Archive for April, 2014

COLLATERIAL DAMAGE

The Day Before 911

Written by Tucker Elliot

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Powerful, poignant and not soon forgotten! Elliot has done a masterful job of relating a true story of his sojourn as a sixth grade teacher in Department of Defense overseas military schools. At the beginning of the story, Elliot has just begun his position as teacher and head coach in a military school near Seoul, Korea. He is full of hope for his students, yet he is also strangely dour. The reader learns that his father fought in Viet Nam and his uncle died there. His teaching job is Elliot’s way of serving the military in his own way. Like every good teacher, Elliot is deeply concerned with his students; the story revolves around two students named Sami and Angel, and the families they share.

Tucker paints a picture of how the world changes as the terrorist attacks unfold, the school security becomes paramount, and the students whose parents serve live in constant terror of deployment and possible death. The author befriends a nine year old girl named Sami, who loves soccer and becomes the team “stud.” He suffers with her every time her father is called away. After Elliot leaves Korea and moves to teach in Germany, he meets Sami’s best friend from the states. Her name is Angel; she seeks the support of her new teacher and brings with her a multitude of new crises as her family becomes embroiled in emotional and physical terror.

The author attempts to exert the full force of his will to sincerely help these two families, but always seems to fall short when he is needed most. Circumstances seem to conspire to prevent him from fulfilling what he believes to be his obligations. This book is a must read for teens and adults who want to experience how the world indeed changed after 911. As one who lived a few miles from the World Trade Center, I can never adequately relay the feelings of helplessness and loss while waiting to hear the news of survivors. I watched the faces of children who waited to hear if their parents made it home from Manhattan that day; and myself grieved with others who lost friends and family. I would recommend this book to all military families, teachers, and parents who are looking for a way to understand in some small part the sacrifices of all those who serve our country and protect our communities.

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FINDING ONE’S WAY

 

The Candle Star (Divided Decade Trilogy)

Written by Michelle Isenhoff

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This is the first book in a trilogy examining the Civil War through the Underground railroad setting in Michigan in 1858. In this first volume, the protagonist is fourteen year old Emily whose petulant personality and insolent behavior has resulted in her parents’ shipping her off to stay with an uncle in Michigan. Emily has never been off the Ella Wood plantation in the Carolinas. She presumes her life will be much the same, and her faithful slave Zeke tries to make her comfortable.

Things turn out very differently. Emily will not have a tutor, she will have to walk to a school, do chores in her Uncle Issac’s inn, and learn to deal with free slaves who are her equal. Emily rebels at once, she steals a neighbor’s horse, skips school, and treats the household members as if they were “her slaves.” Her uncle refuses to give in to her; he cringes when she befriends slave bounty hunters from Virginia as her equals. Emily is curious to find out what her uncle writes in a small book hidden in a secret compartment. But gradually she must learn to respect another way of thinking, her black friend Malachi makes her realize that her way of thinking may be jaded. He encourages her to pursue her dreams of painting and not to limit her goals to become a proper Southern plantation wife.

Isenhoff has done her research. She introduces characters based on real prototypes like Frederick Douglass and George deBaptiste. Her language is smooth and polished. Take the following excerpt: “Emily looked the boy over. He had skin the color of strong tea before the cream was added, and his eyes were as dark as the midnight sky.” The reader quickly assimilates himself into the character. Only complaint I have is that the story line sometimes seems to move too slowly, but it is certainly not predictable. There are many twists and turns and lots of surprises before Emily is ready to return home to her plantation. Changes are on the horizon for the country. Will Emily be successful in acclimating herself to a changed order? What will happen to her uncle and staff at the River Inn?

I would recommend this book to children and adults age ten and up. There are lots of issues that middle grade students are facing that are addressed in the book irrespective of the difference in time period. Any reader who enjoys history, character study and good writing will enjoy this book series. Classroom teachers and librarians should consider it a good resource to a study of the pre-Civil War period from a humanistic point of view.

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PERFECTION TO A POINTE

Pie And Other Brilliant Ideas

Written by Karen Pokras Toz

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Another outstanding middle grade coming of age story. This book is well written and carefully crafted. Pokras develops her characters with strength and compassion that will not disappoint young girls, young adults or their parents.

Twelve year old Georgie has recently moved to a new neighborhood closer to her grandmother’s nursing home. She sorely misses her best friend Amber, but more than anything Georgie misses her dancing lessons. Their new community is much more expensive; despite her pleas Georgie is informed they cannot afford the extra expense. When Amber comes for a visit, they scheme together to find a way to raise money for Georgie to pay for her own lessons. After Amber allows Georgie to try on her pointe shoes; Georgie understands that nothing will deter her from achieving that goal.

There is also lots of humor in this book. The first two plans for earning money have some hilarious results. One day Georgie’s grandmother Jane gets a new roommate. Georgie and Amber are thrilled to learn that she has danced in Russia with a famous ballerina named Paulina Strofsky. Over several visits the woman named Eve relays the story of how she and Paulina trained to become prima ballerinas. In the process the reader learns quite a bit about the history of Russian and its people while under Communist domination.

Seeing the determination that Georgie has to dance, Eve encourages her and even gives her the poster over her bed with the picture of the famous ballerina. By the end of this tale, the two girls have figured out a way for Georgie to pay for her dancing lessons, absorbed lessons about the importance of family and friendship, and received a surprise gift that they never could have imagined.

Highly recommended for tweens, teens and young adults. Readers who enjoy ballet, history, and strong female role models will especially enjoy this one.

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EARTH, OUR PLANET

Planet Earth! A Kids Book About Planet Earth-Fun Facts & Pictures About Our Oceans, Mountains, Rivers,Deserts, Endangered Species & More

Written by Alexander G. Michaels

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The title of this post is much shorter than the name of the book, but in fact the author provides a concise guide to all those things in an e book of less than fifty pages. Targeted for children in the early elementary grades and written in fairly simple language, this guide sets forth basic information combined with beautiful photographs. It can be a asset to the science section of the classroom as well as serve as a quick reference book or starting point for more research. The author might consider releasing a paper edition for libraries and print book lovers.

Michaels begins with the planet’s history, characteristics, composition, and place in solar system. He next outlines the geographic regions of land and water and gives details about well known examples. The section on fun facts is sure to be a favorite among children; it provides a vast compendium of information in sentence form. For example, each winter approximately one septillion snow crystals drop from the sky or that 75% of the earth’s animals could be extinct within the next three hundred years. Michaels concludes with some ideas on how we can preserve the planet for our descendants.

I have to admit that I learned quite a few things from this book. While I knew that most of the Earth’s surface is water, I was not aware that only 3% of the water on earth is fresh water. Did you know that the largest desert in the world is in Antarctica? Where can you find most of the Earth’s gold? How are mountains, volcanoes and rivers formed? There are lots of surprises for adults as well as the children who pick up this book.

Take a look at this beautiful guide to our planet and share it with your children. Michaels has written a whole series of books, including one on the solar system, endangered species, and dinosaurs. I plan on taking a look at those as well.

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THE GENUINE ARTICLE

Beauty and the Beast

Written by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont and Marie-Michelle Joy

Illustrated by Walter Crane

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This rendition of the classic fairy tale is based on the original eighteenth century version. No Disney elements are found here. This original version was written and distributed widely in France to protest the marriage system of the day in which women had no right to choose or refuse a mate. The original version was a full length novel written for adults, which was later shortened.

At the beginning of the tale, the reader meets a wealthy merchant who has six sons and six daughters. They live sumptuously and prosperously. Suddenly, disaster strikes. The merchant loses his home and possessions in a fire, and pirates sack his shipping business. The distraught family retreats to a poor life in a forest cottage, which is their only remaining possession. All his daughters complain with the exception of the youngest named Beauty who is determined to make their meager life a happy one. Then one day she asks her father for a favor. She longs to see one beautiful rose. The merchant sets off to find one and his journey takes him to a mysterious castle. He is left alone but treated lavishly. Suddenly an ugly beast appears. He promises to let the traveler return home if he will return with one of his daughters to live with him in the castle. The merchant reluctantly agrees.

Beauty feels responsible for her father’s plight and volunteers to return with him to the castle of the Beast where they find unexpected surprises and treasures. When it comes time for the merchant to return home, both he and his daughter are distraught. Strange dreams bring about strange occurrences. What will happen to Beauty and the Beast? Remember, I told you that this is not a classic Disney fairytale.

The illustrations are the original nineteenth century drawings by Walter Crane. They are extraordinarily detailed and magnificently colored. The reader will think herself transported to a museum. They add to the flavor of an authentic French period piece. As an adult, I enjoyed this rendition of the classic tale. I believe that tweens and teens will find this “grown-up” rendition of Beauty and the Beast a most appealing one. Available in kindle and paperback versions.

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POIGNANT AND POWERFUL

The Thackery Journal

Written by John Holt

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This well-written book of historical fiction is divided into three parts: the first part sets the stage for the personal tragedy the looming civil war will impose on friends and family; the second part begins in 1864 when the South is on the brink of defeat and engages in plot to buy weapons from the French government, and the third part delineates the intricate plot of Northern generals to carry out the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln using John Wilkes-Booth as their instrument. Holt informs the reader that only three of his characters are genuine, Grant, Lincoln and Booth. The reader will be hard pressed to believe that statement because Holt does such a good job of making all his characters realistic and seamlessly weaves them together with both the historical and the fictional.

At the outset the reader meets Aaron Thackery, an old man who sits before the fire in the remains of his Southern home reading the journal of his deceased son who has been implicated in some sort of plot. Thackery thinks back upon his own arrest and his wife’s death. After the flashbacks, the author shifts to the town of Larkspur in Virginia introducing us to Jacob Thackery and his friend, Miles Drew. When war is declared, Miles, who does not believe in slavery nor the fact that the South can win, flees to join the Union forces. He quarrels with his best friend Jacob, who will join the Confederacy. Their paths will cross again during the war.

In the second part of the book, the scene shifts to 1864. Jacob realizes that the South will lose, but he becomes involved with the plot of the Confederacy to buy weapons from the French government. When a Mexican agent finds out about the plot, he hatches a new plan to steal the gold needed from the Mexican government, which Thackery will be responsible for delivering to the French in Canada. After the weapons destined for the Confederacy are blown up, he must decided what to do with the gold.

The third part of the book is the crux of the plot. Holt creates a character named Jarvis who will enlist Lincoln’s most trusted generals in a plot to wrest power from him and replace him with Grant. The plan goes awry, so Booth is enlisted to carry out the plan. How will Miles and Jacob be involved and how will it affect the rest of their lives and the future of the new restored Union government?

Holt does a magnificent job of transporting the characters into the minds of the reader. His research is carefully done and the descriptions of battle, angst, and raw emotion are outstanding. I had to finish the entire book in one setting, and by the end of the read was totally convinced that the story was plausible.

As a historian, I liked the fact that Holt gave citations to his research to permit further exploration of the topics. The cover is a painting from the Battle of Antietam and the period photographs add another dimension of personality to the work. There is no graphic violence or sexuality so the book is suitable for young adults. This book sheds light on the psychological, historical and moral aspects of the American Civil War much better than any historical text and is highly recommended.

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POETRY MONTH, EARTH DAY, AND EVERYTHING GREEN

Green, An Eclectic Anthology of Poetry & Prose (Silver Birch Press)

Edited by Melanie Villines; contributing editor Joan Jobe Smith.

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The editors have brought together authors from all over world to display their talents in poetry, short stories, novel snippets and interviews. Their subject is anything green: word meanings, nature, environment, seasons, food, money, emotions, and much more. Some of the material comes from well known authors like L. Frank Baum, Kurt Vonnegut, James Joyce and William Blake. Other selections are chosen from contemporary or lesser known writers. In keeping with the theme, the editors chose to dedicate the anthology to Graham Greene. I found the cover art appropriate; it features a four leaf clover which is a plant that not only is a symbol of good luck but one that enriches the soil.

It is difficult to know where to start in this anthology. The reader need not read the book in chronological order. One might want to select a passage depending on one’s mood or the genre one feels like reading at the time. Editors provide a Table of Contents listing the works by author as well as by Section. The contents by Section are organized by themes. For example, selections are devoted to money, family, environment, envy, and new life. These readings might relate to everyday objects like avocados, lifesavers or green corn tamales. Some touch on places like beaches, subways, and Chicago. There are tales of past and present. Emotions run the gamut from hope to despair. The length of entries range from one to several pages. This book can be picked up for a five minute or a fifty minute read. One of my favorites is “What Can I Do” by Ivon Prefontaine. Here are a few lines:

                                                       Change begins in me.

                                                            I am a catalyst

                                                              I look inside:

                                                      Call forth a gentle spirit-

                                                             Give it voice.

The reading level of the passages vary in difficulty. Again, the reader might want to devote extra thought to some of the more esoteric passages. In general, I would say that the book could be enjoyed by anyone age twelve and older. It certainly would be an asset to the libraries of upper middle grade and high school classrooms. The reader might also use this edition as an introduction to further exploration of other works by authors she enjoyed in this anthology.

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