy to the thoughts of all characters, major and minor. As Nan’s story moves toward its satisfying conclusion, readers will feel, even as she does, the guiding hand that orchestrates her life.

Published by Feldheim Publishers in 2009

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