Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz
(Candlewick 2015)

Summary from publisher:
Fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs, just like the heroines in her beloved novels, yearns for real life and true love.  But what hope is there for adventure, beauty, or art on a hardscrabble farm in Pennsylvania where the work never ends?  Over the summer of 1911, Joan pours her heart out into her diary as she seeks a new, better life for herself -- because maybe, just maybe, a hired girl cleaning and cooking for six dollars a week can become what a farm girl could only dream of -- a woman with a future.
Inspired by her grandmother's journal, Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz brings her sharp wit and keen eye to early twentieth-century America in a comedic tour de force destined to become a modern classic.  Joan's journey from the muck of the chicken coop to the comforts of a society household (Electricity! Carpet sweepers!  Sending out the laundry!) takes its reader on an exploration of feminism and housework, religion and literature, love and loyalty, cats, hats, bunions, and burns.

It's no secret to anyone who reads my reviews that historical fiction is one of my favorite genres.  I love learning about the past, both the far- and more recent.  In The Hired Girl, Laura Amy Schlitz has mined her grandmother's journals as inspiration for Joan, a girl who aspires to more than her life of drudgery on her father's farm.  At points during the story, I was reminded of the character Anne from Anne of Green Gables.  Both Joan and Anne loved to learn, both of them wanted to help others, and both of them often acted rashly, without stopping to consider consequences.  For Joan, however, acting rashly could have had a much larger impact, as she could have lost her job and been cast into the street without reference for some of her actions.

Though I quickly got swept up in Joan's story (and in the beginning was completely outraged on her behalf), it did seem that many of the issues Joan faced were resolved too easily.  Joan evaded a sexual assault, found work in the first house she visited, made friends, and managed to keep her job when others would have been fired.  I don't wish hardship on the main characters of the books I read, but there are times when I feel things are just too convenient.  Even though the story is aimed at an upper middle grade/young adult audience, the realistic part of the historical fiction could have been more apparent.

Overall, I do recommend The Hired Girl, winner of the  2016 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, as a great historical fiction read for junior high readers.  The story is approachable, and Schlitz is a great writer (she did, after all win a Newbery Medal for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!).  Junior high readers get a real sense of what one slice of American life was like at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War That Saved My Life 
by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
(Dial Books 2015)

Summary from publisher:
Ten-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment.  Her mother is too humiliated by Ada's twisted foot to let her outside.  So when her little brother, Jamie, is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn't waste a minute --
She sneaks out to join him.
So begins a new adventure for Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in.  As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan -- and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie.  But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime?  Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?

I can't believe that I waited this long to discover this story.  The main character, Ada, was born with a club foot, a condition that, if treatment is begun in infancy, is treatable.  Because of her deformity, Ada does not walk, she does not leave her apartment, and her mother makes her believe that she is worthless.  The only love Ada receives is from her little brother Jamie, and her mother tries to keep her from even having that.  As a parent myself, I could not understand Ada's mother.  I tried to remind myself that this was an uneducated woman, one who might not be aware that there is help for her daughter.  But as I read on, I discovered that no... Ada's mother is simply selfish.  She didn't care to help Ada, and she didn't want Ada and Jamie to care for each other.

When Ada and Jamie arrive in the English countryside to escape the potential bombing of London, these two lost souls are placed with a third.  Susan is in mourning for Becky, the woman with whom she shared a home and a deep friendship.  A savvy, more mature reader will pick up on the fact that Becky and Susan were more than friends, and that their relationship caused a rift not only between Susan and her family, but also Susan and the town.  By opening her heart to Ada and Jamie, Susan can once again open her heart to life, and she discovers that perhaps she had more friends after all.

Though it is set during World War II, this is really a story about love and self-worth.  Ada learns to walk, to ride a pony, to read and write, and to have a friend.  This is all made possible because Jamie and Susan believe in her enough to help her find her way.  Susan learns to love again, to trust that love is worth the possibility of being hurt again and again.  Yet in spite of this potentially cliched story line, this novel is full of heart and hope.

Hand The War That Saved My Life to kids who enjoy realistic or historical fiction and who like books that will make them cry.  I cried both tears of sadness and of joy during the course of this book.  I don't think they (or you) will be disappointed.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
(Philomel 2016)

Summary from publisher:
Winter, 1945.  Four teenagers.  Four secrets.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted by tragedy, lies... and war.
As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom. 
Yet not all promises can be kept.
Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, best-selling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II.  An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.

And here's Ruta talking about why she wrote this book:

As soon as I heard Ruta Sepetys had a new book coming out, I knew I had to get my hands on an advance copy.  Luckily for me, Ruta was at the ALAN conference following the National Council of Teachers of English convention in Minneapolis last November.  Not only was I able to get an advance copy, Ruta was kind enough to sign it for me.  I also plan on getting a signed finished copy when she visits my local indie bookstore next week.

Enough fangirling.  On with the review.

One of the things I loved about both of Ruta's previous books, Between Shades of Gray and Out of the Easy, is that she finds "hidden histories," those stories that have almost been lost with the passage of time.  She continues this tradition with Salt to the Sea, the story of four teenagers who secured passage on the doomed Wilhelm Gustloff, sunk by Soviet torpedoes as it tried to get thousands of refugees and wounded German soldiers away from a Soviet advance at the end of the war.  It was weird to put myself into the headspace of feeling empathy for people I've been taught my whole life to view as "the enemy."  It was an important reminder that in most cases, governments wage wars, not the everyday people who often end up being the collateral damage.  Certainly, with the exception of the German sailor who exhibits psychopathic tendencies, these kids could have been any kids fleeing any war in any part of the world.  I couldn't help but think about the Jews who fled Hitler,  the children from Central America who are fleeing gang violence and possible death, the families from Syria braving the Mediterranean Sea to secure for their children a better, safer life.

Whenever I read a book that puts me on the wrong (AKA enemy of America) side of war, I feel a little guilty, as if I am somehow betraying my American-ness.  It makes me uncomfortable to remember that as victors, we get to decide whose history, whose story gets told and remembered.  Sepetys forces me into that place, reminds me to consider first the humanity of the characters in her stories.  They are flawed, as all humans are, but they deserve to have their story told.  This is a story that deserves to be read.

Sepetys's storytelling and writing don't disappoint.  She writes this novel in four different voices, each from a different place with a different war experience.  Having those four different perspectives makes this story richer and more compelling.  It took me a bit to find my rhythm at first, but once I was able to identify the different voices, I had no trouble following the plot line of the book and worrying about the safety of everyone involved.

Hand this one to your sophisticated readers who enjoy historical fiction or war stories.  Then talk to them about what they thought.  I'd love to hear teenage reaction to this fascinating book.

Monday, February 1, 2016

It's Monday! Here's What I've Been Reading - February 1 Edition

Hello again!

Hard to believe it's February 1 already. I know it's kind of cliche to say so, but I really do think time moves faster every single year. I blinked and January was over.

This week I read some great stuff!
  • The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz (January 25, 2016)
  • Dan vs. Nature by Don Calame (January 29, 2016)
  • The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (January 30, 2016)

By far my favorite was The War That Saved My Life. If you haven't had a chance to pick this one up, do so.  I'll be writing about this one more this week, so be on the lookout.  

This week I plan to finish The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters. I was lucky to receive an ARC of this one from a friend, and I'm loving it.  Look for it in March from Amulet Books.  I'll definitely be posting a review closer to the release date.  I'll also probably read a bit more in One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson.  I'm really struggling with this one.  It's moving slower than I want it to.

Make sure to visit Kellee and Ricki over at Unleashing Readers and Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts to link up your weekly reading and to check out some of the other linked blogs!

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli 
(Balzer & Bray, 2015)

Summary from publisher:
Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical.  But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight.  Now Simon is actually being blackmailed:  if he doesn't play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone's business.  Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he's been emailing with, will be jeopardized.
With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his email correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon's junior year has suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated.  Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he's pushed out -- without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he's never met.

This book's been on my radar for a while now.  It's almost never on the shelf in the library at school, and the librarian has mentioned several times how much she liked Simon's story.  I finally noticed it on the shelf and grabbed it to read over the weekend.

I'm so glad I did.

This is a charming story about a difficult topic.  We learn about Simon and his feelings about Blue and his shifting relationships with his friends and his sisters through the emails he exchanges with Blue and through the main narrative.  I enjoyed the alternating formats.  I felt like I really got to know the real Simon through the emails, though the straight narrative is in first person.  Because of the anonymity of the email, Simon lets his guard down and invites Blue into his life.  I also really liked guessing along with Simon who Blue might be.  Simon knows Blue goes to his school, but beyond that, nothing.  I was wrong several times (as was Simon), but when the secret is finally revealed, I was thrilled with the result.

Albertalli won the William C. Morris YA Debut Award from the American Library Association for this title, and it was well-deserved. She can definitely tell a story that keeps the reader hooked from the first page.

Hand this book to kids 13 and up who enjoy realistic fiction with a touch of humor.  They won't be disappointed.

Monday, January 25, 2016

It's Monday! Here's what I've been reading! January 25, 2016

Happy Monday!  It feels like I didn't get much reading done this week, though in reality I have.  I've been plugging away at One Summer:  America 1927 by Bill Bryson.  I find his writing in this particular book to be a bit dense, though the subject matter is fascinating.

For my weekend reading, I decided to take a break from the Bryson and grab a couple of books I've been wanting to read from my school library.  On Saturday, I read Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli.  I loved this story of Simon and his struggle to figure out how to let his parents and friends know he his gay.  I'll be posting a review of this one later this week.

On Sunday, I started The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz.  I'm only about 20 pages in, and I am outraged at the way Joan's brothers and father treat her.  I have a feeling I'll be outraged by Joan's treatment for a good portion of this book!

This week I'll finish The Hired Girl and dive back into the Bryson.

What have you been reading this week?  Head over to Unleashing Readers or TeachMentorTexts and link up your blog to share your titles.

Have a great reading week!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

How Lunchbox Jones Saved Me From Robots, Traitors, and Missy the Cruel by Jennifer Brown

How Lunchbox Jones Saved Me From Robots, Traitors, and Missy the Cruel by Jennifer Brown
(Bloomsbury, 2015)

Summary from publisher:
Luke Abbott's middle school is the number one school in the history of losing.  And that's just fine for him.  He'd rather be at home playing video games anyway.  But now he's forced to join the robotics team, where surely he'll help uphold the school's losing streak along with a weird -- er, colorful -- cast of characters.  But it's his surprising connection with a mysterious boy known only as "Lunchbox Jones" that will change Luke's life. As it turns out, Luke and Lunchbox Jones have a lot more in common than just robots, including knowing what it means to lose something more important than a school trophy.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this one, based on the cover and title, but as soon as I picked it up on Saturday afternoon, I was smitten.  This is a sweet middle grade story about a boy trying to find his place, as many middle grade stories are.  In this case, Luke doesn't much fit in at school.  His best friend at school is a sixth grader, his best friend outside of school is a boy who he games with online but has never met in person, and his all-time best friend, his brother, is leaving for the Marines.  I think most fifth through seventh graders have felt as Luke feels, as if he's not ever in quite the right place at the right time.

Brown does a nice job of creating a group of kids who aren't perfect but who are likable.  Though the situations aren't incredibly realistic, based on my many years of middle school experience, they are realistic enough to engage a the reader and seem as if MAYBE things could work out this way.

This book would make a great read aloud for middle grade classrooms.  There is enough humor and friendship to keep the story interesting.  Hand this one to readers who enjoy realistic fiction that centers around friendships.