Real life doesn’t always have a happily ever after. Kids may want to try these two well–written books for stories of real life with real endings. After a violent episode of abuse by her mother and stepfather, twelve-year-old Carley Connors is sent to her first foster home where she is welcomed by Mrs. Murphy, herself a first-timer. In One for the Murphys, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Carley tries to survive in a strange new environment while being haunted by broken pieces of memory from that horrible night. New clothes, home-cooked meals and a return to school is a lot of adjustment for this tough, neglected girl from Las Vegas. A less-than-warm welcome from her foster brother and foster father adds to her anxiety. Hunt displays a deft touch with serious issues, showing Carley’s discomfort and distrust of the kindness shown to her without hitting the reader over the head with her angst. Her characters feel genuine with real emotions and concerns. Carley learns a lot about herself and about love while staying with the Murphys.
First published in 1978, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson is another foster child story with similar themes of finding family and finding yourself. Gilly Hopkins is an eleven year old girl bouncing from foster home to foster home until her beautiful mother, Courtney, can come claim her. The book tells the tale of her stay with Maime Trotter, her foster son William Ernest and family friend, blind Mr. Randolph. Gilly is independent, strong-willed and blunt with her opinions, particularly about the “freaks” she has been stuck with. Gilly’s crude language and bad behavior makes her particularly unlikable at first. The reader begins to cheer for this unhappy creature as the details of her life emerge and as she grows to care for her foster family. The winner of numerous awards, including the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor, The Great Gilly Hopkins still resonates with children today.
Newbery Medal winner Rebecca Stead is back with another gem for the middle grade crowd in Liar & Spy. Georges has a lot going on, not the least of which is his name. Yes, his parents named him Georges (silent s) after their favorite painter, pointillist Georges Seurat. Needless to say, this only gives the bullies at school more ammunition in their relentless torment. His former best friend is now ensconced in the cool crowd. Georges has had to move from the only home he knew following his father’s job loss. And his mother is working double shifts as a nurse at the hospital to get some much needed extra cash.
The only bright light is the Spy Club at his new apartment building led by the homeschooled Safer. He is convinced another tenant, the mysterious Mr. X, is up to nefarious dealings. Safer and Georges begin an intensive spying campaign, and Georges grows closer with Safer’s quirky family, including his appropriately named younger sister, Candy, whose appetite for sweets is insatiable. As the spy game becomes more extreme and Safer becomes more demanding, Georges is forced to question Safer’s honesty and motives all while dealing with a missing mother, who only communicates with Georges via messages on a Scrabble board. Georges avoids visiting his mother at work, and readers soon learn there is more to that situation than meets the eye.
As with Seurat’s paintings, Georges learns to look at the big picture, rather than focus on the small stuff. This is a fascinating coming of age story filled with twists and an appealing and relatable young man. Long after readers finish this book, they will be thinking about the questions posed regarding family, friendship, loyalty, perception, reality and truth.
Written in short, episodic passages by a boy as a memorial to his beloved friend, Michael Gerard Bauer’s short novel Just a Dog is a contemporary elegy, ably covering a rite of passage that many children must face. Corey’s uncle is a breeder of Dalmatians. The breeder loses track of one of his females, who later has a litter of puppies that are clearly not 100% Dalmatian. Most of the pups are given away to strangers, but 3-year-old Corey chooses and names Mister Mosely. He is a gangly, mostly white puppy with enormous paws, and just a few black patches here and there, including a heart shape on his chest. Each vignette that now 11-year-old Corey writes in his journal describes his memories of incidences with the lovable Moe, the family’s nickname for the dog.
An Australian import, the novel includes some terminology that will have kids learning new Down Under vocabulary, but context clues allow for full understanding. The familiar story of the relationship between a family and a pet is deepened by the serious issues that Corey’s parents must deal with when they become financially strapped. Corey’s little sister Amelia provides comic relief. Her relationship with the enormous yet gentle Mister Mosely includes episodes of dressing him up in various outfits, and using permanent markers to create a constant surprised look on his face.
Corey and the rest of his family face true, difficult emotions at the end of Mister Mosely’s short life. It is unlikely that most readers both young and old will be able to get through the novel without shedding a tear for Mister Mosely, as Bauer concisely and accurately depicts the loyalty, love, and pure heart a beloved pet provides to humans. All told, he's much more than “just a dog”.
Tuberculosis has been called the greatest serial killer of all time, and remains a crisis in many countries. Two new books for children tackle this scourge and shed light on the incredible pain suffered by its victims and the horrors of treatment.
In 1940, thirteen year old Evelyn (“Evvy") Hoffmeister is sent to Loon Lake Sanatorium, a treatment facility for tuberculosis patients in Breathing Room by Marsha Hayles. Evvy is frightened by her new surroundings and must learn to adapt to the harsh rules – no talking, no visitors, strict bed rest. Evvy soon finds her place and makes friends with the other girls in her ward. Hayles provides a fascinating glimpse into the medical technology of the day, such as the pneumothorax which blew air into the chest, or thoracoplasty, the surgical removal of a rib which would supposedly allow a lung to collapse and heal. Period photographs add depth to the story and an author’s note provides additional information. Evvy’s voice captures the resentment, fear, determination, and hope of a young patient fighting an insidious disease with no real cure.
Evvy could very well be one of the young ladies pictured in the dramatic cover photograph of Jim Murphy’s Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never Ending Search for a Cure. This is an impeccably researched narrative nonfiction title complete with photographs, prints, and source notes. Murphy starts with the history of this deadly germ and offers evidence of tuberculosis in a 500,000 year old fossilized skull. Murphy also details the many ineffectual treatments in ancient Egypt and Greece before following the course of the dread disease through Europe and America. Finally, readers learn of the social history and impact of tuberculosis. Examples include chapters describing the warped nineteenth-century romantic view of the disease, and the difficulties encountered by African-Americans and immigrants in their search for treatment. The research, photographs, notes and easy narrative flow make this biography of a disease a fascinating read.
Araminta (Minty) Fresh lives in the familiar setting of Catonsville in The Secret Tree by Natalie Standiford. Growing up in a close-knit neighborhood with her best friend Paz on the same block, she is happy and comfortable with her friends, family, and roller derby. But the summer before middle school is a season for change, not the least of which is Paz’s apparent desire to befriend some cool girls.
When she spots a flash in the woods and chases it, Minty not only finds a new friend in Raymond, but also stumbles across the Secret Tree. The elm has a hollow trunk in which Raymond and Minty find secrets written on slips of paper. The notes hold confidences which range from crushes, to being held back a grade, to placing a curse on an enemy! Seems like her neighborhood is full of secrets and mysteries and Minty and Raymond decide to start finding some answers.
But this detecting duo has secrets of their own, and as they investigate friends and neighbors they must each deal with their own anxieties. Minty is a delightfully relatable yet quirky heroine with the right touch of tween snark to make her real. In the end, this story of changing friendships and pesky sibling relationships is about growing up and realizing that everyone has insecurities. Filled with the warmth and freedom of summer and a neighborhood full of unique characters, this imaginative coming-of-age story has an old-fashioned charm which will have wide appeal.
Be sure to look for Natalie at the Baltimore Book Festival on Saturday, September 29th at 5:30, where she’ll be appearing as a member of the panel, "Baltimore Bred", with fellow Baltimore natives Adam Gidwitz, Laurel Snyder, C. Alexander London, and Laura Resau to talk about how growing up in Baltimore influenced their work.
Signed By: Zelda is a refreshingly humorous and clever mystery for kids. In it, author Kate Feiffer takes her readers along for a ride as eleven-year old neighbors Lucy Bertels and Nicky Gibson collaborate to solve the mystery of Grandma Zelda’s sudden disappearance. Lucy is a budding graphologist (handwriting expert extraordinaire), and the newest resident of a West 68th Street apartment building in New York. Nicky is Lucy’s overhead neighbor, a boy whose TOA (Time-Out Average) means he spends three days out of four in trouble with his dad. Nicky’s Grandma Zelda is an extraordinary lady who has had more adventures in her lifetime than most could imagine. Pigeon frequents the windowsills of each apartment and is a friend to all three. It is Pigeon who delivers a mysterious note that will unite Lucy and Nicky in the search for the elusive Zelda.
The addendums to the book are almost as much a pleasure to read as the story itself. Feiffer’s research into graphology and her interest in the characters she has so skillfully constructed is self-evident. In the addendums, she provides such unexpected treats as a handwriting quiz for children and the recipe for Grandma Zelda’s famous Zeldaberry pie. Recommended for middle grade readers, especially for those who enjoy mildly flawed characters and a dash magical realism. Readers who enjoy Signed By: Zelda may also find satisfaction with Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt or Horten’s Incredible Illusions by Lissa Evans.
Camden Yards is sparkling with Oriole Magic, and a new generation of fans is energized by the success of this season’s team. For young fans that can’t get enough baseball, there are several new series titles which offer plenty of action on the diamond.
The Topps League series by Kurtis Scaletta follows Chad, the new batboy for the minor league Pine City Porcupines. Chad wants to help the hapless team, but in Jinxed, the first in the series, he encounters nothing but trouble, including a jinxed superstar. These illustrated easy chapter books throw readers a magical curve ball since Chad can solve problems using information from his baseball cards. Plenty of detailed on-field action as well as inside-the-clubhouse glimpses will keep readers hooked.
Super-Sized Slugger by Cal Ripken is the second title from Baltimore’s Iron Man and Sun columnist Kevin Cowherd. Overweight thirteen year old Cody Parker moves to Baltimore, and the combination of his size and new kid status make him the prime target for teasing. He lives for baseball, but when he beats out the school’s number one bully for the starting third base position, Cody’s life gets even worse. Then the school is struck by a rash of thefts. With this mystery in need of solving and exciting baseball action as the team plays for the championship, this is a fast-paced page turner.
Ted & Me is the newest entry in the popular Baseball Card Adventure series by Dan Gutman featuring time traveling Joe "Stosh" Stochack. This time the FBI wants Stosh to travel back to 1941 to warn FDR of the attack on Pearl Harbor. But Stosh has another idea. Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters of all times, despite losing five years of playing time to military service. What if there was no World War II? What if Stosh can actually prevent the attack on Pearl Harbor and convince Williams not to serve in the military? The time travel element combined with baseball anecdotes help create another perfect strike in this series.
Meet Ivan…just Ivan, please.
Ivan is an adult male gorilla - a silverback - born to defend his domain and protect his family. Or at least, in Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan, that’s the way it usually works. Instead, Ivan has spent the last 27 years as the main attraction at the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade.
Here, he can survey his entire domain without even standing. Here, there is no one to protect.
With enough time you can get used to almost anything, though. If nothing else, Ivan has had a lot of time. He’s not alone either. Ivan’s social circle includes Bob, a dog of dubious origins, and Stella, Ivan’s co-star at the Big Top Mall, an elderly and sweet-natured elephant who forgets nothing. Then there’s Julia, the janitor’s daughter who sits across from Ivan’s domain most evenings, completing homework and turning out dazzling drawings of Ivan, Bob and Stella. That’s something she and Ivan have in common – a passion for creating art. That and an endless supply of crayons.
Ivan’s life, with something to draw (mostly bananas), and friends to keep him company, is bearable if monotonous. Yet the life to which Ivan and the others have become resigned is about to change in ways they could never have imagined. And it all begins with the arrival of a baby elephant named Ruby.
It has been a long time since Ivan has known either the luxury or the agony of hope for another kind of life. With Ruby’s arrival though, he begins to awake to the reality of his situation and to the precarious state of Ruby’s own destiny. A singular and selfless object begins to develop in Ivan: he must shield hopeful Ruby from the state of apathy that has been his lot, whatever the means. At long last, Ivan has someone to protect.
Young readers who feel an affinity with animals and those who have enjoyed such animal rescue tales as E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web or Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath will flock to The One and Only Ivan. Inspired by a true story, this title is also recommended for readers who may find that the brevity of the chapters and the first-person narrative combine to create an unusually engrossing encounter with the main character.
It should be noted that unlike most stories of a related rescue theme, Ivan’s is of an altogether rarer sort. Despite his narrative - the tale is related largely through the gorilla’s own inner dialogue – Ivan is no human character in animal garb. Instead the author smoothly manages to convey a sense of Ivan as the silverback gorilla he is. Sentient and courageous, a true survivor, yet neither particularly imaginative nor overtly rebellious, Ivan’s character is rendered the more poignant for the simplicity of his ambition and the motive that drives him.
Ten-year-old August Pullman (Auggie to family and friends) sees himself as a pretty ordinary kid. Or at least, a pretty ordinary kid with a most extraordinary face. You see, August’s face is the result of a most improbable genetic lottery, a one-in-a-million ticket called mandibulofacial dysostosis which, despite countless corrective surgeries, has gifted August with the kind of face that causes children to run screaming and even the kindest adults to avert their eyes.
However ordinary August might feel on the inside, at first – and second – glance the world has always seen a freak, or at best, a gut-wrenchingly pitiable boy. As his sister’s childhood friend Miranda puts it, “…the universe was not kind to Auggie Pullman.” Yet, as the story unfolds over his first year of middle school, August’s teachers and his classmates will learn that August’s face really is the least extraordinary thing about him.
First time author R.J. Palacio brings August and the other characters of Wonder to life with tremendous poignancy, realism and a supersized measure of practical humor. The perspectives of many characters are sampled and distilled into a comprehensive experience of what it means to be different, to love (and sometimes resent) someone who is different, and what extraordinary beauty can be seen beyond the peephole. Palacio’s characters and situations are deftly constructed, startlingly realistic, and likely to resonate with anyone who’s ever been there, whether as the awkward student on the first day of middle school, the parent or sibling of a child whom the world sees as different, or the “normal” kids and adults who must face their own internal concoction of fear, politeness, meanness, and most importantly, kindness when confronted with someone who is different.
Ultimately, this is more than a story about fitting in and more than a caution against judging a book by its cover – though Wonder certainly encompasses both of these messages. It’s a story about the beautiful, the ordinary, and the unseen ways in which an unkind universe still takes care of all its birds.