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Archive for the category “Ten to Fourteen”

Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal by Margarita Engle

We have all heard of the Panama Canal and how it made trade from East to West so much easier. It truly opened up the world. What I have never really thought about is how it was created. The canal was finished in August 1914 so think about how it must have been dug. Yep, by hand. And who did the digging? If you guessed people of color you’d be dead right. This marvelous novel in verse is done beautifully by Margarita Engle whose work is always outstanding. She follows Mateo, a Cuban boy barely into his teens, who left Cuba to escape his abusive father. Working on a canal and getting paid for it seemed a great idea. Mateo soon realizes that he signed on for much more than he originally thought. Mountains had to be moved, literally, and men from all over the Caribbean were the ones whose backbreaking work made the dream come alive. It was dangerous, the living conditions abominable, the pay was horrible, and the men were subject to yellow fever and malaria. The amount of men who died over the course of its construction was astounding. Mateo meets a young girl named Anita who knows how to use the herbs in the jungle to help those who are sick. Henry is another man of color who works side by side with Mateo who eventually runs off into the jungle to escape the contract everyone had to sign when they started work. The poems are well-crafted and the language beautiful. This is a story of the divide between dark and light people and the brutality and misery that went into the building of the Panama Canal. It was fascinating reading and a joy the whole way through. It’s perfect for middle school and up.



Playing for the Commandant by Suzy Zail

I am always drawn to stories from the Holocaust and try to read everything that comes out. It’s odd, I think, to want to read about something so unthinkable but I do. For me it is akin to staring down the devil. While teaching in London back in 2011 I made a pilgrimage to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. It was a difficult trip but I felt that I wanted to witness what happened to all of the people who died so horribly in those camps. I am glad that I did.

9780763664039_p0_v3_s260x420In Playing for the Commandant, Zail takes a new look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a young girl, just 16, who was an accomplished pianist in Budapest, Hungary when her family was arrested and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At the camp she and her mother and sister are spared the gas chamber and sent to a barracks where their daily torture of starvation and back-breaking work begins. Soon her mother begins to lose her faculties and Hannah and her sister try desperately to protect her from the daily “selections.” Hannah is chosen to be the Commandant’s personal pianist and with very mixed feelings she accepts the position. She knows she will be given more food and better clothing that she plans to pass along to her mother and sister. At the commandant’s house Hannah gets to witness close up the abject cruelty in the heart of her captor but she is surprised by his artistic son who despises what is going on in the camps his father oversees. The conflict between playing beautiful music and “selling out” is a wonderful dynamic in this story. I think this book will find a place in the corpus of Holocaust literature for young adults. This book is meant for readers age 12 and up.


This book brought a documentary film to mind as I read it. Called The Lady in Room 6 it tells the story of Alice Herz Sommer, a 109 year-old survivor of Terezin. Ms. Sommer was an extraordinary pianist who secured a place in the Terezin orchestra and, through the music, was able to survive the Holocaust. This documentary is absolutely fantastic. Ms. Sommer had a joie de vivre that was unbelievable given what she had been through. The documentary won the Oscar for best documentary in 2014. Sadly, Ms. Sommer died just before the Oscar was awarded. She died at 110. Treat yourself to this documentary which is available in numerous places online. It was the most uplifting true story I have ever seen. Her story had a lasting effect on my life.

The Paper Cowboy by Kristin Levine

I pulled this book from my sagging shelves yesterday because I really liked both of Kristin Levine’s previous books. I often do that – find an author I like and read everything they’ve written. I particularly liked The Lions of Little Rock. Set in Arkansas, this story of segregation takes place about a year after the Little Rock Nine crisis when the ugliness of segregation rears its head again. Two girls become good friends until one leaves school abruptly. Marlee finds out that Liz left their school because she was found to be black, not the white girl she pretended to be. The friendship endures through an awful time of white vs. black violence and all the ensuing unrest. Will Marlee and Liz be able to be friends in this polarized society? It’s really a marvelous book.

9780399163289_p0_v1_s260x420The Paper Cowboy is a multi-layered novel. It’s the story of a bully named Tommy whose occasional bullying initially seems to be more like pranks. It’s also the story of his mother’s mental instability following the birth of her 4th child.  It’s the story of rumor and innuendo as well.

This book is set in the McCarthy era when people became suspicious of one another being associated with Communism. Just as McCarthy ruined the careers of many people who he accused of being communists (without proof), Downers Grove is torn apart when a copy of The Daily Worker is found in town.

On the surface, life in Downers Grove in the 1950s seems as calm and staid as any other small town. Tommy’s family, however, is struggling. In the months following the birth of her 4th baby Mom is becoming more and more out of control. Wild mood swings, violent behavior, and depression turn her into someone he doesn’t know. His eldest sister, Mary Lou, protects him until she has an accident that puts her in the hospital for months. The pressure on Tommy is enormous and his behavior goes from mild bullying to out and out meanness. Relationships change in town when The Daily Worker surfaces bringing the reality of the McCarthy witch hunts front and center. Tommy is smack in the middle of it all. This is a beautifully written story of a bully whose behavior spirals out of control as his life in small town, post-war America  unravels before him.

This is a novel well worth reading. Kids from 10-13 is the targeted audience.


Revolution by Deborah Wiles

“You say you want a revolution?” the Beatles asked smack in the middle of the 1960s when revolution was everywhere. I lived through that tumultuous times but was young enough not to have had the fun part. I was not allowed to go to Woodstock, for example. Of course, I was a young teen at the time and what responsible parent would have allowed that? What I also missed out on that was far more important was the civil rights movement. It was in the background of my life then in the evening news and my parents discussing what was going on. I expect it was in the background for a lot of us who lived in the northeast.  It wasn’t in our face like it was in Mississippi, for example. Reading the books that have come out so far this year commemorating Freedom Summer, what was once background is now in the forefront of my mind. And this is the beauty of books, they can transport you back to important eras and fill in the blanks from that time. Freedom Summer: The 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights by Susan Goldman Rubin is a great example. I met the three young men who died at the hands of the KKK and watched the bravery of the African-Americans who risked everything to get the right to vote and be recognized as the first class citizens they are. It was so well-written, so informative, and so compelling – a great read.


Revolution is the second book in a fictional trilogy that deals with the early 1960s. Actually, there has been a new term coined for books like this: documentary novels. It fits. The first book, Countdown, dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the craziness that went with that. I remember hearing about it but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized the seriousness of that crisis. My mother told me years later that when she sent us off to school each morning, she never knew if it would be the last time she would see us. That hit me like a ton of bricks! The book is a great read and completely brings alive that time period. Wiles is a gifted writer.

Revolution was fabulous. This book is set during the Civil Rights era in Greenwood, Mississippi where so much happened during Freedom Summer. Sunny is a normal 12 year-old girl who is confused by everything that is going on around her. Why are these whites coming from all over to register the African-Americans to vote? Why did they close the public pool when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and discriminating based on race, among other things, was forbidden. It wasn’t until Sunny saw for herself how everyone around her was reacting to this Act that she began to understand. It is a coming of age novel in the sense that Sunny begins to see what the world is really like. Read Freedom Summer and Revolution together and you will see that era in a new and important way.

She is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick

Laureth Peak is the 16 year-old blind daughter of a writer who has left behind the funny books he wrote to delve into his passion: numbers and patterns. He is having trouble getting this writing project off the ground and his family suffers for it as he becomes somewhat obsessed about the history of patterns and numbers. Laureth tends to his website and receives an email from a young man in Brooklyn, NY who has found her father’s writer’s notebook. But wasn’t Dad supposed to be in Europe somewhere? With Mum away visiting her sister, Laureth leaves London for NY in hopes of retrieving the notebook and finding her father whom she fears has gone way off the deep end. She takes her 7 year-old brother as her “guide” and they are soon in NY. The plot sounds crazy but in the hands of Sedgwick it is entirely believable. It incorporates the patterns and numbers that are obsessing Dad and Laureth tries hard to puzzle it all out. It is so cleverly plotted that is was a joy to read. Sedgwick keeps up the suspense until the very end when he divulges a pattern of his own to the reader. Laureth is a well drawn character who surpasses even her own expectations of her abilities as she negotiates her way through the puzzle clues her father has left behind. Blindness does not make you invisible. This was an amazing read.


Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

ImageZoe is not really Zoe. She has adopted a pseudonym for the letters she is writing to a death row inmate in Texas that she has found on the internet. Coping with the guilt of the part she played in a friend’s (or boyfriend’s?) death, she decides to tell her story anonymously to Stuart Harris who is awaiting execution for the killing of his wife. Zoe has captured the interest of the school heartthrob, Max, and is interested only because he’s THE school heartthrob. At a party at his house she encounters a really different and interesting guy whom she later finds out is Max’s brother. It’s Aaron she loves and Max who she is dating. As she is navigating this very uneven terrain something awful happens and Zoe feels she is to blame. But who is it that dies? Pitcher manages to keep this epistolary novel completely suspenseful to the end. This will engage readers with it’s unusual theme, format, and it’s maddening uncertainty until the end.

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel

ImageEel has been a mudlark – a boy who lives off of what he finds on the banks of the Thames – during the Victorian era. He now lives in Soho where he works as an errand boy at a brewery. When people begin to fall ill and die, Eel learns that the telltale sign of blue lips is indicative of cholera. Within days the Great Trouble is in full swing – the cholera epidemic that would take over 600 lives in the poor, overcrowded homes in Soho. Eel makes extra money by helping out around a physician’s house. It is this doctor, John Snow, who is convinced that cholera is not spread by the miasma (bad air) in London but through contaminated water. With Eel at his side they set off to prove that a particular water pump on Broad Street is the epicenter of the epidemic. This is a wonderful medical mystery, an informative read about a killer disease (the backmatter is terrific), and a terrific taste of Dickensian London.

Seeing Red by Kathy Erskine (Ages 10-14)

Seeing Red by Kathy Erskine (Ages 10-14)

Red’s world changed completely when his daddy died. Daddy was his hero, his moral compass, and the best father a boy could have. His death precipitates a possible move to Ohio from their home in Virginia and Red is doing everything he can to prevent that. Daddy’s friend, an elderly black woman named Miss Georgia, remains a constant in Red’s life and is part of the reason for him getting to the bottom of a mystery his father left behind written in a small note yellowed with age. Set in 1972 when the South was still reeling from the Civil Rights movement and the country was in the midst of social unrest and political activism (think Viet Nam war protests, etc.), Red has to decide whether to do the right thing when he uncovers the mystery his father left behind.

Follow Follow by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Josee Masse

Follow Follow by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Josee Masse


This book is offered as a companion to Mirror Mirror, Singer’s first book of reverso poems. If you haven’t discovered these poems yet you are in for a real treat. From kids as young as 3rd grade all the way up through high school (shoot, my college kids are enthralled by these!) get a huge kick out of these poems. Let me explain. A reverso poem can be read from the top down and tell the story of, for instance, the Tortoise and the Hare from the hare’s perspective. The accompanying poem is that same poem but read from the bottom up which magically tells the same story but from the tortoise’s viewpoint. I cannot imagine how Singer does it because it seems so very complicated to me. Mirror Mirror was a gem and this new one, Follow Follow, is also a must have. Check it out, you won’t believe how marvelous these poems are. 

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