Category Archive:Children’s Fiction

The Memory Thief by Bryce Moore.

Benji and Kelly are fraternal twins whose parents are always arguing and on the edge of divorce. When Benji meets an old man who tells him that it is possible, although perhaps not wise, to steal people’s memories, and even give them to other people, Benji is determined to make his parents reconcile by removing their memories of why they hate each other. Memory theft, and memory sharing, and memory replacement all turn out to be more complicated and dangerous than Benji could have imagined, and when an evil Memory Thief turns up in Benji’s hometown and starts stealing people’s memories and making them into soulless, empty near-zombies, Benji has to bring his parents back together, learn to use his new memory manipulation skills for good, and stop the evil Genevieve.

Both the narration, by Benji, and the dialog, were awkward at times, with the narrator and the speakers using words and phrases that were too formal or too “writerly” for normal, everyday speech. Either this awkwardness got better as the story progressed, or I began to be able to ignore it. This story is also quite dark. Benji’s parents are very angry and bitter, and for a brief spell, Benji takes all of their angry memories into his own mind, causing him to be enraged and somewhat violent with those around him. At another point in the story Benji experiences a memory theft-induced despair that makes him sit in a stupor and tell himself that life is not worth living. In the end, Benji is not able to fix his family, but he does come to a resolution that might turn things around for them. And Benji himself is quite a hero throughout the story. This novel would give readers a lot to think about or talk about while providing a satisfying and absorbing time travel-ish adventure.

The First Last Day by Dorian Cirrone.
Instead of being stuck in Groundhog Day, Haleigh Adams gets to repeat the last day of summer over and over with the ehelp of some magical paints and after she wishes for a “mulligan” on that last evening. At first, she thinks that reliving that last day of summer is great, especially since her friend Kevin’s G-mags had a stroke at the end of that very day. But when Haleigh wakes up every morning, it’s August 26th all over agin, and G-mags is fine, at least until nighttime.

But Haleigh finds that living the same day over and over, even if it does short circuit the bad things that are starting to go wrong, even if it does “save G-mags’ life, also stops the good things from coming to fruition. Haleigh’s mom may never be able to have a baby sister or brother to add to Haleigh’s family. Haleigh herself may never find out whether friendships can last after summer vacation. And even G-mags doesn’t really want time to stop. So how can Haleigh make time start moving again?

This one is written on a little bit simpler level than The Memory Thief or Time Traveling With a Hamster, and it’s not quite as dark as either of those books. However, the death of a loved friend or family member is a theme as well as Haleigh’s struggles over whether or not to deceive people in pursuit of a time re-start and her questions about how to sustain a friendship through time. It’s a good third to fifth grade read.

Time Traveling With a Hamster by Ross Welford.

“The word Geordie refers both to a native of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and to the speech of the inhabitants of that city. There are several theories about the exact origins of the term Geordie, but all agree it derives from the local pet name for George. It is sometimes mistakenly used to refer to the speech of the whole of the North East of England. Strictly speaking, however, Geordie should only refer to the speech of the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the surrounding urban area of Tyneside.” ~British Library

Al Chaudhury, the protagonist and time traveller in this British import, keeps talking about his grandfather Byron’s “Geordie” accent and “Geordie” dialect. I had never heard this term before, and I thought since Al himself was British , but of Indian descent, that it had to do with Anglo-Indian speech or accents. But it turns out that Geordie-speak just refers to the speech of people form a very specific locality, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. So I learned something.

Al’s story, my favorite of the three books featured in this post, is again about memory and time travel. On his twelfth birthday, Al receives two gifts: a hamster and a letter from his deceased dad. The letter informs Al that it might be possible for him to use his dad’s time machine to go back in time and prevent his father’s death. Unfortunately, it’s not easy for Al to even get to the place where his dad’s time machine is waiting, not to mention the difficulty of manipulating past events to change the future.

Al must do a lot of things that are wrong—breaking and entering, stealing, lying, arson–to make things “right” in the past and save his dad’s life. He, of course, tells himself that he is doing wrong in order to accomplish a greater good. This end-justifies-the-means is a theme in all of these books. Is it OK to lie, cheat, steal, manipulate other people’s minds and memories in order to achieve a greater good or save someone’s life or make things right after you have messed them up with your original magical manipulations? I would say that all three stories come to much the same conclusion: no, it’s not okay. But Time Traveling With a Hamster is the most ambiguous of the three since Al is actually able to change the past and make things better for himself and his family. And that ability to change the past and the future makes this quote from Grandpa Byron, found near the beginning of the story, rather poignant:

“Life, Al, is such a wonderful gift that we should open our minds to every possible moment and cherish the memory of those moments. Because people change. Places change. Everything changes, but our memories do not. Accept life the way it is, Al. That’s the way to be happy.”

But Al doesn’t accept his father’s death, and in the end, he manages to make everyone happy. Sort of. Time Traveling With a Hamster is strong, well-plotted time travel novel, with an ethnic Indian/British (Punjabi) setting that gives the novel a distinctive flavor. This novel for middle grade readers unfortunately includes some profanity and one unnecessary reference to a teenage character’s virginity or lack thereof.

Juliana, the protagonist of the novel The Striped Ships by Eloise McGraw, is exiled from her comfortable home in Winchester by the coming of the Norman invaders to Saxon England. On the morning after St. Nicholas’ Day, she is sleeping in the priory almshouse when she is awakened by bells:

“She was awakened by St. Savior’s bell, loud and close across the road, ringing, she thought at first, for nocturns. But it was, too wild, too loud, too erratic—as if the ringer had tugged hard and frantically, then fled—and there was a growing hubbub of voices outside, in the lane. Around her, others were rousing, scrambling up to cluster around the unshuttered window—and beyond their heads, beyond the black silhouette of the priory walls, she saw the red glow lighting the skies.

There was a fire—a big fire—in the monastery, it might be in St. Savior’s itself. She stumbled to her feet, pushed her way out of the house. She reached the lane just as the bell ceased, and the north tower, which she could see now bathed in flames, above the dark wall, collapsed, with a terrifying, fluttering roar and a final jangle of noise. Wild with panic for Wulfric, she ran, heedless, for the main gate, found the gatehouse aflame, and turned back to run the other way, to the small gate by the cellarer’s storehouse, which stood open, with figures crowding out through it, hampering her as she struggled past. Inside the walls, monks, guests, novices, schoolboys, ran in every direction, black shapes against the garish sky.”

This episode in Canterbury’s history did happen:

The cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1067, a year after the Norman Conquest. Rebuilding began in 1070 under the first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc (1070–77). He cleared the ruins and reconstructed the cathedral to a design based closely on that of the Abbey of St. Etienne in Caen, where he had previously been abbot, using stone brought from France. The new church, its central axis about 5m south of that of its predecessor, was a cruciform building, with an aisled nave of nine bays, a pair of towers at the west end, aiseless transepts with apsidal chapels, a low crossing tower, and a short choir ending in three apses. It was dedicated in 1077. Wikipedia, Canterbury Cathedral

Eloise Jarvis McGraw was a prolific author of children’s fiction, often historical fiction, including The Golden Goblet, Mara Daughter of the Nile, Moccasin Trail, The Seventeenth Swap, and many others. Her books are full of vivid, rounded characters and rich historical details that make the stories she tells come alive. My children especially enjoyed Moccasin Trail when I read it aloud to them many years ago, and I plan to read this medieval tale featuring William the Conqueror and the Bayeux Tapestry, Striped Ships, as soon as I can.

There was a brief time when I was young that I went through a reading binge of Indian captive narratives. These stories, both fictional and nonfiction, were quite popular back in the day. Nonfiction narrative memoirs of people, usually girls, who were captured by Indians and later escaped or were rescued, were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular. And fiction novels for children, sometimes based on the earlier nonfiction memoirs, were popular in the mid-twentieth century. These kinds of stories came to be regarded with suspicion and even disdain, since the descriptions of Native Americans and Native American culture are all from a European American point of view. The Native Americans in these stories are alien, strange, and often cruel and ignorant.

All that to say, K.A. Holt’s Red Moon Rising reads like an Indian captivity novel, but the “Indians” are the Cheese, natives of a moon that Rae Darling and her frontier farming family have colonized. The Cheese are foreign, cruel, and ugly in the eyes of the colonists. Rae and her family are tradition-bound, conservative, and blind to the possibility of peace and understanding between themselves and the Cheese. The Cheese capture Rae and adopt her into their “tribe”, and Rae must decide whether to remain loyal to the colonists or to became a part of the Cheese, whose culture is in many ways freer and more indigenous and friendly to the Red Moon than Rae’s colonist culture.

It’s interesting to think that perhaps Ms. Holt wanted to write an Indian captivity novel and deal with all the issues of cross-cultural understanding and misunderstanding inherent in that plot, but instead of doing the onerous research that writing about a particular Native American culture and place would involve, she was able to simply make up a people and a culture, the Cheese, and impose on them whatever characteristics and morals were most convenient for her narrative. Did she do a good job of world-building and of showing the difficulties and advantages of crossing from one culture to another? For the most part, yes, although Rae certainly has an easier time accepting some things, like forced training in fighting and war, and a harder time accepting others, like native Cheese boots, than I would think she might.

Despite the criticisms of these Indian, or Native American, captivity narratives and novels, I think that stories like these can serve as a bridge to help children (and adults) understand and see the virtues as well as the drawbacks in other cultures. And a science fiction/fantasy story like Red Moon Rising can be even more helpful in giving readers a way to “see both sides” and reserve judgment, since elements of the story can easily be generalized and applied to many different cultural encounters and confrontations.

Despite the sometimes heavy-handed emphasis on female empowerment and religious stereotypes, Red Moon Rising is a good adventure story with some thought-provoking themes. By the way, warning, the book is quite heavy on the violence, blood, and gore, too, so more sensitive readers beware. And, for the sake of comparison, here are some of those captivity narratives and novels that I enjoyed as a young teen and a few that have been published since then:

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison by Lois Lenski.
The Ransom of Mercy Carter by Caroline B. Cooney.
Valiant Captive by Erick Berry.
Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare.
The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter.
Where the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker by Carolyn Meyer.
White Captives by Evelyn Sibley Lampman.
Wait For Me, Watch For Me, Eula Bee by Patricia Beatty.
Moccasin Trail by Eloise Jarvis McGraw.
Beaded Moccasins: the Story of Mary Campbell by Linda Durrant.
I Am Regina by Sally Keenh.
Trouble’s Daughter: the Story of Susanna Hutchinson, Indian Captive by Katherine Kirkpatrick.
Standing in the Light: the Captive Diary of Catherine Carey Logan by Mary Pope Osborne.

If you’re interested in reading more about this sort of story, its origins and uses, here are a couple of articles I found interesting:

Gimme Shelter by Janet at Dear Author, about romance captivity novels and memoirs.
Dark Places: the Tradition of Captivity Narratives by Gina Showalter in the NYT.

One hundred and fifty years ago the first dinosaurs were cloned. Who knew that a pandemic disease came into our world with the dinosaurs, bringing the human race to edge of extinction. Now dinosaurs rule the world once again, and humans can only live underground in bunkers with strict laws to force them to work together to ensure their survival. Their leader, who calls himself The Noah, is a benevolent but strict dictator, and no one goes above ground where the dinosaurs hunt unless he has a death wish.

Nevertheless, when she was only seven years old, Sky Mundy’s father did go above ground. In fact, he fled the underground compound and left Sky with no note, no inheritance, and no communication for the past five years. Well, he did leave behind a broken compass for Sky to treasure and an illegal diary for her to write and draw in, but nothing else. Then, Sky finds a cryptic message from her father, and she decides to go up into the “topside” to find him and to carry his message to the middle of Lake Michigan. Will she even survive her first night with man-eating dinosaurs and other unknown dangers awaiting her?

The kids in this novel study Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park in their English class, comparing Crichton’s fictional dinosaur story to their “real” world of dinosaur takeover. I though that was a nice touch. And then when they (Sky and a friend) out and go topside, the action is non-stop, without much time for philosophy or deep thinking. The most pressing question or theme in the book is about “whom can Sky trust” and “will she survive”. Sky is another middle grade character with father issues, and she thinks and talks a lot about why her father left her and where he could possibly be and whether or not he’s dead.

Sky is a feisty, self-reliant female, and her two male friends, Shawn and Todd, are good, well-developed characters in their own right. Although Sky is the narrator, Shawn and Todd play a big role in the story’s development, and the book should appeal to both boys and girls who like adventure stories set in a post-apocalyptic future. Science fiction with overgrown dinosaurs. A daddy hunt through prehistoric dangers. Noah’s Ark meets Jurassic Park.

The only thing I didn’t like about this story was the ending, which wasn’t. The ending is abrupt and unfinished; in other words, it’s a set-up for the sequel. Bummer. At least, I checked the author’s website, and there’s only one more book planned to follow-up this one. So I’m assuming that the loose ends of the story will be tied up in a dinosaur bow in book two, Edge of Extinction: Code Name Flood, due out at the end of May, 2017.

Ten year old Lottie Bromley and her best friend Kitty McLaughlin are inseparable, friends in the midst of war and deprivation in 1940 Bristol, England. However, when Lottie’s father’s research into the possibilities and uses of time travel does separate the girls, Lottie is determined to find Kitty again—and ask forgiveness for having deserted her friend in a crisis.

Time travel is always a tempting story premise, but tricky to handle. It all sort of becomes mind-bending and gives the reader (and the author, presumably) a headache, as in this epic discussion from LOST:

In Once Was a Time, one character’s idea is that one can never travel back in time, only forward, since you can’t change the past because it would change the present and the future too much. Another possible “rule” of time travel is that you can’t time travel to a time during your own lifetime since that would make two of the same person exist in the same time. OF course, these are all theoretical “rules” since Lottie’s father is just researching time travel, not actually engaging in it. And then danger comes in the form of a kidnapping/hostage situation, and Lottie does see a time portal and get the chance to flee into it. She doesn’t know when or where she’s going, but she ends up in Sutton, Wisconsin on August 20, 2013.

A great many pages after that crisis time travel episode are filled with Lottie’s observations on the differences between England in 1940 and Wisconsin in 2013. I found these cultural and time period differences to be fascinating, but I don’t know if most children will agree. There’s also a subplot/theme about bullying and fitting in with the right crowd that may relate to kid concerns, but conversely, didn’t really engage me. So I liked the historical and time travel aspects, and others may get something else out of the same book.

Whatever draws you in, Lottie’s story about friendship and forgiveness and the power of choosing to be a friend is a story worth reading. The fact that Lottie finds a safe haven and a new friend in the library is just extra sauce to an already good stew of a story.

“It is a known fact that the most extraordinary moments in a person’s life come disguised as ordinary days.” ~opening sentence of The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd.

Key to Extraordinary is a lovely, luminescent, literary lodestone of a novel. Okay, so my attempt to write in the style of Natalie Lloyd isn’t exactly great, but this story is beautiful. It’s got heart, and a vivid setting, the Boneyard Cafe in Blackbird Hollow, Tennessee, and a compelling plot, all about buried treasure and finding one’s destiny and saving the cafe.

“Fear is just a flashlight that helps you find your courage.”

The narrator of the story, Emma, is the youngest in a long line of Wildflower Women who fulfilled their destinies by doing something extraordinary to make the world better. Emma is waiting to have her own Destiny Dream and find out how she fits into the heritage of her ancestors.

“You don’t have to go looking for stories across the world. You only have to look out your window.”

Embedded in the story are lots of what I call “nuggets of middle grade wisdom” —proverbs, maxims, and bits of truth that don’t sound too preachy when they’re part of the story. I love that middle grade authors are “allowed” to include these little tidbits of advice and admonition in their stories, and when it’s done well, it makes the story so much more rich and meaningful for me to read.

“Believe your words have power. And use them.”

As Emma goes on a crusade to save her family cafe from the evil, rich developer, Warren Steele, she learns more about the meaning of friendship and family and courage. Yes, the mean developer who is about to take the family business is a trite and over-used plot device, but go with it anyway. I just had so much fun spending time with Emma and her ex-boxer grandmother and her chef-brother and her friends, Cody Belle Chitwood and Earl Chance. The story felt authentically Tennessean and country and as one reviewer wrote (negatively), sort of like a Hallmark special. But I like Hallmark movie specials.

“Sometimes even doing the right thing will leave you with scars. But beauty comes from ashes, too.”

There are so many good quotes from this book that I’ll just leave you with a few more. I’m including these here because there are so many, but look for a second installment of Middle Grade Book Wisdom soon with more quotations from this book and other 2016 middle grade fiction books. Collecting these wisdom quotes is a sort of hobby of mine.

“Everything wonderful is possible.”

“Some books are so special that you never forget where you were the first time you read them.”

“Every lifetime, no matter how long it lasts, is a gift. And to love, and be loved, even by one person during your lifetime . . . that is a treasure no one can take from you.”

“Doesn’t a little part of you want to be involved in a secret, high-risk plan that’ll have disastrous consequences if it fails? Everyone needs to do that at least once in his life.” ~The Secrets of Solace by Jaleigh Johnson.

“You must step inside a world to see it honestly. A passing glance won’t do.” ~Furthermore by Taheri Mafi.

“The first step in the path to knowledge is very simple: open a book.” ~The League of Beastly Dreadfuls: The Dastardly Deed by Holly Grant.

“If you don’t forgive yourself for making a mistake, then you get so that you never want to admit that you made one.” ~This Is Not a Werewolf Story by Sandra Evans.

“Lots of things are impossible, right up until they’re not.” ~Waiting for Augusta by Jessica Lawson.

“It’s always better to be in rooms you can get out of easily, if you need to.” ~The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet.

“You should be polite to people on general principle, of course. But if you happen to be wandering through a magical land, and a little old lady asks you for help, you should be extremely polite to her, just in case. Otherwise you may well wake up with earthworms falling out of your mouth whenever you talk, or various other suitably awful fairy punishments.” ~Hamster Princess: Of Mice and Magic by Ursula Vernon.

“When thoughts wiggle their way in, sometimes it can be very difficult for them to wiggle out again.” ~A Clatter of Jars by Lisa Graff.

“Sometimes things work out differently than you expect, and sometimes that’s when the best things happen. And sometimes a jumble straightens everything out in the end.” ~The Adventures of Miss Petitfour by Anne Michaels.

“To have power without the proper vision of how to use it makes one blind. Greed makes one blind. Fear makes one blind. It is difficult to see when you walk in darkness.” ~Behind the Canvas by Alexander Vance.

“. . . if you only try the things you believe you can do, you’ll only accomplish the things you already knew you could do. But if you give yourself permission to fail, you’re free to try the things that seem completely beyond your reach. And that’s when magic happens.” ~Gears of Revolution by J. Scott Savage.

“Hope is an excellent and necessary thing to have in this world. Hope and bread and good friends.” ~Grayling’s Song by Karen Cushman.

“Some mistakes need to be made. Sometimes we have to fall down before we can stand up.” ~Red by Liesl Shurtliff.

” . . . you should never give up. Unless, of course, you’re doing something wrong, in which case you should give up entirely.” ~Red by Liesl Shurtliff.

“Magic is not the answer. Magic may be convenient, brilliant, even dazzling, but it is not the answer.” ~Grayling’s Song by Karen Cushman.

“It is hard for a goblin and a human to be friends. Goblin honor and human honor are so very different.” ~The Goblin’s Puzzle by Andrew S. Chilton.

Fiction. . . That’s another word for lies. Like stories about jellyfish and the Olympics.” ~The Lost Compass by Joel Ross.

“Remembering is a powerful thing.” ~Ollie’s Odyssey by William Joyce.

“You have to be careful of men who love danger.” ~The Skeleton Tree by Iain Lawrence.

“Being a writer is not easy, you know. It is, now that I think of it, either full of sorrow or full of joy.” ~The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan.

“Sometimes the burdens we lay on others’ shoulders remain long after they are free to drop them.” ~The Eye of Midnight by Andrew Brumbach.

“Perhaps you have heard the famous bit of wisdom about how the breaking of an omelet requires the breaking of eggs? This philosophy, while technically true, does not account for the fact that omelets are universally disappointing to all who eat them—equal parts water and rubber and slime. Who among us would not prefer a good cobbler or spiced pudding?” ~Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier.

“It is lamentably common among chivalrous sorts that they are more intent on defending a woman’s honor than listening to the wishes of said woman.” ~Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier.

“A world without stories is a world without magic.” ~Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier.

“There are ways forward, and then when those ways are closed, there other ways around, and when the trail breaks off or fades out, there are still other secret ways, always.” ~The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet.

“Stories [are] much more than words on a page. Stories [live] inside those who read them.” ~Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier.

“Should you ever be so lucky as to encounter an author in your life, you should shower her or him with gifts and praise.” ~Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier.

“The most priceless possession of the human race is the wonder of the world. Yet, latterly, the utmost endeavors of mankind have been directed towards the dissipation of that wonder . . . Nobody, any longer, may hope to entertain an angel unawares, or to meet Sir Lancelot in shining armor on a moonlit road. But what is the use of living in a world devoid of wonderment?” ~Kenneth Grahame, epigraph at the beginning of Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier.

“Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.” ~Werner Heisenberg, Across the Frontiers, quoted in My Diary from the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson.

“[I]t is our actions that determine who we are. Not our genes. Not who our parents may or may not be, but our own choices.” ~Time Stoppers by Carrie Jones.

“Follow your own heart! People always say that. They mean well, I’m sure. But sometimes, we need to overrule our hearts. We need to be brave. We need to be kind because we should, not because it’s easy.” ~Every Single Second by Tricia Springstubb.

Stay tuned for the second installment of “Middle Grade Book Wisdom, 2016”. It wouldn’t all fit into one post.

Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho, illustrated by Brian Deines.

This nonfiction picture book opens with a bang: our narrator, Tuan Ho, comes from school to his home in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to find preparations being made for a journey. His first reaction is to ask his mother, “Are you leaving me now, too?” A year before Tuan Ho’s father had left Vietnam with his older sister, but then-five year old Tuan and his other three sisters were too young to make the journey as “boat people” refugees from Vietnam. Now, Tuan’s mother tells him that he and two of his sisters will be leaving with “Ma” in the dark of the early morning. It’s a secret; no one must know that they are going. And they must leave Tuan’s four year old sister, Van, behind with family members. “She’s too young to travel.”

The family ride in a truck to the beach. There they are chased and shot at by soldiers as they run to board the boat. On the boat, they face even more hardships: a shortage of food and water, engine trouble, too many passengers, a leaky boat. But the book finally ends with a rescue and a tall glass of milk for the relieved and smiling Tuan Ho.

The illustrations in this book, full color paintings, are absolutely stunning. Canadian illustrator, Brian Deines, has outdone himself in two-page spreads that bring this refugee story to life.

The story itself, a slice of life, begins abruptly without any explanation as to why the family must leave Vietnam. Nor does the main part of the text explain what happens to Tuan Ho and family after they are rescued at sea. However, there are some explanatory pages with both photographs and text at the end of the book that tell readers about the history of the Vietnam War and about the entire history of Tuan Ho’s family and their emigration from Vietnam and eventual reunification in Canada. It’s a good introduction to the subject of the Vietnamese boat people for both older students and middle grade readers. Even primary age children could appreciate Tuan Ho’s story with a little bit of explanation from a parent or teacher about the war and the Communist persecution that they were fleeing.

Another good 2016 entry for my impromptu Refugee and Immigrant Week here at Semicolon.

Yesterday I read this 2016 middle grade fiction novel about a twelve year old French Jewish boy named Gustave and his experience of immigrating to the United States during World War II. Because of this book, and yesterday’s review of It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel, and some other upcoming reviews, it seems to have turned into Refugee and Immigrant Week here at Semicolon. It was an unplanned emphasis, but one that is quite apropos considering the news and the times we live in.

In Skating With the Statue of Liberty, Gustave and his extended family come to the United States from war-torn France, after having hidden and then escaped from the Nazis. The family faces many challenges. They are not allowed to bring adequate funds with them to start a new life, and so they are forced to smuggle in what little money they have. No one in the family speaks English, except for Gustave who has learned a little bit of English in school. Gustave’s father can only get a low-paying job as a janitor. Gustave doesn’t understand many things about American culture and customs, and even in America, he faces instances of anti-Semitism and racism as he becomes friends with a “Negro” girl, September Rose.

I read in the book cover blurb that this novel is a companion to the author’s debut novel, Black Radishes. Now I want to go back and read that one because Skating With the Statue of Liberty was a great story. It feels historically accurate, and yet the themes and scenes are quite applicable to the issues of racism and anti-Semitism that we see in the news today. Gustave struggles with whether he should think of himself as French or American or something else, perhaps Jewish. He discusses with a rabbi his lack of faith in a God who would allow the horror and persecution of Jews in German-occupied France. September Rose’s family struggles with how to support their country and the war effort and also stand against the injustice and discrimination that they face as black Americans.

I found this book, by a Jewish author and based partly on her father’s stories of his childhood escape from Nazi-occupied France, to be well-written, historically informative, and absorbing. The plot doesn’t sugarcoat the issues of prejudice, anti-immigrant persecution, discrimination, and even racial and anti-Semitic violence, but the ending and the growing friendship between Gustave and September Rose are hopeful and encouraging.

I just think kids (and adults) need books like this one and like It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel to help them begin to make sense of what is happening politically and socially in our nation. It may have been a coincidence that I read these two books almost back to back, but it gave me an idea to showcase the many really good books about refugees and immigrants that I have read and loved. So that’s what I’ll be doing this week.

Zomorod Yusefzadeh is living in California with her Iranian family before and during the Iran hostage crisis. No wonder she wants to change her name to Cindy! Not to mention that no one can pronounce her real name, and people always ask, when they find out where she’s from, if they ride camels. Zomorod/Cindy has only even seen a camel once—in a zoo!

These are the adventures and misadventures of an Iranian girl with an immigrant family that sticks out like a sore thumb, in the community, in Zomorod’s middle school, especially after the shah leaves Iran and the political radicals take Americans hostage in the embassy in Iran. Zomorod tries to fit in, by changing her name to Cindy, by celebrating American holidays, and by making friends, but it’s hard to reconcile the two cultures she is living in, Persian and American. The book reminded me of one of my favorite movies, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, as Zomorod/Cindy sees the world from inside her Iranian family and from the American point of view that she is learning. However, no weddings here, as Zomorod/Cindy is only 10-12 years old as the story progresses.

The story is kind of sad at times. Cindy’s dad loses his job as a result of the hostage crisis, and Cindy’s mom is having a lot trouble adjusting to life in the United States. However, lots of humor, and good attitude (most of the time) from Cindy, and some persistently friendly and hospitable people give the book an upbeat and hopeful feel and ending. This book would be an excellent book to give to current middle schoolers who are hearing all of the anti-immigrant talk and being influenced or discouraged by it. It Ain’t so Awful, Falafel gives a different perspective on the immigrant experience and shows how important it is to try to understand how others think and feel.