Small and Strong

Saving Winslow by Sharon Creech brought back memories of teaching fourth grade poetry (a LONG time ago).  Back then, I used Creech’s Love That Dog as one of our mentor texts, and Creech’s voice/style remains consistent in this newer publication.

This is a simple, yet meaningful little story.  Louie’s dad brings home a baby miniature donkey that doesn’t seem long for this world.  Louie gives all his love and caring to nurture the donkey, named Winslow.  His optimism is contrasted by his neighbor Nora, who lingers on the edges, trying not to care too much for fear of getting attached to a sickly little animal that may die.  (There’s more in the story about why she is so pessimistic.)

There are other pieces to the plot which lend to the overall story.  One is Louie’s brother Gus’s absence.  He is overseas in the military.  His family dearly miss him and cherish their sporadic letters from him.  Also, Louie’s neighbor can’t stand Winslow’s braying as it wakes her baby at all hours.  She starts the complaints that will force them to get rid of Winslow.

An uplifting ending brings everything together, and shows that little Winslow has become a strong protector.

Note: Title is categorized Intermediate, but I think it would most appeal to grades 2-4.


Last Day on Earth

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson follows three friends on their journey to give a final farewell to their beloved teacher, Ms. Bixby.  This is one of the 2019 Nutmeg Nominees.

Friends include Steve, a brilliant student living in the shadow of his “perfect” older sister.  There’s Topher, the creative-minded artist of the group, and Brand, the “tough guy” with a challenging family dynamic that he keeps to himself.  Each boy has his own reason for loving Ms. Bixby, and these individual reasons become apparent throughout the story.

Ms. Bixby shares her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer with her sixth grade class.  She ends up hospitalized before her scheduled last day which pushes the boys to take matters into their own hands.  They strive to give her the perfect last day by skipping school to gather all the things she loves.  This journey becomes the bulk of the story, as they eventually get to Ms. Bixby and enjoy a final special moment.

There is no doubt that Ms. Bixby is a special teacher and these characters create an unlikely and entertaining friendship.  Despite the positive Bixbyisms (motivational quotations) and some comical moments, this story left me feeling depressed.  I am curious to hear kids’ opinions after reading this, as I think it will affect each reader very differently.

Quest for Truth

Endling the Last by Katherine Applegate is a wild quest.  In a land ruled by the horrible Murdano family, there are five ruling classes: humans, dairnes (walking, talking dogs that are able to glide through air), felivets (fierce, multi-colored wild cats), terramants (huge bugs – ewww), and huge flying birds (I’m forgetting their official name because I gave the book away!  It’s veloci-something).  The Murdano is responsible for killing off all the dairnes, and then staging a huge funeral for the species.

Byx is the last living dairne after watching her family’s horrific murder.  She was always the runt and the underestimated member of her pack.  As the sole survivor, she must attempt to discover if there are more of her kind hidden on a floating island of legends passed down in her family.  To add to Byx’s depth, it turns out that dairne are natural lie detectors.  This adds an interesting element to the story.

Byx meets up with a wobbyk (a rabbit or rodent-like creature with three tails), a girl Khara and others they meet along the way (both good and bad).  Khara brings Byx to a trusted scholar, but he betrays Khara’s trust by ordering Byx’s death.  They manage to escape, but when they are seen at the funeral ceremony it begins a race for their lives.

This book is full of action.  There are epic battles and fiercely unique characters.  Despite that this isn’t my typical read, I couldn’t help but become immersed in this world and these magical characters.  This is a series, so the ending leaves you hanging.  Great storytelling!

Chickens and Chess

I’m going to keep this one short and sweet, just like its title.  Bob, by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead, is a cute story about almost eleven-year-old Livy.  It’s been five years since she last visited her grandmother in Australia.  She can’t remember much from her stay, until she walks into her old room.  This is where she finds her long forgotten little green friend, Bob.

At first it seems like Bob is an imaginary friend, except the story is partly told from his point of view.  The years he spent waiting for Livy involved hiding in the closet and reading the dictionary.  He still wears the chicken costume that Livy made for him back then.

Together, they work to unravel his true home, and are ultimately able to get him back to where he belongs.  But not without leaving a lasting imprint upon one another.

They Are Watching

Sadness is kicking in because my time to read is about to slow WAY down.  I go back to work in less than two weeks!

Meanwhile, I finished Small Spaces by Katherine Arden. Funny how sometimes books connect in weird ways.  While this book is nowhere near as disturbing as my previous read, it definitely registers on the creepy scale!

Ollie (Olivia) comes across a distraught woman who is throwing a book into the river.  Ollie grabs the book and discovers that it gives the history of a farm.  Namely that a deal was made with the “smiling man” to bring back a lost brother.  Strangely enough her sixth grade class is taking a field trip to this same farm.  The woman who she saw at the river is the woman who owns the farm.

The bus breaks down as her class is heading home.  This is when everything goes horribly wrong.  Ollie’s deceased mother is able to communicate with Ollie through her old broken watch, which helps Ollie and a couple of her classmates to escape the smiling man’s helpers.  His helpers are all disguised as scarecrows that come alive at night.  Ollie (with some help from her friends) is able to outsmart the bad guy and help release all of her classmates from the alternate dimension they have been trapped in.

This was an entertaining story.  It had some creepy elements and twists, but all manageable for younger readers.  My daughter who is going into seventh grade really enjoyed it!

Batter Up

The Hero Two Doors Down by Sharon Robinson was a pleasant surprise for me. I cringe to admit that I am not a baseball fan.  I would not normally select this book; but chose it since it’s a 2019 Nutmeg nominee.  The Prologue evoked an emotional response from me and basically hooked me into the story.

Sharon writes about her dad and his young neighbor Steve.  It is a mostly true account of Steve’s love of the NY Dodgers and his hero Jackie Robinson living just a couple houses away from him.  Steve had a rough time controlling his emotions and behavior in school.  His love for his dad, baseball and Jackie Robinson’s friendship as a neighbor greatly helped him gain some control in his life.

This story is narrated for younger readers.  Important topics such as discrimination, religion and learning self control are all parts of this book.  These topics are explained in an approachable, understandable way.  Through all the events is the friendship between Steve and Jackie (along with his family).  The story ends with photographs of the family members which makes the story and Steve’s voice even more palpable.  This book will definitely be a hit to baseball fans and beyond.

Souls of War

It is difficult for anyone to fully comprehend what it feels like to be in war unless they’ve been through it themselves.  To me, Alan Gratz’s book Grenade represents the turmoil, aggression, fear, survival instincts, and desperation of war quite well.  The story takes place in WWII Okinawa, where the Japanese army is hoping to slow down the advancement of the American soldiers into Japan.  The author’s afterword is worth a read to get more context too.

The plot shares perspectives between an American soldier named Ray, and Blood and Iron Student Corps soldier Hideki.  Both are young men thrust into this brutal war.  Hideki’s tale begins when his Student Corps are given two grenades; one is to kill as many Americans as possible and the other is to kill themselves.  Hideki’s grenades become a strong symbol throughout the story.  His first grenade is used (SPOILER AHEAD) and it takes Ray’s life.  He contemplates using the second at numerous points in the story, but ultimately places it down before he surrenders.  In doing so, he hopes to spare his life and his sister’s.  His sister is his only remaining living relative, and finding her was his final promise to his dad before he died.

Through the story, first Ray and then Hideki, collect pictures of fallen soldiers with their family members.  These represent the humanity lost from both sides.  The Okinawan people were very much in the middle of this battle.  They were used as sacrifices by the Japanese Army, and they became expendable to both sides fighting around them.  Hideki took note many times of the fear that makes man a killing machine.  It is kill or be killed.  The photos are an important reminder that underneath these “killers” are someone’s brother, father, and son.

Also enmeshed in the story is Okinawan culture.  Mubui is a term that to me is described as a person’s soul.  At first, Hideki has an ancestor’s mubui attached to him which makes him cowardly and afraid.  Throughout the story, Hideki conquers this cowardice by making strong choices for the survival of himself and of others.  Ray’s mubui also attaches to Hideki, and he must make amends with Ray’s death in order to free his soul.

While stories about war are not normally top picks for me, this one was so well written.  There is attention to detail and realism in the representation of both soldiers’ and civilians’ deaths.  My recent visit to the Scholastic Book Summit gave me the early copy of Grenade.  Before even receiving this book, two other people mentioned Gratz’s other book, Refugee.  This author is getting good buzz, and I will definitely be looking to read Refugee soon.