The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John Hendrix

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler, by John Hendrix, was published in 2018 by Amulet.

Rating: 5/5                                          

Combining stunning, full-colored illustrations interwoven with text, The Faithful Spy depicts the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, and his role in the numerous assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler during World War II. It’s not an intensive biography; Hendrix is much more concerned with explaining Bonhoeffer’s thoughts and motivations. Using numerous exact quotations from Bonhoeffer’s writings and some poetic license, Hendrix spins a gripping tale of a madman’s attempts to rule the Western world, and the desperate people who tried to stop him.

This is a book about Bonhoeffer, but it is also a book about Hitler and Germany, because in order to explain why and how Bonhoeffer got involved with the Abwehr, the German spy agency who became dedicated to getting rid of Hitler, Hendrix also had to describe the state of Germany at the time and how Hitler rose to power. There’s so much information packed in a short amount of time, but it all flows naturally, and of course the art makes everything stand out that much more. And the best part is that everything is explained simply enough that the audience of the book (it’s a middle-grade/young adult book) would be able to completely understand, even if they didn’t know much about World War I or World War II.

Another great thing about the book is the reverence and attention-to-detail that Hendrix gives to Bonhoeffer’s faith, and to Christianity in general. Hendrix acknowledges Hitler’s manipulation of Christianity (and also truthfully states that Hitler hated Christianity because of its doctrine of love and charity), but by setting that manipulation side-by-side with Bonhoeffer’s pure faith, the reader is more able to readily see what true Christianity is (rather than the twisted version that people in power so often give).

I learned so much more about Bonhoeffer, and about Hitler and Germany, than I ever thought I would from this book. The Faithful Spy is visually appealing and comprehensive in subject; Hendrix also lists an extensive bibliography and notes at the end, which is rare to see in a book for children. I picked this up on a whim, and am so pleased that I did—truly a delight from cover-to-cover.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Nonfiction

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes, was published in 2013 by Greenwillow.

Rating: 5/5                                          

The Year of Billy Miller is a charming book about 2nd grader Billy Miller, who starts off the school year with a lump on his head and worries on his mind, but develops better relationships with four people (his teacher, his father, his sister, and his mother) along the way. The book is split up into four sections, each focusing on a particular relationship.

Kevin Henkes has written one of the most realistic second-grader voices I’ve read in recent memory, capturing the perfect mix of courage, trepidation, and growing up and delivering it authentically. Billy is strong in all the right ways, yet has perfectly normal fears and needs, as well. He’s flustered when a classmate mocks his use of “Mama” and “Papa,” he gets annoyed at his little sister (yet will do anything to make her happy), he works to make things right when he gets things wrong. It’s hard to describe how well Henkes writes a seven-year-old; it’s something that needs to be experienced itself.

The book is a fast read, but it doesn’t seem too short. I found it delightful, funny, and charming. I loved the way Henkes navigated through a second-grader’s school year and I loved the focus on relationships. And, since Billy is so young, the book exudes the same air of innocence and lightheartedness that he does. It was a refreshing read after some heavier books, and it put a smile on my face.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Realistic

With the Might of Angels by Andrea Davis Pinkney

With the Might of Angels, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, was published in 2011 by Scholastic.

Rating: 5/5

Of the revamped Dear America books, this book is the best of them all, and definitely in what I would consider the top tier of all of them. With the Might of Angels is about desegregation/integration after Brown v. Board of Education and about the lead-up to the Civil Rights Movement. There’s also an extensive historical and author’s note at the end, where Pinkney addresses all the real things that happened, as well as what was fictional and what tweaks to time she made.

Part of what makes this book so great is not only the topic, but also the way Pinkney makes Dawnie’s voice shine through. My favorite DA books have always been those that remember that they’re not just recounting history, but making the narrator seem real, like this was a real person living in those times. And sometimes that means the narrator isn’t concerned at all times with the particular historical event the book is focused. Sometimes it means she’s thinking about pogo sticks, or how much she loves (and yet is annoyed by) her younger brother, or how she really wants to be a doctor when she grows up. It means sometimes she’s a bit whiny, sometimes a bit angry, sometimes a bit confused, and sometimes courageous and strong. And yes, Dawnie is all of those things.

The book is less brutal and hard-hitting than a book like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, but Pinkney doesn’t pull any punches, either. Dawnie and her brother are called all manner of racial slurs. Goober is beaten up. The family receives prank telephone calls, gets bottles of milk thrown at their house, and finds a drowned raccoon in a barrel of milk on their porch as a response to the black community’s boycott of Sutton’s Dairy. Dawnie is belittled and overlooked at school. There’s mentions of lynching. Yet Pinkney manages to keep the book hopeful and light, despite the heavy material.

 There’s no Dear America book on the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, but With the Might of Angels does a whole lot to cover many of those topics. It shows all the immorality and hate implicit in the time period, but without making it too dark for children. That being said, there’s plenty in this book to unpack, and it’s likely not suitable for children too young to understand or at least discuss everything going on in this book.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Racial slurs.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Jesus Skeptic by John Dickerson

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from the publisher. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 5/5

I was excited to read Jesus Skeptic before I even opened it, and I was even more excited about it after reading the first ten pages. I’ve read books like it before, most recently Unimaginable by Jeremiah Johnston, but this is the first book I’ve read that dealt with so thoroughly and with such attention to primary evidence.
By primary evidence, Dickerson explains that he means things like firsthand accounts or historical documents of the time period being discussed, similar to the evidence a journalist (which Dickerson is) would use in writing a story. So, the book explores the primary evidence behind science, education, hospitals, and the abolition of slavery to explore the question of whether Jesus’s teachings have helped further justice and progress, or inhibited it. It’s the question of whether Christianity has been good for the world or not, and Dickerson explores it thoroughly, diving deep into statistics and the people behind many important movements.

I knew many things that this book talked about already, but some I did not, and I enjoyed learning more about how universities were established, the origins of hospitals, and what life was like for the majority of people until about two hundred years ago. And the best part of this book is that Dickerson uses only the words of the people who were involved and facts and statistics that can be obtained by anyone. There are pictures and documents and tons of detailed footnotes. There’s even a website, which I peeked at briefly to see if it would be useful for teaching.

This book was especially helpful for times when I forget what an impact Christianity can have on people. Dickerson shared personal stories of his own, as well as stories of people he knew—again, all primary evidence that can be independently verified. And it will be especially helpful for when my students broach the exact question Dickerson is exploring in this novel. Even if you know this information already, Jesus Skeptic is a worthwhile read—but it’s a vital one if you are not aware of the evidence that is out there for Christian involvement in education, medicine, science, and the abolition of slavery.

Warnings: None

Genre: Nonfiction, Christian

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward, by Brandon Sanderson, was published in 2018 by Delacorte

Rating: 5/5

Brandon Sanderson is always so consistently good as a writer—his plots are intricate, his characters are fleshed out, the worldbuilding is superb, and there’s always a bit of humor thrown in to mellow things out. Skyward is no exception. I don’t normally like science fiction, but Sanderson makes it interesting—and understandable. One of his trademarks as an author is complicated, but understandable worldbuilding, and in Skyward everything from the caverns to the planet, but especially the fighter ships, is meticulously explained in a way that makes sense and that flows from the world naturally.

This book was very hard for me to put down, since Sanderson is so good at pacing and tension. While perhaps not as fun as Steelheart was, with all of its superpowers, Spensa and the other members of her flight crew made the book come alive and made me enjoy every minute of it. I also enjoyed the mysteries surrounding M-Bot, Spensa’s spoiler-y ability which I won’t really talk about, and Doomslug (who may not be mysterious, but certainly seems that way). And did I mention that I normally dislike science fiction to the point where it’s hard for me to enjoy any book of that genre, regardless of writer or quality? Yet Sanderson made it as interesting and exciting for me as any book of another genre because he’s so good.

All right, I might be biased (like with Diana Wynne Jones), but I did really love the book. I found a few things problematic towards the end, especially with the big reveal about Spensa and the Krell that I thought was perhaps delivered too fast (though there’s room in the sequels to explore all that, I suppose) or not explained enough, but Skyward was an excellent, fun adventure all the way through.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Z5oXAS

Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn

Summers at Castle Auburn, by Sharon Shinn, was published in 2001 by Ace.

Rating: 5/5

Summers at Castle Auburn has been on my reading list for quite a while—since the first Sharon Shinn book I’ve read (The Safe-Keeper’s Secret), I think. The title, plus the rating on Goodreads, plus my love for 2000s fantasy, all contributed to my desire to read the book. It took me a while to actually get it, though.

But, boy, did it not disappoint.

Now, I’ve read other books that are more immediately gripping—The King of Attolia, for one—and it’s not the type of book that I feel I could read over and over again. But I enjoyed it the way I enjoyed Juliet Marillier and Kate Constable—and Shinn’s other works. It’s slow, and meandering, but there’s so much to think about and to see develop.

The book is pretty slow up until about the middle, but once you get to the middle, you see why the first part was important. There’s a bit of odd stuff scattered around, but it all contributes to the world and to the characters. The most prominent is the aliora, which seem like a pretty useless addition—take them out of the story and everything stays the same—but they do contribute to the world in a way that perhaps wouldn’t be as effective if they had been left out.

There’s a lot of court intrigue, which I loved, but the best part is that its intrigue interpreted through the eyes of someone who isn’t really involved in all the intrigue. So we see parts of it, and only get hints at the rest. The best part of this intrigue is, of course, the slow reveal of the character Bryan’s personality and tendencies, as he goes from flirtatious, energetic teenager to smiling monster. And, of course, my favorite part of the book was the ending, where intrigue collides with tension, and there are several big character moments for all of the main characters.

Shinn does make a small error towards the end—basically, Corie tells her sister something, and then later on wonders how her sister knows about that thing—but everything is so well paced and revealed that I could ignore it. And what I mostly cared about was the romance, which was maybe not as romantic as some people might like, but it was very well-developed, and I loved what it had to say about love and about how sometimes loving someone means doing something you normally wouldn’t do.

I’m not sure Summers at Castle Auburn will be on my “Could Read Again” list, but I thoroughly enjoyed almost every page of it—even the slow beginning. Shinn and 2000s fantasy prove their worth again!

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Dark themes (murder is the most prominent, subtle hints at rape)

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Vp8qBy

1986 Newbery Medal: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan was published in 1985 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 5/5

I tend to have an issue with short Newbery Medal books. Perhaps it’s because they seem so much more aimed for children. Perhaps it’s because there’s no way to fit much plot or character development in something that short. Or maybe it’s because I’ve just had bad luck with my liking of short Newbery Medal books, like The Whipping Boy or The Matchlock Gun. Or it could be that short books mean short book reviews. Whatever it is, I’m not too much of a fan.

But I love Sarah, Plain and Tall.

It’s cute, it’s heartwarming, it’s feel-good and matter-of-fact and simplistic and beautiful. It’s a story of finding out where your home is, and whom it is with, and how to handle homesickness and missing things. It’s a story of two children who want to love and be loved, and how they get that in the person of Sarah, who is plain and tall and knows how to fix roofs and isn’t afraid of wearing overalls.

And yes, this is a short review, but it is a short book. And it’s delightful.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2SQeBO1

I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly by Joyce Hansen

I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl, by Joyce Hansen, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.

Rating: 5/5

I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly is a delightful story about Patsy, a freed slave who is struggling to find her identity and place in society. I knew very little about the beginning of the Reconstruction era that took place in the South after the Civil War, such as the government’s dealings with the freed slaves, so it was interesting to read this book to find out a little more.

Historical details aside, the heart of this book is Patsy’s story, as it should be. The best Dear America books are those that aren’t just there to give information about a particular time period, but actually tell a story through the diary entries. It seems pretty straightforward when I say it like that—why wouldn’t these books tell a story? But A Light in the Storm and a couple other Dear America books that I have read failed to move beyond the diary entries as a mouthpiece for the setting. I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly makes Patsy, rather than the setting, the center.

I always have a soft place in my heart for protagonists who outwardly appear weak or are looked down upon, but have inner strength that shows itself in various ways (that almost never has to do with physical strength). Patsy, with her stutter and her seemingly “slow” mind, outwardly appears slow and weak, but inwardly she’s sharply intelligent—which shines when she’s doing what she loves. Patsy overcomes not only her stutter, but also her former status as a slave, and chooses for herself a name and a position the process of which is truly heartening to experience.

After so many disappointing Dear America books, I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly was a delight, with a character-driven plot, a delightful protagonist, and a timeless message. It sheds light on an era that I didn’t know much about, but still remembers that it should also be a story, not just a mouthpiece for history. This book will likely remain a stand-out for me among all of the Dear America books.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

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

1977 Newbery Medal: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor, was published in 1976 by Dial.

Why is the land so important to Cassie’s family? It takes the events of one turbulent year—the year of the night riders and the burnings, the year a white girl humiliates Cassie in public simply because she is black—to show Cassie that having a place of their own is the Logan family’s lifeblood. It is the land that gives the Logans their courage and pride, for no matter how others may degrade them, the Logans possess something no one can take away.

Rating: 5/5

I haven’t read this book in years, but I still vividly remember the last sentence. That tends to be a good omen in terms of how much I now like the books I had read as a child, but I was still a little hesitant going in. I didn’t remember all that much of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, beyond the last sentence, but I had a vague sense of “good” attached to it. My students read this book and I remember seeing it and saying, “Oh, that’s a great book!” without having any solid feeling to back it up.

Now, having read it, I can honestly say “Oh, that’s a great book!” when I see my sophomores with it because this is a great book.

It’s fantastic, actually…like To Kill a Mockingbird fantastic. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is sad, enraging, bittersweet, yet it possesses in its characters and in the land that they own an almost triumphant sense of undefeatedness. Taylor pulls absolutely no punches in her depictions of Southern life during segregation. In Cassie, Taylor has created a perfect vehicle for all readers to learn. Injustice and sorrow are center to this book, and are something that the book never resolves, only abates, as befitting the historical time period.

Roll of Thunder is one of the best vehicles for explaining segregation and the racism prevalent in the time before Civil Rights to children. To be honest, I found this book more shocking than Huckleberry Finn and more educational as well. While Twain is excellent at crafting just how much the culture has affected Huck in his attitudes towards Jim, Taylor has given us a book that shows us how that sort of mindset affects those it’s directed towards. It is shocking in its blatant honesty, and it’s not a book where you set it down and are satisfied.

Basically, I want to gush about Roll of Thunder till the cows come home. This is one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read. Highly deserving of that Newbery Medal and of all the rewards, both now and forever.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2O8Wcyk

Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

Keeping the Castle, by Patrice Kindl, was published in 1978 by Dutton.

Seventeen-year-old Althea bears a heavy burden on her slender shoulders. She must support her widowed mother, young brother, and two stepsisters who plead poverty—and she must maintain Crawley Castle, a tumbledown folly designed and built by her great-grandfather. Althea, in short, must marry well. But there are few wealthy suitors—or suitors of any kind—their small Yorkshire town of Lesser Hoo. Then Lord Boring comes to stay with his aunt and uncle. Althea immediately starts a clever, stealthy campaign to become Lady boring. There’s only one problem; his cousin and business manager, Mr. Fredericks, keeps getting in the way. And, as it turns out, Fredericks has his own set of plans…

Rating: 5/5

Keeping the Castle is a fun, sweet, short historical romance akin to Jane Austen (though only in plot, not substance) or Georgette Heyer. I’m not sure how historically accurate it is, but I didn’t find myself caring in the least bit—I had a smile on my face the entire time. It’s cute, it’s indulgent, it’s funny—a lot like Blackmoore or Edenbrooke in terms of how I felt about it, but better written then those two books, I thought.

The book does have a very Austenian plot, a little bit of a mix between Pride & Prejudice and Emma. There’s a lot of focus on money and class, and the tension between the “Old Money” and the “New Money” classes is very clear (Althea is horrified at Lord Boring’s shop-owning cousin, Mr. Fredericks, and his bumbling, rude ways). There’s nothing surprising about the plot in terms of romance, though there are one or two interesting things that happen along the way that are slightly unexpected.

I feel like Kindl had a great time writing this book; it’s very tongue-in-cheek (Lord “Boring,” Dr. Haxhamptonshire (pronounced “Hamster”), etc.) and really it feels like Kindl wanted to capture a lot of Austen charm without the more advanced language and with a bit of a modern touch (in terms of writing, not in terms of setting).

Keeping the Castle was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed myself immensely. I love books like these, especially ones that are written to be funny, as opposed to those which are meant to be serious but wind up being humorous because they’re trying too hard. It was a great relaxing, de-stressing book, and I want to read all of Kindl’s other novels now.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2M6SCjj