Hattie Big Sky
Kirby Larson (Young Adult Fiction)
Hattie Inez Brooks refers to herself as Hattie Here-and-There. Orphaned before she had lost her baby teeth, she spends her years being shuffled here and there amongst various relatives’ homes. At 16, everything changes when she is left 320 acres and a house in Montana by her deceased mother’s brother, Uncle Chester. With the only thing to look forward to in Arlington, Iowa is a job at a boardinghouse, Hattie writes back, “I’ll come.” But to make her uncle’s claim her own, she has to cultivate 40 acres and lay 480 rods of fence…and she has less than a year to do it. With a strong faith and help from neighbors, can Hattie make her deepest wish a reality—to find a place to belong.
Hattie Big Sky is based on the life of Larson’s great-grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, who herself had homesteaded as a young woman in eastern Montana. Because most of the story takes place in 1918, we see more references to automobiles than covered wagons. The United States was also embroiled in World War I and many German-born immigrants were subjected to a litany of anti-German persecution. Larson weaves all of these facts, along with the countless struggles faced by homesteaders, into a beautifully-told story of hardship, bravery, and old-fashioned grit.
Hattie is pleasantly surprised to find that a paper in Iowa is willing to pay her a monthly fee for her homesteading stories. In one such submission, she writes, “…the lesson this life has planted in my heart pertain more to caring than to crops, more to Golden Rule than gold, more to the proper choice than to popular choice.” Hattie’s lesson is one we should all strive to implant upon our own heart.
* Book cover image attributed to www.scholastic.com
T. Greenwood (Adult Fiction)
“Do not ask me for haunted. Do not ever ask me for haunted, because I will give you haunted and you will never be the same.”
Effie Greer is living a fugitive life. When you are a fugitive, you don’t sign leases, you don’t bother unpacking, and you don’t make any friends. But after three years, she finally feels safe enough to return home to Lake Gormlaith, Vermont. There, she refurbishes her grandmother’s lake house, reconnects with an old school friend, and develops an interest in a mysterious and kind artist. Only time will tell if Effie can truly leave the past behind and begin anew.
Breathing Water jumps from the years 1991, 1994, and 1987 and deals with issues such as domestic violence and substance abuse. Despite its strong and promising beginning, the story just seems to aimlessly float along with no real purpose or direction. At times, the text seems overly flowery (“The rust-gold-orange-purple of the woods behind him blurred through the spray of the hose…”) and the transitions between time periods are awkward and require the reader a few moments to continually readjust. Also, I found the main character to be a bit contradictory. As a survivor of abuse, she is prone to keeping secrets although she eventually finds great relief and peace once she finally divulges her abusive past to friends and family. Despite this, she finds it absolutely reasonable to keep secrets from her new love interest. So, we are led to assume that some secrets are acceptable and absolution is purely discretionary.
All in all, not the worst novel I’ve ever read, but it was lacking on several fronts: the characters were somewhat flat, the plot was thin, and finally reaching the end of the book was akin to treading water—there’s just not that much to hold onto.
* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
Kate DiCamillo (Juvenile Fiction)
“Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a rabbit who was made almost entirely out of china.”
Edward Tulane is almost three feet tall (from the tip of his ears to the tip of his feet) and is the beloved companion of ten-year old Abilene Tulane. A birthday present to Abilene from her grandmother Pellegrina, Edward thinks of himself as a rather fine specimen. He adores his fancy outfits and very much prefers not to think of unpleasant thoughts. But one day, something rather unpleasant does occur and that, I’m afraid to say, leads to only more unpleasantness. You see, Edward is a rabbit who only truly cares about himself, but all that is about to change very, very soon.
DiCamillo is one of the most talented and gifted children’s authors of this generation. Her characters reach deep into your soul and her stories leave an indelible mark on your heart. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is perhaps my favorite DiCamillo book. It’s a story about learning to love and being loved. It’s about belonging to a family and finding your way home. Edward never knew about love, but then he opened his ears and began to listen. When he listened, he opened his mind and began to care. When he cared, he opened his heart and began to love…and that changed everything.
Abilene’s grandmother once asked her, “How can a story end happily if there is no love?” DiCamillo gives us an enchanting and heartwarming story that brims with love which, in turn, promises readers a very happy ending. Open this book, open your heart, and prepare yourself for an amazing and unforgettable journey with a china rabbit named Edward.
* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com
The Mostly True Story of Jack
Kelly Barnhill (Juvenile Fantasy)
In the town of Hazelwood, Iowa, everything is neat and quiet and predictable. Everything, that is, except the deep purple house with its bright green door that sits on the edge of town. It belongs to Clive and Mabel Fitzpatrick (they’re kooks) and will soon be home to their nephew Jack (he’s a nobody). But something is happening in the town of Hazelwood. Something is different. There’s a buzzing sound that you can hear in the air and feel on the ground. And there is a sweet smell all about. Frankie Schumacher is the first to notice it, but he’s usually the first to know most things. What Frankie doesn’t know is that this newcomer, a boy named Jack, is at the center of everything strange, weird, and disturbing that is happening…again.
Barnhill gives us a story that is full of magic, bravery, and friendship. The plot gets a little confusing as the reader is provided cryptic clues through old diary entries and postings by Jack’s uncle—both contained in The Secret History of Hazelwood—in order to piece together the bizarre events not only occurring in the Fitzpatrick home, but also around town. Also, the premise of the story seems a little faulty since we are led to believe that Jack’s character feels “invisible”; however, throughout the book and especially near the end, we see that he is actually being forgotten and not just simply ignored. This feeling is actually more appropriate in conveying a sense of foreboding and trepidation as the action intensifies and Jack begins to realize the truth about the town and himself.
Overall, I liked that the main characters in this book were loyal, fearless, and chose decency over convenience. Whether standing up to bullies or corrupted townspeople, they always erred on the side of right, regardless of the consequences they knew they would eventually face. I do have a slight warning for younger readers or readers that are easily frightened. There are a few creepy parts in this book where kids get sucked into the ground and have their souls taken so just keep this in mind. All in all, The Mostly True Story of Jack is a book about trying to feel comfortable in your own skin, trying to fit in, and most of all, just trying to be true to yourself…or mostly true.
* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Lisa See (Adult Fiction)
Lily Yi was born on the fifth day of the sixth month of the third year of Emperor Daoguang’s reign. Her matchmaker took one look at her and knew she was special. In fact, Lily was so special that she was given a laotong, an “old same”, instead of the traditional sworn sisters that most girls receive. A laotong relationship in Chinese culture is between two girls from different villages who are eternally bound to be kindred sisters and devoted companions. At the age of seven, Lily is matched with a girl from the highly regarded Lu clan. Her name is Snow Flower. For over twenty years, their friendship endures arranged marriages, childbearing, disease, and death. Throughout these events, the two write to one another in a secret women’s language—nu shu—on the folds of a fan. One day, Lily receives a message from Snow Flower that threatens to tear apart their bond, although it is said that not even death itself can sever a laotong.
See not only gives us an extraordinary novel, but also an informative and unforgettable glimpse into Chinese culture and the lives of women in the early part of the 19th century. We read how women are kept separated and isolated from outside life. Women hidden away within the walls of their upstairs women’s chambers where they spend their days cooking, sewing, and praying for sons—their only measure of worth. See also describes the unimaginably cruel and painful practice of footbinding. This tradition begins with girls at age six and See’s description of the binding process is unmerciful in its details. The suffering these young girls endure is truly horrific and beyond human comprehension and through the author’s masterful storytelling, we find ourselves experiencing their pain and agony alongside them. (Thankfully, this practice was outlawed in 1912.)
See gives her readers a beautifully told story of devotion, sacrifice, regret, love, and forgiveness. Lily and Snow Flower are strong, intelligent, and fearless women willing to break long-honored cultural barriers in order to remain together. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a mesmerizing and heartbreaking novel whose story unfolds as effortlessly as the fan that Lily and Snow Flower share.
* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com
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.
* Book cover image attributed to http://www.simonandschuster.com
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
Ishmael Beah (Adult Biography)
Ishmael Beah is a typical 12-year old boy. He enjoys rap music, practicing his dance moves, and playing soccer with his friends. But on one January day in 1993, what he and his brother and friends don’t realize as they head to Mattru Jong for a talent show, as that they will never be returning to their village of Mogbwemo again.
War has come to Sierra Leone. The adults call it a revolutionary war—a liberation of the people from a corrupt government. But why do the liberators kill innocent people? Why do they pillage and burn down the villages? Ishmael and his friends soon find themselves wandering from village to village searching for food, struggling for survival, and keeping one step ahead of the rebels. When they are captured by the government army, they are given a choice: join and fight or die.
Beah’s personal account of his years as a child soldier is horrifying and unimaginable. In his book, he says that it was his father’s words that kept him moving despite his weariness: “If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.”
It was hard reading Beah’s story and learning about his vile actions during war, his terrifying nightmares that made him fear sleep, and his addiction to marijuana and cocaine. Perhaps what is harder still is knowing that the practice of using children as soldiers in war still exists and remains rampant. But Beah gives us a story not just of tragedy, but of redemption and hope. When he is rescued by UNICEF and taken to a rehabilitation center, every day counselors and medical staff would say to him, “It’s not your fault.” After many months, the day finally came when he began to believe it. By forgiving himself, Ishmael Beah started to forge a new beginning for himself and began to share his incredible story with the world—a story that will hopefully bring awareness and change for the thousands of children still fighting in wars throughout the world.
* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com