The Boy with the Butterfly Mind by Victoria Williamson (J Fiction)

The Boy with the Butterfly Mind

Victoria Williamson (J Fiction)

Elin has never been in trouble for anything in her whole life. She is smart, respectful, and helpful. A perfect princess determined to get her divorced parents back together…even though her mother is in a relationship and her father is married. Elin has everything under control, but she doesn’t have any friends. After all, it’s lonely being so perfect all the time. Then there’s Jamie who seems to be a magnet for trouble. He has ADHD and is easily distracted, forgetful, and messy. His parents are also divorced and Jamie blames himself…as he often does for most things that go horribly wrong. It would be nice if he had a friend to talk to, but it’s lonely being bad all the time. When these two very lonely and different worlds collide, order and chaos not only meet, but they end up living together in a house that seems to grow smaller by the minute.

The Boy with the Butterfly Mind is told from the alternating viewpoints of Elin and Jamie—both eleven. Although you understand the internal and emotional struggles of both characters, it is far easier to be sympathetic towards Jamie. Although he is completely aware of his challenges and limitations, he still absorbs an unfair amount of guilt and blame while managing to maintain a trusting and forgiving attitude. His journey is a rollercoaster ride of emotions and just when we think his life is getting easier, the rug is mercilessly pulled out from him. With so much against him, we can’t help but cheer on this perpetual underdog.

Williamson is a primary school teacher with a Master’s Degree in special needs education. She’s worked with children requiring additional support needs and this real-world experience is evident in her writing. We see it as Jamie details his struggles and feelings and especially when he describes his interactions with his mother who is completely overwhelmed and emotionally drowning. These occurrences are raw and ugly and uncomfortably accurate. When Jamie hurts, we hurt, which makes this book all the more thought provoking and poignant.

By focusing on Jamie, I don’t mean to downplay Elin and her feelings. She, too, is struggling with her own demons as she feels that the only way to win her father back is to maintain a level of perfection that is both unrealistic and impossible. She puts undue pressure on herself and the introduction of an imperfect and unwanted addition to her family just adds to her burden. It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone and we can’t help but wince as we witness the walls around these people come tumbling down. However, the measures that Elin takes in her own personal “war” against these unwanted intruders are both cruel and dangerous and under these circumstances it is difficult to extend her any mercy or grace although she is keenly aware and witnesses the consequences of her actions.

Using data from 2016-2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 6 million children—between the ages of 3 to 17—were diagnosed with ADHD, which is why books like this one are so important and valuable. To show the bullying and isolation that children with this diagnosis experience is just the first of many steps that need to be taken to promote understanding, acceptance, and inclusion.

There’s a quote about friendship that I’ve used before in a review that’s from an anonymous source. It’s one of my favorites: A friend is one who overlooks your broken fence and admires the flowers in your garden. Although Jamie felt broken and just wanted to be “normal”, he was lucky enough to find such a friend who made him realize that you don’t have to be perfect in order to be a perfect friend. I think the world would be a much better place with more people like that in it and I’m glad that Elin eventually realized this, too.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.abebooks.com

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Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes (J Fiction)

Olive’s Ocean

Kevin Henkes (J Fiction)

Twelve-year-old Martha Boyle and her family were leaving on their annual vacation to the Atlantic coast when a woman appeared on the Boyle’s doorstep. She introduced herself as Olive’s mother, one of Martha’s classmates who had recently been killed. She handed Martha a folded piece of paper from Olive’s journal. As Martha read the note written by a girl she barely knew, she was struck by just a few simple sentences: I hope that I get to know Martha Boyle next year (or this summer). I hope that we can be friends. That is my biggest hope. These kind words filled with expectation would alter Martha’s world view forever as she mourns a friendship that never was and never will be.

I raised my child on Kevin Henkes’ mouse books: Chester’s Way, Owen, Wemberly Worried, and others. Each helped me reinforce the value of friendship and the importance of acceptance, handling your emotions, self-reliance and many other life lessons. When I saw that Olive’s Ocean was a Newbery Honor book, I wasn’t really surprised. What DID surprise me was that it ranked 59th on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Challenged Books from 2000 to 2009 for its offensive language and sexual explicitness. No wonder Wemberly worried!

Despite the ominous label it carries, Olive’s Ocean is a rather innocuous coming-of-age story about a girl dealing with the customary pre-teen fare: first love, awkwardness, rejection, humiliation, and the constant struggle of trying to figure out who she is and what she wants to be. Pretty safe stuff, but Henkes does nudge the boundaries ever so slightly causing those few, all-important feathers to be ruffled.

The “sexually explicit” reference is a brief explanation to Martha by her older brother of why their parents seem overly affectionate one morning. It seems they were exhibiting “Morning Sex Behavior” and “when they do it in the morning” they get a bit lovey-dovey. Regarding the “offensive language”, there are instances of mild profanity, but nothing too over-the-top for the publisher’s recommended reading age of 10 and up. So, the big questions are: Are EITHER of these inclusions necessary to further the story or develop the characters? No. Could they have been excluded with little to no impact on the overall message? Absolutely. Would Henkes have omitted them if he knew the wrath that awaited him? Maybe. Maybe not. There’s no question that having your book banned instantly puts you on a reader’s radar, but clearly this was not his intent. All in all, these infractions (as most references go) are tame, but clearly remain unforced errors and prompt me to up the recommended reading age by a few years just to be prudent.

As far as stories go, this was a quick read and had several important messages about inclusivity and realizing that the world doesn’t revolve around your own personal cares and needs; however, I would have liked more Olive in Olive’s Ocean and feel that this was an opportunity wasted. The apparent connection between Olive and Martha stated in the synopsis doesn’t quite materialize in the actual book, and it would have been far more interesting if Olive’s story had been developed more deeply to show Martha’s slow and eventual evolution. Still, the targeted audience will find a nice and relatable story, while I was hoping for something a little bit more moving with a deeper and lasting message. I guess if I’m looking for these, I need to go back to the mouse stories.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.abebooks.com

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The Borrowers Afloat (The Borrowers #3) by Mary Norton

The Borrowers Afloat (The Borrowers #3)

Mary Norton (J Fantasy)

It all began when Mrs. May told Kate the story of the Borrowers: Pod, Homily, and Arrietty Clock. The story of how these little people lived happily under the kitchen floorboards at Firbank until being smoked out; how they survived hunger, weather, and a sinister gypsy with the help of a human being and a loner Borrower; and how all of this ended with an unexpected reunion with Uncle Hendreary and Aunt Lupy. But, as we’ve learned, things with the Borrowers are never easy and with bad news from the human boy Tom, our three friends are off on yet another adventure, except this time they’re aided by a most resourceful and trustworthy ally, Spiller.

The Borrowers Afloat is the third installment in The Borrowers series and it’s just as thrilling and enchanting as its predecessors. Norton continues to use each book to give readers a greater insight into the world of these resourceful and brave beings. In this book, we see how Uncle Hendreary and Aunt Lupy live and understand the partnership they’ve formed with Spiller. Also, Spiller has been promoted from a supporting role to a main character as he plays an instrumental part in saving the Clocks (quite a few times by now), as well as assisting them in securing permanent housing.

Of all the characters so far, Spiller is perhaps the most underrated and gracious as he gives up his home, time, and resources to assist the Clocks on more than one occasion. Although he works through barter, the kindnesses extended Pod and Homily seem to go largely unreciprocated and unappreciated except for Arrietty who holds a genuine like and concern for this ragamuffin drifter. Lastly, Norton continues to develop our soft, pampered, and opinionated matriarch, Homily, and allows her to slowly let go of her prejudices to begin appreciating and valuing Spiller and his contributions to her family.

So far, the series continues to delight with an exciting and fun ride while this book leaves readers with the most suspenseful cliffhanger yet as Mild Eye the gypsy is hot on their heels and the return of the nasty Mrs. Driver and Crampfurl reminds us that our friends’ journey is far from over. But, as Pod was reassuring Homily after another near escape by saying, “As I see it, in life as we live it—come this thing or that thing—there’s always some way to manage. Always has been and, like as not, always will be,” andI have no doubt that Pod, Homily, and Arrietty will continue to find some way to manage as long as they’re together.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.abebooks.com

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Start Without Me by Joshua Max Feldman (Adult Fiction)

Start Without Me

Joshua Max Feldman (Adult Fiction)

Adam Warshaw is an ex-keyboardist and recovering alcoholic who is muddling along at his job at a bank. Marissa Cavano is a flight attendant who fled an alcoholic mother, married into a wealthy—albeit classist and racist—family, and is currently struggling to save her marriage. Both are heading home for Thanksgiving and their paths are about to intersect in what would be the start of a highly unpredictable and tumultuous day that would send each of their lives in unexpected directions.

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. Well, you can’t judge it by its BACK cover either. Joshua Max Feldman’s Start Without Me is described as A darkly comic novel. Nope. …the quintessential Thanksgiving novel. Let’s hope not. …a unique solidarity between two strangers as they help each other… More like one constantly saves the other one’s bacon. …Feldman’s novel excels in his crafting of extraordinary dialogue. OK. Nailed that one.

This was an extremely difficult book to get through as Adam’s character is insufferable, unrepentant, oblivious, ungracious, selfish, self-absorbed… The list is long and would take me until Thanksgiving to get through them all. I think the difference between Adam and some other awful main characters that have completely destroyed a book for me (I’m looking at you Kathy Nicolo) is that Adam KNOWS he’s a dumpster fire, the author knows he’s a dumpster fire, and everyone around Adam knows…well, you get the idea.

A friend once told me of a co-worker who said that she HATED a certain restaurant (both shall remain nameless) because she got food poisoning there four times. Four. Times. So, at that point, do you blame the restaurant or do you blame the patron? Who’s the knucklehead? The same with this book. Is it Feldman’s fault that I was totally frustrated by his book or is it mine? I mean, just like the knucklehead co-worker, I kept going back expecting a different outcome only to be confronted with the same mess over and over again. Was I thinking that if I JUST ordered the dessert, I’d be safe?!

The good news is that there are a few bright spots. Feldman really is a master at writing dialogue. It was one of the few things that saved this story and if he had done more of this and less of Adam waxing poetic about his past days in his rock band, I could’ve saved myself a lot of time from having to pet the neighbor’s dog in order to get back into my happy place. The only other glimmer was Marissa, whose backstory is an absolute trainwreck. She is the only character worthy of our sympathy and the only true adult in the room. She extends Adam more grace than he deserves and although she’s been the victim of many bad choices, she’s determined to learn from them and move forward stronger and wiser.

Before this book, Feldman wrote The Book of Jonah. After all of the negative emotions still coursing through my veins after dealing with Adam, it might take me some time before I’m strong enough to tackle this book. In the meantime, you better start without me.

Rating: 3/5

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

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The Borrowers Afield by Mary Norton (J Fantasy)

The Borrowers Afield

Mary Norton (J Fantasy)

It had been a year since Mrs. May told young Kate the story of the borrowers. Since that time, Kate had completely pushed their memory to the farthest corner of her mind until one early spring day when Mrs. May slipped her a letter and said, “This will interest you, Kate, I think.” And indeed it had since that letter had to do with Leighton Buzzard. Leighton Buzzard, as you might recall, was the country town where Great Aunt Sophy’s house was and it was in that house, as you might remember, where underneath the kitchen floorboards lived the Clocks: Pod, Homily, and Arrietty. But whatever happened to those poor Clocks? Last time we saw them, they had been smoked out of their comfortable home and left fleeing for their lives—never to be seen or heard from again. But worry not for there is one soul who knows exactly what happened to our dear friends and it is that very same person that Mrs. May and Kate—quite by chance—are about to meet.

Three years after writing The Borrowers in 1952, Mary Norton picks right up where she left off with The Borrowers Afield where our favorite trio are tirelessly trekking from Firbank to Perkin’s Beck in search of the badger’s set, home to the Hendrearies. In this book, Arrietty finally realizes her dream of living outdoors and becoming a true borrower; Homily begins to toughen up a bit, although required to become a vegetarian; and Pod continues to hold his family together while keeping an even temper and maintaining loving order. Their journey has them finding an unexpected abode, meeting several troublesome insects, and encountering a very helpful yet mysterious stranger.

Norton does not fail to live up to the expectations she established for her readers with her first book in the beloved Borrowers’ series. This next chapter is filled with adventure and ample amounts of danger, disappointment, and discovery. Through their ups and downs, the Clock family begin to not only learn more about themselves and their own capabilities, but they also learn more about one another, which results in a deeper appreciation for one another.

This book stresses family much more than the first as it truly is the Clocks vs the World. In doing so, our little troupe form a tighter bond and realize that if you’re with family, you’re already home. The Borrowers Afield is truly a fun frolic with plenty of action and suspense and every bit worthy of its predecessor.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

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Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright (J Newbery Medal)

Thimble Summer

Elizabeth Enright (J Newbery Award)

It was the hottest day in the entire history of the world. At least it felt like it to Garnet Linden as she looked out over her family’s dying crops. Where was the rain? If it didn’t come soon, they would have to harvest their oats for hay and wouldn’t have enough money to pay their mounting bills. On top of all that, her father needed a new barn. Her family not only needed rain, they needed a miracle, but all Garnet had was a small silver thimble that she’d found in the damp, sandy flats of the river. What possible good could that ever do?

Elizabeth Enright’s Thimble Summer received the Newbery Medal in 1939. Her book is a culmination of her grandmother’s childhood stories, her mother’s school days, her own experiences, and various memories of her friends and relatives. All told, Enright gives us a nine-year-old’s memorable summer filled with a high-speed bus ride, runaway chickens, a blue ribbon, a new sibling, and an unexpected sleepover in the town library. Thimble Summer is charming, engaging, and the ideal read for a young reader looking for adventure and suspense without any of the tragedy. It highlights the kindness of strangers and reminds us that family is so much more than blood. Although this story wouldn’t translate well today (as a nine-year old hitchhiking to another town would elicit a call from both local law enforcement and child protective services), readers still have to admire Garnet’s hutzpah when it comes to showing her older brother that she isn’t a total failure while looking good doing it!

In her Newbery Medal acceptance speech, Enright noted the joy she gleaned from writing about children for children since “a child sees everything sharp and radiant; each object with its shadow beside it. Happiness is more truly happiness than it will ever be again, and is caused by such little things.” I think through Garnet Linden, Elizabeth Enright is encouraging all of us to hold onto the magic of delighting in the little things that life has to offer so that we too can experience our very own thimble summer.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

My Louisiana Sky by Kimberly Willis Holt (J Fiction)

My Louisiana Sky

Kimberly Willis Holt (J Fiction)

Tiger Ann Parker was six when she realized that her momma wasn’t like other mothers—acting more like a younger sibling than a parent—and her father was no better, often described as “slow” by the men he worked with at the nursery. Tiger hated to admit it, but she felt embarrassed by her parents and often wished that her mother was more like her stylish and independent Aunt Dorie Kay. If she was, then maybe Tiger could make friends with the girls in her class. Maybe Tiger could finally fit in. Tiger’s wish may be coming true when she’s given the chance to leave her small town of Saitter and begin a new life in Baton Rouge. But is starting over really the answer that Tiger is looking for?

This is the second book by Kimberly Willis Holt that I’ve read, the first being When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, and Holt again delighted me with a cast of unforgettable characters and an immersive story. My Louisiana Sky is another period book, but this one takes place during the 1950s when the country was divided by segregation and people with developmental disorders were often institutionalized. Mirroring Zachary, Holt’s down-home and folksy writing is front and center and instantly draws the reader to her characters and pulls you into their quaint and intimate world. The story is told from twelve-year-old Tiger’s point of view and what really compelled me—apart from its strong themes of acceptance and family—was how the script was flipped a bit. Most books that deal with the subject of developmental disabilities for this age often afflicts either a sibling or a friend of the main character. For Holt to strip Tiger’s familial stability by having not one but both of her parents dealing with varying degrees of mental challenges gives the story an entirely unique perspective and instills an overall sense of aloneness for Tiger. Combine that with her having to deal with the common adolescent fare of self-esteem, body issues, and self-confidence and you can’t really fault Tiger for wanting to leave everything she knows and loves behind for a chance to simply be a twelve-year old girl for a while.

There are so many positive lessons to be learned from this book, but the reader who is fighting against circumstances beyond their control and struggling to be accepted by their peers is going to feel the deep connection to Tiger Ann Parker. Most of us can remember wanting to be part of a clique and recalling the sting when confronted with rejection. We feel Tiger’s anguish when she cries out, “It’s not fair. I didn’t do anything to them,” and appreciate the wisdom of Granny’s words when she tells Tiger, “Perhaps those girls don’t deserve your friendship.” It’s true when they say that it’s not what we have in life, but who we have in our life that matters. For Tiger, all she needed was a best friend who loved baseball, a father who had a talent for listening to the earth, and a mother who loved to dance in between the sheets drying on the clothesline under a bright, blue Louisiana sky.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.goodreads.com

Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two: A Gypsy family’s hard and happy times in the 1950s by Maggie Smith-Bendell

Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two: A Gypsy family’s hard and happy times on the road in the 1950s

Maggie Smith-Bendell (Adult Biography)

Many of us were born out on the pea fields. I was born on the pea field at Thurloxton, just up the road towards Bridgwater, so I felt right at home in the peas. Me dad always said that the best pickers were born in the fields, but I knew that was a load of bull to get me to pick faster. He must have thought me daft.

Born the second of eight children, Maggie was a Traveller—where working was a mainstay, where horses were treated better than family, and the seasons determined where you parked your wagon and for how long. It was a life of traditions, culture, and family, but being Romani also meant a way of life met with resistance, discrimination, and abuse. As a child, Maggie flourished in her surroundings. As an adult, she would spend every waking hour fighting to protect and maintain a culture and a people that were under never-ending assault.   

Maggie Smith-Bendell’s biography is a fascinating and rare look into the lives of the Romani Gypsy. Maggie lived within an incredibly tightknit community that valued tradition and thrived on the open road. Their nomadic lifestyle brought plenty of adventure, danger, uncertainty, and joy, but also its share of mistrust and mistreatment from the gorgies (non-Romani people) living in the towns where the Romani came to trade, shop, and sell their goods. Maggie’s words are so mesmerizing and poignant, that we somehow become immersed in her wonderful Gypsy world: smelling the smoke from the family’s campfire; feeling the blackberry brambles tear at our flesh; and weeping as we follow a casket moving slowly to its final resting place. It’s quite an accomplishment given what little formal education she received.

Perhaps the most inspirational part of Maggie’s story was her tireless advocacy work on behalf of the Romani people and her commitment to preserving their culture. Although she could have settled for a quiet, married life raising her children, she chose to dedicate her adult life to fighting for the Romani’s right to own and live upon their own land and to help them acquire homes, an education for their children, and healthcare. Maggie mentions the obstacles, defeats, and setbacks in her work, but she knows that it’s the victories that matter. The chance for another Romani to be able to claim a little piece of this planet as their own. As Maggie put it, “There is no feeling like the peace that comes with having a base to live from, to have a gate of your own to shut at night. The settled community take this security for granted, having known no other way of living. This is right and proper, but for us to share that security is really something else. It’s like catching up with the rest of the world.”

At eighty years of age, Maggie continues to fight for the rights of Gypsies and their way of life. Some have branded her a “land grabber” while she—on her Linkedin page—refers to herself as a “trouble maker”. Regardless of titles, she seems to take it in stride. After all, she knew from quite early on that the world was made up of different kinds of people—those who would accept her people and those who would curse their very existence. Maggie describes an encounter her father had with a police officer and wrote, “Some people did stop to have a word with us, and we enjoyed it when they took the time to speak. Others would pass us by, keeping their eyes on the road or in the hedge, not even glancing at the side of the road where we were stopped. Me dad always said that it took all sorts to make the world. It wouldn’t do for us all to be the same, would it?” Perhaps not all the same, Maggie, but a few more Gypsies might not be so bad.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis (J Historical Fiction)

The Mighty Miss Malone

Christopher Paul Curtis (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft a-gley

And leave us nought but grief and pain/For promised joy.

Her teacher told her that it was from a poem by Robert Burns called “To a Mouse”. Deza didn’t quite understand what those words meant—especially the “gang aft a-gley” part—but Mrs. Needham said that it just meant that even the most carefully planned out things could go wrong. Deza knew about this since a lot of the Malone family plans haven’t been quite working out lately. But if there’s one thing that the Malones do well it’s sticking together. After all, their motto was “We are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful”. Before the Malones could get to Wonderful however, Deza and her family would have to travel through a whole lot of awful first.

Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, homeless camps, speakeasies, and the much-hyped 1936 boxing match between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, Curtis gives us yet another story centered around a tough-as-nails, plucky, and absolutely endearing main character. At twelve, Deza Malone is the smartest in her class and destined for something special. With a dictionary in one hand and a thesaurus in the other, she’s more than ready to take on the world one adjective and adverb at a time. Deza is charming, loyal, fiercely protective of her family—especially of her older brother, Jimmie—and principled to a fault. Deza is not a girl who’s afraid to take matters into her own hands in order to set things right…even if it means a little forgery or rule breaking now and then. Struggling to make something of herself while fighting racial prejudice, financial hardship, and social injustice may prove to be formidable challenges for some, but not for the mighty Miss Malone.

The Mighty Miss Malone is the second book by Curtis that I’ve read (the first being Bud, Not Buddy). In both stories, he gives us a main character who rises above their circumstances with grace, dignity, and integrity. His stories are built around the strength of family, the importance of hope, and the resilience of the human spirit. Through Deza Malone, Curtis reminds us that even though plans “gang aft a-gley”, tomorrow is always a brand-new day that brings with it another opportunity to get a little bit closer to a place called Wonderful.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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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