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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A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding

Jackie Copleton (Adult Historical Fiction)

On August 9, 1945 a new word entered the Japanese vernacular:  pikadon.  PIKA meaning brilliant light and DON meaning boom.  It aptly described what Amaterasu Takahashi and thousands of others saw and heard in Nagasaki at 11:02 am.  A brilliant light and then a boom.  Ama lost her daughter and grandson on that fateful morning.  They were everything to her.  Pushing past the dead or dying and sifting through the ashes, she knew she would never see Yuko or little Hideo again.  But nearly forty years later, a man—badly scarred and disfigured—knocked on her door bringing good news.  “Please don’t be alarmed,” the stranger said.  “My name is Hideo Wantanabe.  It is good to see you Grandmother.”  He left her a letter to read to get their journey started.  A journey that would take Ama back to a tragic past and a man who would be the common thread to everyone she has ever loved and lost.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is Jackie Copleton’s first novel and it truly is a hauntingly beautiful story.  Using Ama as our narrator, we experience the horror when the second of two atomic bombs hit the city of Nagasaki on August 9th (the first hit Hiroshima three days prior on August 6th).  Through Ama’s eyes, we witness the carnage, fear, destruction, chaos, and terror as survivors desperately searched for loved ones while the injured begged for water or aid.  As our story progresses, we begin to learn more about Ama, her husband, Kenzo, and her daughter.  Through Ama’s memories, as well as a series of entries in Yuko’s diary, we begin to understand the reasons behind Ama’s feelings of guilt and bitterness.  She is a woman living a life of “What ifs” and “If onlys” and is constantly questioning her own maternal motives.  Any parent will be able to relate to Ama and her need to shield her child from harm and heartache, but as the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” and Ama quickly realizes that protection often comes with a price.

Copleton gives readers a multi-layered story that is brimming with pain, loss, regret, and love.  But the singular theme that runs throughout the story is hope.  Whether you are extended it, enticed by it, or desperately hold onto it, hope has many faces: a grandmother looking for comfort, a scarred man searching for healing, a young wife waiting for her husband’s return from war, a lover wanting a second chance, or a city emerging from the rubble.  Copleton gives us a poignant and touching story of hope and reminds us that it is when things are at their darkest that hope often comes knocking on our door.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com

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A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck (J Historical Fiction)

A Year Down Yonder

A Year Down Yonder

Richard Peck (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

 It was 1937 and the country was in the midst of what people were calling the Roosevelt recession.  The Dowdel family, like so many others, had hit upon hard times and Mary Alice was to be sent to live with her grandmother until the family got back on their feet.  She and her brother, Joey, had spent many summers with Grandma Dowdel in her sleepy Illinois town, but Mary Alice was fifteen now and this visit was going to be a full twelve months!  With no telephone, an outdoor privy, a spooky attic, and everything being as old as Grandma…if not older…how was a city girl from Chicago going to survive in this hick town for one whole year?

A Year Down Yonder received the Newbery Medal in 2001 and was the sequel to Peck’s A Long Way from Chicago, recipient of a Newbery Honor in 1999.  In this wildly amusing and heartfelt book, Peck delivers one of the most outrageous, audacious, outlandish, and unforgettable characters when he gave us Grandma Dowdel.  She’s trigger-happy (and the whole town knows it) and not afraid to speak her mind.  But behind that gruff and crusty exterior lies a woman who’s generous to a fault and genuinely cares about her neighbors…although she would be the first to deny it.  Peck gives us small-town life and everything that comes with it.  From turkey shoots and Halloween hijinks to Burdicks (you’ll know one when you see ‘em) and burgoo, Grandma Dowdel handles everything with humor and candor and might even treat you to a glass of buttermilk and a square of corn bread in the process.

A Year Down Yonder takes readers to rural America and back to a time where folks learned how to make the most with what little they had and considered themselves blessed if they had their health, their family, and one or two people that could be counted on when it mattered most.  It’s a delightful and amusing book that extolls the virtues of kindness and the importance of family.  It also reminds us not to judge a book by its cover for it is often the tartest apples that make the best pies.  Just ask Grandma Dowdel.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bradbury (YA Historical Fiction)

A Moment Comes

A Moment Comes

Jennifer Bradbury (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

“Safe.  I think about the word as we continue walking.  What does safe mean anymore?  I wonder if I’ll ever feel safe again.  I wandered these markets and streets freely just a few years ago.  And then I grew up.”

Tariq is Muslim born and raised in India.  He is eighteen and aspires to study at Oxford.  It is what Daadaa—his grandfather—dreamed for him and he will do anything to make it a reality.  Anupreet is Sikh and nearly sixteen years old.  She’s beautiful despite the scar that runs from her eye to her cheek.  It’s healing, but will always be there, just like the memory of that horrible day when she acquired it.  Margaret is sixteen and from London.  Her father was sent to Jalandhar to work for the boundary award.  His job is to help break India into pieces so that Muslims can have their own separate state.  She knows why her mother made her come here…to restore her virtue, make her “respectable” again.  Although she’s not sure how this hot, sticky, and loud place will be able to accomplish that.  It’s June 1947 and the worlds of these three teenagers are about to come together and their journey will take them to what history would later refer to as the Partition of India of 1947.

Books, like Bradbury’s, that are based on actual world history play such an important part in the lives of our younger population.  Historical Fiction is not only a way to educate, but to offer an all-important perspective.  In A Moment Comes, we are given three very different yet relatable young adults: each offering his or her own point of view about what is happening to them, their family, and the world around them.  Bradbury largely avoids stereotypes and instead offers up an honest landscape about a country being torn apart from the inside.

The Partition of India of 1947 began after the Second World War.  Lacking the sufficient resources to control its greatest asset, Britain exited India after three hundred years of British rule and partitioned the country into two independent nation states: India (with its Hindu majority) and Pakistan (with their Muslim majority).  It marked one of the greatest migrations in human history and resulted in more than fifteen million people losing their homes and between one to two million people losing their lives.  Bradbury is exceptionally careful not to choose sides and paint one party as “good” or another as “bad”.  Instead, she lays out three lives told through three alternating points of view and allows the reader to form his or her own judgments and opinions.  The story is fast-paced, harrowing, poignant, and bitter.  But in the end, Bradbury offers up some much-needed hope.  It’s faint and so very uncertain, but she places it there nonetheless so that we—along with Tariq, Anupreet, and Margaret—can grab it and hold onto it as tight as we can.

A Moment Comes reminds us that history is more than just words on a page.  Rather, it’s people who breathe, dream, hope, bleed, and die.  People who have risen above their own limitations in order to do something remarkable or historic or even heroic.  And just like history is more than just printed words, maps are more than just lines.  They are traditions and cultures and religions.  Bradbury summed this up perfectly through Margaret when she said, “Lines are funny things. They make us feel safe—at least for a while—knowing where we end and something or someone else begins.  But they can also make us want, can make us bitter, wanting what lies on the other side of the line.  But whether it’s a border on a map or a boundary between two people, the lines are still only lines.  Still something someone made up, decided on.  They’re not even real, but so long as everyone agrees to play along, they work fine.  But how can lines of a map tell a piece of land what to be any more than lines between one person and another can pretend to be what makes them different?”  In the end, Tariq, Anupreet, and Margaret were all able to let go of their own prejudices and realize that they themselves aren’t so very different from one another…regardless of what the lines might say.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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The Friendship Doll by Kirby Larson (J Historical Fiction)

The Friendship Doll

The Friendship Doll

Kirby Lawson (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

Miss Kanagawa was the last doll that master dollmaker Tatsuhiko would ever make.  She was a doll like no other and was to be Master Tatsuhiko’s masterpiece.  Miss Kanagawa, along with her fifty-seven sisters, were being sent to the children of the United States by the children of Japan as a gesture of friendship.  These fifty-eight ambassadors of peace and goodwill carried with them the assurance that Japan was indeed a friend of America.  But Master Tatsuhiko wanted his prized creation to be more than just a messenger and wished that she would discover her true purpose as a doll: “to be awakened by the heart of a child”.  Sadly, Miss Kanagawa was as callous as she was beautiful and she was very certain that a doll with a samurai spirit such as hers would never have a need for a child.

The Friendship Doll is based on the actual arrival of fifty-eight dolls from Japan to the United States in November 1927.  In her book, Kirby Larson takes us from 1927 to the present day and introduces readers to such events as the Great Depression, the Chicago World’s Fair, and the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Through Miss Kanagawa, we meet a hopeful orator, an aspiring pilot, a voracious reader, and a devoted writer—each with her own remarkable story and each changed by a chance encounter with a unique and proud doll.

While reading The Friendship Doll, I couldn’t help but notice several similarities between it and Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (one of my favorite books).  Both stories revolve around an exquisite doll with an overly-high opinion of itself who imparts something of value with those it meets while simultaneously discovering the joy that comes from being wanted and loved.  While Edward is a silent presence, Miss Kanagawa somehow speaks directly to her visitor’s subconscious.  Young readers won’t be bothered by this, but those of us old enough to remember The Twilight Zone episode entitled “Living Doll” featuring Talking Tina might be overly susceptible to the heebie-jeebies.  Still, if you liked Edward, you’re sure to enjoy Miss Kanagawa as well.

Although this book does touch upon the sensitive subjects of death and dementia, its historical insights offer readers a valuable glimpse at a few events from our nation’s past.  It also serves as a reminder that it is often the smallest of things that can bring about the greatest change within ourselves and there is nothing heebie or jeebie about that.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry (J Historical Fiction)

King of the Wind

King of the Wind    

Marguerite Henry (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

The foal was to be born under a favorable sign—a new moon in a new month—and thus assured strength and speed.  While the horseboy, Agba, was asleep, the foal was born and it appeared that indeed Agba’s master was correct for on the foal’s hind heel was a white spot, an emblem of swiftness.  Unfortunately, the foal also bore the wheat ear and this foretold of evil.  Agba knew this foal was special and he named it Sham, the Arabic word for sun, because its coat was a flaming red-gold.  Although orphaned and shunned by the other spring colts, Sham thrived under Agba’s watchful care until one day, one ill-placed foot and one well-placed hoof would forever change their destinies.

Marguerite Henry gives young readers a story detailing the origin of the Godolphin Arabian, one of three stallions that founded the modern Thoroughbred (Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk being the other two).  Part fact and part fiction, this book follows Sham from Morocco to Paris and then finally to London.  His life passes through the hands of a sultan, king, carter, Quaker, innkeeper, and earl all the while keeping company with a loyal and mute horseboy and a tomcat named Grimalkin.  As King of the Wind is based on historical fact, our story takes place in the early 18th century and Henry stays true to the time period by portraying a harsh but realistic view of how life was for little Agba and Sham.  Younger readers, especially those fond of horses, may be uncomfortable reading of Sham’s harsh and unfair treatment, but Henry chooses realism over sentimentality so readers can glean an accurate understanding of Agba and Sham’s daily struggle for survival.

Early in Sham’s life, Agba makes him a promise: “My name is Agba.  Ba means “father”.  I will be a father to you, Sham, and when I am grown I will ride you before the multitudes.  And they will bow before you, and you will be King of the Wind.  I promise it.”  Henry gives us a beautiful adventure story that brims with friendship, honor, and loyalty and reminds us that any promise worth making is a promise certainly worth keeping.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

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The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle (YA Historical Fiction)

The Lightning Dreamer

The Lightning Dreamer    

Margarita Engle (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

In a country where both men and words are closely guarded, it is the poet who proved to be the boldest and most daring abolitionist.  Gertrudis G mez de Avellaneda (nicknamed Tula) is thirteen and enjoying her last year of personal freedom in Cuba.  When she turns fourteen, she will be sold into matrimony to the highest bidder and her mother will use the proceeds from her marriage to buy more slaves.  Tula abhors slavery and often feels enslaved herself by a society that denies her an education, the right to vote, or the freedom to choose when and whom she will marry.  But Tula suddenly finds light in her dark world when she discovers the convent’s library.  Here, in a dusty corner, lies forbidden words of hope, rebellion, and the promise of freedom from a rebel-poet by the name of Jos  Mari  Heredia.

The Lightning Dreamer is a work of historical fiction and is based on the life of Gertrudis G mez de Avellaneda, a poet and playwright known as one of the world’s most influential female writers.  Written entirely in free verse, this story switches between numerous points of view to allow the reader to see firsthand the profound and unimagined impact that poetry has on its audience.  Engle’s work is stunningly vibrant and beautiful and conveys an expansive range of emotions with just a few carefully chosen words.  For example, we experience Tula’s heartbreak as she finally resigns herself to a life devoid of freedom and choices: “During those times,/ I find it easy to forget/ that I’m just a girl who is expected/ to live/ without thoughts.”  The nuns at the convent see Tula torn between two worlds and offer her the only comfort they can: “In a mother’s eyes,/ she can be only/ a monster of defiance/ or an angel of obedience,/ nothing/ in between.//So, we send her to the library,/ a safe place to heal/ and dream…”

During her lifetime, Avellaneda fought for racial and gender equality and although her ideas were considered shocking at the time, her vision was eventually accepted and Cuban slaves gained their freedom, schools became integrated, and young girls were able to enter into marriage voluntarily and for love.  Tula once said, “Books are door-shaped portals carrying me across oceans and centuries, helping me feel less alone.”  Engle reminds us of the power behind the written word and the hope, promise, and escape those words offer when nestled between the covers of a book.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

 

 

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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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