“Letters from Cuba” Ruth Behar

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Random House). To be published August 25, 2020.

Letters from CubaEsther’s father left his family behind in Poland and headed to Cuba, intent on earning enough money to give them a better life. Though he had been working for 3 years, he only had enough money for one of them to make the trip. Esther begged to be allowed to make the trip and, when she arrived, she was entranced. Cuba’s friendly neighbors made her feel welcome, everyone called her a little Polish girl instead of Jew, the weather was balmy, and the sea was breathtaking. It was wonderful!

Esther decided to tell her story in daily letters to her sister that she saved for when they’d be reunited. Though her father had been a peddler before she arrived, Esther was able to earn more money designing and selling her own dresses. As they worked to earn money to reunite the family, she learned about the heritages of the people in their small village. As Nazi beliefs began to invade their village, former slaves, Chinese Cubans, rich sugar mill owners and poor sugar cane workers were united in their belief that Esther and her father should be protected. Through faith and hope, they all learned that love could overcome evil.

This beautiful story told in letter form recounts many parts of Ruth Behar’s own family history, told from her grandmother Esther’s memories of leaving Poland and arriving in Cuba. Though Ruth and her mother were both born in Cuba, and they immigrated to the United States when it became Communist, Cuba is always in her heart. After reading Esther’s story, her memories will stay in her reader’s hearts too.

Highly recommended for ages 11 and older.

PS – I believe “Letters from Cuba” should be a contender for the treasured Pura Belpré Award, to be announced at the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards in January 2021. Remember when Ruth Behar wins an award there that you read it here first!

I received a digital advance reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

“Thirteens” Kate Alice Marshall

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Viking (Penguin Random House). The secrets of Eden Eld #1. To be published August 18, 2020.

ThirteensAfter a house fire and the disappearance of her mother, Ellie moved in with her aunt and uncle in the little town of Eden Eld. She’s determined to show them that she’s normal, because she and her mom used to see things nobody else saw. She’s not going to tell them about the weird grandfather clock that just appeared outside of her room ticking backwards, and she’s certainly not going to tell them about the big, strange looking bird with a yellow eye that was staring at her while she waited for the bus.

At school Ellie becomes friends with Pip and Otto, who clue her into the fact that they can also see things no one else sees but she has to keep it a secret. It doesn’t take long to realize their names are palindromes, they’re all going to be thirteen years old on Halloween, and they all have the same birthmarks. These strange similarities don’t seem coincidental so, working together, they discover the town is hiding a strange secret. Every 13 years, three thirteen-year-olds disappear. They’re next on the list to disappear without a trace, so will have to pull out all the stops if they plan to make it to their fourteenth birthday.

Those of you who are regulars on my blog know I refuse to read books in a series unless I have all of them in front of me. However, the publisher tricked me. The description sounded really interesting on NetGalley and Goodreads. Neither site had the name of a series listed for the book, so I requested it. When I downloaded it, the very first page said it was part one of a planned series. I was upset I’d been hoodwinked, but gamely set about reading because I had to review it.

I actually enjoyed it, but the cliffhanger ending reminded me that nothing could be tied into a big bow until the series was completed. I don’t even know how many books will BE in the series! I can’t wait to find out what happens next to Ellie, Otto and Pip, and the first book hasn’t even officially come out yet!!

Grrr! However, despite all this angst, I will still recommend it for ages 11-14.

I received a digital advance reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

“Fighting words” Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Dial Books for Young Readers (Penguin Random House). Includes Discussion Questions. To be published August 11, 2020.

Fighting wordsDella is now ten years old, and in the fourth grade. When she was five, and her older sister Suki was eleven, their meth addict mother was sent to prison and her old boyfriend stepped in to claim them. Through the five years they lived with him Suki always took care of Della. She took the lead and made sure they got away when he did something very bad to Della. Now they were living with a foster mother who seemed nice enough, Della was attending a new school, and Suki had a new job.

Soon Suki started to get angry for no reason, making Della feel as if she were a burden. Della was confused because Suki had always been there for her. When Suki tried to commit suicide it took time before Della realized her sister had been carrying a terrible burden for many years. As Della learned to put her rage into words, she became the arm of strength for Suki so that, together, they could forge ahead to reclaim their lives.

This book was very powerful, and a testament to the ravages inflicted upon innocent children caught in the crosshairs of drug addicted parents and sexual predators. It will, hopefully, give encouragement and strength for children who see themselves in the pages to get help if they are suffering the same fates as Della and Suki.

Recommended for ages 11-16.

I received a digital advance reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

“Ghost boys” by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Rated 5 stars ***** 2018. Little, Brown & Company (Hachette Book Group). 214 p. (Includes Afterword,” “Discussion questions,” and Further resources for parents and educators”

Ghost boysTwelve-year-old Jerome is bullied daily at school because he’s smart. He eats lunch in the bathroom, trying to avoid getting beat up. Carlos, a new kid, comes to school and, though he’s never had a friend, Jerome befriends him. The bullies find them in a bathroom and start beating them but Carlos scares them away with a toy gun, which he gives to Jerome to play with because he’s his new friend.

Jerome doesn’t usually play outside because his neighborhood is dangerous, but is excited to do so with the gun. While playing with it, he’s shot in the back by a White policeman and dies on the street. Now a ghost, Jerome sees his families’ grief and watches the preliminary hearing where a judge decides the officer who shot him shouldn’t be charged with wrongdoing – even though he shot him in the back from inside a moving patrol car without warning, and neither he nor his partner offered any aid while he was lying on the ground still alive.

Sarah, the police officer’s daughter, can see and communicate with him and Emmett Till, another ghost boy. Jerome realizes there are thousands of ghost boys who were also killed early in life, and struggles to understand why they’re still wandering the earth. Emmett tells him the story of how he died; helping Jerome realize they’re still on Earth because they’re all bearing witness to the injustices they suffered due to racism. Though upset at her father, Sarah channels her anger into telling the stories of the ghost boys and also bearing witness for them.

Told through flashbacks and the present time, Jerome’s sad and painful story is very timely for the days in which we currently live. It is excellent for a book club or for a whole class, as it has much material that needs to be discussed.

Highly recommended for ages 12 and older.

“Catching fire” Suzanne Collins

Rated 5 stars ***** ebook. Scholastic Press. 2009. The Hunger Games #2. 

Catching fireIn this second book of the Hunger Games series, Katniss endures the wrath of President Snow because she dared defy him and the Capitol when she prepared to eat poisonous berries at the end of their Games. Though she later claimed she did it out of love for Peeta because she didn’t want to kill him, he knows Rebels in other districts took her actions as encouragement.

President Snow threatens Katniss that she needs to make the Rebels truly believe she’s in love with Peeta and that she didn’t mean to start a rebellion. However, when he feels she hasn’t been convincing enough, he enacts his own revenge. She, Peeta and all winning Tributes from every Hunger Games in the past are forced to return to the ring for the Quarter Quell – a celebration of the Games that occurs every 25 years. As she endures another nightmare Games Katniss plans to keep Peeta alive, knowing only one of them can make it out alive this time.

The second book in this series was as amazing as I remembered it to be! It was so exciting that I couldn’t wait to pick up book 3 “Mockingjay” to find out what happens next to Peeta and Katniss – the star crossed lovers of Panem. BTW

Highly recommended for ages 14 and older.

“The Hunger Games” Suzanne Collins

The hunger gamesRated 5 stars ***** ebook. Scholastic. 2018. The Hunger Games #1 (Special Edition). (Includes two interviews: “Interview with Suzanne Collins” and “Suzanne Collins and Walter Dean Myers on writing about war.”)

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12 with her mother and little sister Prim. She and her best friend Gale have been hunting in the woods ever since their fathers died in a coal-mining explosion when she was eleven. The woods provide food for their poor families – even though poaching is an offense the rich Capitol punishes with death.

The Capitol rules its 12 Districts with an iron fist, keeping everyone poor and forcing two children from each district to fight to the death in the annual Hunger Games. Each year residents are forced to attend the Reaping where names are drawn. When Prim’s name is called Katniss is shocked, and quickly volunteers herself as a Tribute to protect her.

She and Peeta Mellark, the other Tribute from her district, are assigned a Sponsor. They are encouraged to pretend to be star-crossed lovers, to play on the public’s feelings and get costly supplies delivered during the Games. What Katniss doesn’t know is that Peeta has been in love with her since he was five years old. As she sorts through her confused feelings about him and Gale, she will have to cross an invisible line in her mind if she wants them to survive.

I first read the Hunger Games series sometime in 2011 so, after reading “The ballad of songbirds and snakes,” I needed to refresh my memory on Professor Snow and the others in the series. This second reading was as exciting as the first, and I look forward to reading “Catching fire,” the next book in the series.

Highly recommended for ages 14 and older.

“The ballad of songbirds and snakes” Suzanne Collins

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Scholastic. (The Hunger Games #0). Published May 19, 2020.

The ballad of songbirds and snakesCoriolanus Snow endured hunger, deprivation, and the loss of both parents during the Rebel siege on the Capitol. His cousin’s bargaining abilities at the Black Market enabled them to survive, but the Snow family fortune was destroyed. Coriolanus is determined to keep it secret that the Snows, one of the Capitol’s Old Guard families, is poor.

His favorite professor at the Academy was able to get him assigned to one of the tributes for the upcoming Hunger Games as a student mentor, so he has a chance to vie for a University scholarship. Coriolanus knows winning the Games is his only hope to having a future, and is desperate to win. When he’s assigned Lucy Gray Baird from District 12 he’s disappointed because he’d hoped for a strong boy, however, her musical abilities and joie de vivre help to change his mind.

As he spends time with Lucy Gray, he begins to think of her as a person instead of as a tribute. His determination to protect her from the other tributes, and to win, begins to override rational thoughts until the lines between right and wrong get blurred. As time goes on Coriolanus’ determination to always win, and to always come out on top, will forever change their lives.

When I was given the opportunity to read this ARC, I wondered if it would be as interesting as the other books in The Hunger Games series because, after all, it IS about the very evil President Snow. However, not only is it exciting, but I found myself feeling sorry for Coriolanus. SORRY for HIM?! I can hear gasps echoing around the world, but let me preface that comment. I felt sorry for him in the BEGINNING and MIDDLE of the book, but definitely not by the end. Make sure to read the book to find out why.

I’m now off to reread The Hunger Games series and decipher clues revealed in “The ballad of songbirds and snakes.” I won’t be surprised if Collins writes another follow up to the Coriolanus Snow saga.

Highly recommended for ages 14 and older.

I received a digital advance reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

“Don’t tell the Nazis” Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Rated 5 stars ***** 2018. Scholastic Press. 226 p. (Includes “Author’s note.”) [Originally published in 2017 by Scholastic Canada as “Don’t tell the enemy.”]

Don't tell the NazisWhen the Soviets left Krystia’s small town in the Ukraine, everyone cheered. It was 1941, and they’d already endured two years of brutality. They were sure the incoming Germans would allow their country to rise up once again. Unfortunately, the Germans were worse. Soon they started creating lists of Jews and, as more Germans poured into town, Ukrainians and Jews were pushed out of their homes to make room. Soon the Nazis began to execute the Jews, then forced almost 1000 of them to live in crowded, squalid conditions in a Ghetto.

As the Nazis continued to abuse the Jews, Krystia was desperate to help her Jewish friends. Her aunt and uncle were in the Resistance, and provided forged documents she passed on to help some escape. Though no food was available and everyone was starving, her mother found ways to get food and she found ways to sneak it into the Ghetto while keeping up a show of normalcy for their suspicious neighbors. With Nazi spies everywhere can Krystia save her friends before it’s too late?

This sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat book is based on the true story of Kateryna Sikorska and her eight-year-old daughter Krystia who both performed heroic actions during the Nazi occupation of their town. It’s amazing to me that Krystia could have been so brave and clear thinking at such a young age. “Don’t tell the Nazis” is a wonderful testament to their courage, as well as to the bravery of their fellow Ukrainians (recognized in the Yad Vashem) who also stood against the Nazis.

Highly recommended for ages 14 and older.

“Spirits of the high mesa” Floyd Martinez

Rated 5 stars ***** 1997. Arte Público Press. 192 p.

Spirits of the high mesaThrough young Flavio’s eyes, readers are taken on a journey as he remembers the Indian/Mexican way of life spent growing up on a ranch in New Mexico. There everyone depended on the land, the old ways, and on each other. Flavio’s grandfather El Grande was an important man who respected the ways of his ancestors. Everyone turned to El Grande in good times and bad, observing traditions that had been the same for years. He taught Flavio the old ways, and how to work the ranch, but then the Gringos came with electricity.

Electricity made villagers give up traditions in favor of new ways of living. It meant the building of a new sawmill to chop down the forest, which brought more Gringos to build new homes, new roads and changes that would forever change Flavio’s life. Despite everything, El Grande stood firm in his desire to stay with the old ways and to retain his dignity – the most important thing he owned.

This powerful coming-of-age story won the 1998 Pura Belpré Honor Award for Narrative. It’s filled with memories of a time when life was simpler, as well as the love between a grandfather and grandson. It will resonate with readers, as it kept me thinking long after the last page was turned. Though there are many Spanish phrases and words, they are important parts of the narrative.

Highly recommended for ages 13 and older.

“The bridge home” Padma Venkatraman

Rated 5 stars *****. 2019. Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Random House). 187 p. (Includes “Glossary” and “Author’s Note.”)

TheBridgeHomeEleven-year-old Viji and twelve-year-old Rukku’s mom was abused by her husband, but always believed him when he said he was sorry. Viji knew Rukku had special needs, and had always taken care of her older sister but, when her father hit them in a fit of rage, she knew they’d have to run away.

With nowhere to go and only a bit of money, they bus to the city where Rukku becomes attached to a homeless puppy, and they become friends with two homeless boys living on a bridge. There they build their own ramshackle tent, and the boys help her forage for recyclables in stinking trash dumps with other homeless children that they sell for pittances.

Hunger dulls their strength but, as time passes, the four forge strong bonds of friendship. Though they wind up living on a grave under a tree in a cemetery after marauding men destroy their home on the bridge, Viji tries to keep believing in her dream of becoming a teacher. Each day of looking for food in trashcans, and hoping to earn money on the dump, makes her dream seem impossible.

This moving story, based on real children’s first-person accounts, is an eye opener for many who might be unaware of the plight of over 1.8 million children living on the streets of India, working and eating from its many garbage dumps while trying to avoid abuse and slavery.

Recommended for ages 10-14.