For most Jewish boys, the event they must prepare for is the Bar Mitzvah at age 13. For 12-year-old Yanek Gruener, his greatest concern is where his next meal is coming from and whether he will live to see another day. In Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz, young Yanek’s life is forever changed when the Nazis invade Krakow, Poland, and force him and his family to live in a ghetto. They face incredible deprivations and the constant threat of deportation to concentration camps, or being shot for no reason. It is a harrowing existence that stretches Yanek to the limits of human endurance as he plays a cat and mouse game of survival with the Nazis.
Based on the true story of Holocaust survivor Jack Gruener, Prisoner B-3087 relates in graphic detail the horrors that Yanek witnesses as he is sent from the ghetto in Krakow to work in such concentration camps as Birkenau, Auschwitz, and Dachau, and even the salt mine at Wieliczka. His family disappears one day when he is coming home from his work detail, and Yanek never hears from them again. Separated from all those he loves, Yanek spends nearly nine years as a captive trying to make sense of why the Nazis treated the Jews and the other ‘undesirables’ (ex., Gypsies, homosexuals) with such unthinkable cruelty. While Yanek’s story is a powerful one, this frank depiction of life in the ghetto and concentration camps may be disturbing to younger or sensitive readers.
Welcome back to the hilariously fractured fairy tale realm of Christopher Healy’s Thirteen Kingdoms. A good deal has happened since the adventures encountered in The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom and the four lovable Princes Charming are back for another caper in The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle. When last we left the princes – Gustav, Liam, Duncan and Frederic – our noble heroes had just formed the League of Princes and had finally gained some recognition beyond the Prince Charming moniker. Now disaster once again looms on the horizon, and it’s up to the league to prevent a certain magical jewel from falling into villainous hands.
Despite having set the bar high with Saving Your Kingdom, Healy’s return to the Thirteen Kingdoms is as triumphant an extension of the story started in its predecessor as one could hope. The characters first introduced in Saving Your Kingdom begin to come into their own in this second helping of heroism. While the fast paced, catchy dialogue and imaginative scenarios still evoke plenty of chortles, the real strength of Storming the Castle lies in the progressive character development of the princes and their famed princess counterparts. Not without their flaws, each of these heroes and heroines have obstacles to overcome and a lot to learn about themselves along the way. Their distinctive personalities and developing friendships will leave the reader eager for the next in the series: The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw, coming in spring 2014. Recommended for middle grade readers and above.
Star Wars: Jedi Academy is a great new graphic novel by Jeffrey Brown. Roan Novachez has dreamed of being a starfighter pilot like his father. His brother attends Pilot Academy Middle School, so Roan feels certain that he will go there too. When his friends receive their acceptance letters, he begins to worry. Roan is crushed when a rejection letter arrives with the recommendation that he attend Tatooine Agriculture Academy. What could be worse than going to plant school?
All is not lost. Master Yoda has sensed Roan’s potential. “Strong in you, the Force is – Jedi, you may be.” Even though most students begin their training as toddlers, Roan packs up and leaves Tatooine to attend Jedi Academy on the distant planet of Coruscant. He will face all kinds of new challenges, from learning how to lift objects with the Force to deciphering what Master Yoda is saying. There are also the usual issues that every middle school student will encounter, like dealing with the class bully to that first crush.
Fluctuating between prose and comic book style, this book will appeal to the upper-elementary age children who liked The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, or the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Big Nate series. But you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy this book. Star Wars fans of all ages will get a kick out Star Wars: Jedi Academy.
Detective Rick Zengo is a rookie working on his first case with a new partner. What starts out as a seemingly simple missing person case turns into a mystery involving organized crime and some high-ranking government officials. Writer Jarrett J. Krosoczka has put together an interesting cast of characters in The Frog Who Croaked, his first offering in the Platypus Police Squad series. Krosoczka is best known for his Lunch Lady graphic novels, and this book is full of his amusing illustrations. Anthropomorphic animals abound in this intriguing story with plenty of humor to appeal to both young and mature readers.
Zengo, who still lives with his parents, is trying to prove himself both to his fellow cops and to his family. He is the grandson of one of the most revered detectives in Platypus Police Squad, so he feels a lot of pressure to do his best. He wants to be taken seriously as a good cop on his own merit, but it takes a hard lesson from his more seasoned partner Corey O’Malley before Zengo can do so. The dynamic between Zengo and O’Malley may remind some readers of many cop show partners including Starsky and Hutch or Friday and Gannon. Krosoczka lays the groundwork in The Frog Who Croaked for more good-natured bickering and interesting adventures with this pair of detecting platypuses.
It’s that time of year again. With kids going back to school there are no doubt many new and exciting experiences. Chamelia is back to school as well and she is in for a surprise. Checkout Chamelia and the New Kid in Class by Ethan Long for that student in your life.
Chamelia has always been the center of attention and as the star of her class she’s not used to sharing the spotlight. On her first day of school she is stealing the show with an engaging story of her summer vacation when, much to her chagrin, a new boy is introduced to the class. Suddenly, attention is focused on someone other than Chamelia and she has to learn how to deal with the new class dynamic. Will she rise to the occasion or sink to new lows in order to regain her status as the center of attention?
This book is great for kids getting back into the groove of school, though it’s not the first book about this endearing character. If your child likes this book, checkout the book titled Chamelia as well.
You have your backpack, freshly sharpened pencils, shiny new crayons and all the other items on the school supply list. But are you really ready for the first day of school? That’s what Patrick is worried about in Monstergarten by Daniel J. Mahoney. A first-grader told him that he had to be scary for his first day of monstergarten. Teaming up with his friend Kevin, Patrick practices making scary faces, his fearsome roars and showing his claws. But even after all his practice, Patrick is worried that he will not be scary enough. Fortunately, his monster mommy gives him the best advice – just be yourself. Children will be able to relate to Patrick in this brightly illustrated picture book.
Sometimes it is hard to just be yourself, especially someone else is telling you what they think is best. That’s what Penelope, a hippo, faces in You’re Wearing That to School?! by Lynn Plourde. Tiny, a mouse, means well and is trying the help his eccentric best friend Penelope fit in for her first day of school. From what to wear to what to bring to show-and-tell, Tiny wants to make sure that Penelope’s first day will be a success. Will Penelope heed Tiny’s advice? Or will she stay true to herself and prove that being unique is the best way to have a successful first day of school? Parents will also enjoy sharing with their kids the “Tips for a Hippo Happy First Day of School” that can be found at the end of the book.
Nearly every small child has a special stuffed animal, and two recent picture books take a look at these imaginative friendships. In No Fits, Nilson!, written and illustrated by Zachariah OHora, the title character is depicted as a towering blue gorilla who dwarfs his constant companion, a young girl named Amelia. With his black porkpie hat, tennis shoes and collection of six wristwatches, Nilson exudes cool, although he is prone to temper tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. Throughout the story, Amelia must remind him to stay calm. Acrylic paintings in a muted pastel palette done on printmaking paper lend a retro quality to this gentle, sweet book that speaks to patience, sharing and working past minor setbacks.
Paul Schmid’s Oliver and His Alligator takes a look at a small boy’s apprehensions about the first day of school. Pastel pencils combine with soft digital colors to bring to life tousle-haired Oliver and his alligator, whom he brings to class “in case things got rough.” And when Oliver feels immediately shy and unsure, with a “munch, munch!” his alligator swallows a woman who greets him, and then his classmates in quick succession. Children will enjoy the humor of the situation, possibly wishing they had an alligator of their own to vanquish anxiety. But Oliver soon comes around to thinking that he may be missing out on something by sitting quietly by himself. Oliver and His Alligator makes for a welcome addition to the canon of books that address first day jitters.
Sugar is a spunky 10-year-old living on the Wills’ River Road Plantation in Reconstruction Mississippi. She is named after the cane she toils in and despises. Her father was sold when she was a baby, and her mother died two years earlier after years of brutal labor finally took its toll. It is 1870, and while slavery has been abolished for five years, questions and economic concerns remain for these freed men, women and children. Coretta Scott King Honor Winner Jewell Parker Rhodes brings this tenuous time to life in Sugar.
The Beales, fellow sugar workers, have become her surrogate grandparents, and the other workers are protective of Sugar as the only child in their midst, yet barely tolerant of her rambunctious ways. As the community dwindles in number, Mr. Wills, the owner, needs more help and brings laborers in from China which initially concerns Sugar and her friends. But Sugar is quickly intrigued by these men and longs to make new friends from a foreign land outside of River Road.
As Sugar develops friendships with Billy Wills, the owner’s son, and the Chinese workers, she is exposed to worlds far different from her own. Billy lives a life of luxury, but is just a boy looking for adventures and a friend in Sugar. The Chinese men work hard but also share their traditional tales, food and toys. Rhodes deftly describes all of Sugar’s sensory experiences, while offering a realistic portrait of her hard realities and the unique cross-cultural community created for a time on this Mississippi plantation. Sugar is a most appealing and memorable heroine who manages to muster enough courage to step away from the only world she’s ever known in an effort to live her mother’s dying words of: Do. See. Feel.
Most people count sheep to fall asleep. Dani counts happy thoughts. My Happy Life by Rose Lagercrantz tells the tale of a little girl just starting school as she deals with first day of school jitters, making friends, losing friends, getting hurt, hurting others and all the other ups and downs in the life of a child.
Dani is a wonderfully realistic character who demonstrates resilience in the face of sadness. She is both excited and nervous about the first day of school, but she soldiers on and starts to have fun. Quickly making a best friend in Ella, Dani is happier than ever. Disaster strikes when Dani learns that Ella is moving away. Her sadness is heartbreaking. After a few rough days, and a few missteps, Dani slowly finds ways to be happy again.
Manageable chapters with limited text and plenty of delightful illustrations by award winning illustrator Eva Eriksson, make this book excellent for beginning readers. Through the combination of words and illustration, Lagercrantz and Eriksson perfectly capture the essence of a little girl’s life. My Happy Life is a very sweet, honest story suitable for both independent reading and reading aloud. This charming story is refreshingly free from “cuteness” and serves as a great example for children in how to handle hard knocks.
Could a simple mistake ruin the future of a 7th grade student? In Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills, it looks as if Sierra Shepard is going to pay a heavy price for picking up the wrong lunch bag on her way to school. Sierra has always been the model student: straight A’s, honors classes and a member of the Leadership Club. However, one day she hurriedly picks up her Mom’s lunch bag instead of her own and discovers a paring knife inside to cut up an apple. When Sierra sees the “weapon” in her bag at lunch time, she immediately alerts the cafeteria monitor of the mistake. Despite her good intentions, Sierra’s principal is bent on having her expelled for violating the school’s “zero tolerance” policy on weapons.
Her father, a high-powered attorney, is determined to keep her in school, even if it costs her principal his job. As the hearing to decide Sierra’s fate looms before her, she begins to discover that not everything in life is as black and white as she always believed it to be. Sierra must decide what is really important to her. Are the other “bad kids” serving in-school suspension as guilty as she always believed them to be? Are her friends on her side, or are they just enjoying her publicity? Does making a mistake mean that it’s okay to do something she knows is wrong to prove her innocence? These questions and others not only cause Sierra to re-evaluate her life, but they make good talking points to share with young people about some very touchy subjects.