The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong (J)

The Wheel on the School

The Wheel on the School    

Meindert DeJong (Juvenile Fiction)

Welcome to Shora, a fishing village in Holland on the shore of the North Sea in Friesland.  Shora has some houses, a church, a clock tower, and a school, but it is the school children that makes this town—this story—so special.  Of these six school children, there is only one girl and her name is Lina.  One day, in the middle of arithmetic, Lina asks a question that will set in motion a series of events that will change their little village forever: “Teacher, may I read a little story about storks?”  You see, no one can remember a time when there were storks in Shora and Lina’s essay made everyone begin to wonder and ask why this was so.  So begins the story of Jella, Eelka, Auka, twins Pier and Dirk, and Lina who share a common dream of bringing the storks back to Shora.  But for now, that dream would have to wait…at least until after arithmetic.

Every now and then, a book comes along that reminds you why you fell in love with reading.  Meindert DeJong’s story about a small Dutch village is such a book.  It’s a charming and enchanting story about how a single dream ignited the imagination and united a village.  DeJong brings the reclusive, the misunderstood, and the outsider together to show that each has importance and value.  His message of inclusion and acceptance is delivered warmly and lovingly and gives readers a sense of hope and faith and the promise that perhaps dreams really can come true.

The Wheel on the School is a brilliant gem that shows us how a legless man could still walk tall among his fellow fishermen, how a heavyset and slow boy could become a hero, how a lonely grandmother could become a friend, and how a girl could be just as strong and brave as the boys.  Mostly, this story reminds us that even in the midst of the impossible, lies the possible.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

 

An Elephant in the Garden – Michael Morpurgo (YA Historical Fiction)

An Elephant in the Garden

An Elephant in the Garden    

Michael Morpurgo (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

Lizzie is eighty-two years old and is idly spending her days in a nursing home.  But today is February 13th and on this particular day, she has a story to tell.  It’s a rather sad story because on this day, in 1945, the bombers flew over Dresden, Germany and set the city on fire.  Lizzie, her brother, and her mother are forced to flee their home.  The Red Army is coming from the east and the allied forces—the Americans and British—are coming from the west.  They would go west, but they would not be going alone.  They would be bringing Marlene, a four-year-old elephant that Lizzie’s mother rescued from the zoo.  It would be this wonderful, gentle companion that would keep their spirits up, open unexpected doors, and ultimately save their lives.

Michael Morpurgo proves once again what a gifted and compassionate storyteller he is.  An Elephant in the Garden is a beautifully told and compelling story that transports the reader into war-torn Germany as thousands of refugees struggle for survival during World War II. His characters leap off the page and we are there to share in their daily quest for food, shelter, and obscurity from the encroaching Russian soldiers.  In his Author’s Note, Morpurgo writes that his story was inspired by an actual female zookeeper who saved one young elephant from certain death.  The zoo’s director had given orders that all animals were to be killed rather than risk their release into the town should the city fall under attack.  If you Google “Belgium, Zoo, Elephant, WWII”, you can see actual photographs and the story which inspired this heartwarming book.

At my library, this book is shelved in the young adult section; however, I think children as young as nine would appreciate and benefit from this story.  Stories about war are often dark and bleak, but the overall message of courage, resilience, friendship, and hope spans across all age groups and garners mutual appeal.

When Lizzie was conveying a moment in her youth, she recalled an instance when she was talking to Marlene, desperate to find some comfort and understanding from her silent friend.  She said, “For an answer she wafted her ears gently at me, and groaned deep inside herself.  It was enough to tell me that she had listened, and understood, and that she did not judge me.  I learned something that day from Marlene, about friendship, and I have never forgotten it.  To be a true friend, you have to be a good listener, and I discovered that day that Marlene was the truest of friends.”  Morpurgo reminds us that true friends not only listen with their ears, but also with their hearts and sometimes the best friends need not offer words in return, but simply just offer themselves.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

 

 

 

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend

Matthew Dicks (Adult Fiction)

Max Delaney is eight years old, in the third grade, and likes rules.  In fact, he likes lots and lots of rules.  Rules like bedtime is at 8:30 p.m. (no sooner and no later) and no breakfast after 9:00 a.m. or only wearing seven pieces of clothing at one time (not counting shoes).  This is who Max is and this is his world and nobody knows this world better than Budo—Max’s imaginary friend.  Budo knows Max inside and out.  He talks to him, plays with him, and watches him every night before he goes to sleep.  Budo is Max’s best friend and as long as Max thinks Budo is real, Budo won’t disappear and NOT disappearing is very important to Budo.  But when Max doesn’t come home from school one day, Budo is forced to decide between Max’s freedom and his own possible extinction.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is narrated by Budo who invites us to share his life with an extraordinary little boy with autism.  According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately 1 in 59 children was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in 2018, so it is very likely that you (like me) know someone with autism.  Dicks’s description of Max and his habits, daily activities, and mannerisms are meticulously detailed and painfully accurate.  Those familiar with autism know all too well the helplessness that Max’s parents experience on a daily basis.  Their never-ending quest for “normalcy” only adds to their compounded stress while their desire to connect with their child is heartbreaking in its futility.

Dicks just doesn’t deliver an accurate portrayal of a child who, as Budo says, “…doesn’t live on the outside.  Max is all inside.”, but he also gives us a book of devotion and friendship.  It’s a story about putting someone else’s wants and needs above your own; about doing what is right versus what is expedient; and about finding that inner strength that you never knew you possessed.  Budo often said that Max was the bravest little boy in the world: “Max is not like any other person in the whole world.  Kids make fun of him because he is different.  His mom tries to change him into a different boy and his dad tries to treat him like he is someone else.  Even his teachers treat him differently, and not always nicely.  With all that, Max still gets out of bed every morning and goes to school and the park and the bus stop and even the kitchen table.  But you have to be the bravest person in the world to go out every day, being yourself when no one likes who you are.”

This novel successfully checks all the boxes: suspenseful, emotional, insightful, compelling, humorous, heartwarming, chilling, and simply unforgettable.  Max and Budo will stay in your heart and mind long after you’ve read the last page.  People often said that Max couldn’t see the forest for the trees, as people with autism generally hone in on the small details without seeing the overall bigger picture.  Perhaps Max can’t see the forest for the trees, but he does see the blade of grass and the rock and the ladybug and the clover and perhaps that alone is something to be celebrated and appreciated.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

 

Silent to the Bone by E. L. Konigsburg (YA)

silent to the bone

Silent to the Bone    

E. L. Konigsburg (Young Adult Fiction)

“It is easy to pinpoint the minute when my friend Branwell began his silence.  It was Wednesday, November 25, 2:43 P.M., Eastern Standard Time.  It was there—or, I guess you could say not there—on the tape of the 911 call.”

They say, “For every Yin, there is a Yang”.  If that’s true, then Branwell Zamborska is the Yin to Connor Kane’s Yang.  Two friends the same age (born just weeks apart), going to the same school, and living just houses away from each other.  Connor will tell you that the biggest difference between them is that Branwell “is just plain different”.  He stands out in a crowd (quite literally—he is tall with bright red hair), is clumsy (he’s always dropping things), and likes offbeat music.  Still, they complement each other and even share secret “codes”.  Like BLUE PETER means “ready to go” and DAY CARE refers to their school.  Or SIAS, which requires you to “Summarize In A Sentence” a selected topic with points awarded afterward.  Given their closeness, it isn’t difficult to understand why Connor rushes to the aid of his friend, who has been rendered mute after his baby sister suffers a horrible accident and is struggling for life.  The message on the 911 tape is enough to send Barnwell to the Clarion County Juvenile Behavioral Center, but Connor knows his friend and is certain that Branwell is innocent.  But with Branwell rendered voiceless, how can the truth—whatever it is—be heard?

It is astonishing how many sensitive and provocative topics E. L. Konigsburg has dogpiled into one book:  psychological trauma, sexual awareness, emotional manipulation, divorce, jealousy, revenge.  But this isn’t the tawdry and explicit book that one might expect.  Instead, Konigsburg handles each subject with sensitivity and care and scratches just enough of the surface to allow readers to reach their own obvious conclusions.  This book is targeted from readers ages 10 and up, so some concepts may get a perplexed look from those on the younger end of the scale (“Hey, what’s Viagra?”) so be prepared for some possible teachable moments.

In addition to tackling so many complex issues with such finesse, Silent to the Bone received my highest review because of the deep bond that these two boys shared.  This book was published in 2000, and you don’t often see the kind of unshakable, unquestioning, and unwavering devotion that Connor has for Branwell in many of today’s young adult books.  In this age of jealousy, popularity, spite, ego, and peer pressure, friends are easily interchangeable.  Connor is placed in the most impossible and unthinkable of circumstances by a friend who has totally withdrawn from the world.  At any moment (and there are many), he could have simply given up and walked away.  But somehow Connor finds a faint voice in the silence and that alone drives him to not give up on his friend nor abandon his cause.

E.L. Konigsburg gives readers a suspenseful book that explores the bond of friendship and demonstrates just how far that connection can be stretched without ever really breaking.  I think if I had to SISA this book, I’d use the words of Yolanda, the day worker who lives across the street from the Zamborskas.  When Connor explained to her how he had found a way to “talk” with Branwell, she said, “Friends always find a way to keep in touch.”  Nine words.  I wonder how many points Connor and Branwell would give me for that one?

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

 

The Night Garden by Polly Horvath (J)

the night garden

The Night Garden

Polly Horvath (Juvenile Fiction)

Despite the war overseas, life was fairly predictable and peaceful in the spring of 1945 for the family at East Sooke Farm.  Twelve-year-old Franny Whitekraft had her writing; her mother, Thomasina (Sina for short), had her sculpting; and her father, Old Tom, had his gardens—his many, many gardens.  There was the English garden, herb garden, Japanese garden, Italian garden, kitchen garden, statuary garden…but perhaps the most mysterious and closely-guarded garden of all was the night garden.  That garden Old Tom kept locked up nice and tight.  So, days floated by with little fanfare until one day, Crying Alice (that’s Mrs. Alice Madden to you and me) showed up on the Whitekraft doorstep and dropped off her three children: Wilfred, Winifred, and Zebediah.  You see, her husband, Fixing Bob (who does maintenance on the Canadian Air Force’s special plane), is going to do something stupid and she simply has to go and talk some sense into him.  Now, if three new houseguests weren’t enough, just throw in a UFO, ghost, psychic, several mysterious letters, mermaids, and a missing plane and you’ve got a recipe for anything BUT a predictable and peaceful spring.

This is the second book by Polly Horvath that I’ve had the pleasure of reading (the first being The Canning Season) and she continues to amaze and please with her witty dialogue and amusing situations.  Horvath not only entertains her young readers, but she manages to educate them as well.  She’s an English teacher’s dream as she dishes out a veritable smorgasbord of delicious words to savor:  presaged, traversed, bereft, contiguous, compeers, and ilk.  Aren’t they scrumptious?  She also delights us with an assortment of quirky characters that we feel inexplicably drawn to—not in spite of their flaws and rough edges, but because of them.

The Night Garden is a non-stop, heart-thumping thrill ride that will excite and enthrall readers of all ages.  It is a story of family and a love that is blind, slightly deaf, and a little bit thick, but love amongst family is often like that.  The Night Garden also provides us with many valuable lessons—from Miss Macy’s advice on being prepared (“Always wear clean underwear.”) to Franny’s philosophy on self-sacrifice (“Well, we were all put on this earth to suffer.”).  But perhaps it is Old Tom himself who best sums up the greatest lesson of all, “Never, ever, ever have houseguests!”  Old Tom is seldom wrong.

Rating: 4/5

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

 

A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata (J)

a million shades of gray

A Million Shades of Gray    

Cynthia Kadohata (Juvenile Fiction)

Even at eleven years old, Y’Tin Eban knew what his future would look like:  he would work with his elephant, Lady, until she died; he would travel to Ban Me Thuot then to Thailand and finally to America; and he would open an elephant-training school in Vietnam.  But it’s 1975 and the American soldiers have been gone from Vietnam for two years now.  Y’Tin and his tribe live in Central Highlands in South Vietnam and every day, soldiers from the north are advancing closer and closer to his village.  The Americans called it the Vietnam War.  His father called it the American War.  And now, this war was coming to Y’Tin’s remote part of the country and everything that his future once promised is about to change forever.

It’s never easy to discuss the horror and ugliness of war, especially when that discussion involves a younger audience (this book is targeted for readers ages ten and older).  Cynthia Kadohata is able to portray a country savagely torn apart by Civil War with remarkable honesty and sensitivity.  Because she is dealing with younger readers, she avoids graphic details and opts for subtle clues and visuals that guide readers to the desired conclusion.  For example, she describes a scene where captive male villagers are forced to dig a very long and deep pit on the outskirts of the village.  Older readers know immediately that this is a mass grave and the outlook is bleak for the villagers.  However, the younger reader shares the same learning curve as Y’Tin and both share in the eventual realization of what is actually taking place at the same time.

Several reviewers found this book to be too “anti-American” given the repeated mentions by the villagers of the Americans’ broken promise to return should assistance be needed.  But Kadohata foregoes popularity points by choosing to give us a story based on the villagers’ perspective.  They are a community that is scared, helpless, and feels very much abandoned and alone.  It’s an honest representation of the many thousands who were facing certain annihilation by their own government.  While this book deals mainly with war and its effects, at the heart is a young boy—rapidly thrown into manhood—and his relationship with his elephant, Lady.  The mutual trust they have for one another and the formidable bond they share serve as the singular bright spot in what is often a rather dark and grim story.

The book’s title, A Million Shades of Grey, refers to the colors of the jungle right before sunrise, as well as the color of an elephant’s hide.  In life, we often view things—view choices—as being a matter of “black or white”.  Kadohata reminds us that things aren’t always that simple and that every day we face or own “million shades of gray”.  At one time, Y’Tin said that you don’t love and you don’t make promises during times of war.  But it took his village’s smallest but strongest elephant to show him otherwise…that even during war, it is possible to have both.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.publishersweekly.com 

 

 

Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman (YA Historical Fiction)

Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Alchemy and Meggy Swann   

Karen Cushman (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” – Carl Jung

After the death of her gran, Margaret “Meggy” Swann is carted from Millford Village to London and unceremoniously deposited at the doorstep of her father, Master Ambrose, the local alchemist.  Meggy is none too pleased with her new home: heads mounted on sticks and placed on a bridge, the smell of fish and sewage everywhere, and streets slick and slippery from horse droppings.  Ye toads and vipers!  What kind of place IS this London?  Between a mother who was pleased to see the back of her and a father who assumes she is a beggar upon their first introduction, Meggy has found herself in a rather unenviable position.  She is crippled, penniless, and friendless…unless you count her goose, Louise.  But Meggy is stronger than she thinks and with the help of a cooper, a printer, and a rather smitten player, she’ll not only save a life, but she’ll manage to save a soul as well.

From her first utterance of, “Ye toads and vipers”, I fell in love with Meggy Swann.  She is scrappy, sassy, resourceful, impish, loyal, and brave.  She is disabled (suffering from what we would today recognize as bilateral hip dysplasia), but doesn’t seek sympathy, pity, or charity.  In a time when deformity and illness were viewed as a direct judgment from God, it would have been easy for Meggy to become bitter from the taunts and jeers unmercifully thrown at her by villagers both young and old alike.  While in Millford Village, she was able to stay somewhat isolated and protected within her mother’s alehouse; however, in London her lameness is on full display and it is at this moment when we see Meggy’s pluck and spirit begin to emerge.  No longer will she be the meek victim of unfair slurs and prejudices.  While her father is busy transforming metals in his laboratorium, Meggy is experiencing her own transformation into a strong, proud, and confident young woman who refuses to let her circumstances define or limit her.

This story is set in 1573 London and Cushman successfully transports readers to the Elizabethan Era through her usage of period-appropriate language.  This requires having to adjust to the frequent occurrences of words such as naught (nothing), certes (certainly), mayhap (perhaps), belike (very likely), and sooth (truth), but given the age this book targets (12 years and above), the acclimation should be quick and painless.

There are so many lessons that one could glean from this book, but perhaps the most poignant was one that Meggy learned from a flightless goose: “Even Louise had given the girl something, the knowledge that one did not have to be perfect to be beauteous.”  And that is something worth remembering, be ye toad or viper.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com