Saturday, February 24, 2024

RAT: A Book Review by Tween Guest Blogger, Brooke White

The book RAT by Jan Cheripko is an upper middle-grade/young adult novel offering a unique, first-person perspective of Jeremy, a disabled boy in high school. I would recommend this book for readers 11+ who can comprehend the use of mature language, suggestive dialogue, violence, abuse, and swear words. 

 




We start in a courtroom, with Jeremy a witness in a trial, stating what he saw when his basketball coach, Coach Stennard, physically abused a cheerleader, Cassandra Diaz. He explains that the coach was trying to kiss Cassandra and physically disrespect her boundaries.

 

He explains his passion for basketball, expressing that he’s not too good, but that doesn’t change how he likes the sport. He then tells the judge that his nickname is Rat because his “friends” always call him a gym rat! 

 

Jeremy states that the coach threatened to cut a slit in his throat if he told anyone about what he saw. Jeremy also stated that he saw Cassandra crying, with her blouse ripped.

 

Jeremy and his “friends” talk about the incident. Jeremy learns that his “friends” are only concerned about getting a new coach and are mad at him for testifying against Coach Stennard.  Jeremy thinks about how his injury at birth to his right arm affects his life. He says the reason he’s good at basketball is because he concentrates and doesn’t miss the hoop. In the gym, Simpson bullies Jeremy, and then Josh, another “friend” says, “Leave it alone”. 

 

In a basketball game, Simpson chooses Felipe and Josh, while Mr. O’Connor chooses two girls, Katie and Megan. Jeremy is hurt that he hasn’t been chosen, but he still watches the game. In the end, Mr. O’Connor and the girls win!

 

For Jeremy, it feels good to see Simpson defeated, but that ends quickly. Jeremy attempts to shoot the basketball in the hoop, but then Simpson steals the ball and pins him down using the basketball. Simpson pushes the basketball into Jeremy’s right arm and into his back. Jeremy wiggles on the floor and the kids laugh at him. I found this part of the story a great visual and a good example of what Jeremy experiences.

 

Mr. O’Connor, the new basketball coach, tells the team that Jeremy is the new assistant manager. No one responds. Mr. O’Connor gives the team a basketball handbook and discusses the principles with the players.

 

Once Simpson bullies Jeremy again, Coach O’Connor meets with Jeremy in his office. He talks about honesty and reminds him that honesty is the first principle in the handbook. Jeremy thinks about Coach Stennard and reflects on the terrible experience, then decides to reassess. My favorite character is Mr. O’Connor.  I look up to his encouraging, rule-following, and empathetic personality.

 

Once I started reading this book I couldn’t stop turning the pages! This story guides us through many of Jeremy’s real-life experiences, which we can learn from. Some lessons that stuck out to me were the importance of understanding how to be comfortable in your own skin, and the special perspective of how a relationship with God can be strengthened through trials. In the climax of the story, Jeremy starts to pray to help find his way. 

 

There are multiple plots in this story, which may be hard for some readers to follow along with, but the subplots lead to the adrenaline-pumping and fast-paced novel that it is.

 

The reader is left asking questions. Will Jeremy get into more trouble with his team? Will Coach Stennard get out of jail?  Will Jeremy ever find a real friend?     

 

In conclusion, I would recommend this young adult novel, Rat for ages 11+ or anyone who can process imperfect behavior, violence, and bullying.

 

Brooke loves books and basketball!


Read Brooke's last review of Hidden Truths on my blog here

 

COMMUNITY READ + FREE WRITING WORKSHOP

 If you live in or near Charlotte, NC, I hope you will join me for a fun, free writing event in cooperation with Charlotte Mecklenburg's Community Read program. The book, Buttermilk Graffiti by Chef Edward Lee, chronicles Lee's culinary adventures as he tastes a variety of foods throughout the country. But unlike other foodies who talk about food with restaurant owners, Lee discusses the history and ethnic background behind each type of food or drink he samples. The book is more than about enjoying West Virginia pepperoni rolls that coal miners used to pack for lunch, participating in Ramadan in Dearborn, Michigan, or smoking a Cuban cigar in Miami. It is about the generations who have imbued their food with memory and identity. Listening to Lee's book was like savoring word candy. His descriptions are original, unexpected, and thought-provoking. 



In conjunction with this book, I am giving a workshop, "Food, Memories, & Writing," in four library locations in March.  Participants will sample food, record their memories associated with each one, and create two poems inspired by the food or drink that elicit strong emotions.  

Pre-registration is required and space is limited. Find the branch closest to you. I hope to see you there!

                                                    ****

March 2 from 11-12:30 at Visart Video. Co-sponsored by the Independence branch.


March 18 from 12:30-2 at the North County branch. Click here to register.

March 26 from 6:30-7:45 at the Matthews branch. Click here to register.

March 27 from 10:00-11:30 at the Market @7th Street. Sponsored by the Main branch. Click here to register.  



Monday, February 19, 2024

TRUCKER KID: A Picture Book Review, Author Interview, and Giveaway!


TRUCKER KID  (Capstone, June 2023)

 From Amazon:

"Although Athena misses her truck-driving daddy when he's on the road, she thinks he has the most amazing job in the world. She loves showing off her love of all things trucking. But her classmates don't quite get her or why she calls herself Trucker Kid. Can Athena change their minds and show the other students that it's cool to be Trucker Kid?"

Written by Carol Gordon Ekster with lively illustrations by Russ Cox, this book teaches kids about the life of a trucker's family and is full of trucking similes and metaphors that both kids and adults will enjoy. 

REVIEW

Athena's got a problem. Her truck-driving dad is leaving for a week and she'll miss him!


"When she heads inside, she deflates like a flat tire."


She stays busy playing with her trucks, drawing trucks, and reading about trucks.

But at school, no one seems to understand her fascination with trucks. 



Her answer is simple:


After Athena tells her friends how she holds the mic for the CB radio and sleeps in the truck's cab, they decide they want to be trucker kids too.

Athena's dad is happy to bring his truck to the school and let everyone explore it.


The story ends perfectly on the play
ground with a "traffic jam of drivers" joining Athena.


AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Carol B.: Can you tell us about your path to publication?

Carol E.: In March 2013 I visited my daughter in Taos, NM and we dined at our favorite restaurant. I couldn't help but overhear a family's conversation at a nearby table. Three-year-old Athena was discussing a trucking trip she took with her daddy. My writing brain ignited, and I immediately had my title, Trucker Girl. I told the family that I was a children's author, and how their discussion inspired a title, and I asked for their contact information.

 I came home and took out library books on trucks and trucking. I knew nothing! About one month later I started e-mailing the dad to ask some questions. A month after that I brought the manuscript to a critique group.

 

There have been so many critique buddies weighing too many revisions to count. It gathered close to one hundred rejections!  But then during COVID, I pulled it out again. I had seen how trucks and their drivers were during this difficult time. I added in back matter to show how we rely on trucks and tightened the manuscript. It ended up being one of three manuscripts that helped me secure my first agent.


That agent sent it out on a small round of submissions. Capstone editor, Chris Harbo, acquired it. He was a dream editor and included me in all aspects of the process. Capstone requested a title change from Trucker Girl to Trucker Kid, and of course, I said yes! Almost ten years after that night at the restaurant, I held the book in my hand. 


I love the mysteriousness of this writing life. What if we had not gone to that restaurant at that time or sat next to that family? Trucker Kid was meant to be! My illustrator, Russ Cox, has a son who happens to be a trucker!


CLASSROOM RESOURCE

Carol has a ton of activities on her website for your K-first grade classroom. Teachers could talk about the figurative language used throughout the story and ask students to create their own. In addition, students could look at trucking routes across the United States.

GIVEAWAY

Capstone is providing two copies for two different blog followers. Make sure if you are a librarian or educator to let me know in the comments; your name goes in twice. Please leave your email address if you are new to my blog. If you choose to follow my blog you'll also get an additional chance. U.S. addresses only. The giveaway ends February 21. 

Congratulations to Kathy O'Neill who won Rosie Woods in the Little Red Writing Hood. 

Saturday, February 10, 2024

ROSIE WOODS IN LITTLE RED WRITING HOOD: Book Review and Author Interview by Guest Blogger Elliott Kurta

 

I'm pleased to have Elliott Kurta return to my blog. He is now a busy sophomore so I appreciate him taking time from his studies and volunteer work to share his thoughts about Rosie Woods in Little Red Writing Hood.

Audience: 1st – 5th graders; teachers

In 3 Words: imaginative, bite-sized, funny

One Sentence Synopsis: Rosie Woods explores the five steps of the writing process, using the story of Little Red Riding Hood as an example.

Final Verdict: 4.5/5 stars



 REVIEW

            Rosie Woods has a problem. A big problem: a bout of writer’s block is stopping her from writing a story for her English class. If only her friend Wolfie would stop talking, she might be able to spin an idea together! Under the guidance of her teacher, Mrs. Marshall, Rosie chips away at her writer’s block, in the process learning about the five elements behind every great story and retracing the path of another familiar hero—Little Red Riding Hood. Studded with illustrator Eleanor Howell’s soft watercolor drawings, Maya Myers' novel is an engaging exposé into the writing process.

            Bringing a new twist to a centuries-old tale, Rosie Woods breaks the art of story-telling into five simple components: setting, hero, problem, solution, and a twist ending. Our story starts as Rosie receives an assignment to write a creative short story. As the novel progresses, she explores the five elements one by one, slowly incorporating each into her own work-in-progress. Each new discovery is similarly mirrored in the novel: the chapter that sees Rosie learn about setting also introduces readers to Rosie’s schoolhouse and briefly explores the nature of Rosie and Wolfie’s friendship. Little Red Riding Hood ultimately forms the backbone for this story, echoed in Rosie’s personal character arc and in the short story she’s writing. While admirably ambitious, the story’s heavy stack of allegories and analogies seems as precarious and towering as a stack of forty mattresses, and after three concurrent retellings, Little Red Riding Hood’s story starts to feel as lumpy and out of place as a pea. Overall, each plotline contains far too many working parts for most kids to keep track of, making it difficult to focus on the writing process the book is trying to teach. 

            Although the plot of Rosie Woods may be lacking, author Maya Myers' writing certainly is not. From start to finish, Rosie remains a likeable, shy heroine every reader can rally behind and relate to, especially if they’ve ever struggled to tell a story of their own. Myers is able to effortlessly relate to elementary school kids, offering them a story with stakes they can understand. Her prose meets readers at their level of experience, neither attempting to gloss over harder concepts nor shoving readers headfirst into the world of creative writing. Unlike the blocky, predigested sentences of most kids’ books, Rosie Woods features whimsical turns of phrase and clever wordplay, keeping kids engaged and entertained. For example, as Rosie considers raising her hand in class to talk about plot twists, we learn that “her tummy made a different kind of twist.” Later, on page fifty-nine, as Rosie worries about accidentally hurting Wolfie’s feelings, it feels “like there… was a storm in her brain.”

            There’s no doubt that Rosie Woods in Little Red Writing Hood is a great introduction to the world of writing. By breaking down a story into five simple ideas, Maya Myers eases kids into the role of storytellers. In presenting the dichotomy between Rosie and Wolfie’s writing styles—Rosie takes all week to finish her story; Wolfie is done after a day or two—she reinforces the idea that no two writers are alike and that everyone is allowed to work at their own pace. While at times confusing, the book imparts several valuable lessons and leaves kids with the impression that anyone can be a writer—all it takes is passion and perseverance.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW 

ELLIOTT: What inspired you to write Rosie Woods in Little Red Writing Hood

MARA: The title came to me first, as a pun, and I thought surely someone must have written this book already, but they hadn’t, not quite. I wrote it as a picture book first, and my agent suggested I adapt it for older readers. I had never written a chapter book before, and I was resistant . . . for about a year. Then I gave in and tried it, and it was so much fun!

ELLIOTT: What did your writing process look like? Are you a “plotter”, a “pantser”, or somewhere in between? 

MARA: I guess I’m somewhere in-between. I often know where I want a story to end up before I know anything else, and it’s usually easy for me to figure out where it starts, but I don’t always know what will happen in between. With the Rosie Wood series, I felt my way in the dark for the first book. I made plot-point outlines before starting the other three.

ELLIOTT: Do you find it challenging to cast yourself back into the perspective of a child when writing? Do you have any ‘beta readers’—like a few kids or fellow elementary-school writers—that you test your books out on? 

MAYA: I used to teach elementary school, so I’m quite familiar with the kid mindset, and I often approach a character or a scene from the perspective of a kid I know. My husband, who also writes for kids, is always my first reader, and I have a few other writer friends I bounce things off of

ELLIOTT: How has your experience within the field of education shaped the stories you write? 

MAYA: This was the first time I’ve really gone into teaching mode in a book, and it was fun. I had to do some research to see how curriculum points have changed since I was teaching, but I think my time in the classroom helped me write pretty realistically about assignments and conflicts that come up for kids this age.

ELLIOTT: In your book, you use an elaborate allegory to teach kids about the different elements of storytelling. Why do you feel it is important that we continue to teach the next generation how to read and write great stories?

MAYA: I didn’t really think of it as an allegory; it was pretty straightforward in its intention, which is to engage readers in learning the elements of storytelling. I think it’s a kind of superpower to understand the components that make a story compelling. I want kids to want to write because it’s a great way to process the world, to understand ourselves and build empathy for the people around us. It’s incredibly rewarding to create something that brings joy and understanding to other people. And I love to read, so I want more writers making more stories!

ELLIOTT: What books did you adore as a child? Have any of them influenced your own writing style? 

MAYA: I loved everything by Beverly Cleary, especially Ramona the Pest. I liked classic series I could dive into for long periods—Anne of Green GablesLittle House on the PrairieThe Chronicles of Narnia. I have no doubt that all those stories are inside and guiding me.

ELLIOTT: When did you first realize you wanted to become a writer? 

MAYA: I think I probably thought about it when I was around 8 or 9. But it wasn’t a dream that stayed with me throughout my life. I did other things and then wrote my first picture book when I was almost 40. So, it’s never too late to start!

ELLIOTT: Do you plan to continue Rosie Woods’ saga or start any new projects or novels? 

MAYA: Three other books are coming in the Rosie Woods series (Jack and the Bean Shock Rosielocks and the Three Bears, and The Three Billy GOATS Graph), and I have a few other picture books in the pipeline. I’m hoping to return soon to working on a chapter book series I started a while ago, about two kids who are enemies at school and wind up step-siblings—stay tuned!

GIVEAWAY

Maya is giving away a copy of Rosie Woods to one fortunate reader. Please leave a comment by February 14 to enter; U.S. addresses only. This is a great book for 3-4th grade classrooms so educators and librarians will get an extra chance. Make sure you leave your email address if you are new to my blog. 


Thursday, February 1, 2024

Celebrate Valentine's Day with a Giveaway of VALENTINES FOR ALL by Nancy Churnin

 It seems as if we just celebrated New Year's and now it's time for Valentine's Day! To help celebrate, I have the perfect book for your child, grandchild, classroom or library-- VALENTINES FOR ALL: Esther Howland Captures America's Heart by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Monika Rosa Wisniewska



REVIEW

From the opening of the story where Esther Howland gets the idea of creating valentines, to the end where she is a woman in a wheel chair watching a young couple read one of her valentines, each page is decorated with a fictional "Rose are Red, Violets are Blue" rhyme. How can you not love a book that is historical, sweet, and poetic all at the same time?

                          Roses are red. Violets are blue.  
I've got an idea for something new.

Despite Esther's brothers' skepticism that her business wouldn't take off--it did! She believed that people couldn't always express big feelings in words and that cards would help them communicate how they loved another person.

When her first order was for five thousand cards she enlisted her friends to help make them.



Roses are red. Dahlias are lime. How can I make so many in time?

When the Civil War began in 1861she was surprised how many wives asked for cards for their soldier husbands.



Roses are red. Pussy willows are gray.
When people are hurting I know what to say.



Eventually, Esther realized that she could create birthday and holiday cards that would help people convey their feelings throughout the year.

Roses are red. Night tulips are black. Looking for words? They're in my card rack.

Esther had to use a wheelchair after she slipped, fell, and injured her knee.  That didn't stop her card-making business though. She printed a poetry book so that her customers could cut and paste words and create their own cards. 

Esther is a great model of perseverance to make your dream come true. As Nancy Churnin's last poem states:

Roses are red. Forget-me-nots, blue. Why don't you make your dreams come true?

BACK MATTER

The Author's Note includes wonderful information about how Esther was a successful woman entrepreneur many years before women earned the right to vote. At the height of her business, she earned more than $100,000 per year--which is the equivalent of two million dollars today.

There is a page dedicated to creating your own valentines and how to send them to Nancy's website or to the Worcester Historical Museum in Worcester, MA where Esther lived.

CURRICULUM RESOURCE

This book can be used as a resource when teaching American history, women's changing roles, writing, and art. Since the author frequently mentions Esther Howland's desire to strengthen relationships, VALENTINES FOR ALL can also be a SEL resource. The illustrations inspire readers to create their own valentines.

GIVEAWAY

Albert Whitman is giving away a copy of VALENTINES FOR ALL to one fortunate reader. To get this in the mail ASAP, this giveaway ends February 3. As usual, if you share on social media, sign up for my blog, or are an educator or librarian, you will get an extra chance. Let me know in the comments and make sure to leave your email address if you are new to my blog. U.S. addresses only.



Saturday, January 27, 2024

TEARS TO PRINCESS: A Review of "Tears of A Princess" by Guest Blogger, Mara Scudder

Tears of a Princess by Laura Thomas is the upper middle-grade sequel to the novel Tears to Dancing. It follows the main character’s best friend, Natasha, as she deals with the news of her parent's divorce and accompanies Bethany on a mission trip to Mexico that changes her perspective forever.




Although some elements of the novel were written better than the first book, there were still two persisting drawbacks. The first was the characters, all of which were one or two-dimensional. Even Natasha, who we were supposedly watching transform from a spoiled rich girl to a selfless and caring Christian, had most of her character development done throughout the year gap between the end of the first book and the start of the second. While the girl in the first book was careless, narcissistic, and vapid, in the second book Natasha has much more substance, dealing with a few emotional outbursts, which she quickly apologizes for. I was looking forward to watching the dramatic change, but instead it seemed as though she had already accomplished most of the change without God.

Another drawback was the dialogue. Rather than letting readers discover what a character was feeling and how they were changing, the author used exposition for the characters to communicate to each other. While their thoughts were more abstract and natural, their dialogue was blunt, no-nonsense, and to the point, even during very emotional scenes. This made it difficult to read, especially in scenes that were supposed to be the most powerful.

One thing that I appreciated about this work was the overarching themes that were missing from the first. Both tears, the sunrise, and the idea of Natasha being a “princess” were echoed throughout the work. Natasha’s transformation from being her father’s “princess” as a term of indulging endearment to thinking of herself as being a princess as the daughter of the King of kings had a special impact because of its intentionality. Tying in tears as her way of breaking her family’s picture-perfect facade and becoming more honest with people around her also enhanced the continuity of the work and made the resolution much more conclusive than it would have been otherwise.

Aside from this, the plot was also more coherent, allowing a more natural flow between events than the first book, and the overarching themes made the ending far more complete and satisfying. This ending made the ideas it had to offer much more impactful, creating a stronger lead-up to the trilogy’s finale, Tears, Fears, and Fame.




Hi! My name is Mara, and I’m a Christian artist, violinist, and blogger. I remember the day that I decided that I would learn something new about what makes a good story from every book I picked up — whether it was good, bad, or a mixture of both. I use my 
blog as a way of sharing some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned and highlighting which books, cartoons, and movies have taught me the most about writing an awesome story. I’m in eleventh grade and live in Philadelphia.  


Check out Greg Pattridge's Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday blog 
for more book recommendations.


Saturday, January 20, 2024

A Benefit to Blogging and How a Book is Born

Last week my friend and fellow NC blogger, Joan Edwards, interviewed me on her blog. She asked questions about writing Half-Truths including how my blog has helped me develop my writing skills. This is what told her:

My blog has helped me in two ways. I read and reviewed lots of mentor texts. Each review has taught me to analyze what makes a novel stand out. I also was able to journal my progress with Half-Truths including reviewing books about the Black experience. The books were crucial to making Half-Truths authentic and the online journal helped me answer your questions!

Yesterday as I was working on my next book, Unbroken Heat (working title) I thought how keeping track of my progress with Half-Truths was helpful to me as well as to anyone who wanted to know the book's backstory. So, here I am with this week's blog post, to tell you about Unbroken and my love for glass.

Over 25 years ago I walked into a glass bead shop and I was hooked. I couldn't believe the intricate, gorgeous beads were glass! I told the owner I wanted to write about her and she replied, "Don't write about me. I'm going to introduce you to people who are bigger than me--you're going to meet some North Carolina glass artists."

As a result of her introductions, I watched hot, molten glass transform into works of art and wrote several articles. I won two awards from Highlights Magazine for my article, "Paul Stankard's Paperweight Magic;" and signed a contract for Discover Glass about the history, art, and science of glass. I thought I was set to become the expert on glass for kids. But the publisher went belly-up and I was left with boxes full of drafts, research notes, and photographs. 

Soon after that, I started Half-Truths. I promised myself that any book I wrote going forward would include glass. I couldn't waste all my research! So, when I created my protagonist's backstory,  her grandfather's (Andrew Dinsmore) history included working in a glass factory when he was a boy.

Meanwhile, somewhere along the line, I purchased KIDS AT WORK: LEWIS HINE AND THE CRUSADE AGAINST CHILD LABOR.

Pictures like these caught my attention:

https://www.loc.gov/resource/nclc.01154/

https://www.loc.gov/item/2018676573/

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lewis_Hine,_Glass_works,_midnight,_Indiana,_1908.jpg

Who were these boys? How did they end up working in glass factories as young as 10 years old? What were their stories? Those images and questions stuck with me. 

I started researching. I thought I wanted to write about child labor in the glass industry, but as Harold Underdown reminded me when I began Half-Truths, that was only the setting. That wasn't the story itself. 

I started studying a book that Paul Stankard gave me years ago, 


and I watched YouTube videos that Wheaton Arts produced. 

I knew this was Andrew Dinsmore's story and that he had to go to work as a young teen--but I didn't know much else. Slowly, Andrew's life in a New Jersey glass factory in 1893 is getting fleshed out. I'm discovering what he wants and who or what will keep him from his goals. 

As I read about New Jersey's glass industry, I realized that besides the failed attempt at producing glassware in Jamestown, Va., the first successful glass factories were in colonial New Jersey.  Suddenly I had another story besides Andrew's--I had the story of a young indentured servant from England who landed in Philadelphia and must work off his debt in a glass factory in South Jersey. 

I had just finished reading The Blackbird Girls and was intrigued by Anne Blankman's use of two different timelines and multiple points of view. Could I do that with Unbroken? If so, what was the other timeline and how could I connect the two stories? Here's the pitch I came up with:

At the turn of the 20th century, a young factory worker is surrounded by deafening noise, blisteringly hot glass, and mind-numbing exhaustion. There is no end in sight until he finds mysterious notes from a boy who lived this life 100 years earlier.  

And now, I can begin a new page on my blog. And when Joan Edwards interviews me about Out of the Flame--I'll know exactly how it all began. 

                                                    ****

Please go to Greg Pattridge's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday blog for more middle-grade book reviews and news.


 



Saturday, January 13, 2024

THE BLACKBIRD GIRLS by Anne Blankman: A MG Review and Giveaway

 We all have them. Books that stick in our heads after we've read the last page. Maybe it's the characters, the world-building, the settings, or the amazing way the author weaves together the plot. For me, it's all of those plus a story that touches my heart. This, my friends, is my latest favorite read:


Published in 2020 by Penguin Random House, it was off my radar. I've enjoyed Anne's books before so when I thought about connecting with other historical fiction novelists, I looked her up. In 2014 I wanted to give five stars to her debut novel, Prisoner of Night and Fog , and feel the same way about The Blackbird Girls (this link goes to a great interview with Anne). By the way, Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke (Harper Collins, 2015) was also excellent even though I didn't review it on my blog.

REVIEW

Like another historical fiction novel that I admire, REFUGEE by Alan Gratz, The Blackbird Girls has three viewpoints and several different timelines. Anne and Alan both deftly weave together story elements so that the reader is left with the sense of, "Wow--I didn't see that coming!"

The Blackbird Girls opens with the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 in Ukraine. Each of the two main protagonists, Valentina and Oksana,  have fathers who work at the nuclear power plant. Valentina is Jewish and is the victim of much anti-semitism, including taunting from her schoolmate, Oksana. Valentina's family is very afraid of expressing themselves as Jews due to government persecution and don't practice their religion. Oksana's head is full of anti-semitic propaganda she has heard from her father. As the story progresses the reader discovers that her father has poisoned her in other ways too. 

The two families live in the same apartment building but don't have much to do with each other. Although early on it is evident that the girls are enemies and the reader guesses that they will become friends (the beautiful cover shows that), it is not an easy path. Both girls are victims of prejudice and abuse and both have huge walls of distrust towards the other. 

Both of their fathers fall victim to radioactive poisoning after the meltdown in the plant, and their mothers have to quickly figure out how to help their daughters get away from the city. Valentina's mother has an escape route planned for Valentina and when Oksana's mother abandons her, she takes Oksana with them to Leningrad. She wires the only one who she thinks can offer them refuge--her mother who she hasn't seen for years.

Meanwhile, readers meet a third girl, Rifka, who lives in the Soviet Union in 1941. Her story unfolds at the same time as Valentina's and Oksana's. Rifka's mother makes her leave home to protect her from the invading Germans. She battles freezing temperatures and nearly dies before she finds shelter with a family who takes her in.

At this point in reading the book, I thought I understood the connection between the stories: two mothers who made difficult choices for their daughters' survival. 

But I was wrong. Anne Blankman indicates in the acknowledgments that the novel is based on a friend's true story about Chernobyl. She wrote to me about the true elements in the book:

When I was in ninth grade, I met a new classmate who has since become a lifelong friend. Victoria had recently emigrated from Ukraine to my small hometown in upstate New York, and as we became closer, she confided in me that she had survived Chernobyl, the massive nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986. To keep her safe, her parents made the heartbreaking decision to send their then-six-year-old daughter hundreds of miles away to live with distant relatives in Uzbekistan. 

The reason Victoria had family living so far away? Forty-five years earlier, her hosts had fled from the invading German army with scores of other Ukrainian Jews. They had ended up in Uzbekistan. These two journeys--one to run from enemy soldiers, the other to escape nuclear fallout--haunted me, and they became the inspiration for The Blackbird Girls. But I was afraid the multiple perspectives and separate timelines would prove too complicated and cumbersome for my readers, and I wrote the first draft from only Valentina's point of view. My editor encouraged me to explore Oksana and Rifka's perspectives and to flesh out the 1941 storyline. 

One of my favorite parts of the book is when the girls break through and become friends. They are attending their new school in Leningrad and on the first day, a boy teases Valentina for being Jewish and tells her to go back to Jerusalem and that no one wants her there.

In a surprise move, Oksana intervenes:

     Oksana stood up. "Nobody wants you here. Why don't you shut your mouth?"

     The boy's eyes narrowed. "What did you say to me?"

     A hush fell over the schoolyard. Children stopped playing to stare at Oksana.

     "You heard me." Oksana fisted her hands on her hips. "Leave Valentina alone."

      Valentina couldn't believe her ears. She stayed crouched on the ground, unable to move.

      "I know who you are," the boy said. "You're one of the Chernobylites. My father says you're all contaminated and you'll turn into rabid dogs."

      Oksana shoved her face into the boy's. "He's right. I think I'll take a bite out of you." She clicked her jaws, and the boy jumped back. She shouted, "You'd better run away! Next time I might bite your face!"

.....

      Oksana's face was red. She put her hands to her cheeks. "I can't believe I did that," she whispered.

       Valentina couldn't believe it, either. This couldn't be the same girl who had mocked her at their old school. 

.....

       Slowly, Valentina took the hand Oksana offered. She stood up. She knew she let go of Oksana's hand, but for some reason she didn't.... and while they played big bear's den they held hands the whole time, even though they weren't supposed to. (p. 144-5)
                           
                                             *****

This book is about events that happened forty and eighty years ago--but are as timely today with today's conflicts in Israel and Ukraine. I highly recommend it for use in middle-school classrooms and homeschool curriculums.

GIVEAWAY

Penguin Random House is offering to provide a copy of this book to one fortunate reader. Leave me a comment by January 17 and I'll enter your name. If you share this on social media or are a librarian or educator, I'll enter your name twice. Make sure you leave me your email address in the comment if you are new to my blog. U. S. addresses only. 

Join me and other bloggers on Greg Pattridge's MMGM site on Monday. 


Congratulations:

Kim Aker, a school librarian in Bland, Va won I'M TRYING TO LOVE GERMS.

Who said Middle-Grade books were only for kids?



Uncle Bob's new favorite middle-grade book.
He lived through this history.












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