The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, was published in 2015 by Dial.

Rating: 4/5

The War That Saved My Life is about Ada and her brother, Jamie, who are sent to the country to escape the threat of Hitler (well, Jamie is sent—Ada sneaks along). Ada has a clubfoot and a terrible mother, and knows almost nothing about human interaction or the outside world. The book is basically a coming-of-age story for Ada, who learns many things while staying with Susan, the woman who took her and Jamie in, as well as a story of strength and survival.

There’s a lot going on in this book to unpack. There’s the background of World War II at the beginning, leading to its outright interference towards the end, so we get stories of heroes and spies at the same time as Ada is finding her own inner strength. We have Ada’s journey, from abused to hero, and her growing reconciliation with the fact that her clubfoot doesn’t make her worthy of less love. We have Susan’s journey, from depressed lonely woman to someone who grows to care fiercely for the children. And Jamie gets a mini-journey as well, though he never felt a believable six-year-old to me.

It’s a Newbery Honor book, and deservedly so. It’s a heartwrenching, heartwarming story of love and family. The inclusion of World War II isn’t toned down; it’s brutal and scary and shows just the sort of atmosphere that must have existed at the time.  Of course, the best part of the book is Ada, though Susan’s own journey is almost as important. However, there’s a scene at the end where Ada confronts her mother that is supposed to be the strongest part of the book, but I found to be a little confusing and a little too cut-and-dry. Despite that, though, The War That Saved My Life is powerful and memorable, and one of the better stories that handles abuse and disability.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

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The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, was published in 1989 by Penguin.

In 1948 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between these four women and their Ameican-born daughters. As each reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined….

Rating: 4/5

The Joy Luck Club was one of the choices for my high school summer reading back in the day. It’s the one I picked, and I vaguely remember liking it. A couple of years later, I stumbled across “The Rules of the Game,” a chapter of the book, presented as a short story. This book had stayed with me throughout the years, though I’m not sure why—I didn’t remember much about it and I don’t remember being enthused about it when I read it in high school. But I decided to read it again since I’ve always said I like the book, though couldn’t remember much about it beyond the one chapter about Waverly and chess.

I could probably say a lot about Tan’s presentation of immigration, of children born into America whose parents came from a different country and the clash of cultures that occurs within their own family as a result. There is so much disconnect between the mothers and their daughters simply because their daughters were born in America, and the mothers were born in China, and the completely different lives they lived and what they experienced. The four mothers’ stories are all equal parts horrifying and heartbreaking, while in comparison, the problems of the four daughters seem a bit whiny and shallow—at least in my opinion. To be honest, The Joy Luck Club mostly seems to focus on the strength of the mothers, and all the ways their daughters fail to see that strength.

The book is separated into four sections; each character narrates twice, except for Jing Mei/June, whose mother has died and thus she narrates four times. Because of the back-and-forth and switching, it’s difficult to remember which story belongs to whom. I had to keep going back to refresh my memory. Each daughter narrates something about her childhood, then something about her adult life, while the mothers narrate about events in China. I can’t really say that I had a “favorite story” or a “favorite character;” I didn’t like any of the daughters and the mothers’ stories were interesting, but too disjointed for me to have a strong attachment.

I do think “The Rules of the Game” is an excellent short story, though, which is why it’s treated as one in anthologies, I think. That has always been the one thing I remember most about the book.

The Joy Luck Club is not a book that really sticks with me, nor is it a book that I could read again and again. It’s more like a book that I come back to in ten years’ time, reading it, saying, “Oh, right, that’s what this is about,” and then putting it down for another ten years. It’s a great perspective on cultural differences and the generational “gap,” as it were, which is probably why it’s on high school curriculum, but I think its strengths lie more in taking a chapter separately as opposed to the whole thing. However, there’s a reason it’s still read and talked about today, which is why I’m giving it such a high rating. I admire it for those qualities, but it’s not really a book I want to come back to.

Recommended Age Range: 15+

Warnings: Some mentions of sex, violence, death.

Genre: Historical Fiction

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2015 Newbery Medal: The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander, was published in 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“A bolt of lightning on my kicks…/ The court is sizzling. / My sweat is drizzling. / Stop all that quivering. / Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” raps basketball phenom Josh Bell. Thanks to his dad, he and his twin brother, Jordan, are kings on the court, with crossovers that make even the toughest ballers cry. But Josh has more than hoops in his blood. He’s got a river of rhymes flowing through him—a sick flow that helps him find his rhythm when everything’s on the line. As their winning season unfolds, things begin to change. When Jordan meets the new girl in school, the twins’ tight-knight bond unravels. In this heartfelt novel, basketball and brotherhood intertwine to show Josh and Jordan that life doesn’t come with a playbook and, sometimes, it’s not about winning.

Rating: 4/5

I’m not a huge fan of novels written in verse, but The Crossover won me over. Alexander made the format actually fit in a way that made sense; there was a reason that’s important to the story why it was written this way, and it really would not have been the same book at all if it had been written in prose. Not many novels-in-verse are like that.

This book is remarkably sad, as befitting a Newbery Medal (I kid, but seriously, Newbery Medal winners often have some poignancy attached), and the worst part is that what makes it so sad is the unnecessariness of it all. You can see the sadness coming from a mile away, and all you want to do is scream at the characters and get them to prevent what’s coming, but of course, that’s not how books work.

Despite the sadness, The Crossover is quite funny, and there’s even a happy ending of sorts. More bittersweet than happy, perhaps. And Alexander does a great job of conveying all the various emotions of everyone, not just Josh, so that really helps give the characters more depth.

The one thing that I found confusing was simply the basketball terminology. Even after having a crossover explained to me, I still had no idea what the point of it was or why it seemed to be so important in basketball. It would have been nice to have someone explain why it’s important to have a good crossover, but perhaps that would have broken up the flow of the book.

The Crossover actually reminded me quite a bit of some my students, who I think might really enjoy this book—even if it is written in verse! It’s sad and funny and heartwarming and bittersweet in all the right places in all the right times. I’m still not a fan of novels in verse, but The Crossover is one of my favorites of the style.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

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I’d Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel

Disclaimer: I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life, by Anne Bogel, was provided by Baker Books. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

My rating: 4/5

I’d Rather Be Reading is, as Annie Spence on the back of the book puts it, “a book lover’s delight.” Bogel cheekily describes a book-lover’s best and worst moments in this short book; hints of tongue-in-cheek humor are interspersed among more serious chapters of imagination, growth, and friendship. The beautiful cover is emblematic of the charm of the book, and a few illustrations are also scattered inside the pages, as well.

The mix of humor and seriousness is a good one, as Bogel lightly talks about her own problems as a bookworm, then highlights the foibles of any bookworm. The switch between “fun” and “let’s get serious” is a little bit jarring, but bookworms are probably more willing to bear with a book that describes them so perfectly. And, despite the fact that many of the books Bogel lists in this novel I was unfamiliar with, I was still able to resonate with the majority of Bogel’s words, her recollections and her confessions, her gentle admonitions and her strong declarations.

This was a fun book for me to read, and though I didn’t necessarily learn much, I’d Rather Be Reading resonated with me for nothing more than the fact that the author is a bookworm, writing for an audience of bookworms, and Bogel showed me that there are people, after all, who know what it’s like to be a voracious reader.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Nonfiction

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The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross

The Queen’s Rising, by Rebecca Ross, was published in 2018 by HarperTeen.

When her seventeenth summer solstice arrives, Brienna desires only two things: to master her passion and to be chosen by a patron. Growing up in the southern kingdom of Valenia at the renowned Magnalia House should have prepared her. While some are born with a talent for one of the five passions—art, music, dramatics, wit, and knowledge—Brienna struggled to find hers until she chose knowledge. However, despite all her preparations, Brienna’s greatest fear comes true: she is left without a patron. Months later, her life takes an unexpected turn when a disgraced lord offers her patronage. Suspicious of his intent, she reluctantly accepts. But there is much more to his story, for there is a dangerous plot to overthrow the king of Maevana—the rival kingdom of Valenia—and restore the rightful queen, and her magic, to the northern throne. And others are involved, some closer to Brienna than she realizes. With war brewing, Brienna must choose which side she will remain loyal to—passion or blood .Because a queen is destined to rise and lead the battle to reclaim the crown. Who will be that queen?

Rating: 4/5

The Queen’s Rising was the sort of book where I knew pretty much everything that was going to happen, but I enjoyed the book anyway. While it’s fairly formulaic, it avoided many of the pitfalls that YA fantasy books can fall into. Brienna is a capable protagonist, but not annoying; the romance is subtle; the world and the plot make sense and are interesting. Best of all, it’s a self-contained novel: though it’s not a stand-alone book, it could easily be one. There’s no contrived, cliff-hanger ending to entice you into the next book. Everything is wrapped up nicely.

Ross’s writing is beautiful, but can sometimes stray into the “strange description” territory, such as “I smiled, the laughter hanging between my lungs.” What is that even supposed to mean? Besides her occasional bouts of eyebrow-raising-description, Ross’s writing is smooth and succinct when it should be, and flows well. It’s also not in present tense, thank goodness.

As I stated, the plot is really predictable; I guessed all the reveals pretty close to the beginning of the book, and nothing really surprised me. However, Ross doesn’t go with the obvious tropes all the time, which is good because it would have made me like the book significantly less. The plot is formulaic, but not stuffed with old tropes, so I got to enjoy the ride and not get annoyed at the lack of originality. There’s a good moment near the end of the book where Brienna has a choice between two options and I liked that Ross sort of acknowledged that one choice would have changed the whole feel of the book (to me, at least). I like that Brienna, though important to the plot, isn’t an absolutely central character to the world. I like having protagonists who are more on the fringe because it’s more relatable.

The Queen’s Rising has some flaws, but I really enjoyed it overall. The writing is beautiful, though sometimes strange, the romance isn’t annoying, and though the plot is predictable, it’s detailed and developed enough that things make sense. I loved that it read as a stand-alone novel, too. I will be keeping an eye out for more books by Ross.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

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A Picture of Freedom by Patricia C. McKissack

A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl, by Patricia C. McKissack, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.

Having secretly taught herself how to read and write, Clotee, a brave twelve-year-old Virginia slave, witnesses the horrors of slavery and eventually becomes a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Rating: 4/5

A Picture of Freedom is a fantastic book on slavery for children. It can be hard to find the right balance of age-appropriateness and realism when it comes to topics such as slavery, but McKissack details exactly what is necessary in order to present slavery in a way that’s clear, but not too harsh for children.

There’s not much violence or brutality at first glimpse in the book, but Clotee’s life, which seems almost like a normal servant’s life at first, gradually unveils itself as part of the dehumanizing reality of slavery. McKissack carefully, but purposefully, portrays a slave being beaten to death, slaves being married against their will and desire, slave mistresses and mixed-race children, and slaves being separated from their families. She expertly relates all the unfairness and inequality of slavery in the day-to-day scenarios and events that happen in Clotee’s life.

Besides her portrayal of slavery, McKissack also does quite well with other historical details as well. The Underground Railroad is, of course, a big fixture in the book, with the undercover abolitionists whose goal is to help slaves escape and the need for fixed stops and conductors to help the escapes. The Gospel songs and coded lyrics of the black church of the time were also included, which I thought was a nice touch. It also helps explain why so many Gospel songs talk about going to heaven. And I enjoyed that McKissack didn’t make all the Southern white characters slave-owners and racist, as it added even more realism.

A Picture of Freedom is an excellent book for teaching children about slavery. It’s not too dark or brutal, but still covers heavy topics. It also covers the development of Southern Gospel and of the roots of songs in slavery. Clotee is also a great protagonist: hopeful, kind, determined. Her grace and her kindness towards her captors in small moments are some of the best parts of the book.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Slavery, violence.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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1949 Newbery Medal: King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry

King of the Wind, by Marguerite Henry, was published in 1948 by Simon & Schuster.

When Agba, a simple horse boy in the royal stables of the Moroccan court, is selected to accompany his stallion to France he is beside himself with pride. Sham, along with five other horses, is the golden bay named for the Arabian sun, and meant to sire a stronger race of horses throughout Europe. But when Sham and Agba arrive, the king sees them as nothing more than a carthorse and his charge and sends them away. Bound by the orders of the Sultan, Agba knows he must protect the pedigree of Sham at all costs. A duty that will change the history of thoroughbred horses—forever.

Rating: 4/5

I think I’ve found the book that inspired The Black Stallion, or at least, the book most likely to have influenced it. King of the Wind reads far too similarly to Farley’s series for it to be a coincidence (unless I’m crazy and making things up, which is also possible).

King of the Wind traces the lineage of the great racehorse Man O’ War back to “The Godolphin Arabian,” the horse from Morocco that traveled all the way to England through various methods and sired swift racehorses. Besides The Black Stallion, the book also read like Black Beauty, especially in terms of all the predicaments Sham found himself in (though the book isn’t told from his perspective as in Black Beauty). It’s basically a story about how Agba, Sham’s groom, never gives up on believing that his horse will accomplish great things despite all the terrible things that happen.

It’s a beautiful book, especially with the illustrations, even though it does a lot of hand-waving some times. For example, I completely missed when Agba and Sham got to England from France, and things definitely progressed at an unrealistic rate and setting. But the book is, at its heart, a horse book, and so it can more easily get away with things like that, in my opinion.

I’m also impressed that Henry seemed to do a lot of research on this book, judging by the lists of books she gave at the end. It’s obvious that the majority of it she made up, but knowing that there’s a seed of truth in it somewhere helps make the whole book seem more meaningful somehow.

My one disgruntlement is that the marvelous horse race that’s beautifully illustrated inside the cover never happens. In fact, Sham never races at all. It’s actually a little harder to sell the title, in my opinion, if Sham never actually runs, but I mean, I suppose he lives on through his super-fast children.

King of the Wind is so reminiscent of mid-twentieth century horse stories, combining danger and adventure in the basic story of the love between a boy and his horse. It’s a great starting point to talk about differences in culture and in religion, and the frequent dismissals of Sham as being too weak/little/etc. to be a good breeding horse can certainly be related to present day topics. I just wish that horse race that was so gorgeously illustrated on the front and endplates had actually taken place because it would have been awesome.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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Series Week IX (The Great Brain): The Great Brain Reforms

The Great Brain Reforms, by John D. Fitzgerald, was published in 1973 by Dial.

The year is 1898, and the best con man in Adenville, Utah, is the infamous twelve-year-old Tom Fitzgerald, “The Great Brain.” A year at the Catholic Academy for Boys certainly hasn’t dulled Tom’s love for money—he’s no sooner off the train than he begins scamming his own brother! By the end of his summer break, Tom has tricked all his friends out of everything they own. He even outwits three professional crooks who come to swindle the whole town. Tom thinks he should be the most popular kid around: He has all the good toys, and he’s saved his townspeople. Tom really begins to rake in the dough when he sets up business as a raftsman. But when he endears the lives of two friends, his brother J.D. decides it’s time for the Great Brain to reform. And that’s how the case of The Kids of Adenvillev s. The Great Brain is tried in the Fitzgeralds’ barn one summer day.

Rating: 4/5

My favorite Great Brain books are the ones where Tom gets a little slap of reality. It’s good fun to see the way he tricks and connives his brothers and friends out of their belongings, but there’s a sort of bittersweet feeling that comes along with it, too. There’s lots of good fun in The Great Brain Reforms, and lots of that bittersweet/aggravated feeling when J.D. continuously falls for his brother’s shenanigans, or Tom sweettalks his way out of trouble. But, as the title promises, there’s also moments where Tom realizes that he’s taken things too far.

The Great Brain has had times in previous books where his schemes have failed him. There’s the moment in More Adventures of the Great Brain where Tom insults the town through his newspaper, and later cries alone in the barn. In The Great Brain at the Academy, Tom is put in his place several times by the priests at school. In The Great Brain Reforms, two whole chapters are dedicated to Tom’s downfall.

Fitzgerald illustrates in this book, to an extent that he never reaches in the previous books, the cost of Tom’s greed, and once again shows the difference between Tom using his brain to help others and Tom using his brain to fill his wallet. Tom is faced with what his actions have cost him—the loss of his friends, the disappointment of his family, and a terrible reputation.

There’s a lot of nuance in this book, and a lot of buildup—Tom slowly gets more and more reckless and greedy in his endeavors. He’s at his most outrageous in this book—and yet, there are moments when normal, brotherly Tom shines through. The ending is inevitable, and there’s a sense of satisfaction to it, even as J.D. reminds us that Tom is the Great Brain, after all, and he’s not likely to reform for long.

The Great Brain Reforms has many aggravating Tom moments, but Fitzgerald is much harsher on Tom in this book than in previous books, as fits the results of his conniving. Tom at last comes face-to-face with the results of his own greed, and it’s satisfying even as the reader feels slightly sorry for Tom. I’d say this is one of the best Great Brain books in terms of displaying consequences, and also in terms of showcasing the difference between when Tom helps people and when he’s just being greedy.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None. 

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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Series Week IX (The Great Brain): Me and My Little Brain

Me and my Little Brain, by John D. Fitzgerald, was published in 1971 by Puffin.

Tom, a.k.a. The Great Brain, has gone off to attend boarding school in Salt Lake City, leaving little brother J. D. to follow in his ingenious and conniving footsteps. Since all of J. D.’s attempts at profitable endeavors fail miserably, he soon realizes that he just doesn’t have that crafty Great Brain knack. But when his young adopted brother is kidnapped by a desperate outlaw, J. D. finds that his little brain may not be so ordinary after all.

Rating: 4/5

Me and My Little Brain (which drives me crazy since it should be My Little Brain and I) is a much-needed addition to the Great Brain series. It dials back on Tom, since he’s off to boarding school, and focuses on the narrator, J.D., as he tries to figure out who he is apart from his brother.

The first couple of chapters deal with J.D. as he tries to follow in his brother’s footsteps—and soon finds out that trying to be like someone else doesn’t work out the way you want it to. The rest of the book deals with J.D. figuring out who he is and coming to terms with the fact that he only has a “little” brain.

The plot mainly revolves around Frankie, a young boy who the Fitzgeralds ultimately adopt, and his relationship with J.D. Then, of course, there’s a part at the end where J.D. really gets to show off all his “little brain” can do—and also give himself confidence in his own abilities, and make him realize that he can be his own person and that he doesn’t revolve around Tom and Tom’s escapades.

It’s a very refreshing entry in the Great Brain series, especially if you find Tom’s cons in the first two books tiring or annoying. There’s very little “Great Brain” exploits in this book, and it deals much more with character development than the first two books as well. It’s far-fetched at times, but the whole series is that way, and it fits with the nature of the books as a whole.

Me and My Little Brain focuses the spotlight on J.D. and is all the better for it. J.D. really comes into his own, and his journey is realistic—his struggle to be like Tom, his disappointment when he finds out he can’t be, and then his realization at the end when he understands that even though he may just have a “little brain,” he can still accomplish great things and reap priceless benefits for doing so. It’s a good break from the cons of Tom, and a defining character moment for J.D. It may not be as fun as reading a book about Tom’s tricks, but it has much more substance to it.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None. 

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

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A Daring Venture by Elizabeth Camden

Disclaimer: A Daring Venture, by Elizabeth Camden, was provided by Bethany House. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

My rating: 4/5

I really like Elizabeth Camden. She has a knack for making compelling stories with characters that don’t fit the same old outline of the majority of other Christian historical romances. She also tends to have strong stories that aren’t pushed to the side for the romance. This story is about the battle to chlorinate water—a true story—and deliver clean water so that water-borne diseases, such as cholera, aren’t as frequent. The two main characters, Rosalind and Nick, do have a sort of insta-love, which I never really like, but Camden made it super cute and emphasized aspects of it that made me actually like it this time.

I also liked that the romance was void of a lot of tired tropes. That may also have contributed to my liking of it, since it seemed so new in comparison to the past books I’ve read. And I liked that Rosalind and Nick got to shine as characters, rather than as vehicles for romance. The characterization was really good, though Nick’s turn-around in terms of his view of chlorination was abrupt. And I liked all the court intrigue and the drama that revolved around the plot, though some of it was a little too over-the-top, such as pretty much everything that went on with Aunt Margaret.

This book is the second in a series, but luckily it’s not necessary to have read the first (I didn’t). It would have led to much greater insight into two of the characters, as well as Nick’s background, but overall it wasn’t too bad to fill in the blanks with what Camden gave.

A Daring Venture had a compelling plot, a romance that was sweet (and not annoying, so it gets bonus points from me), and solid characterization. A few elements were a miss for me, such as some of the more dramatic moments and Nick’s abrupt change of mind, but overall, I really enjoyed this book.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction

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