Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan (YA)

Esperanza Rising

Esperanza Rising

Pam Muñoz Ryan (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

Esperanza was the pride and joy of her papa.  The daughter of wealthy ranchers, Sixto and Ramona Ortega, she had everything a twelve-year old could possibly want.  But not far beyond the borders of El Rancho de las Rosas, trouble brewed in Aguascaliente, Mexico.  It was 1930 and the revolution in Mexico had happened over ten years ago, but there were still those who resented the wealth and circumstances of the local landowners.  Soon that hate would spill over into Esperanza’s idyllic and pampered world and would ultimately rob her of everything that she knows and holds dear.

Pam Muñoz Ryan gives us a heartwarming and often heartbreaking riches-to-rags story of a young, spoiled, and arrogant girl who learns the value of humility, empathy, generosity, and kindness.  Inspired by her own grandmother, Esperanza Ortega, Ryan shows us the lavishness and bounty of a prosperous Mexican ranch, as well as the poverty, squalor, and hardship endured by migrant workers living in company farm camps.  She also provides insight into the Mexican Repatriation, which included the deportations of thousands of legalized and native United States citizens to Mexico between 1929 and 1935.  Up until that time, it was the largest involuntary migration in the U.S. with numbers reaching almost a half million.  Ryan also describes the struggles of the workers to compete with cheaper labor from states like Oklahoma, as well as their efforts for a better wage and living conditions through unionization.

In addition to giving readers a story overflowing with moral lessons—Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes or Appreciate what you have before you lose it—Ryan also gives us a character who slowly begins to realize that life is more than fancy dresses and porcelain dolls.  Through humiliation, heartache, and despair, Esperanza understands how life is like her father’s beautiful and precious rose garden: “No hay rosa sin espinas.” There is no rose without thorns.  For despite the beauty and splendor that life often provides, there will also be some degree of pain and suffering.  But like her grandmother taught her as she undid Esperanza’s rows of uneven or bunched crochet, “Do not ever be afraid to start over.”  And when Esperanza did, she truly blossomed.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

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Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green (YA)

Summer of My German Soldier

Summer of My German Soldier

Bette Greene (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

It was the most exciting thing to have ever happened to Jenkinsville, Arkansas.  German POWs, maybe twenty in all, arrived by train and would be housed in a camp in the small southern town.  Twelve-year-old Patty Bergen was among the many townspeople there to witness the event.  Each hoping to do their patriotic part to make President Roosevelt proud during this summer of World War II.  During a chance encounter in her family’s store, Patty meets young Anton Reicker, a handsome, educated young man who is one of the POWs.  Although he is German and she is Jewish, they begin an unlikely friendship that will test Patty’s family bonds, as well as question her national loyalty.

Written in 1973, Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier was not only listed on the American Library Association’s Top 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books from 1990-1999, it also made the ALA’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books for 2001.  According to the ALA’s website (www.ala.org), “The American Library Association condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information.”  To educate schools and libraries about censorship, they publish these lists which are compiled by the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF).  With that said, this book (recommended for ages 11 and up) is full of racial slurs, derogatory language, sexual innuendoes, and many instances of physical, verbal, and psychological abuse.  It truly runs the gamut for a story written for fifth graders and up.  These issues alone are enough to give a reader pause, but these aren’t the only reasons that I found myself disappointed with this book.

First, Patty’s father and mother are inexplicably cruel and violent to her.  They fawn over her little sister, Sharon, while Patty endures taunts, intolerance, dismissiveness, and even physical beatings at the hands of her father.  I kept hoping for some enlightening backstory as to why these two people could possibly hate their own child so much, but Greene doesn’t even provide a hint to explain their savage and inhuman behavior.  Their treatment of Patty is repugnant and demoralizing, which serves as the ideal foundation for many of Patty’s choices—which are often hasty and incredibly unwise.  Here is a girl so desperate for acceptance and so eager for kindness that she would say or do anything in order to achieve some modicum of happiness.

Second, Greene gives us a story that seems devoid of any moral lessons.  The Bergen family’s black housekeeper, Ruth—who takes on the role of mother figure—is very religious and is often heard singing hymns while doing chores and encourages the children to pray at lunchtime.  Despite this being a story about a Jewish family, we get a healthy dose of Christianity and the glory that comes with salvation.  Even with this, there really isn’t a central theme tying the entire story together.  We understand the courage of putting someone else’s wellbeing ahead of your own and the virtues of seeing beyond religion, ethnicity, or skin color, but these platitudes fall by the wayside with an ending that is absent any sort of clarity, closure, or inspiration.  The reader is left feeling just as bewildered and discouraged as Patty whose only “real” friends are the housekeeper, a POW, and the town’s sheriff.

I read Greene’s Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe. (which I rated 4/5) and was so hoping to find that same feeling of hope and triumph in this book.  Instead, Greene delivers a bleak look at family and life and gives us a girl so disillusioned and unsatisfied with her life, that the only thing she clings to is the day she turns eighteen.  Unfortunately for Patty, that’s still six very long summers away.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Breaker Boys by Pat Hughes (J)

The Breaker Boys

The Breaker Boys

Pat Hughes (Juvenile Fiction)

Nate Tanner was born into privilege.  For several generations, his family has owned coal mines near Hazelton, Pennsylvania allowing Nate to have anything he desired: the best education, the finest clothes, and a bevy of servants to see to his every need.  What Nate didn’t have was a single friend.  Perhaps it was because of his temper or that he was spoiled or that he was always getting into trouble.  Maybe it was all three.  Like his teacher said, when you had so much, what was left to try for?  But then he met Johnny Bartelak, a Polish American boy who sorts coal in one of his family’s breakers.  Theirs was a friendship that started with a simple bike ride, but would slowly be built with lie upon lie.  How could Nate tell Johnny the truth about his family and how could he possibly tell his family about Johnny?  As the miners begin to talk of joining a labor union, Nate must make the ultimate choice between friendship and family.

The Breaker Boys is based on actual events that occurred on September 10, 1897 at the Lattimer mine near Hazelton, Pennsylvania.  Known as the Lattimer Massacre, nineteen striking immigrant coal miners were killed and thirty-nine others were wounded.  The miners were mostly of Polish, Slovak, Lithuanian, and German ethnicity and author Pat Hughes brings their story and struggles to life in this thoughtful and moving story about friendship, honor, forgiveness, and betrayal.  Although Hughes fills her novel with plenty of conflicts—rich versus poor, father versus son, labor versus management, immigrant versus native—the story never feels bogged down or overly preachy and the action and emotions slowly intensify as Nate’s secret becomes closer and closer to being discovered.

Hughes also takes her time in allowing the reader to get to know Nate Tanner—a spoiled, self-indulgent, self-centered, rude, and disrespectful twelve-year-old boy whose mother died while he was quite young and who has still not forgiven his father for marrying the family’s governess.  To her credit, Hughes made Nate very human and avoided giving him an Ebenezer Scrooge or Grinch moment where he sees the error of his ways and experiences a complete moral transformation.  Nate is, after all, a young boy with a lot of growing up to do and so we continue to see moments of selfishness, arrogance, and stubbornness throughout the book, which makes his character all the more relatable and sympathetic.

The Breaker Boys is gripping and insightful and offers readers a glimpse into American history while illustrating the importance of honesty, the value of friendship, and the gift of second chances.  American educator, author, and businessman Stephen Covey said, “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities” and Pat Hughes shows us that despite differences in class, ethnicity, and religion, two young boys found strength and friendship through something as simple as a bike ride.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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War & Watermelon by Rich Wallace (YA Historical Fiction)

It’s Tween & Teen Tuesday when we review either a Juvenile (J) or Young Adult (YA) book.

War and Watermelon

War & Watermelon    

Rich Wallace (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

If you were to rank boys based on “coolness”, Brody Winslow would be near the bottom…low-middle at best.  But things could be worse.  It’s August 1969 and his brother Ryan could STILL avoid the draft (if he just got off his butt), the New York Mets COULD win a game (if they just got off their butt), and Brody MIGHT be a starter on his football team (if he could just stay off his butt).  All in all, things are looking pretty good.  In less than a month, Brody will be starting junior high school and his brother has promised to take him to a farm in upstate New York for some hippie concert protesting the war in Vietnam.  That might be fun.  Big changes are coming and Brody is about to tackle them all…whether he’s ready or not.

Rich Wallace started his early writing career as a sports editor for various New Jersey newspapers and his talent shows in War & Watermelon where the football and baseball references abound.  But what’s really at the core of this tender and sentimental book is the special bond shared by brothers Ryan and Brody.  Unlike the competitive or jealous sibling relationships you find in some books, the Winslow boys are fiercely supportive, loyal, and kind to one another.  As Ryan’s 18th birthday approaches—along with his draft status—Brody senses his brother’s increasing anxiety and is not sure how to comfort him: “I should get to bed; we’ve got another game tomorrow night.  But I wouldn’t be sleeping anyway, so I’d rather stay here with Ryan.  He’d been there for me.  Teaching me how to shoot a basketball or cook a hot dog.  Taking me to the movies, even when he goes to the drive-in with Jenny.  Giving me things like a Giants jersey he got too big for, or a flashlight when I was four and scared that there was a monster in my closet.  Now he’s scared.  I’m scared, too.  We might as well sit here together.”  There’s also a tight-knit relationship between Ryan, Brody, and their father.  Nights sitting up cheering on their Mets while eating olives and saltines or laughing out loud to re-reruns of The Honeymooners are clearly enjoyed and treasured by all three.

War & Watermelon is a humorous and delightful book about one young man trying to make a difference and one boy trying to make it through the day.  It’s a little slice of Americana served with grape soda pop and a bag of pretzels in front of a black and white TV.  It isn’t dramatic, suspenseful, thrilling, or riddled with angst.  Some may even go so far as to call it trite or boring.  But as Brody Winslow once said, “We wander around for an hour, shoot some baskets, then go home.  Yeah, it was boring, but that’s life.  Boring isn’t always so bad”.  I would even venture to say that boring can be great…now pass the olives and turn on the TV!

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

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Sophia’s War by Avi (J)

Sophias War

Sophia’s War 

Avi (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

It’s 1776 and the War for Independence has arrived at Sophia Calderwood’s front door.  Before long, New York City is occupied by British troops and every citizen chooses a side: loyalist or patriot.  To be a patriot is dangerous, but to be a spy is a death sentence.  They hang spies.  But Sophia needs to do something to help and, despite the risks, she utters four words that would change the course of her life, and possibly, the revolution: “I wish to help.”

Avi has given us a compelling and dramatic story that is about as close to an actual history book as you can get.  Other than Sophia and her family, every character in this book is real; however, what I appreciate most about this story is the light Avi sheds on the darkness that was the British prisons.  Those that lost their personal freedom fighting for their country’s freedom endured starvation, disease, cold, filth, and neglect.  A soldier whose life was spared on the battlefield most likely lost it while in prison.  Evidence points to the fact that nearly 18,000 people died in Britain’s New York prisons, while some 7,000 died on the battlefield.  And this was in New York alone.

This book is targeted for ages 7 to 12, but there are sections that tend to get a bit weighty with the names of numerous battles and their commanders.  This might prove a little overwhelming for readers on the younger end of the scale, but for those in the upper elementary-age bracket, this book provides an informative glimpse into the Revolutionary War and one of history’s most famous traitors.  Truly a thrilling and worthy read that ends with highly dramatic, parallel storylines that serve as an 18th century version of Spy vs. Spy.

Rating: 4/5

Posted: 7/31/2018

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.simonandschuster.com