Joey by Jennifer Marshall Bleakley

Disclaimer: Joey, by Jennifer Marshall Bleakley, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

With her fledgling horse ranch, Hope Reins, in dire financial trouble, the last thing Kim Tschirret needed was one more problem. But when she met Joey, a former prizewinning jumper who had been abandoned, neglected, and malnourished to the point of blindness, she saw in him the same God-given potential she saw in every abused and abandoned child her ministry was created to serve. So, despite the challenges that would come with caring for a blind and wounded horse, Kim took a leap of faith and brought Joey home to Hope Reins. But as Joey struggled to adapt to his new surroundings, trainers, and pasture-mate, the staff’s confidence began to falter. Could Joey learn to trust again-to connect with the children who needed him so badly? What if they couldn’t take care of Joey? And how much longer could they afford to try?

My rating: 2/5

I was excited to receive and read Joey because, let’s face it, horse books were my favorite type of books growing up, and even today I still get excited to read one. And it seemed intriguing–a blind horse? Horse-centered therapy? Count me in!

However, I rated this book low for a reason, though it didn’t have anything to do with the horses. In fact, the horses were the best part of the book, though admittedly it did confuse me a bit when the first part of the book focused more on Speckles than on Joey. But I enjoyed reading about the training and the innovative ways the trainers helped Joey overcome his blindness. The interaction of the horses and the children was sweet; Bleakley definitely shows how an animal-centered therapy works, as well as its effectiveness overall.

So, it wasn’t the horses that I had a problem. It was the rest of the book–the humans, basically, and the overly preachy and sentimental tone. I had an incredibly difficult time telling the three main characters apart (Kim, Sarah, and Lauren), as their voices all sounded the same. I soon learned to differentiate by various traits always brought up–Lauren and her knee, Sarah and her inner monologues about her inadequacies. However, what also confused me was the voice of the characters. I initially thought Sarah was a teenager until she brought up a husband, which really threw me for a loop. Her voice just sounded like something more akin to a teenager’s than an adult’s to me. There was also a random romance thrown in with her that came out of nowhere; I understand that this is more nonfiction, but at least hint that she’s getting into a relationship with the vet before suddenly mentioning them holding hands when they rarely appear “on page” with each other and exchange conversation. Lauren also sounded younger, but she mentions a husband and kids earlier on so it was easier to adjust.

I also didn’t much like the sentimental, preachy tone of the book, and this is definitely more reflective of my personality than of anything really wrong with the book itself. I hate preachiness, especially extended preachiness that sounds scripted, and I’m not fond of sentimentality. If a grief scene stretches for longer than a paragraph, I already think it’s overdone. I recognize the sadness of the book, and what losing horses means to the people who work at Hope Reins, but I’d prefer not to linger on one particular scene for pages at a time.

I really didn’t like the tone or the confusing characters who blended into one another, but the book is focused on the horses, and the horses really do shine. This is a great advertisement for Hope Reins, if nothing else.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Realistic

You can buy this here:  https://amzn.to/2KuCE20

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The Girl from Felony Bay by J. E. Thompson

The Girl from Felony Bay, by J. E. Thompson, was published in 2003 by HarperCollins.

I’m not going to lie to you, the last year has been rougher than alligator hide for me and my dad. You see, he’s in the hospital in a coma since his accident a year back, wherein he was framed for a terrible crime he didn’t commit. Our home, Reward Plantation, had to be sold to pay off his debt to society, so I’m stuck living with my Uncle Charlie, who, even in the few hours a day when he’s sober, ain’t exactly your ideal parental role model. And I managed to run afoul of Jimmy Simmons, the meanest kid in the sixth grade, and on the last day of school no less. But things just got a bit more interesting. Turns out the new family that moved into Reward Plantation has a daughter named Bee, who is the same age as I am. And she’s just as curious about all the No Trespassing signs and holes being dug out by Felony Bay, in the corner of what used to be my home. Seems like someone’s been poking around a mystery that dates all the way back to the Civil War—and it just might be the same someone who framed my dad. I’m Abbey, by the way. Abbey Force. And if it takes all summer, I’m going to find out what’s happening out on Felony Bay, and maybe even clear my dad’s name.

Rating: 2/5

The Girl from Felony Bay has lots of things I’m not fond of in middle grade books in general and mysteries in particular. The protagonist, Abbey, is decent enough, though she makes one too many “puzzle piece mystery” guesses for my liking, as well as ends the book with five pages of moralizing and “these are the lessons I learned” summation. I also didn’t much like the scene at the end where she gives the usual “whodunit” spiel and then all the police officers applaud her, literally, and mention how incredibly smart and wonderful she is. It’s clunky and awkward and the reader really didn’t need the reminder that Abbey can solve things quickly, since that’s what she spends the entire book doing.

I did like how Thompson brought up the idea of heir’s property, though I’m not sure how well he incorporates it into the mystery as a whole. I suppose it was relevant in the sense that it got Abbey and Bee wondering about why the property had been sold in the first place.

As for the mystery itself, it was pretty far-fetched, in my opinion, or perhaps that was simply a problem with the delivery of it. The writing really wasn’t the best. The characterization also didn’t help, with the villains being bland and one-note and their machinations unbelievable. The whole thing was simply clunky and poorly executed and developed.

The Girl From Felony Bay was pretty much a disappointment from start to finish. The mystery was slapdash and unbelievable, Abbey spent her time wavering between Action Girl and Brilliant Detective Girl, with awkward conversations from the adults around her interspersed, and the whole thing was simply far too sloppy and mediocre for me to enjoy it. The cover art, at least, is cool and intriguing (Brett Helquist!), but nothing else about the book is.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Mystery, Middle Grade

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2HAFwIQ

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie by Kristiana Gregory

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.

Thirteen-year-old Hattie Campbell’s father dreamed of a new life in Oregon. He dreamed of free land, mild winters, and good soil. He wanted to leave behind a life in Missouri marked by an increased population, high taxes, and sad memories of young children dead from swamp fever. Reluctantly, Augusta Campbell agrees to join her husband, and Hattie and family find themselves on a wagon train traveling the Oregon Trail. Hattie’s diary entries tell a story of daily encounters with death: a baby, an old man, river drownings, dead oxen. Such sadness is countered with Hattie’s observations of love, the miracle of new life, and the kindness of people who help each other through desperate times. The Oregon Trail and Hattie’s fellow pioneers help her to face her fears and emerge a stronger young woman. Hattie’s exciting journey to Oregon is one marked by geographic peaks and valleys as well as the peaks and valleys of emotions the pioneers experienced on their grueling trip.

Rating: 5/5

I believe Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie was the first Dear America book I owned, and, as a result, it’s the one I’ve read the most. Hattie’s trip across the Oregon Trail never grew old for me, and with each read I grasped some aspect that had alluded me the previous time.

There’s lots of tragedy and death in this book, as you might expect from an account of the Oregon Trail. There is not much on the actual incentive to go West—there’s a brief mention of “manifest destiny”—nor is there a whole lot on conflicts and tensions between the Native American tribes and the travelers, but Gregory’s extensive historical notes in the back of the book do address these issues. First and foremost, this is simply the diary of a young girl on her way to Oregon, and it reads exactly like that. The voice of Hattie is perfect, and the voice of the author is distant, if it’s even discernible at all.

Tragedy aside, there’s lots of heartwarming instances in this book, as well as a valuable lesson on forgiveness and friendship. In a day and age where novels that feature bitter people getting their “comeuppance” by the people they’ve hurt, Hattie’s interactions with Mrs. Kenker, the grieving hoarder, is a welcome relief. The people around Hattie help her understand, and she uses that understanding to show compassion. It’s a beautiful message, and one that is badly needed today.

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie is one of my favorite Dear America novels. It is seamlessly integrated, pulls no punches in terms of historicity, and is memorable, exciting, tragic and heartwarming. There’s a reason Gregory’s Dear America novels are some of my favorites—she’s captured the appropriate balance and atmosphere of these books perfectly.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2I1a8nF

1947 Newbery Medal: Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey

Miss Hickory, by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, was published in 1946 by Viking.

When Great-granny Brown packed up and moved to the Women’s City Club in Boston, Miss Hickory was faced with the problem of spending a severe New Hampshire winter alone. This might not have been so bad if Miss Hickory had not been a country woman whose body was an apple-wood twig and whose head was a hickory nut. Also, if her house had been built of stronger material than corncobs, however neatly notched and glued together. This is the story of how she survived those trying months, in the company of neighbors like Crow, who was tough, wise, and kindly; Bull Frog, who lost his winter clothes; Ground Hog, a surly man afraid of his own shadow, and a host of others. It is a fantasy full of the peculiar charm of the New Hampshire countryside, seen from an angle which most of us, city-bound in the winter, know little about.

Rating: 2/5

I’ve mostly liked and enjoyed all the Newbery Medal books so far, with a few notable exceptions (The Dark Frigate, *shudder*). Miss Hickory, unfortunately, falls on the side of the ones I didn’t like so much. It’s not that the quality is low or the messages are poor. I actually thought the message was quite good; there was a delightful little scene in the middle where Miss Hickory realizes the cost of hardheadedness.

My main problem with Miss Hickory is that the premise is strange (a living wooden doll existing alongside animals, with no explanation as to how she got there or as to why there isn’t any creature like her) and there is nothing that reconciles that strangeness, and the ending is downright creepy. Seriously, I read the end and almost couldn’t believe what was happening; there is also a rather frightening picture to go along with the event. If, as an adult, I feel creeped out by a book, how much more so would a child be frightened? I don’t think Bailey meant it to be frightening, of course, and the story does end happily, if strangely, but nevertheless, it was the wrong tone to end the book on.

Miss Hickory should have been like Hitty, Her First Hundred Years or similar, but the premise was too strange and unexplained (why does Miss Hickory even exist? Why aren’t there others like her?) and the ending was frightening. I enjoyed the book, I suppose, but it’s definitely not a standout nor is it a book I would recommend to anyone anytime soon. Not every Newbery can be perfect, but it’s still a little disappointing.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None, unless you count the end where Miss Hickory loses her head and then her headless body walks around.

Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Children’s

“You have seen through Great-granny Brown’s kitchen window how deep the snowdrifts are in New Hampshire. I’ll wager that there were days when you could not see through the windows. The winters are long and hard here, Miss Hickory. “

“What could one do?” she begged. She would not believe him yet.

“Don’t feel too badly, as if they had forgotten you,” he said kindly. “Ann has other matters than dolls to fill her mind now. Great-granny Brown was born and bred in New Hampshire. She expects you to be equal to any weather. You’ll have to move, Miss Hickory.”

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2HpZHcj

Things I Never Told You by Beth K. Vogt

Disclaimer: Things I Never Told You, by Beth K. Vogt, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

It’s been ten years since Payton Thatcher’s twin sister died in an accident, forcing the entire family to cope in whatever ways they could. Now a lone twin, Payton reinvents herself as a partner in a successful part-planning business and is doing just fine—as long as she manages to hold her memories and her family at arm’s length. But with the announcement of her middle sister Jillian’s engagement, Payton’s party-planning skills are called into action. Which means working alongside Johann, her opinionated oldest sister, who always seems ready for a fight. They can only hope a wedding might be just the occasion to heal the resentment and jealousy that divides them…until a frightening diagnosis threatens Jillian’s plans for the future. As old wounds reopen and the family faces the possibility of yet another tragedy, the Thatchers must decide if they will pull together or be driven apart for good.

My rating: 2/5

Maybe I’ve read too many young adult suspense novels, but when I read the summary of Things I Never Told You, I expected something much darker than what I actually got. The title, so reminiscent of popular YA titles, didn’t help. In fact, since I went into the book expecting deep, dark secrets to be revealed, the actual revelation of the “things I never told” seemed cheapened. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

The story is told from multiple points of view: Payton, the focus character, in first person, and Jillian and Zach in third person. I got used to the switching from first to third after a while, but initially it was really jarring. I also wondered why Vogt even bothered with first person if she wanted to use multiple viewpoints; the first person didn’t contribute much to Payton’s character and it seems pointless to utilize if you’re just going to switch to third when you want to convey other characters’ thoughts. The point of first person is that you don’t get the other character’s thoughts.

The story mainly focuses on Payton and the “things she’s never told” regarding the death of her sister (which, contrary to my thoughts, aren’t dark at all, merely the sort of thing you might expect after a traumatic event), though focus is also spent on her relationship with her family, especially her sisters, and her sister’s battle with breast cancer. The characters are all right—perhaps too pointedly flawed, or maybe too pointedly focused on their own inadequacies. If reading this book was supposed to make me feel as if I could relate to the characters and overcome similar thoughts, then Vogt didn’t really succeed. Eventually, all I wanted was for the self-pity and self-deprecation to stop.

I did like how Vogt handled the Thatcher’s lack of faith, and I liked that she didn’t create any sort of conversion scene that are usually so cheesy and overdone. I did think she dropped the ball in terms of Jillian, though. Jillian, I felt, needed the comfort that Payton received from thinking about God just as much, if not more, than Payton. She spends the whole book focusing on happy, positive thoughts that I thought for sure Vogt would connect it to the joy of Christianity. Unfortunately, that never happens, and instead Jillian’s happiness is tied to material things. A missed opportunity, and one that may have proved more powerful than Payton’s story.

Though I expected a dark, thriller-like reveal to the story, and the reveal of what Payton was actually hiding seem cheap in comparison, I did like a few aspects of Things I Never Told You. The family dynamic was interesting, and though I felt there were lots of missed opportunities, the way the book ended was realistic. The take on breast cancer was respectful, but just as shocking and sad as it would be in real life. However, the viewpoint was jarring and poorly executed, the title is too reminiscent of YA novels (and thus juvenile for an adult book), the characters spent too long wallowing in their own perceived flaws, and a beautiful opportunity for Jillian to see where true joy lies is completely set aside in favor of furthering a romantic plotline. It’s an average take on sorrow, buried secrets, and guilt, but is nowhere close to memorable or inspiring.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Realistic

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2F5wiSZ

Valley of the Moon by Sherry Garland

Valley of the Moon: The Diary of María Rosalia de Milagros, by Sherry Garland, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.

María Rosalía is a Mestizo servant in a Spanish home. Orphaned years ago, she and her brother Domingo work on a ranch run by the stern Señor Medina. María’s writing captures the intense tradition and culture of the Spanish as she observes the war that Alta California ultimately loses to the Americans.

Rating: 4/5

I love the time period of Western Expansion and the pioneering age, but I’ve rarely gotten to read about what it was like in those territories before people from the East started moving there. Valley of the Moon fills in some of that missing information. I knew from my American Girl doll books growing up (Josephina) about the strong Mexican/Spanish culture that stretched from Texas to California, but it’s not really something I consider when I read books about the Gold Rush or whatever. This Dear America book fills in all those gaps, and also addresses the plight of the Native Americans to an extent.

María is half-Indian and half-Spanish, and although most of the book depicts the Spanish culture, some aspects of it address the declining Indian population. The book is vibrantly, unapologetically Spanish (what today we would call Mexican, but that term is never used in the book—Spanish is the word used to describe the californios). That may seem like an exaggeration, and maybe it is, but I haven’t read many books set in that time period that really describe the Mexican culture of the time, especially not for this age group.

This is a long Dear America book, but for the most part I didn’t notice the length. Garland does a good job of interspersing tension, historical information, and continuation of plot so that the pace is even throughout. While most of the book is dedicated to everyday activities (a combination of cultural and religious events and María’s own development), a bit of it is dedicated to the moment when California, briefly, became a republic and then was claimed by the United States. That part may be the weakest part of the book, actually, although the revelation of María’s father is also pretty weak, in my opinion, if only because of how convenient it is.

I’m not sure if Valley of the Moon is the best book for describing how California became part of the United States, or even if it’s a good book for describing the Mexican-American War. However, it’s a great book for describing the way the Mexican way of life infused the culture of California at the time, how the Indian population dwindled because of the settlers, and is a great starting point for a discussion on what aspects of the Mexican culture we can still see today, and what has been lost over time.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Lupita does not trust the norteamericanos. She says they are supposed to become loyal Mexican citizens, learn to speak Spanish, and become Catholics in exchange for land. But not all of them do as they agreed. She especially dislikes the foreigner Johann Sutter, who encourages other foreigners to come to California illegally without permission from the Mexican government. There are already squatters on Señor Median’s lands. Lupita thinks they will take over Alta California before long.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2HMATfA

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

The Goldfish Boy, by Lisa Thompson, was published in 2017 by Scholastic.

Matthew Corbin hasn’t been to school in weeks. He refuses to leave the safety of his bedroom. His hands are cracked and bleeding from cleaning. He knows something isn’t right, but he just wants to be left alone. So he watches from his upstairs window as life goes on without him. Matthew’s hopes for solitude are shattered, however, when a young child staying next door goes missing. Suddenly the neighborhood is swarming with police and reporters—and everyone is concerned with what Matthew might have seen from his window. He might just hold the key to solving the mystery before it’s too late. But does he even want to try, if it means exposing his own secrets in the process?

Rating: 3/5

The Goldfish Boy reminded me a little bit of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, though only at the beginning. The premise of the book is that Matthew, suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder since the death of his baby brother, decides to solve the mystery of who kidnapped his next-door neighbor’s grandson. Along the way, he learns more about his neighbors as well as himself, his parents, and his disorder.

It’s the type of angsty, yet still heartwarming, read that I used to gobble up in college. Now reading these sorts of books, I get a mildly sick feeling. Luckily, The Goldfish Boy didn’t pile on too much angst, and countered the amount it had with lots of therapy and hope. As a book about what might trigger OCD, as well as what it’s like and how to deal with it, it’s very good. It also has a good message about friendship and family.

The mystery at the heart of the plot, however, is not so great. Thompson leaves all the appropriate clues and red herrings, so it’s not that the quality is bad. I just found the motive of the responsible person to be rather weak. It made no sense to me why Teddy was kidnapped at all; the ending was anticlimactic and rushed and I didn’t buy the reason the kidnapper gave. A fault of the exposition, I believe, in not developing all the characters enough so that their motivations and actions make sense.

The Goldfish Boy contains enough angst to make me uncomfortable, but enough hope and heartwarming scenes to alleviate that feeling slightly. I liked the look into a condition that the average person doesn’t really understand or know about, but the mystery itself fell apart a little bit in terms of motivation and behavior. A good book, but not necessarily one I would recommend immediately.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Middle Grade

“I’ll tell you what, let’s make a deal. I’ll move if you promise to come and see Dr. Kerr tomorrow morning. How does that sound?”

She’d have been in the conservatory this morning, her bare feet padding around the cold tiles where Nigel chucks up fur balls and mouse guts. She must be riddled with germs—germs that were now escaping in their millions into my room. I gripped the edge of the door and thought about slamming it against her toes, but if I did that I might end up with blood on my carpet, and that made me feel dizzy. I didn’t look up.

“Okay, okay, I’ll go. Now can you move? Please?”

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2H9A6UK

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Beyond the Bright Sea, by Lauren Wolk, was published in 2017 by Dutton.

Twelve-year-old Crow has lived her entire life on a tiny, isolated piece of the starkly beautiful Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts. Abandoned and set adrift in a small boat when she was just hours old, Crow’s only companions are Osh, the man who rescued and raised her, and Miss Maggie, their fierce and affectionate neighbor across the sandbar. Crow has always been curious about the world around her, but it isn’t until the night a mysterious fire appears across the water that the unspoken question of her own history forms in her heart. Soon, an unstoppable chain of events is triggered, leading Crow down a path of discovery and danger.

Rating: 5/5

Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow was one of my favorite books of 2016, so I was excited to jump into her new book, Beyond the Bright Sea. And it’s as memorable and powerful as her first book, combining a tough, yet still child-like protagonist (whose moments of “Would a child really say or do that?” are mitigated by the time period and the circumstances) with a gripping plot and an interesting historical context.

Crow learns important lessons about family, bravery, and identity throughout the book, lessons that are subtly done and are interwoven well with the plot. I do have issues with Osh’s statement of “What you do is who you are” because it too closely intertwines behavior with self, leading to the belief that if one hates a behavior, they must therefore hate the person doing that behavior, which isn’t true in the slightest. Luckily, it isn’t dwelt on very much in the book, nor does that statement seem to be Wolk’s main focus, so I was able to put aside my disgruntlement.

For people who love diversity in books, this one checks off all the boxes: both Osh and Crow are non-white; Osh is presumably a Native American (or possibly Inuit? It was very vague), while Crow is (again, vague) described as “dark,” presumably with African heritage. There’s an interesting conversation between Osh and Miss Maggie about Osh’s origins, which in comparison to, say, the extreme heavy-handedness in Rae Carson’s Walk On Earth a Stranger, was lightly critical without getting preachy. There’s also a fun scene where Crow sees someone of her own race and is both shocked and delighted.

Beyond the Bright Sea’s plot doesn’t have particularly unique or new twists and turns, but it is compelling; the story is powerful and gripping, the messages are good and executed well, and the characters are interesting. Wolk blends talking points with natural flow very well, making things less preachy, and at the end of the book her message about family stands strong.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

I pulled up on the twine and found a ring nestled in the fold of cloth. I held it up in the light and was surprised to see the gleam of a red gemstone.

It was too big, even for my biggest finger.

“Do you think I’m from Newport, then?” I whispered. “From a rich family?”

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2EK3kb5

1953 Newbery Medal: Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark

Secret of the Andes, by Ann Nolan Clark, was published in 1952 by Viking.

Cusi, a modern Inca boy, leaves his home high in the Andes mountains to learn the mysterious secret of his ancient ancestors. Accompanied by his pet llama, Misti, he slowly discovers the truth about his birth and his people’s ancient glory—now he must prove himself worthy to be entrusted with the fabulous secret from the past.

Rating: 3/5

Secret of the Andes tells the story of an Inca boy, Cusi, and the adventure he goes on to learn the history of his people. It’s a gorgeously detailed book, describing the majesty and beauty of the Andes, the way of life and culture of the Incas, and the history of the Incan Empire and their conquest by the Spanish. The main plot is loosely based on history, and though Clark does take some liberties, she does a fantastic job of conveying her main message: the preservation of one’s culture.

The one thing that stood askance to me, amidst all the descriptions of Incan/Andean ways of life, was the continual reference to the Inca as “Indians.” Cusi calls himself and other Incas “Indians,” though there’s no reason for him to be using that name at all. Clark is clearly using that name as one that would be familiar with her audience, but it’s still jarring to hear Cusi, who given his circumstances would probably never have heard the word “Indian” in his life, call himself one.

Fun fact about this book: it beat out Charlotte’s Web for the Newbery Medal. Apparently one of the judges picked this book over E. B White’s because she hadn’t seen any good books about South America, a case where uniqueness, rather than quality (Charlotte’s Web is much more memorable and lasting than this book, and, arguably, a better book), won the day.

Secret of the Andes reveals the secret of the title slowly, and isn’t all together clear, either, about it, though the ending did a much better job of explaining things than I initially thought. The book itself has a quality that I can only describe as “majestic” and Clark does a great job of briefly, but clearly, explaining the way the Spanish conquest of the Incas has left them as a people. It’s a rich book, though its lasting power and memorability is not as strong as some others.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

Cusi was left to entertain the visitor. “Our mother llamas never carry loads,” he told the minstrel importantly.

“I know,” the man answered. “You keep them for shearing.”

“And to have their babies,” Cusi added.

The minstrel nodded. “That Misti fellow of yours is a good one,” he said. “Did you know that in the days of the Inca Kings a black llama like yours was always the first to be sacrificed to the Sun?”

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2quN1cP

A Line in the Sand by Sherry Garland

A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence, by Sherry Garland, was published in 1998 by Scholastic.

In the journal she receives for her twelfth birthday in 1835, Lucinda Lawrence describes the hardships her family and other residents of the “Texas colonies” endure when they decide to face the Mexicans in a fight for their freedom.

Rating: 4/5

Having lived in Texas for the past 4 ½ years, I’ve come to a better appreciation of the history of Texas, especially the Alamo. And it was nice to read A Line in the Sand and be able to identify the landmarks and visualize the basic area in which the story takes place.

As the topic might suggest, this is not, at its heart, a happy story. It’s a retelling of a time when families struggled to live off the Texas land, struggled to reconcile their Tejano neighbor with their Mexican enemies (which Garland conveys superbly, by the way, by detailing how intermingled the cultures were and how Mexicans fought alongside “Anglos” to repel their own leader, whom they feared), and struggled to hold back the Mexican forces at the Alamo—a fight they failed at, with devastating loss of life.

The end of the book cannot be described as happy. It does depict the final victory of the Texans over Santa Anna at San Jacinto, but the news comes after the horrifying details of the Texans’ flight across Texas in front of the advancing Mexican army. If anything, the ending of the book is a bittersweet resolution as the Texans realize the fight is over, but realize how much they’ve lost. It’s a survivor’s ending, basically.

A Line in the Sand does a great job of depicting the culture of the time as well as the various tensions and opinions of the people. The buildup is slow, and the ending is quick, but it matches the bewilderment that the settlers must have faced when they heard the news of the Alamo and had to flee for their lives—a flight which cost many more lives. It’s not a happy story, but it’s sorrow is countered by the hopeful note sounding at the end in the determination and relief of the Texans. This is one of the Dear America books I had never read growing up, and I’m glad that I got to finally read it now, especially as someone living in Texas now.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

This evening, about one hundred and fifty Texians crossed the river by ferry. They decided they would not wait for Mexican soldiers to attack Gonzales, but would find them and attack first. With heavy hearts we said farewell to Willis and Uncle Henry. I think every woman was silently weeping, though we cheered and tried to show courage and act like ladies. It is eerily quiet now. After she fed Papa, I saw Mama go behind the smokehouse to Baby Mary’s grave. That is where she always goes to be alone with her thoughts and to have a good cry.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2IKuMYH