Thursday, December 28, 2017

Amina's Voice by Hena Khan

The new school year has just started for eleven-year-old Amina Khokar and her best friend Soojin Park. They are in sixth grade at Greendale Middle School. Amina's father is from Pakistan, but she and her older brother Mustafa were born in America. Amina loves to sing and plays piano but because of what happened in grade three she refuses to sing in front of people. Amina and her brother attend Sunday school at the Islamic Center of Milwaukee where  they learn Arabic and study verses of the Quran.

Soojin's family moved from South Korea to America when she was four years old. Soojin has been Amina's best friend since third grade when her family moved to Greendale just outside Milwaukee. Her family owns a restaurant in downtown Milwaukee called Park Avenue Deli. Soojin is excited at the prospect of becoming an American citizen. Her family will be sworn in as new citizens in October and Soojin is considering choosing an American name.

With the new school year starting, Amina watches as their classmate Emily, who has always put her and Soojin down, is friendly towards Soojin. Amina is distrustful of Emily's intentions because of her actions in the past. She has commented on Amina and Soojin teaching each other Urdu and Korean, and she's started rumours about Soojin's family serving dog at their restaurant. Amina can't understand why Soojin doesn't remember how mean Emily has been to them. When she asks Soojin after school, she tells Amina that she needs to give Emily a chance.

Amina is unhappy when Soojin agrees to let Emily join them to work on a project about the Oregon trail. At Soojin's house Amina questions her friend as to whether or not she really wants to be friends with Emily and is worried she will lose her best friend to Emily.  Emily begins sitting with them at lunch, appears to enjoy Soojin's Korean food and then confides in them about a boy she likes.

Meanwhile at home, Baba announces that Thaya Jaan - his older brother will be visiting from Pakistan. Baba is worried Bhai Jaan won't like they way they live in America. Baba's older brother's visit is worrisome because "Bhai Jaan is set in his ways". Baba's worries prove founded as Bhai Jaan is critical of the way Amina and Mustafa are being raised. His views begin to cause confusion and worry for Amina.

Besides struggling with her friendship with Soojin and her confusion over what her Muslim faith teaches, Amina also struggles with stage fright. She has a beautiful voice and can play piano but Amina doesn't want to participate in the Quran competition at her mosque, nor does she want to perform in the Winter Choral Concert. Amina dislikes performing in front of people because she's afraid of making a mistake and being ridiculed.

Amina and Soojin's friendship is tested when Amina reveals a secret Emily entrusted to them, Mustafa's ability to make responsible choices is questioned, and Baba and Mama must confront Bhai Jaan about their right to raise their children as they wish. All of this is set against the backdrop of a terrible act of vandalism against the Islamic center that ultimately draws the community together.


Amina's Voice tells the story of a young girl's struggles to deal with everyday life while growing up,against the backdrop of religious prejudice in America. Khan has included a diverse cast of characters that include the Pakistani-American Khohar family, the Korean Park family and  Emily whose grandmother is Polish. Young readers will learn a little about Pakistani and Korean culture, with some emphasis on food! Khan includes many descriptions of the food that Amina's family eats. For example Amina's family serves their guest Bhai Jaan curried chicken, spicy spinach lamb stew, naan and lentils. Later on dessert consists of gulab jamun, described by Amina as "sticky, sweet, doughnutlike treats" in a "thick honey-colored syrup." When Amina visits Soojin's home she's careful to avoid the extra fridge reserved for making kimchi, fermented cabbage or other vegetables.

The Khohar family however is the main focus of the story and they are realistically drawn with Khan showing them to be a typical American family in many ways. Their children experience the same problems and struggles as other American children while their parents have the same worries as parents everywhere do.

Amina's Voice explores the theme of friendship, encouraging readers to consider what constitutes being a good friend and the role forgiveness and acceptance play in friendship. Amina finds her friendship with her best friend Soojin changing. While Amina struggles to forgive the unkindness of a classmate, Soojin is more willing to forget the past. When Amina reminds Soojin of all the terrible things Emily has said and done, Soojin replies, "I don't know. She used to be really immature. But I thinks she's changed. She's make an effort, and she's not so bad."  As Amina and Soojin spend more time with Emily, Amina realizes Emily's life might not be what she thought it was. "Emily's life always seemed perfect to me, but now I wonder if maybe it isn't."

Despite this revelation, Amina feels both panic and jealousy as Soojin and Emily begin to connect and spend more time together. Soojin and Emily discover they have alot in common; they both live with grandparents and annoying little sisters, and they both have similar religious beliefs. This leads Amina to worry these connections will lead to the loss of her friendship with Soojin. She repeatedly attempts to push Emily away, but Soojin remains firm in her friendship with both Emily and Amina. What Amina doesn't realize is that Emily's confiding in them about her crush on a classmate indicates that Emily considers them both friends and trustworthy. She reveals this is why she is no longer friends with Julie. When Amina reveals Emily's secret, this breaks the trust of both Emily and Soojin.

However both Soojin and Emily demonstrate that their friendship with Amina is true by forgiving her. Soojin comes to the meeting at the school cafeteria to comfort Amina after the attack on the mosque and when Amina apologizes again, Soojin explains to Amina that they formed an opinion about Emily without really knowing her. It is at this point that Amina realizes Emily was also trying to be friends with her. From this experience Amina decides she will never "betray a friend's trust again."

At the same time Amina begins to experience confusion about her Muslim faith when her Thaya Jaan comes to visit. Her uncle has some strict interpretations of their Muslim faith and this leads him to question Baba as to why the children don't speak Urdu. Later on Amina overhears Bhai Jaan criticizing her father for allowing her to sing and play piano. " is forbidden in Islam. It's a waste of time and has no benefit. Instead of filling her head with music, she should focus on memorizing Quran." Amina wonders if she is doing something wrong. "I can't shake the uneasy feeling that has settled on me like dust for days -- have I been doing something wrong, or un-Islamic, by spending so much of my time singing and playing piano." When she questions her father about why God hates music, Amina's mother explains that "God does not hate music. I don't believe that, or that it's wrong for you to play or to sing. Why would he give you so much talent then?" Eventually Amina's parents intervene and explain to her uncle that they have the right to teach their children their own values. These scenes serve to demonstrate that the Muslim faith includes many variations of belief and practice - Amina's family are less strict about following certain practices than Bhai Jaan. This is no different from those who practice Christianity or Judaism.

Amina's Voice tackles the sensitive issue of religious persecution of Muslims in America in a way that is suitable for younger readers. The vandalism and arson is described but not in a graphic manner.  Instead the focus is on how the Muslim community reacts to the destruction of their beloved mosque and cultural center and how the community pulls together to help their Muslim brothers and sisters. The lesson here is that hate can be overcome by acts of goodwill and love.

CNN has indicated that there have been an average of nine mosques targeted every month from January to July 2017 (this includes threats, arson and vandalism) in America. However,  there have been no reported attacks on mosques in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The attack on the mosque in Amina's Voice will seem quite real to younger readers but it is fictional.  It would have been helpful if Khan had included a note at the back of her novel to explain that the attack described in the story was fictional but that religious prejudice in America is a growing problem and that freedom of religion is guaranteed under the United States constitution.

The cover of Amina's Voice while colourful and attractive is somewhat reminiscent of a Disney princess perhaps helpful in drawing in young readers.

Amina's Voice is a worthwhile read that offers young readers the opportunity to explore diverse characters and their culture, to think about the meaning of friendship and to consider the growing problem of religious discrimination, particularly towards, but not limited to Muslims. It is a well written novel that handles a difficult topic in a sensitive and positive manner.

Book Details:

Amina's Voice by Hena Khan
New York: Salaam Reads   2017
197 pp.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Some Writer! : The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet

Some Writer! traces the life of Elwyn Brooks White, the author of the much loved children's storybooks, Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little.

White's own story began in 1899 in Mount Vernon, New York. White knew at an early age that he loved to write. He was the youngest child in a family of six children and spent many idyllic summers in Belgrade Lakes, Maine. His father rented several cottages at Snug Harbor and the family would travel to Maine every summer. During the summer White learned to canoe, and he spent time swimming in the lake and studying the things many young boys find fascinating: turtles, toads and tadpoles.

White began sending his writing in for publication at the age of nine! His poem, "A Story of a Little Mouse" won him his first literary prize. In high school White wrote for the school newspaper, the Oracle. Throughout White's teen years, World War I raged and he lamented about not being able to enlist (he did not meet the weight requirements).

White attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. There he was nicknamed Andy after the first president of Cornell by his classmates. He wrote for the Cornell Sun, eventually becoming editor. White worked as a counselor at Camp Otter located on Otter Lake near Dorset, Ontario during the summers of 1920 and 1921. Camp Otter was a summer camp for boys, owned by the director of physical education at Cornell. In the summer of 1921, he was accompanied by a friend Howard "Cush" Cushman.

In 1922, White along with Cushman traveled westward, across America, arriving in Seattle, Washington six months later. After a brief stint as a reporter for the Seattle Times, White headed to Alaska and Siberia and then returned home to New York. He lived with his parents for a time while working in advertising in Manhattan. Then in 1925, White began writing for a new magazine, The New Yorker. This was the real beginning of White's literary career.

White was a well-known writer and essayist when Anne Carroll Moore, a children's librarian at the New York Public Library wrote him suggesting he write a children's book. He decided to create a story out of his notes he had made years earlier of a dream about a mouse. While working as a writer at the New Yorker, White once experienced a dream when travelling on a train. The dream was about a dapper little mouse who wore a hat and carried a cane. He wrote down the details of the dream and over time added more chapters. It was this story E.B. White reworked and ultimately submitted to his new editor, Ursula Nordstrom at Harper and Brothers. While Ursula loved the story of Stuart Little, librarian Ann Carroll Moore did not. Although it was published in 1945, Stuart Little was not approved by some librarians and the book was even banned in some libraries. Children, however, loved the book.

But White's best was yet to come - inspired in part by life on his farm in Maine.


Melissa Sweet has written a biography of E.B. White that is chockful of fascinating facts and insights about the author of one of the best books ever written for children. Some Writer! is a visually appealing book, filled with maps, photographs, artwork and collages created by Melissa Sweet. Also  included are much archival information: photographs of E.B.White, copies of his journal pages, poetry, correspondence and drafts of his work for Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web, as well as photographs of his wife and son and his farm.

Although most of White's writing was for adults, he is probably best remembered for what it considered his finest work - Charlotte's Web, a story about the meaning of friendship in which a spider saves the life of a pig. It is also an unusual in that as a children's book, Charlotte's Web asks children to think about death and how one goes on after the loss of a special person in life. The death of White's pig Fred on his farm, was the driving force behind this story, one in which White wanted a miraculous way to save a pig!

In Some Writer! we learn the origins of two of the most beloved storybooks for children, Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web. Sweet discusses the controversy that erupted over Stuart Little's "birth" and how unbelievably this led to librarians banning the book. It was White who wrote "...children can sail easily over the fence that separates reality from make-believe. A fence that can throw a librarian is nothing to a child." It's revealing to read how White struggled to write the opening for Charlotte's Web and how illustrator Garth Williams worked to create the face of Charlotte, a grey spider identified as Aranea cavatica.

Although Some Writer! is a biography written for young readers, adults will find Sweet's book a fascinating read with all of the artwork and bits of information about Elwyn Brooks White. Melissa Sweet has included an Author's Note, a Timeline, a Notes section, a Selected Bibliography and an Afterword written by Martha White, the grand daughter of E.B. White who fully endorses this bibilography.  Sweet's Some Writer! truly captures both his personal life and the impetus of his creative work, providing readers with a window into this most amazing and versatile writer.

Book Details:

Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt      2016
162 pp.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Tool of War by Paolo Bacigalupi

Tool of War is the final installment in Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker trilogy. The last installment, The Drowned Cities was written over five years ago, making remembering the story line challenging. The series is set in post-apocalyptic America which has been destroyed by civil war and global climate change that resulted in many coastal cities destroyed by rising seas. Many parts of the continent have descended into brutal conflict with the use of child soldiers. This third installment focuses on Tool, known as Karta-Kul, a half man, half beast, an augment, genetically designed for war and for blind obedience.

The novel opens with Tool, the genetically designed man-beast having just defeated the Army of God and now  ruling over the Drowned Cities, "a coastline swamped by rising sea levels and political hatreds, a place of shattered rubble and eternal gunfire." Tool managed to organize Tool  watches the final moments of battle from the rotunda in a shattered marble palace, the waters of ocean lapping against the front steps. When quiet falls on the ruined city, Tool is questioned by the young humans who follow him as to what happens next for the Drowned Cities. Tool never moves on to rule the cities because his life and that of those around him vanishes in an instant of fire and hell.

High above the Pacific Ocean in the dirigible Annapurna, General Caroa hunts a specific augment. His analyst, Arial Jones, a brilliant, young but new recruit is eager to please her senior officer. Jones works in the Mercier Corporation's Global Strategic Intelligence Center and she has tracked the augment Caroa is seeking to the Drowned Cities. Caroa orders Jones to fire six Havoc 5's at Tool in order to kill him. While the missiles with their incredible firepower and chemicals completely destroy everything and everyone, Tool at the last minute senses the missiles and attempts to escape.

Meanwhile on board the Raker, a clipper sitting in the harbour, Mahalia is thrown onto the deck from the blast. Mahalia had been supervising the loading of artwork onto the clipper when the blast occurred. The palace is leveled, blackened and on fire, the marble steps liquefying due to the heat. Mahalia realizes her old friend Tool has been killed in the attack and grieves deeply because he helped save her and restart her life. She also knows they have to get the Raker out of the harbour because Tool's surviving soldiers will try to take the ship for their own. Captain Almadi reluctantly agrees to sail the damaged ship up the coast, even though a category three hurricane is bearing down on them. Tool having sensed the attack, dove into the waters by the palace. Although on fire and terribly injured by shrapnel he manages to cling to the clipper ship as it sails out of the harbour.

On the Annapurna, General Caroa celebrates what he hopes is the end of a nightmare - the death of the augment known as Blood and the hope of a promotion to Mercier's Executive Committee. But Caroa's celebration is short-lived as Junior Analyst Jones calls him to the Strategic Intelligence Center on the command deck. There Jones shows Caroa evidence that the augment has unbelievably survived the Havoc missile attack. By tracking the augment's heat signature, they see him beneath a clipper ship. Caroa orders Jones to hit the ship but she tells him they have no remaining missiles. When the video feed breaks up due to the storm, Caroa orders Jones to find the ship so they can destroy it.

Tool has lost his pack, the soldier boys he commanded in securing the Drowned Cities. As the storm deepens and the ship begins to founder, Tool hauls himself aboard. There he sees his old pack, Mahalia, Ocho and others attempting to save their ship, struggling with the mast, unable to raise the sail. Tool with his brute strength saves the ship. Eventually the Raker anchors in a small cove, and Mahalia attempts to treat Tool's horrific wounds. She uses all the StimGrowth packs and liters of cell knitters on Tool. Ocho believes Tool will die but Mahalia tells him this is the kind of war Tool was designed for. On the deck of the Raker, Tool tells Mahalia and Ocho that Mercier who owns him is trying to kill him and that they are in danger. He agrees to stay with them until they arrive at Seascape Boston where he will seek out medical help.

On the Annapurna, Jones' conscience is troubled over the innocent lives destroyed in the Havoc attack. Determined to limit the casualties while still doing her job she discovers the identity of the ship and its probable destination. When Caroa orders the Strike Raptors, Jones finds a way to prevent them from being used and instead convinces Caroa to use the Stitch and Ditch kill squads for a cleaner kill.

At Seascape Boston, Mahalia, Ocho, Stick and Stork and Tool  hide out in an ancient brownstone while Van gets the meds Tool needs to heal. After a Stitch and Ditch squad take out the wrong augment, Mahalia and Ocho realize Tool is still being tracked. Tool is beginning to heal from the meds but he is still not himself. He tells Mahalia that she and her crew need to leave before Mercier attacks again. However, it is too late as their building is quickly surrounded. Although Mahalia is determined to fight alongside Tool, he knows this is a fight they cannot survive.

Can Tool overcome his conditioning to fight for the freedom he believes his kind deserve, to protect the humans who are his pack and end the conflict between himself and his creator, General Caroa forever?


Tool of War completes the Ship Breaker trilogy by continuing the sage of Tool, the half man-half beast or augment created by General Caroa. The Ship Breaker series has offered readers the opportunity to consider several contemporary issues such as the use of child soldiers in war, the global influence of large corporations and the potentially destabilizing effects of catastrophic global climate change. In Tool of War the  issue of genetic manipulation of embryos in which human embryos are grossly modified using various animal DNA is considered. In the novel, such creatures are called "augments" of which there are many types (for example gorilla-dominant augments) and are used as combat soldiers and slaves, although society doesn't regard them as such. They do the grunt work in the post-apocalyptic society of the series. "They were everywhere: helping ships off-load freight, hauling strong boxes of cash for merchant transfers, muscling clear paths for corporate princesses. The augments stood sentry outside the embassies of the trading companies, and knelt in temples alongside humans..." In Tool of War both humans and augments have been conditioned to treat one another a certain way with humans believing they are completely under control and the augments genetically altered and conditioned to be loyal unto death. That is until General Caroa was tasked to create a "better" augment.

Caroa designed, bred and trained Tool because battles with military augments were often ending in stalemates. So under the direction of Mercier, new, magnificent warriors, "Stronger, better, smarter, faster." were developed. "We needed creatures that were hypercompetent. Natural engines of strategy, tactics, learning, violence, stamina, fearlessness. Tolerant of poisons and chemical attacks. Resistant to fire and cold and fear and pain..." One of the best was an augment Caroa named Blood but who also goes by other names, Karta-Kul and Tool. Unlike previous iterations of augments, Tool has the ability to break from his conditioning to be loyal and he also has the ability to influence other augments to renege on their conditioning. Caroa recognizes the danger; the augments could then begin to turn on humanity.

General Caroa reveals to Analyst Jones that Tool has already turned on him once. Jones doesn't believe this because "Augments are obedient! They can't break free of that! They pine and die without their masters. Everyone knows---" But Caroa states, "What if everything we know is wrong?...Think, Jones, of all the augments on the Annapurna right now. Our incorruptible, fearless Fast Attack Claws and Fists. Imagine all that loyalty. Gone." As Caroa tells Jones about Tool,  "If our friend recovers sufficiently, I fear that we will bear witness to humanity's extinction."  However, at this point, Caroa notes that Tool " not operating as he should...He has capacities that he is not using, and I don't know why. Is it a ruse? Some trick? Or maybe he's lost the skill?"

Unfortunately for General Caroa and the Annapurna, Tool is able to tap into his abilities. As he begins to recover from his injuries, Tool suspects "Something his creators had done to him, to ensure control." is preventing him from accessing his strength. "Tool felt new blood surging through the fibers of his muscles, filling him with strength. But still it was walled off from him, as if thick sea ice covered the ocean of his capabilities, and he was left peering through to it, knowing the power that lurked beneath the surface, but unable to chip through to its depths. Something held him back from using his true strength." 

However, Tool begins to rebel against his conditioning but he finds it difficult to overcome his genes and conditioning. His inner conflict becomes the main theme of this novel. When he is attacked in Seascape, Tool fights his intense desire to surrender. " Tool was seized with a powerful urge to surrender...He could actually feel his muscles fighting to make him surrender...As if he were possessed by the will of his masters." He succeeds but his struggle costs his human friends their lives. He rescues Mahalia and tells her, "There will be no ore running, or hiding. I have run from Mercier for years...Now I will hunt, as I was always meant to. Now I will war, as I was designed to."  Mahalia questions if Tool will be able to overcome the conditioning bred into him, despite Tool's assertions that he will not succumb again.

In Seascape, Tool begins to see the augments as they really are, as slaves."They lived among humans as slaves, and thought of themselves as anything but. Disgusting that they did not see themselves for what they were." Jayant Patel, Nita's father insists that Tool is property and that since he is owned by Mercier he needs to be returned. Tool however refuses to comply and demonstrates why Mercier fears him - he is able to resist his training and is capable of influencing other augments to do the same. "My creators do not fear my individual rebellion. They fear the uprising that I will inevitably lead." This suggests that Tool is determined to lead the augments in an uprising.

How augments are seen by humans in this post-apocalyptic world is revealed in a conversation between Nailer and Nita. Nailer tells Nita that Tool is unlike other augments, because he views humans as people, "Not masters. Not owners. Just people." However Nita realizes that humans do not view augments the same way. "...You treat your augments well, but they aren't people. And they don't ask to be treated just like people. They don't demand things the way people demand things..." This is what makes Tool different.

After the situation between Global Patel and Mercier is resolved, Nita's views regarding the augments change. Designed and trained to do tasks that normal humans could not, Nita and her fellow humans never gave the augments a second thought. "Now she couldn't help feeling there was something wrong with the very language used to describe augments. Words like ownership came easily when a creature was grown from handpicked cells, developed  in a creche, and purchase from a selection of other augments." She notes that despite their animal characteristics, they feel loss and success and she acknowledges they are people. This leads her to agree to help Tool.

Tool knows he will never be at peace unless he destroys Caroa. Tool's final confrontation with Caroa is filled with uncertainty as Tool struggles between his conditioning, his love for Caroa and his desire to be free. It is graphic and brutal. But when that is accomplished, Tool feels the weight of Caroa's death and he admits to himself, "The killing of Caroa had not been easy on his mind." In many ways Tool, half man-half beast is more human than Caroa and those who created him. He spares Jones, realizing that like him, she is struggling to survive, that she is a flawed creature too, and to free Mahalia, Ocho and the others from the Raker. He is by far the most interesting character in this series, and evolved into the focus of the novels.

Tool of War is a brutal telling of the cat and mouse game between General Caroa and Tool. It's an unrelenting dark story with no comic relief. Yet the novel ends on a hopeful note. Does Tool lead his rebellion against humanity? We don't know and aren't told in the Epilogue.

Bacigalupi, brings back several characters from the first book, Shipbreaker. Nailer Lopez now an engineer on a tanker is shocked to once again encounter Tool. Tool who helped Nailer is satisfied to see that Nailer has grown into a strong, assured young human as has his friend Nita Patel, the rich girl he saved in Ship Breaker. Although they have change much, Tool places his hope in them.

Tool of War offers a great conclusion to the Ship Breaker series. Bacigalupi is a master storyteller who just does not disappoint!

Book Details:

Tool of War by Paolo Bacigalupi
New York: Little, Brown and Company  2017
373 pp.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War I Finally Won concludes the story of Ada Smith and her own private war between herself and the world. The novel picks up the story where it left off in The War That Saved My Life. It is told by fourteen-year-old Ada looking back on events beginning on Monday September 15, 1940.

At the end of the first book, Ada and Jamie had just left their mother but were caught above ground during a bombing in London. They were found by Susan Smith, the older woman who had taken them in during the evacuation of London. Susan took them back to her village in Kent where they discovered that her home has been destroyed by a bomb. Now they are back in London where eleven-year-old Ada is undergoing surgery to repair her club foot. Susan, Jamie and his cat Bovril are "staying in a rented room in a boardinghouse near the hospital."

The War I Finally Won begins with Ada awakening from her surgery the next day to learn that her Mam has been killed in the bombing of the munitions factory where she worked. While six-year-old Jamie is devastated, Ada feels nothing because she knows her mother hated her and didn't want her.

Susan's concern about the funeral arrangements set Ada to worrying about whether or not they will be able to continue to live with her as they are now orphans. Still confined to bed, Ada learns from Susan that her mother's body was cremated and buried in a mass grave. Ada finally confesses her worry over the "arrangements" which she believes mean that Susan will abandon them.Susan comforts Ada by explaining that the "arrangements" she needed to make were regarding her mother's funeral. She explains that she will likely become Ada and Jamie's legal guardian. Ada also learns that Lady Thorton has offered them an abandoned cottage on the Thorton estate in which to live.

Even on an outing in a wheelchair, Ada finds herself worrying about money and taking care of herself and Jamie. Ada is told that Lord and Lady Thorton paid for her surgery but she doesn't like having to be grateful to Lady Thorton. Three days later, Ada gets her final cast cut off her foot and Susan presents her with a pair of shoes. The surgery is a resounding success with Ada is not only able to stand on her foot but also to walk and run, although the doctor tells her she will never have full mobility of her ankle.

Susan, Ada and Jamie travel back to Kent and set up house in the cottage on Thorton, with Ada and Jamie having their own rooms. Life begins to return to some sort of normalcy with Ada now able to ride her horse Butter astride like her friend Maggie Thorton. Fred Grimes, the Thorton's groom is thrilled for Ada. But the war continues to take its toll; Ada meets her friend Stephen White and learns that his entire family has been killed in the bombing of London and that he and his father will be joining the merchant marines.

Christmas sees Ada once again struggle emotionally. Her best friend Maggie Thorton returns from boarding school to invite Ada and her family over for Christmas dinner. Just before Christmas, Jamie breaks his arm in an attempt to climb a tree. Ada is determined to care for him despite Susan's assurances that it is her responsibility. But Christmas is a difficult time for Ada. She is upset at receiving a doll from Susan which she considers a child's gift, and is tense at having to attend a Christmas dinner at Thorton House. However, this is made bearable by Maggie's older brother, Jonathan who is a lieutenant in the RAF. During Christmas dinner at the Thorton's Susan asks Lord Thorton to help her find work. He is surprised to learn that Susan obtained a first from Oxford in maths and he offers her work immediately but it will mean placing Ada and Jamie in school. Susan refuses his offer, Lord Thorton promises to find her something.

On Boxing Day, Ada rides in a "paper chase" which Maggie explains is "like a fox hunt...only without foxes, or hunting."Ada enjoys the paper chase immensely but her best surprise is Susan's gift of Butter. Gradually Ada begins to settle into life on the Thorton estate; she volunteers to fire watch even though it means climbing the church steeple.

Then Lady Thorton moves in with Susan, Ada and Jamie after Thorton house is requisitioned by the British government. This is the beginning of some big changes in Ada's life, ones that will bring about a new friendship, a terrible loss and the beginning of healing for Ada.


The War I Finally Won is about one girl's war to overcome the physical and emotional trauma she experienced as a result of poverty and abuse to reclaim her life. In this sequel Ada must learn to how be a child, to leave the caring to the adults in her life. Perhaps even more importantly she must learn to trust.

After returning home from her surgery, eleven-year-old Ada Smith struggles with allowing herself to be cared for and to be a child. Ada was not wanted by her mother and not cared for; her club foot, a defect caused by the baby's position in the womb, could have been repaired at birth but was not. Ada was frequently punished by her mother by being placed in a small, roach-filled cupboard beneath the kitchen sink, she was not fed enough nor kept clean and she was kept a prisoner in her flat, never allowed to attend school. As a result she always feels unsafe and she considers herself the caretaker of herself and her brother.

Used to fending for herself and caring for her younger brother Jamie, Ada doesn't know how to be a child. When Jamie breaks his arm, Ada insists on caring for him, partly because this what she has always done and also because she doesn't trust Susan to do so.Adults are not to be trusted in Ada's world. Susan tells Ada to return to bed but Ada tells her, "It's my job to take care of him. Not yours." Susan tells her this is not her responsibility anymore. Susan attempts to prove to Ada that she, as an adult, is better suited to care for both Ada and her brother but questioning her as to what she would do if Jamie's condition worsened. Susan tries to explain to Ada that she doesn't necessarily have to feel safe to be safe, a point she makes when she takes Ada up in the church bell tower to fire watch.

Ada's worry about money and the cost of her care manifests itself in her questions about Susan's request to Lord Thorton to help her find work and that she too would like to help out. However, Susan points out to Ada, " 'You're eleven years old,' Susan said. 'You get to be the child now, Ada, for once in your life. I will be the adult.'..." Ada also struggles to understand the concept of guardianship and the meaning of the word "ward" which she takes to mean her care of Susan. Eventually Susan tells Ada her understanding of "ward" is archaic and that she is responsible for Ada's care.

The church steeple and fire watching are symbolic of Ada's belief that she must be ever-watchful for the possibility of bad things that might happen.Ada never feels safe; "I never did. Never once. Anything could happen anytime --Mam's death proved it..." She admits to Maggie that she is afraid of fire watching because she's afraid of being trapped, being pinned under rubble or like being "stuffed under the sink" and being unable to escape. "Only I still have to keep watch. I have to be careful, to keep bad things from happening again."

Ada's relationship with Susan gradually evolves into one of trust and love. Her younger brother Jamie has no problem considering Susan his mother and he even calls her mommy, telling Ruth "Our first mother is in heaven...Susan's our second." Ada admits it's difficult to accept this identity for Susan. "I flinched. All these months of Jamie calling Susan Mum, and I still couldn't get used to it. " Ada cannot yet accept Susan as her mother nor can she even admit that she might love Susan. "I wouldn't have told Susan I loved her even if I thought it was true. Words could be dangerous, as destructive as bombs." While Ada can't tell Susan how she feels Susan does tell Ada and Jamie that she loves them.

Lady Thorton and Susan's care of Ada and her brother eventually teach Ada how to love and to trust. Ada doesn't realize how much she loves her until Susan becomes seriously ill with pneumonia. After almost losing her, Ada confesses that she loves her dearly.It isn't until the end of the novel that Ada finally refers to Susan as "Mum".

The War I Finally Won also explores the theme of preconceived views of people. In the first novel, Ada was considered simple and unteachable by others because of what her mother had told others and because of her disability. This humiliated and angered her. In The War I Finally Won, considers the dangers of labelling all people from a certain group on the basis of generalization. In this novel, a young German girl, Ruth comes to stay at Thorton cottage. Lady Thorton refuses to allow Ruth to stay with them, stating "A German is a German is a German." Ada notes "...We saw Germans on the newsreels. They reminded me of Hitler with their cold dark eyes...You could tell by looking at them that they were evil." However she feels that Ruth "...looked normal enough to me." Fortunately, Lady Thorton is overruled by her more open-minded husband. Still Ada is not interested in being friends with Ruth reasoning that "Ruth could absolutely still have a wireless set. Or a bomb."

However, as they live together their views of Ruth change. Ada and Jamie learn that the creators of their favourite fairy tales were the German Brothers Grimm and that Ruth's home of Dresden "is a beautiful city, very cultured..." and that she is very much worried about her grandmother who lives there. Ada realizes that Lady Thorton is judging Ruth by what she knows of Hitler, that the longer she knows Ruth, the more ordinary she seems. Jonathan treats Ruth kindly and through his questions, Ada and the others learn about how Hitler has been treating the German Jews and that it is not a religious problem but one of race.

Ada and Ruth become friends by connecting through their mutual love of horses and riding. Ruth is not allowed to ride the Thorton's horses because she's German but Ada finds a way. This is because she recognizes the pain that Ruth is carrying and she believes "Ruth needed horses." She tells Susan, "Ruth needs horse the way I needed horses...The way Maggie needs them."

Ada comes to understand that she and Ruth are very much alike, both searching for their place in the world. Ruth tells Jamie, "I used to think I was German. I don't belong anywhere anymore..." just as Ada feels she doesn't belong anywhere either. It is during a ride that Ada is finally able to admit to Ruth about her club foot and how it made her mother not love her. When Ada gets into trouble over allowing Ruth to ride, she explains that when she is gifted with Lady Thorton's horse, Oban, Ada gives this horse to Ruth, whom she recognizes as the superior rider and because she knows the riding has helped Ruth in the same way it has healed Ada.

In the end, Susan and Lady Thorton's actions positively influence Ada, leading her to help them. Susan has taken care of Ada and Jamie, showing concern for them in many ways; Ada reciprocates this love by taking Susan to Becky's hometown where she can begin to heal the wounds of the past. Lady Thorton also cared for Ada during Susan's illness by taking Ada to visit her in the hospital and by taking her to the zoo; Ada reciprocates this love by using her saved money to travel to Maggie's school and bring her home when Lady Thorton sinks into a deep depression. "I'd know the right thing to do and I'd done it. I'd helped take care of Lady Thorton the way she'd helped take care of me."

By the end of the novel Ada is beginning to heal and is able to understand some of what has happened to her. For example Ada repeatedly states at the beginning of the novel "You can know things all you like, but that doesn't mean you believe them" Ada has been told and knows that her club foot is not her fault and that she is not to blame for her mother's unhappiness. But it isn't until Jamie points out to Ada that their mother was angry all the time at everything and not just at Ada that she comes to believe this. "It had never been about me. I couldn't breathe.I went to the window and looked out, seeing nothing, gripping the windowsill hard. It hadn't been my fault."

Eventually Ada becomes the girl she longed to be and much more; joyful, able to trust and to love but at the same time recognizing that she will always carry the scars of her previous life. She is on her way to winning her own personal war. "My foot would never be all the way right, but I could walk and climb and run. My feelings might never be all the way right either, but they were healed enough."

Brubaker Bradley has crafted a cast of realistic, memorable characters in The War I Finally Won. The story is driven by many remarkable characters; Ada Smith who is intelligent and resilient, Susan whose own painful past has helped her to understand Ada, Maggie and Ruth who are strong and supportive in spite of their own terrible losses, Lady Thorton whose upper class propriety masks a warm heart and Jonathan whose generous nature leads him to make the ultimate sacrifice. All of the major characters experience their own personal journey, offering lessons in forgiveness, acceptance and trust while the secondary characters help to fill out the story line.

The War I Finally Won will appeal to young teen readers, as well as adults. It also has the possibility to be a great aloud read for teachers. A fitting conclusion to a well-written pair of novels for young readers.

Book Details:

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
New York: Dial Books For Young Readers    2017
85 pp.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Caroline's Comets: A True Story by Emily Arnold McCully

Caroline's Comets is a children's picture book about Caroline Herschel the first woman to discover a comet, the first woman to be paid for her scientific contributions and the first woman to receive the Royal Astronomical Society's Gold Medal!

Caroline was born in 1750 in Hanover, Germany, the eighth child of Isaac and Anna Ilse Herschel and the only surviving girl of the Herschel family.

Caroline's childhood was a challenging one. She caught typhus at age ten. This serious illness stunted Caroline's growth; she grew to be only four feet three inches tall. After recovering from typhus, Caroline caught small pox which left her with facial scars. Because of her physical scars, Caroline's parents believed she would never marry.

While her mother felt Caroline should receive only limited schooling and should be trained domestically, Caroline's father who was a musician, gave her a musical education along with her five brothers. When she was twenty-two, Caroline relocated to Bath, England where her older brother William worked as an organist and conductor. In Bath, Caroline began serious training as a singer. William provided Caroline with the opportunity to perform as a soprano in his concerts.

Eventually William's interest in astronomy led to him leaving his musical career. He had became determined to develop a better, more powerful telescope and his reputation as a telescope maker became well known. Caroline often helped her brother with his observations and she began to learn the mathematics that modern day astronomy is based upon.  She also helped him make his reflective telescopes, in particular  helping with the grinding and polishing of the mirrors. William's work paid off when in 1781, he discovered a new planet, Uranus. It was a discovery that happened mostly by chance but it led to him being offered the new position of royal astronomer by King George III. Eventually Caroline too, quit her musical career to become an assistant to her brother and was paid for this work - the first time a woman received remuneration for work in a field of science.

It was shortly after this that Caroline began to make some serious contributions to the science of astronomy. In 1783 she discovered three new nebulae (clouds of gas and dust that gives birth to stars) and between 1786 and 1797 she discovered eight comets. Caroline Herschel produced a large body of work in the field of astonomy; she began cataloguing star clusters and nebulae, she discovered fourteen comets, she added more than 550 new stars to John Flamsteed's star catalogue, and she was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Two catalogues Caroline Herschel created are still used today by astronomers. Caroline passed away at the age of 98 in 1848.

McCully's Caroline's Comets covers all the details of Caroline Herschel's life and then some. To tell Caroline's story, McCully uses carefully chosen portions of text from the Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel edited by Mrs. John Herschel. As a result, McCully  includes some of the finer details of Caroline's life, making it a more personal and therefore a more interesting account. For example, young readers will learn that it was Caroline's father who introduced the stars, constellations and comets to her at a young age. Caroline's success is yet another example of the importance of fathers in encouraging their daughter's interest in the world around them. McCully's account indicates that Caroline might have ended up as a maid were it not for her father and her brother. William paid for a maid for the family so that Caroline could come to England. Caroline Herschel's life demonstrates that when girls are provided with a good education and the support of their families - that is when they are treated the same as boys-  they are capable of achieving great things!

McCully also includes some interesting facts about William and Caroline's efforts in building better and more powerful telescopes. William and Caroline worked as a team and there was no shortage of accidents as William's telescopes grew in size and power.

Emily Arnold McCully also created the illustrations for her picture book. Her illustrations, rendered with pen, ink and watercolour were reviewed by Dr. Matthew Kadane for accuracy and serve to enhance this fascinating biography. The Note at the back of the book provides a few further interesting facts about Caroline Herschel and a Bibliography, Timeline and Glossary has also been included.

Caroline's Comets is a must-read for any school library, homeschooling family or those interested in sparking the imagination of what's possible and instilling an interest in science in young girls.

Book Details:

Caroline's Comets: A True Story by Emily Arnold McCully
New York: Holiday House

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe by Deborah Blumenthal

Fancy Party Gowns is a story about African American fashion designer Ann Cole Lowe who is probably most remembered for the gorgeous wedding dress she designed for Jacqueline Bouvier's wedding to John F. Kennedy.

Ann Lowe was born in 1898 in Clayton, Alabama. She developed an interest sewing and designing because both her mother and grandmother were seamstresses. She received little schooling in the segregated schools in Alabama but her skill making gowns and fancy dresses was developed under the tutelage of her mother and grandmother.

In 1916 she moved to Florida where she gained a reputation for her gowns among the debutantes in the Tampa area. Springboarding off of this, Ann and her mother moved to New York City where she married. There her mother opened a small dress making shop. When her mother died, Ann finished all the dresses her mother was working on and kept the shop open.

Ann's clientele were high society, including the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts but she was fashion's best kept secret at this time. Jacqueline Bouvier was one of her clients and when she became engaged to marry John F. Kennedy in 1953, her mother, Janet Lee Bouvier employed Ann Lowe to create and sew her wedding dress as well as all the dresses for the entire wedding party! Lowe had designed Bouvier's wedding dress when she married her second husband, Hugh Dudley Auchincloss Jr.

Jaqueline's dress was made of ivory silk tafetta, had a large skirt and what is called a portrait neckline. The dress was partially destroyed along with nine of the bridesmaid's dressses when a pipe burst in her Lextington Avenue shop a little more than a week before the wedding. Ann had to remake these dresses but lost money on the order. She never received credit for the design which won world-wide praise.

Despite income tax issues and some health problems, Ann persisted and opened a boutique in the Saks Fifth Avenue store in 1961. She was awarded the Couturier of the Year in 1961. Ann soon was designing and sewing dresses for numerous high society ladies. She was never interested in dressing the average woman. "I love my clothes and I'm particular about who wears them. I am not interested in sewing for cafe society or social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for the families of the Social Register."

Several of Ann Lowe's gowns are now part of the holdings of the Museum of African American History. Ann Lowe passed away in 1981 at the age of eighty-three.

Fancy Party Gowns captures the essence of the Ann Lowe story. It is a remarkable story because Lowe was African-American and succeeded at a time when racism was still very much in evidence in American society. Blumenthal takes young readers from Ann's childhood in Alabama where she caught the love of sewing from her grandmother and mother to her taking over her mother's shop upon her death to Ann designing and sewing Jacqueline Bouvier's wedding dress. Eventually Ann's achievements were recognized. She received the Official Couturiere

Blumenthal lightly mentions some of the struggles Ann overcame. Although slavery had been abolished in the previous century, racial prejudice against African Americans still dominated much of American life in the early to mid-twentieth century. Ann often encountered this; she experienced the humiliations of segregation, she often did not receive the credit due to her. In spite of this, Ann persisted. She continued to design and sew fancy dresses, elaborate gowns and women loved and wore them.

Accompanying Blumenthal's biography are the bright illustrations of Laura Freeman. Freeman had her sister stand in as a model for some of her illustrations because she noticed that her sister shared the same sort of facial features as Lowe. The colourful illustrations in this picture book were done using photoshop.

Ultimately Fancy Party Gowns is about a young woman persevering to achieve her dream of doing what she loves - designing and sewing beautiful gowns and dresses.

The author has included a note at the back with more information about Ann Lowe and a For Further Reading list that includes books and blog posts about Lowe.

You can see some of Ann Lowe's designs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where five of her dresses are in their collection.

Book Details:

Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe by Deborah Blumenthal
New York: Little Bee Books        2017

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Matylda, Bright and Tender by Holly McGhee

Ten-year-old Susquenhanna Indiana (Sussy) Reed's special friendship with Guy Hose began in kindergarten. Like Sussy, Guy chose the Potato Heads during free play time, instead of the costume closet. It was Guy's idea to connect the Potato Heads together using the ear pieces. Each day thereafter Sussy and Guy built a never-ending potato.

By the end of first grade, Sussy and Guy "were good friends, but not together-all-the-time friends." Sussy's dad called them spaghetti and meatballs because they were always together. One day in the spring of fourth grade, Sussy and Guy invite Sussy's father to play a game of Monopoly with them. During that game, Sussy tells her father that Guy's mother believes that "Everything you need to know about life can be learned from Monopoly." But Sussy believes it doesn't fully teach people about life because "There's no love in this game."  Sussy points out that neither she nor Guy have siblings and that what they need is a pet. Guy suggests they get a leopard gecko, a pet Sussy's mom just might approve of. Guy tells them they are "good beginner reptiles" that can be kept in a tank and Sussy offers to keep the tank in her room.

Convinced, Sussy's father takes them to Total Pets where Guy chooses the largest gecko whose been in the pet store for some time. Guy suggests they name her Matylda, "with a 'y' so it's all her own." They also purchase a fifteen gallon tank and many accessories for the gecko and set it up in Sussy's bedroom. Matylda immediately takes to Guy, walking onto his hand, then up his arm and curling behind his neck. But she won't climb onto Sussy's hand.

With the help of Sussy's father who devises a way to catch live crickets in their backyard, Sussy and Guy are able to feed Matylda. Sussy doesn't like feeding Matylda live crickets and she finds watching her stalk and eat the crickets unsettling. Guy realizes this and tries to make his friend feel better about it.

Sussy and Guy visit Mike at Total Pets to ask where Matylda came from but he doesn't know. Instead he suggests they make up their own story for Matylda. So Guy creates a fantastic narrative about Matylda being a great lizard warrior whose master, the heir to a kingdom, forces her to fight other lizards.Each fight she wins sees her get another black spot on her back. The king promises Matylda if she defeats her fiftieth opponent he will set her free and grant her a wish. Matylda wins the fight, is set free and wishes to be loved. This lands her in the tank at Total Pets and into Sussy's home.

Guy and Sussy go to school together almost every day and have been doing so since third grade. Near the end of fourth grade their class has a project called Make Yourself Known, in which they have to "find a way to show the class something unique about ourselves". Their teacher, Mrs. Bueler agrees to let them bring Matylda, as long as no one touches the gecko. Sussy's father comes to class to help out with Matylda who turns out to be a big hit. Guy feeds Matylda a large cricket, but Sussy still feels upset at seeing the cricket being eaten alive.

One Saturday, Sussy and Guy decide to make a trip to Total Pets for some D3, a trace element that will help Matylda absorb calcium. Sussy suggests that they go by the reservation to see the flowers, so with their helmets on they ride their bikes. However on the corner of Witchett and Elm, an Airedale races out of a house and attacks Sussy on her bike. Guy, as usual, comes to Sussy's rescue, charging the dog. Suddenly a car coming over the hill on Witchett hits Guy who is in the middle of the road, killing him. Ten-year-old Sussy is taken to hospital and learns that her best friend, the boy she loves, it dead.Somehow Sussy must find a way to go on. Believing that caring for Matylda is the only way she can hold on to Guy, Sussy struggles with her pain until finally some poor choices catch up with her but help her to realize losing Guy will always be a part of her. 


Matylda, Bright and Tender is a heartbreaking novel about a young girl trying to find her way through the loss of her best friend. Holly McGhee has written several children's books under a pen name, but Matylda Bright and Tender is her debut novel under her own name. McGhee drew on her own experience of being in a horrific car accident when she was a teenager to write Sussy and Guy's story. She wrote this children's novel as a way to express some of the pain she has carried with her for decades and to turn that pain into something positive.

The novel is primarily a journey about struggling to cope with a terrible loss and to move on. The story is told in first person by ten-year-old Sussy Reed. McGhee immediately establishes that a special friendship exists between Sussy and Guy by having Sussy remember how she came to love Guy in grade one when she was six years old. Guy, concerned that Sussy had left her jacket at home on a cool fall day, races to her house to retrieve it before the bus arrives. From that point on Sussy loved Guy. This act foreshadows both their blossoming friendship and the accident. It is Guy's care of Sussy that will create the bond of friendship but his concern for Sussy that marks their friendship will also be deadly.

When Guy dies in a car accident Sussy is emotionally shattered. She struggles to accept what has happened, that a car "...killed the one person in the world who meant more to me than anybody else." From the beginning there are signs that Sussy is not coping well with her friend's death. Once home from the hospital, Sussy demands to have the clothes she was wearing at the time of the accident; a sunflower shirt which Sussy calls "The Dying Day" shirt and a fire-engine-red pair of capris which have been repaired by her mother. Sussy wears this outfit for weeks, refusing to let her wash them. Eventually her mother, concerned about Sussy, buys her new clothing. Sussy only changes because some of the new clothing remind her of Guy.

Sussy understandably remains focused on Guy in the days following his death. "...and I lay in my bed and I wanted to go to the boy I loved. I wanted to go to Guy, to follow the path of my friend." At his funeral service though, Sussy believes she hears and sees Guy speak to her from his coffin. She believes she sees Guy, in his orange polo shirt and familiar jeans asking her  to promise to love Matylda enough for both of them. Sussy promises because "I had to love Matylda like he did. Enough for us both. She was all I had left of him. I had to do everything right. If I did everything right, I could hold on to Guy."

Sadly this puts so much pressure on Sussy that she begins to make choices that are not good. She struggles to figure out how she can love Matylda the way Guy did. When Matylda appears to stop eating, Sussy creates a project to find the most delicious crickets for her. They decide to try different fruits in the cricket traps. While her father gets the other items on their list, Sussy shops for the cricket bait in the produce section. However, she quickly  begins acting out, screaming the names of the fruits and kicking the cart around. Shoppers stare at her while inside Sussy feels tremendous anger towards Guy; "I was furious at Guy then, furious that he'd asked me to love the lizard like he did when I didn't know how...Furious that Matylda didn't love me, that she wouldn't even come to my hand, wouldn't eat my crickets...Furious I loved him so much."

Determined to make Matylda love her, Sussy decides to go to Total Pets to get some D3 powder. Mike suggests Sussy try feeding her lizard worms, but when he gets busy with a customer, Sussy's decides to steal tubs of worms. "And I heard, Sure you can --it's okay. Show her your love: bring her worms. Guy would want you to. He'd want her to have the worms." Sussy knows stealing is wrong because she hides the tubs in her closet and she tells Matylda it will be their secret. However, Sussy doesn't stop there and a week later steals a tree for Matylda's vivarium. "And as I watched her , looking glorious there under the tree I stole for her, I felt I was keeping my promise to Guy, loving her as much as he did. Doing just that. Sussy the Promise Keeper." 

When the time comes to return to school, it is one of many firsts that Sussy will do without Guy. Over the summer there has the first summer without Guy, and the first trip to Long Beach without him too. Sussy finally admits to her mother, "I don't know how to go without him...I miss him so much." But Sussy gets through her first walk to school without Guy, her first lunch and her first day without him. However, in her excitement over the first day of school, Sussy forgets about Matylda. Horrified and believing that this demonstrates she doesn't love Matylda enough, Sussy steals again from Total Pets but this time Mike tells her he knows what she's doing. Sussy flees the store and in a rage of anger against Guy for demanding she love Matylda the way he did, Sussy almost kills Matylda.

In this crisis she realizes two things; first that what happened to Guy will always be a part of her. "I got it--I was always going to be on Witchett somehow, was always gonna hear that crash--loud or quiet I'd hear it. I was supposed to hear it; it was part of me. Okay, dying day, you can stay." Secondly, she realizes that she does love Matylda in her own way. Matylda, who lost her tail when Sussy became enraged, has lost a part of herself just as Sussy lost a part of herself when Guy died. Sussy believes that Matlyda "...understood that I had to almost lose her to know how much I loved her" in the same way that Sussy realized how much she loved Guy only after he was killed in the accident.

Matylda, Bright and Tender is a poignant story about loss, forgiveness and acceptance, about healing from the deepest of hurts. Guy's death is heartbreaking, more so because McGhee really establishes the deep friendship that exists between Guy and Sussy at the beginning of the novel and because Guy is so full of concern for Sussy. Mature readers will wonder at the "what could have been..." for these two young people. Thankfully the novel's ending is both hopeful and satisfying. My only criticism is that it would be very likely today that a young girl like Sussy would be encouraged to receive some sort of counselling to help her process the death of her dearest friend, yet there is no mention of this ever being considered by Sussy's parents.

McGhee's family owns several leopard geckos and the traps she writes about in Matylda, Bright and Tender were actually designed by her husband.

Matylda, Bright and Tender is a short, but excellent novel, well written, with a simple but engaging cover that will appeal to young readers, teachers and book clubs. I look forward to reading more of McGhee's work.

Book Details:

Matylda, Bright and Tender by Holly McGhee
Berryville, VA: Candlewick Press              2017
210 pp.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Secret History of Us by Jessi Kirby

Olivia (Liv) Jordan struggles to awaken after being kept sedated for eight days. Her parents reveal that she's been in a car accident, that her car was hit by another driver and sent plunging over the Carson Bridge into the Bay. She has been medicated the past eight days so she could heal. She learns she has four broken ribs and has had a breathing tube so that her lungs could heal. Olivia tries to remember what happened but isn't able to bring forth any memories.

After her parents leave, Liv manages to get out of bed and reads some of the cards accompanying the many bouquets of flowers she's received. One if from Dana Whitmore of KBSY Action News that mentions having spoken with Matt and Walker and expressing interest in interviewing the three of them together. Olivia has no idea who Matt or Walker are.

The next morning Olivia is visited by her friend Paige whom she remembers as being much younger looking. She also meets Matt who she learns is her boyfriend. Matt whose arm is in a sling, was also involved in the accident. He apologizes for not being able to get her out of the car and tells her he loves her. But Liv can only tell Matt and Paige that she doesn't know him.

After telling her mom about not knowing Matt, Dr. Tate is called. He does extensive tests and based on the questions asked, he tells Liv and her parents that she "is experiencing post-traumatic retrograde amnesia", which could be due to the lack of oxygen her brain experienced or the blow to the head when she was pulled into the boat. Liv doesn't remember anything after the summer before her freshman year. Memories about school, volleyball, birthdays, dances, summers spent working at the marina and dating Matt are gone. Dr. Tate tells them this could be permanent or some or all of her memories may return over time. He recommends Liv be discharged so she can return to her routine and her life.

But returning to her routine proves difficult for Liv. At home she makes a series of "discoveries" about her life; she was intimate with Matt, her room looks nothing like she remembers because it was redecorated two years earlier, she has worked the past three summers with her brother Sam at the Fuel Depot taking food orders and delivering food to boats. Dinner reveals that Liv became vegetarian.

Liv encounters reluctance from both Sam and her parents when she questions them about who pulled her from the submerged car. They are vague about Walker James, telling her only that he lives on one of the old boats at the marina and that he saw her car go off the bridge, took a fishing boat to help and pulled her out of the car. It was Walker who did CPR. When Liv expresses the desire to meet and thank him, her father deflects her, telling Liv she needs to work on recovering. She learns a video of her rescue exists and was shown on the news. Upset that her parents withheld this information, Liv goes to her bedroom. There she immediately searches the video, watching it multiple times, hoping to feel something. What she does feel is the desire to at least thank Walker James and maybe to get to know this mysterious person.

The next day, while left alone at home, Liv begins by looking through family albums. Sure enough she  has no memories of the beginning of grade nine. She finds pictures of her friends Paige and Jules, and then Jules seems to vanish from her life and Matt appears. Walker James is also in her freshman year but then never appears again. Liv is determined to recapture her memories and believes that stepping back into her life will accomplish that. But as Liv discovers, no matter how hard we try, we can never go back, only forward.


Jessi Kirby has written another appealing novel, this time focusing on a girl attempting to recover her the life she can't remember. After her car accident, Olivia can't remember anything after the start of grade nine. She doesn't even recognize herself in the mirror. "The girl in the mirror blinks when I blink. She brings her hand to her face when I do. She even shakes her head at the same time I do. But I don't know this girl in the mirror. I don't know her at all." 

The missing four years of her life are devastating to Olivia. "I'm missing the pieces that make up the picture in the middle. The pieces of who I am now. Today I learned that I'm eighteen years old, but the last birthday I can remember celebrating is my fourteenth."

When she returns home, Olivia tries to behave like she remembers her past, like she normally would but nothing feels normal to her. Her first dinner is especially difficult because her not remembering she is vegetarian unsettles everyone. "I watch everyone carefully, trying to make sure I don't do anything I usually wouldn't do, or eat anything I no longer eat. I'm relieved when no one corrects the generous scoop of guacamole I put over the veggie crumbles to make them edible."

At first Olivia tries desperately to remember her past and to slip into her normal routine. The first morning at home when she admits she hasn't remembered anything, Olivia tells her mother, " 'Nothing that I don't already remember from before,' I answer, feeling the failure in my response." Olivia's search through family albums leads her to understand just how much she's lost. "But as I sit here looking over years of my life that I don't remember, it starts to hit me what I've really lost. A photo takes a fraction of a second to snap...What about all the unrecorded moments? All the thoughts and feelings...Things I dreamed of, and secrets I kept. These are the things that make up who we are, and these are the things I'm worried I won't get back." Olivia decides "I'll step right back into my life, like it was before. And when I don't know what it was like, I'll find out." 

To do that she enlists the help of her best friend Paige who fills her in, especially on her relationship with Matt Turner. Although Paige paints them as the perfect couple, Olivia feels nothing. "Being told the story of something is not the same as experiencing it, no matter how touching or detailed it is. And now all I can think is that our perfect love story might already be over if I can't ever remember what happened for myself." But as Olivia seeks out information about her past, she begins to feel increasingly troubled. "I've quickly become used to not knowing things for myself, and to taking everyone else's word for it, but this bothers me. It doesn't feel right, and I want to figure out why."

Olivia soon realizes that her parents and her friends are not telling her the whole truth about her life, that certain things are being left out. This makes her angry and confused. She discovers that Sam, Paige and her parents have left things out, seemingly to protect her.

As Olivia's attempt to restart her relationship with Matt fails, she begins to realize that maybe even her friends didn't know the real her, that she's kept secrets from them. Olivia explains her struggle to her parents who like everyone else want her to be normal. "Everyone wants me to just got back to normal, and I'm trying, I really am, but I don't even know what that is...And people keep trying to tell me what to do, and I know they're trying to help, but what if they don't even know who I was?...What if I was the only one who really knew who I was before? Where does that leave me now that it's all gone?"

Olivia's mother and father both have advice for her which she takes to heart. Her mother tells her, "You're not empty. The things that make up who you are? They're still there. They didn't go away just because you can't remember them. They're in you. So you just need to trust your gut. Really listen for what you think and feel. That's you." Olivia's father encourages her to "go with what seems right to you, not what you think you should be doing because it's what you've been told. You're allowed to change..."  This advice is freeing to Olivia because it feels "like they just somehow gave me permission to be more okay with who I am right now."

This allows Olivia to follow her father's advice of focusing not on the past but on the now. Olivia's journey to recover her life is redirected to begin living her life in the present. Olivia symbolically begins this new journey when she erases all the writings from the past two years off her chalkboard wall in her room. But Olivia really begins it when she uncovers some of the mystery of her past life; that she was involved with Walker James, that they had a relationship and that her relationship with Matt was ending. The proof for her is in her award winning photo essay, titled The Secret History of Us which was submitted by Walker, because she missed the deadline due to her accident, about her working with Walker on restoring his old boat. The photos, taken by Olivia capture the feelings she had with Walker and feel real to her. Because of that, Olivia decides that this is the relationship that has meaning for her now.

The amnesia trope has been done quite a lot in teen fiction and usually leads to the main character uncovering some secret about themselves that none of the other characters know. Readers will therefore, quickly suspect that Olivia has some sort of secret relationship with Walker, the mysterious, brooding guy who saved her, but this doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the novel.

The Secret History of Us is unique in young adult fiction in that it is filled with many positive characters; Olivia's father is a policeman and her parents are supportive and caring, older brother Sam is humorous and sweet, and Paige is a faithful friend who really tries to help Olivia.

Kirby is a master at describing rather than telling. Kirby opens The Secret History of Us by describing the sensations Olivia is experiencing rather than telling us where she is, and it is this entire descriptive chapter that leads the reader to understand she is both in a hospital and struggling to regain consciousness.

It's a voice that's familiar. Warm in a way that makes me want to keep hearing it. Comforting, but I can't place it. I search. Through the water or the fog -- I can't tell which because it's everywhere, all around me.
But I know this voice. I know her.
I grasp at the word, reach for something to pair it with. A name...a face...something, anything, but I come up empty, except for that familiar feeling."

The Secret History of Us is filled with imagery that reflects the sense of loss that Olivia feels and suggests second chances; the  medal of St. Anthony, the patron saint of finding things that are lost,  given to Olivia by Jules and "found" by Walker represents Olivia's struggle to recover her lost past , the slightly broken sand dollar that she finds on the beach - "this thing that's been tossed by the ocean, and broken enough to lose part of itself, but that's still intact, and strong.", the boat whose name is Second Chance which belongs to Walker and suggests their blossoming relationship - interrupted by Olivia's accident will get a second chance.

Fans of contemporary fiction will enjoy The Secret History of Us which is a light read.  As usual Kirby has another gem to her credit. One bone to pick: HarperCollins should take greater care with proofing as there is a typo in the second sentence of the very first chapter.

Book Details:

The Secret History of Us by Jessi Kirby
New York: HarperCollins Publishers    2017
276 pp.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild

The Treasure Box is a sensitive portrayal of the effects of war through the medium of a picture book. The opening line sets the tone of this story immediately.
"When the enemy bombed the library, everything burned." War wrecks havoc upon the culture of a nation, destroying memory and tradition. But sometimes there are ways to protect and remember that culture.

After the bombing, People catch the charred paper that floats to the ground, all that remains of the books that once populated their library. But one book survives-the book Peter's father has signed out from their library. In an act of war Peter and his father, along with others in their village, are ordered to leave and their homes are burned.

To preserve this favourite book, Peter's father places it into an iron box and carries it as they walk from town to town. But the harsh journey soon takes its toll and Peter's father sickens and dies. Peter promises to keep safe their treasure, the book in the iron box. However, the iron box soon becomes too heavy for Peter to carry so he makes the decision to bury the box beneath a tall linden tree at the edge of the last village. Years later Peter returns to search for the iron box and its precious contents.

This simple yet evocative story captures the effects of war, the plight of refugees, and the loneliness and loss children experience in wartime through the subdued artwork of Freya Blackwood and Margaret Wild's sparse text.  At the beginning of the story, Blackwoods illustrations are in muted browns, greys, blues and ochre representing the devastation of war. Only the precious book, representing the hope of peace and the future, is coloured red. But when Peter returns to the village as an adult, in peacetime, the Blackwood fills her illustrations with the bright colours of orange, red, and greens. Australian illustrator, Blackwood, worked as a special effects artist on the Lord of the Rings movies (she worked on the hobbit's feet) but is also a prize-winning illustrator of children's books. She was awarded the Kate Greenaway Medal for distinguished illustration in a children's book for Harry and Hopper published in 2010.

The illustrations for The Treasure Box are rendered in pencil and watercolor and are a mixture of collage and paper cutouts. Blackwood used the text from the foreign editions of The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett and of Once and Then by Morris Gleitzman. This gives a unique look to the story book.

Book Details:

The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press    2013

Thursday, December 7, 2017

It All Comes Down To This by Karen English

It All Comes Down To This is a story set in the summer of 1965 in Los Angeles. Sophia LaBranche is a twelve-year-old black girl who lives with her older sister Lily and her father who is a lawyer and her mother who is the director of an art gallery. Their family moved to Montego Drive in the spring. Sophie's family were the first colored family on their block; they were ignored by everyone. But a week after they moved in, Jennifer Abbott knocked on the LaBranche's door, asking to meet Sophie. Despite the fact that Jennifer is a white girl, she and Sophie discovered that they had a lot in common; they both skipped a grade and would soon be thirteen going into grade nine, they loved the Beatles, and they loved to read.

However Sophie begins to discover that life is uncertain for a person of color in their new neighbourhood, something her family's new housekeeper reminds her. Sophie's sister, Lily decides she will apply to work at Marcia Stevens, a boutique store, despite Sophie's skepticism because she's never seen any colored people working at the store. Lily tells her they don't actually know if they won't hired colored.

Sophie tells Lily her own experience a few days prior. Her new friend Jennifer wanted to to swimming at the Baker family's pool. The Bakers are a white family with three girls; Marcy, Deidre, and Jilly. However, when Jennifer and Sophie arrive at the Baker's, Jennifer is told she may swim, but Sophie cannot. Although Sophie encourages Jennifer to stay and swim, she refuses. Instead Jennifer tells the Baker girls they are prejudiced and she and Sophie leave.

As the summer progresses Sophie's life becomes more and more complicated. One afternoon while exploring her father's study, she finds a suspicious letter from an unknown woman, Paula Morrisy. She doesn't read the unopened letter but suspects that her father might be involved with another woman. This is confirmed later while out with Jennifer and her mother, Sophie sees her father in a small coffee shop with another woman, holding hands. Sophie is convinced this woman is Paula.

Sophie and Jennifer discover that the community center will be hosting a play called That Talk. Sophie is determined to win the part of Olivia, while Jennifer wants the part of the villian, Julie. They get copies of the script and begin studying their lines for the audition later in the summer.

Meanwhile, Sophie's older sister becomes involved with Nathan Baylor, Mrs. Baylor's son, against the wishes of her mother who believes she is just "toying" with him. However Lily disregards her mother's warning and begins to date Nathan.

Then Sophie's summer is shattered when her mother walks out on her father. This is precipitated by her father's mistress calling their home and her mother discovering a credit card charge for a motel room. Sophie's mother tells her and Lily she is going to stay with Aunt Rose in Elsinore.

Sophie must cope with the stress of her parents marriage crisis, her sister's difficult relationship with Nathan, racial prejudice from her neighbours and community and the rebellion in Watts. It is a summer that forever changes Sophie's perception of her identity.


It All Comes Down To This is a novel that brilliantly captures the undercurrent of racial tension between blacks and whites in suburban Los Angeles in the mid-1960's. It is a summer where twelve-year-old Sophie LaBranche comes to the realization that the world is a different place for people who are dark-skinned. Her family is the first "colored family" on their block, suggesting that the neighbourhood is undergoing a gradual change, becoming integrated. The fact that they are ignored and not welcomed suggests that people are not happy to see a black family move in.

English sets the tone of what it was like in 1965 Los Angeles to be a young black girl growing up in a predominantly white community by capturing what Sophie calls "a sneaky kind of hate", small, covert incidents of racial prejudice. This happens when Sophie goes to lunch at Sutton's with Jennifer and her mother after shopping. After their meal when Sophie and Jennifer choose a glitter pen from the restaurant's treasure chest, the hostess accuses Sophie of  taking an extra prize. The hostess tells Mrs. Abbott  who questions why her on why she thinks Sophie stole a pen,
" 'Well,' she said with a smile, as if she and Mrs. Abbott were secret friends, 'You know how they are. They'll steal at the drop of a pin.' " This makes Mrs. Abbott furious.

Sophie discovers an old Jet magazine from 1955 and reads about the horrific murder of Emmett Till by two white men in Mississippi. Sophie is completely overwhelmed by what she reads and attempts to understand this senseless crime. " We didn't live in Mississippi but hate was under the surface everywhere. Wasn't it? Even if it was a sneaky kind of hate. It made people look at me and automatically think they were superior. It made them think I was a thief or maybe I'd do something to their swimming pool."

In Los Angeles in the 1960's it was very common for black men to be pulled over by the police and questioned and patted down. This happens to Lily's boyfriend Nathan in an incident that is both scary and humiliating for him, Lily and Sophie. After checking his identification, patting  him down, handcuffing him and forcing him to sit on the curb, the officer questions Lily, "Just what are you doing with that nigger?" and who Sophie is. They are allowed to leave when Lily who is light-skinned tells the officer Sophie is her sister and that Nathan is NOT a nigger.

Sophie experiences more discrimination when she pays a visit to the community center and finds herself accused of stealing someone's wallet - a wallet that has been missing for some time. Sophie wishes that her friend Jennifer was with her because as a white person she could vouch for Sophie. An unsettling realization begins to dawn on Sophie: "Something really unsettling crossed my mind, then. What if I had to go through this for the rest of my lie? Always, people looking at me -- with suspicion." Sophie recounts to Nathan what happened at the community center and expresses her worry that the woman who accused her of stealing will likely be one of the judges for the auditions. "...she's going to think I'm a thief and not let them pick me." Nathan encourages her to audition anyway. "Always just do things like that anyway."

When the audition goes as Sophie feared - she is never considered a serious candidate - she is discouraged but Mrs. Baylor encourages her to persevere,  "You gonna have to develop a thick skin and don't let nothin' stop you. YOu keep on pushing and you keep on tryin' and you'll get what you workin' for." In a chapter titled It All Comes Down To This, Sophie realizes all her hard work, memorizing ALL the parts of the play, doesn't matter, because only the colour of her skin mattered.

The turning point of the novel is the Watts Rebellion which begins when a young black motorist, Marquette Frye is pulled over by a white police officer for driving while intoxicated. The growing number of spectators in the predominantly black neighbourhood believe that this is yet another incident of racial prejudice and they begin to fight and scuffle with police. Years of frustration over inadequate city services, poor housing conditions and racism boil over.

This incident, the tumultuous relationship between Lily and Nathan, the arrest of Nathan by the police, her parents' marriage crisis and the pain Sophie experiences over her only friend Jennifer becoming friends with Linda Cruz whose family is prejudiced towards blacks, leads Sophie to realize she is "going to go through a rough lonely patch."

Despite everything, Sophie begins to discover an inner strength. Angry that the television coverage by white people is placing the blame on the black citizens of Watts, that assumptions are made about her by people like Jilly and Deidre Baker, Sophie begins to stand up for herself and in doing so, realizes that she can take care of herself. And things do begin to work out for her; she meets a new girl, Charlotte who is thirteen and like Sophie, new to their school, her father returns home, and Nathan and Lily seem to have worked out some kind of compromise. She learns from Lily's experience with Nathan that "You can't force something to happen. If it's meant to happen,

In what could have been a harsh and heavy subject for a middle grade novel, English is gentle in her portrayal, never getting too dark, yet offering her young readers the opportunity to think a bit deeper on the events she portrays. Besides the characteristic racism Sophie experiences and the Watts Rebellion, there are other aspects to explore. For example, English touches on the colorism that existed within the black community. Sophie's mother doesn't like Lily dating Nathan, because he is dark skinned. Lily is furious because Nathan is attending Berkeley and is a responsible, hard-working person. Sophie recognizes that they have their own prejudice within the black community against darker skinned people. She attempts to explain this to her friend Jennifer. "I didn't want to tell Jennifer the other reason. It felt shameful and embarrassing -- something white people wouldn't understand. But I blurted it out anyway. 'He's dark skinned.' ...It's hard to explain.' It was the kind of thing nobody talked about openly. It felt like I was letting her in on a secret. 'See light-skinned colored people almost always marry light-skinned colored people on purpose. So they'll have light-skinned kids.' "

It All Comes Down To This
is a touching story about one girl's struggle to understand the world around her and her place in it. It is historical fiction that provides some background to those interested in the American Civil Rights movement. English drew from her own personal experiences to pen this engaging story.

For more information on the Watts Rebellion of 1965, check out the Civil Rights Digital Library website.

Book Details:

It All Comes Down To This by Karen English
New York: Clarion Books 2017
355 pp.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became The World's Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating

This beautiful picture book tells the story of a young girl named Eugenie Clark who was so fascinated by sharks and that she devoted her life to learning more about them. Eugenie was born in 1922 at a time when a career in science was not considered a reasonable choice for a lady. Eugenie's love affair with sharks began with a trip to the Battery Park Aquarium one Saturday afternoon.

Life was challenging for the young Eugenie. Her father died when she was only two years old. Because she was of Japanese-American heritage; her father was American, her mother Japanese, Eugenie sometimes experienced bullying and racism. However, Eugenie used these difficult experiences to forge a determined spirit that was to help her in her studies in the male dominated science disciplines.

Eugenie Clark
Fascinated by the underwater world of the oceans, Eugenie continued to visit the aquarium every weekend, to learn as much as she could about the fish she saw in the tanks. When Eugenie informed her parents that she wanted to become an explorer like William Beebe, a famous naturalist and marine biologist, her parents suggested she consider working for someone like Beebe as a secretary.

Undaunted, Eugenie attended Hunter College where she received a Bachelor of Arts in Zoology. Eugenie was able to undertake post graduate studies at New York University after being refused entry to Columbia. The department head refused her application fearing she would leave her research to raise a family. Dr. CharlesBreder Jr., a renowned ichthyologist guided Eugenie's research at New York University. In 1950, Eugenie earned her Ph.D for her research on platies and swordtails.

Not only was Eugenie determined but she showed courage too. On her first dive when she was a research assistant at Scripps Institute of Oceanography Eugenie used a helmet and face mask. During the dive,  a diving hose ruptured. Unable to breathe, Eugenie removed the helmet and surfaced. Despite this frightening experience, Eugenie did a second dive shortly after and many more. In fact, diving became a part of her work as a scientist and when scuba gear was invented, Eugenie used it for her dives.

Eugenie helped to found the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in Placida, Florida in 1955. It moved several times; to Siesta Key and Sarasota. In 1967, it was renamed the Mote Marine Laboratory.

Eugenie became interested in studying sharks after receiving a request from a cancer researcher to capture sharks for a study. With the construction of a live shark pen, Eugenie had access to sharks and surprisingly she was able to train them to push a button for food. This countered the belief at the time that sharks were mindless monsters of the ocean, intent on seeking out food only. Eventually Eugenie became more and more interested in sharks, studying them in the wild, and advocating for their protection.

Eventually Eugenie joined the faculty at the University of Maryland and became a full professor in 1973. Eugenie made several interesting discoveries in her research. She discovered a that a type of flatfish named the Red Sea Moses sole secretes a substance that repels sharks. On a dive into caves in Mexico to investigate sharks who lay motionless, Eugenie theorized that they do so to shed parasites. Eugenie and her team also discovered that whale sharks live birth to live young. 

Jess Keating and Marta Alvarez Miguens have crafted a delightful picture book that tells Eugenie's life story. Miguens colourful illustrations, done using Adobe Photoshop capture in an imaginative way, Eugenie Clark's intense interest in life in the oceans. There is a section at the back, titled Shark Bites that offers unusual facts about sharks and a colourful time line of Eugenie's life, highlighting her major accomplishments. In her Author's Note, Keating indicates that she wanted to tell Eugenie Clark's story because of her determination to follow her childhood dream of becoming a scientist. Eugenie did not let anyone or anything deter her.

Book Details:

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became The World's Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating

Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky   2017