Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed (Juvenile Fiction)

Amal Unbound

Aisha Saeed (Juvenile Fiction)

Twelve-year-old Amal belongs to one of the more prosperous families in her Punjabi village in Pakistan and dreams of becoming a teacher. She vividly remembers that particular afternoon: the smell of the chalkboard, the students chattering outside the door, and talking poetry with her teacher, Miss Sadia. Little did she know that that would be her last day at school. While at the market, Amal encounters and challenges the son of the village’s powerful landlord—a slight that would have unimaginable consequences. She is forced to pay off her family’s debt by working on the Khan estate where she begins to realize the full extent of the family’s vast wealth and power. Amal must summon all her strength and courage to change the status quo because if everyone decided that nothing could ever change, then nothing ever would.

Amal Unbound is a captivating read and its short chapters allow readers to absorb the important messages and lessons that fill each page. The societal and cultural limitations that Amal brings to light accurately reflect her life and the obstacles that she faces. The idea of “fairness” is a major theme throughout the book and she constantly recalls her father’s words of life’s unfairness whenever she is at a crossroads. This is a hard thing to reconcile given the number of things totally out of her control: her sex (Maybe then I would not have learned that they thought being a girl was such a bad thing.), her birth order (Why did this random chance [being the eldest] have to dictate so much of my destiny?), and political power (How many lives had this man upended? Why did no one stop him?).

Saeed delivers a story about an ordinary girl who does an extraordinary thing…she has the audacity to speak out for change. Amal quickly realizes that life comes down to a series of choices. Choices that she doesn’t want to make or feels that she lacks the courage to do so. But her teacher at the literacy center reminds her, “Making choices even when they scare you because you know it’s the right thing to do—that’s bravery.”

In her Author’s Note, Saeed shares the story of Malala Yousafzai who was shot at point-blank range by the Taliban for advocating education for girls. Her life was also a series of choices, and her courageous advocacy led her to become the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala once said, “We were scared, but our fear was not as strong as our courage.” Amal was also scared, but sacrificed her own safety to bring about justice. In the end, she proved just how powerful a servant girl could be once she freed herself from the ties that bound her.  

Rating: 5/5

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The Good Dog by Avi (J Fiction)

The Good Dog

Avi (J Fiction)

McKinley was a good dog who lived a good life. He was part of a caring family, loved by his human pup Jack, had lots of friends, and held the distinction of being head dog of the Steamboat pack. Yes, life for the malamute was very good until the day a she-wolf by the name of Lupin arrived. Her words of freedom and wild enticed McKinley as he began to feel the burden of taking care of both his pack and his pup. Lupin had him questioning his life as a bound dog…a slave to humans and their will. As McKinley begins to witness the cruelty that humans were capable of, would he submit to his wolf ancestry and join Lupin to live a life without rules and conditions? What would a good dog do?

Although this story was written in the third person, Avi delights readers with a story told from a dog’s perspective. He gives us street names like Most Cars Way, Pine Smell Way, and Elk Scat Way. Jack loves to look at his staring papers (a book) while his parents seem mesmerized by their glow box (TV) and during the day, all the pups go to their special house (school). Avi shows us McKinley constantly “marking” certain areas so that his pack will know his comings and goings, he goes through the ritual of when dogs meet each other, and even describes McKinley’s frustration while trying to convey a rather simple concept to Jack (humans can be SO thick at times).

Avi checks all the right boxes with The Good Dog: age appropriate, an engaging story, memorable characters, great moral lessons, plenty of action and suspense, a few detestable villains, a hero who questions his purpose, some surprising twists, and an ending that’s sure to please. This book shows readers the value of loyalty, honor, and courage and illustrates how bloodline doesn’t dictate who your family is or where your future lies. Countless times McKinley is always looking out for Jack or a member of his pack and although he reaps both the rewards and punishments of his actions, these selfless acts make it clear why he was chosen to be head dog.

Throughout the book, McKinley was a friend, a best friend, a companion, a nemesis, a hero, a champion, and a leader. At the end of the day though, McKinley was just a dog, but more than that, he was a good dog.

Rating: 5/5

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Princess Academy by Shannon Hale (J Fantasy)

Princess Academy

Shannon Hale (J Fantasy)

It was the last trading of the season and Miri was ready. At fourteen, she was very small for her age and not allowed to do the one thing she wished to do—work in the quarry. But one way or another, she would make her father proud and would get that stingy lowlander to give up more than he wanted. That would bring a smile to her father’s face and being useful would bring a smile to hers. But along with the traders came a painted blue carriage that carried word from the king—a prophecy that the future princess of Danland resided in Miri’s own Mount Eskel. All girls aged twelve to seventeen would go to an academy for one year’s training before the prince would select his bride and young Miri was to be among them. Could little Miri, too useless to even work in the quarry alongside her fellow mountain folk, EVER be considered worthy of a prince? She’ll have a year to find out.

Hale delivers a masterful and brilliant story of class and privilege and explores the problems associated with stereotypes and prejudices. Set against the backdrop of a chiseled mountainscape and a secret language stored deep inside the mountain’s linder stone, Princess Academy is the story of a young girl’s desire for acceptance while remaining true to herself and all that she holds dear. Recipient of the 2006 Newbery Honor Book award, Princess Academy shows us courage and the consequences that come with standing up to unfairness and protecting the most vulnerable among us.

There are so many valuable lessons in this book, especially for young girls who feel unnecessarily driven to be wittier or prettier or smarter than their peers. Miri understood the toxicity behind this kind of competition when she said, “I don’t like the feeling in competition with everybody to be seen and liked by Prince Steffan.” And it was Miri’s friend, Esa, who so wisely suggested, “We should make a pact. We’ll be happy for whomever he chooses, no jealousy or meanness.” Although written in 2005, these lessons still hold true today. There are so many empowering quotes about lifting each other up without tearing one another down or how a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. Hale, through a “useless” girl who had very modest dreams, shows us the power for standing up for what is right and never turning your back on a friend.

I love Miri Larendaughter and have added her to my growing list of favorite fictional heroines. Besides her tenacity and courage and goodness, I believe it is her ability to lighten even the darkest places or the direst of circumstances that stands out the most to me. Prince Steffan said it best during his conversation with Miri when he said, “I would pay a deal of gold to have your talent of making other people smile.” In this age of competing for likes and followers, attention and approval, I hope we all remember how much value a simple act of kindness—especially a smile—is worth.

Rating: 5/5

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Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry (J)

Call it Courage

Call It Courage

Armstrong Sperry (Juvenile Fiction)

 It happened many years ago, before the traders and missionaries first came into the South Seas, while the Polynesians were still great in numbers and fierce of heart.  But even today the people of Hikueru sing the story in their chants and tell it over the evening fires.  It is the story of Mafatu, the Boy Who Was Afraid.

Fifteen-year-old Mafatu was afraid of the sea.  He’s had this fear for as long as he could remember.  His father, Tavana Nui, the Great Chief of Hikeuru, was ashamed of him for his people were great seafarers who worshipped courage.  There was no room—no tolerance—for cowardice.  It’s no wonder that Mafatu felt alone and out of place.  Angry and ashamed, Mafatu sets off one night in a canoe with his dog, Uri, and his albatross, Kivi, as his only companions.  His father had christened him “Stout Heart” upon his birth and Mafatu was determined to earn that name…or perish trying.

Armstrong Sperry’s Call It Courage was the recipient of the Newbery Medal in 1941.  Although there are mentions of Maui (God of the Fishermen) and Moana (the Sea God) and even Maui’s famed fishhook, Disney fans shouldn’t confuse this book with the movie about a spunky Polynesian princess.  Rather, it is more along the lines of Island of the Blue Dolphins (1961 Newbery Medal recipient) by Scott O’Dell, but told from a boy’s perspective.  If you enjoyed O’Dell’s book, you’ll most likely enjoy Sperry’s as well.

Sperry gives readers the story of a boy who not only has to deal with his own fears and shortcomings, but has to do so under the weight of being the island chief’s son.  To be a coward amongst people who worship heroism is one thing, but add the burden of being the island’s heir apparent and you’ve got quite a heavy load.  As the ridicule—especially from one who was seemingly a friend—intensifies, we see Mafatu being crushed under its unforgiving and unrelenting weight day after day until he sees no other alternative but to flee his homeland in search of courage and worth.

Call It Courage is fast-paced, tense, and suspenseful due to its numerous forms of conflict: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Fate/Supernatural, and Man vs. Self.  Like in Island of the Blue Dolphins, we have a smart protagonist who relies heavily on wit and skill to survive.  The mundane tasks that Mafatu was assigned while on Hikueru are quickly utilized and performed with speed and skill.  Rushes or lapses in judgement could mean death so we see Mafatu being patient, deliberate, calculating, and thoughtful in all of his decision making.  Books (especially for younger readers) could use more characters like this.

Sperry delivers a powerful message in a very short book (mine was only 92 pages).  He shows us a boy who despite his insecurity, frailty, and vulnerability, is capable of doing rather extraordinary things.  Whether you call it courage, impulse, or instinct, Mafatu discovers his inner strength which allows him to begin believing in himself.  Famed American pianist Liberace once said, “Nobody will believe in you unless you believe in yourself.”  Mafatu, along with a yellow dog and a gimpy albatross, found the courage to believe in himself and I would call that pretty remarkable.

Rating: 5/5

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Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska (J)

Shadow of a Bull

Shadow of a Bull    

Maia Wojciechowska (Juvenile Fiction)

When Manolo was nine he became aware of three important facts in his life.  First: the older he became, the more he looked like his father. Second: he, Manolo Olivar, was a coward.  Third: everyone in the town of Arcangel expected him to grow up to be a famous bullfighter, like his father.

To be a bullfighter was to be revered for a bullfighter was a hero, a magician, and a killer of death.  In Arcangel, death came in the form of a bull and to conquer death brought glory to yourself, your family, and your country.  Manolo was the son of Juan Olivar, the greatest bullfighter in Spain.  Ever since his father’s death, everyone anxiously awaited the day when Manolo would take his father’s place and Spain would once again have a hero.  But unlike his father, Manolo’s future was not prophesied for greatness and he worried that his heart would never allow him to live up to the expectations of his town or the legacy left by his father.

Maia Wojciechowska’s Shadow of a Bull (winner of the 1965 Newberry Award) is a book brimming with valuable lessons and important messages of self-worth, self-confidence, and self-importance.  She encourages the reader to question the idea of heroes and those we choose to idolize—the celebrated sports figure or the wizened town physician—and she shows us the emotional and physical price of sacrificing your own future in order to carry on someone else’s.  She writes of life versus death, bravery versus fear, and a dream versus destiny.  It’s a lot to take in, but Wojciechowska lays out all of these issues as smoothly as a matador works his cape.

Shadow of a Bull is rich in its history and detail regarding the art of bullfighting.  Readers will learn the training involved and will be introduced to several Spanish terms (pronunciation guide and definitions are included at the back of the book).   It’s an effective primer for the sport that may test the patience of a few readers, but proves interesting nonetheless.  Above all else, Wojciechowska doesn’t let us forget that the heart of this book is young Manolo, a boy wishing to bring honor to his family by fulfilling a future that is beyond his desire or control.  He carries the hopes and dreams of an entire country on his very small shoulders and we feel the weight of this burden grow heavier as the day of his testing nears.  It’s a beautifully told coming-of-age story of a boy trying to discover his place in the world.

Walter M. Schirra, Sr.—a fighter pilot during World War I and father of Wally Schirra, the only astronaut to fly in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs—once said, “You don’t raise heroes, you raise sons.  And if you treat them like sons, they’ll turn out to be heroes, even if it’s just in your own eyes.”  By being true to himself, Manolo found honor beyond the shadow of a bull and was able to become a hero in his own right.

Rating: 5/5

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Abel’s Island by William Steig (J)

Abels Island

Abel’s Island    

William Steig (Juvenile Fiction)

Abelard Hassam di Chirico Flint, of the Mossville Flints, is a very pampered mouse who likes things “just so”.  Living off the wealth of his mother, he shares a comfortable house with his wife, Amanda, and lives a life that is predictable, satiable, and pleasant.  But on one particular day, during a perfectly nice picnic, Abel’s life is turned upside down when a sudden hurricane separates him from everyone he loves and all that he knows.  Lost and alone, can one small mouse—who has been surrounded by ease and extravagance all his life—conjure up enough wit and grit to survive?

I grew up adoring William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and so I was delighted to see that Abel’s Island shared the same valuable moral:  possessions can never equal the riches and wealth provided by family.  Abel’s cup overflows with friends, family, and fortune, but when circumstances place him in a life-or-death situation, he begins to question his life and his worth and wonders if there might be a bigger being in charge: “Was it just an accident that he was here on this uninhabited island?  Abel began to wonder.  Was he being singled out for some reason: was he being tested?  If so, why?”  All of us, at one time or another, have felt like Abel.  That just when life seems to be going along swimmingly, the rug suddenly is pulled right out from under us.  Is it because we’ve become too complacent?  Too comfortable?  Or is it simply a reminder of how fragile and temporary life is and that every minute should be cherished and savored and never taken for granted.

I love books for young readers that reinforce the idea that there is strength, resilience, and courage in each of us and these things are waiting for just the right opportunity to emerge.  A. A. Milne passed away twenty years before Abel was born on paper, but the words of encouragement that he offered to a bear full of stuff and fluff could very well have been meant for Abel as well: “You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”  In the end, Abel proved that he WAS quite able after all.  Silly old mouse.

Rating: 5/5

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The Witches by Roald Dahl (J)

The Witches

The Witches   

Roald Dahl (Juvenile Fiction)

“In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks.  But this is not a fairy-tale.  This is about REAL WITCHES.”

Our story is told through the eyes of a seven-year old boy.  He’s quite ordinary really, but we soon find out that this rather ordinary boy is about to do some particularly extraordinary things.  Before he is eight years old, he tells us that he has had not one, but TWO encounters with witches…and he has lived to tell about it through this book.  I implore you to read this book so that you too will know how to spot a witch, for witches look just like ordinary women.  Miss the signs and alas poor reader, you might as well count yourself squelched!

Told in true Roald-Dahl fashion, the author gives us yet another whimsical, comical, and delightful story.  Dahl treats us to a young hero who shows courage, cleverness, and cunning in the most dangerous and dire of circumstances.  Even when he is at his lowest (and I mean that quite literally), our protagonist always seems to find the bright spot and never resorts to self-pity or defeatism.  His “can do” attitude and spunk will cast a wickedly delightful spell on your heart and is sure to entrance readers of all ages.  A few gory details of the supreme witch’s appearance may leave younger readers a tad squeamish, but it’s all told in good fun.

Dahl presents us with two very different groups of people whose appearance hide who they truly are.  When the narrator’s grandmother poses a question to him about identity and appearance, he responds, “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like so long as somebody loves you.”  And that, friends, is about as bewitching and magical a message as you can hope for.

Rating: 4/5

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