Tag Archives: family

R My Name Is Rachel by Patricia Reilly Giff

The phenomenal Patricia Reilly Giff has done it again. As in so many of her blockbusters, the author turns the clock back to an earlier time, and takes readers on a journey they won’t soon forget.

The year is 1936, and the country is in the throes of the Great Depression. Twelve-year-old Rachel feels the hopelessness and fear that grip everyone around her.  “My book is up in front of my nose, hiding my face so no one will see the tears in my eyes.  I’m almost at the end of the story and I’m sure Lad, the collie, is going to die.  No matter that he’s old, he’s such a good dog.  But Lad isn’t the only reason I’m trying not to cry.  It’s because of Pop…Pop home, instead of working, on a winter afternoon!  Pop without his job at the bank, and all because of the Depression.”

However, there are many brights spots in Rachel’s world.  There’s Miss Mitzi, owner of a flower shop in their New York City neighborhood.  And Charlie, the butcher who gives Rachel free slices of bologna–and a little something to leave for Clarence, a beat-up stray cat.  And, of course, there are books–and Miss Mitzi and her beloved teacher with whom to share them and the bright girl’s love of words.  Last but not least, there is Mr. Appleby who sells apples from a cart and dispenses words of wisdom when Rachel needs them most.  But most important of all, there is Pop–who has been raising Rachel and her younger sister and brother since their mother died ten years ago.

But then Pop has earth-shaking news.  There is a bank job available upstate, in the farming community of North Lake.  So Rachel, 11-year-old Cassie (who is as different from her older sister as can be), and 10-year-old, level-headed (when not involved in some calculated risk or another) Joey load their belongings, and an indignant Clarence, into their family’s old truck and leave almost everyone and everything they know and love.

When, after a long trip, the foursome arrives at the farm they are renting, Rachel is devastated.  It’s certainly not what she envisioned: a place with a red barn housing a cow.  There certainly is no animal in the dingy structure–and the house has no electricity or running water!  Even though the sisters do not see eye to eye on much, their reaction is the same.  Only optimistic Joey and their father seem able to see the bright side of things.

However, things are about to get worse.  A heavy snowfall prevents Pop arriving at the bank until late in the day–and someone else has gotten the job.  Finding work at a grocery store is less than ideal: the owner cannot afford to pay much, and the family receives food (not all of it appetizing) as partial wages.  Even the grocer’s gift of a dozen eggs that are expected to hatch in three weeks does not completely compensate.  Then, suddenly, Pop is again without work.  And again there is only one option: a job building a road over a mountain, provided by the Roosevelt administration with the goal of putting as many people to work as possible.  However, there is a downside: Pop will have to leave his children alone on the farm with nothing more than their resourcefulness and enough money to pay for rent, food, and little else.  Can three youngsters manage life on the farm, uncertain when they will see their father again, and unsure if their family unit will weather the storms–physical and emotional–that face them?  However, with no choice, the siblings determine to make a success of their farming venture during their father’s absence–and receive assistance from at least one unexpected source.

Author Giff, with such tour de forces to her credit as Wild Girl, Pictures of Hollis Woods, and the delightful Fiercely and Friends and Zigzag Kids series for beginning chapter-book readers, demonstrates once again that she is a master.  The Great Depression comes alive under her capable pen.  One can almost smell the flowers in Miss Mitzi’s shop and see the snow piled up outside the family’s dilapidated farmhouse.  Rachel is a young, and very human, heroine–who makes (and has the courage to admit to) mistakes.  The family dynamics ring true; the sisters’ clashing personalities lead to conflicts and disagreements but, at the end of the day, it is the sense of family and shared purpose that keep the youngsters focused on their goals.  Not unlike the situation in many sibling relationships, to be sure.  Patricia Reilly Giff has done everything right.  Readers (who are certain to be as reluctant to put this book down as Rachel is her beloved novels) will agree.

Published by Wendy Lamb Books in 2011

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I’m Really Not Tired by Lori Sunshine

Sam does not want to go to bed. He is certain that once he is asleep, the fun begins. The little boy imagines a zoo and a circus, and he is sure there is a rocket parked outside. So Sam decides to find out for himself what goes on after his father turns out the light. With his trusted partner, Petey Bear, a stuffed panda, he sneaks downstairs. What Sam discovers is not what he was hoping to see: his parents are relaxing quietly in the den, with nary a wild animal or a trapeze artist in sight! Unhappily, the pair creeps back upstairs and into bed, determined to try again tomorrow night.

Children (and that includes most kids) who are reluctant to go to bed because they think they will miss something will relate to Sam. Lori Sunshine’s catchy rhymed text makes this a great book for storytime, and Jeffrey Ebbeler’s bright, colorful illustrations are priceless: even Petey Bear has true-to-life facial expressions. The last page (in which Sam and Petey are vindicated) is as delicious as the tremendous slices of cake Sam’s parents are enjoying. Like all of Flashlight Press’ publications, this one is a treasure. Ages 4-7

Published by Flashlight Press in 2008

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Don’t Talk to Me About the War by David A. Adler

Thirteen-year-old Tommy Duncan is a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, plays stickball with his pals, and meets his friend Beth at Goldman’s diner every morning before school.  There is one other thing that is important to him: “Don’t talk to me about the war.  It’s across the ocean, and I haven’t even been to Long Island and that’s just over the bridge.  What I mean is, the war’s so far away and we’re not even in it, and anyway, it’s all Beth talks about, so if there’s any war stuff I should know, she’ll tell me.”

But the war isn’t the only thing occupying Tommy’s attention.  His mother is growing increasingly weak, her vision blurs, sometimes her hands shake, and she tends to drop things.  Tommy and his father are understandably worried, and only temporarily reassured when a doctor informs them that she is tired and possibly depressed.  Sharing his concerns with Beth (whose mother passed away, and from whom she received a penchant for reading newspapers) helps Tommy cope with the family crisis: a crisis which comes to a head when, after a major setback, Mrs. Duncan receives the frightening diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

Yet the war becomes more and more a part of Tommy’s world.  It is 1940 and, as Beth constantly reminds him, things are not looking good in Europe.  And Sarah, a new student, comes to the Bronx from Mexico, having fled with her parents and two young cousins from Holland, Austria, and Germany.  As Tommy learns more of Sarah’s story, he begins to realize the importance of defeating the Germans–and comes to believe Eleanor Roosevelt’s comment: “I don’t want to go to war.  But war may come to us.”  And the war does come to Tommy’s world, along with other major changes in his life.

David A. Adler (the author of such varied books as the Cam Jansen series, One Yellow Daffodil, and numerous kid-friendly math titles) has once again demonstrated his versatility.  This rich, multi-layered novel has so many elements that make a story great: family dynamics, the meaning and importance of friendship, well-developed and believable characters, and surprising insights into the people in Tommy’s universe–against a backdrop of the historical realities of the time.  Details such as Sarah’s family keeping kosher and the popular radio programs of the day give depth and add accuracy to the story.  Tommy’s journey of discovery is one readers won’t soon forget.  This is historical fiction at its finest.  216 pages. Ages 11-14

Published by Viking in 2008

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The Tattered Prayer Book by Ellen Bari

One Sunday, when Ruthie is visiting her grandparents, she discovers a box labeled GERMANY.  After looking with her grandmother at pictures of a beautiful house, the little girl finds a damaged book.  When she asks her Grandma about it, Ruthie learns that it is a siddur (a prayerbook), and it is her father’s.

This discovery prompts Ruthie to ask her father to share the story of the siddur.  “Years ago my family lived in Hamburg,” he begins.  “We had a large house and many family parties.  I loved being surrounded by all my cousins.  Our family had many friends, both Jews and non-Jews.”  But this happy existence was not to last for, as the Nazis came into power, Jewish businesses lost customers, and Jews could no longer go to the library or to school.  After the horrible events of November, 1938 (which came to be known as Kristallnacht), the distraught boy found a torn and partially burned siddur in the ruins of his synagogue.  The prayerbook gave him solace as things went from bad to worse and members of his extended family painfully parted.  “Some were going to Argentina, and others to Israel…As the ship pulled away from the dock, I felt like it was floating on a sea of tears.”  When the boy showed his mother the siddur on the ship after she lit the Sabbath candles, she told him, “This will remind you of the good life we had.  Remembering our past gives us the strength to face the future.” 

And on another Shabbat night, Ruthie’s father expresses his gratitude for his daughter’s question–and Ruthie responds that she is grateful for the answer.

Ellen Bari’s eloquent story relates the horrors of the Holocaust in a manner that brings the nightmare years to life, yet does not present the events in a way that is too graphic for young children.  Youngsters will relate to Ruthie’s desire to know more about her family’s history and to her father’s wish to put the past behind him.  Avi Katz’s expressive illustrations perfectly fit the mood of the tale.  The cream-colored, bordered pages with delicate shading give the book an old-fashioned feel.  An added bonus: lamination will ensure that Ruthie’s family story will last through many a reading and sharing.  Ages 6-10  

Published by Gihon River Press in 2013

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Mia and Bravo, Mia! by Laurence Yep

Mia St. Clair is ten years old. The only girl in a family of boys, she has grown up playing hockey. Yet Mia yearns to do—and be—something different from her older brothers. Figure skating seems to be the perfect choice for someone who loves being on the ice. However, it’s not smooth sailing. Coach Nelson, who recently left and is being replaced by someone new, only mentioned her mistakes. She has to deal with Vanessa, a member of the skate team who is everything Mia is not—wealthy, with a perfect complexion—and she acts the part. (If it’s any consolation, everyone has the same opinion of Vanessa.) It’s a struggle to have to work at the rink to pay for ice time, but if her brothers can do it, so can Mia.

When Emma Schubert enters the scene as the Lucerne Skate Club’s new coach, things begin to change. There are bumps in the ice, but Mia begins to think that the golden dream of competition might be hers. Setbacks, foibles, and misunderstandings (some of which are more humorous than serious) only make the spunky ten-year-old more determined to come out a winner.

Laurence Yep, the multitalented author of picture books, fantasies, historical fiction, and more, has once again shown his versatility with these contributions to the American Girls series. As kids cheer the young heroine on, they can’t help being uplifted and inspired. From the first page, Mia skates her way into the hearts of her readers. Ages 8-11

Published by American Girl in 2008

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Mostly Monty by Johanna Hurwitz

Monty is beginning first grade.  While this is an exciting time for many kids, this isn’t the case for the six-year-old.  The reason?  Monty doesn’t have what many other children do: a pet, siblings, or a friend.  However, he does have something he wishes he didn’t: asthma. “Because of his asthma, he wasn’t allowed to go running around like other kids.  He couldn’t join the Little League team.  He couldn’t plan to go to sleepaway camp when he got older.  Who would want to be friends with a boy like him?”   So, Monty is one very unhappy little boy.

However, there are some other special qualities Monty does have: an incredible reading ability and knack for finding things.  As he makes his way through the world of first grade, he discovers that he has what it takes to be a success–and a good friend.

Johanna Hurwitz’ sensitive and quietly humorous beginning chapter book will resonate with many kids, especially those uncertain about making friends, fitting in, and succeeding.  (That includes most of us.)  Chapters are broken up by well-spaced breaks.  Anik McGrory’s expressive water-color pictures adeptly illustrate the life of the first-grader.  Especially poignant are two scenes: Monty sitting inside while, outside the window, other kids are running and playing, and the little boy using his inhaler, surrounded by inquisitive classmates. Whether or not a child lives with a disability, he or she will find a kindred spirit in Monty.  Readers can experience more of the world through Monty’s eyes: Mighty Monty and Magical Monty continue the adventure of discovery of one very special little boy.  96 pages.  Ages 6-9.

Published by Candlewick Press in 2007

Read more reviews and buy Mostly Monty and its sequels on Amazon: Mostly Monty: First Grader
Mighty Monty: More First-Grade Adventures
Magical Monty

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

Mia is thirteen years old.  However, she is not like other kids.  In fact, Mia is not like anyone she knows.  For the eighth-grader perceives the world differently from most people.  Letters, numbers, names, sounds, and even living things have their own colors.  Since third grade, when nobody took her seriously, Mia has kept this a secret–from her parents, her siblings, and even her best friend, Jenna.

Until now.  Never a good student when it came to math, Mia finds the colors she sees when looking at numbers and letters in equations too distracting–and describes her condition to her incredulous parents.  Trips to a pediatrician and a counselor finally lead the confused girl and her parents to Dr. Jerry Weiss, a neurologist who gives Mia’s “disorder” a name: synesthesia.  With a tremendous sense of relief, Mia learns that the visual and auditory centers in her brain are linked, resulting in a mixing of sensory experiences–and that there are others out there like her.

As Mia’s world opens up with this revelation (she’s not crazy or afflicted with a disease), other challenges arise.  Jenna is hurt that her best friend did not confide in her.  Mia’s mother wonders if there isn’t a quick fix to her daughter’s sensory differences.  The thirteen-year-old wonders about a 9th-grade boy she “meets” through a synesthesia web site.  And Mia’s beloved cat, Mango (named for the color she associates with her pet), has a worrisome health condition.  Any one of them could wreak havoc on her life, but, all together, they cause Mia to wonder if things will ever be “normal.”

Wendy Mass’ marvelous novel is one of many blockbusters that have emerged from her magic pen, among them Every Soul a Star and The Candymakers.  Mia is a strong, likable, believable heroine who will strike a chord with readers.  She is a young lady they won’t soon forget.  221 pages.  Ages 11-15

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in 2005

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