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Children's Book Reviews

Being Thankful

Being Thankful

Kate Marley

Making it through trials and tribulations is the theme of many books, be they for adults or children. It is one of life's mysteries why some people come through like tempered steel, stronger and better, and others just crumble or turn to rage. I'd like to think that some of these books, which illustrate how to come through the tough times with moral dignity, will help youngsters find the steel inside themselves, and emerge from life's problems as a better, more thankful person.

Feeling Thankful by Shelley Rotner and Sheila Kelly. c 2000, Millbrook Press. Perfect for the very young, this simple book with beautiful color photos by Shelley Rotner celebrates the fundamental joys of babies and toddlers family, friends and food, and all that we have to be thankful for.

Gershon's Monster retold by Eric A. Kimmel. c 2000, Scholastic. For years and years, Gershon never repented his misdeeds, rudeness, broken promises or harsh words. Not even on Rosh Hashanah he would just gather all his mistakes into a sack and fling them into the sea. He didn't believe in apologies or forgiveness. But that was before his children were in danger...from a very personal monster. Lovely watercolors by Jon J. Muth give a special clarity to this old folktale.

When They Fight by Kathryn White. c 2000, Winslow Press. With spare, eloquent language and impressive watercolor illustrations by Cliff Wright, this story of a badger child's feelings during his parents' fighting will give expression to other children about a difficult situation. Particularly effective is the way the child is pictured in an insert, with the quarreling, menacing adults overshadowing the rest of the page, fangs and all. The happy ending, when the parents make up, is also included.

Coolies by Yin. c 2001, Philomel. Their family is starving, like many others in China, and the oldest boy decides to go to America where there is work. He takes his younger brother, and the boys make the dangerous ocean crossing, and embark on backbreaking work on the railroad so they can send money home. There is danger, prejudice, and homesickness, but also opportunity. But even more than an excellent look at the Chinese-American contribution to this country, this is even more a stirring tale of two brothers who stuck together and stuck it out for each other and their family. Dramatic and realistic illustrations by Chris Soentpiet bring it all alive.

Howie Bowles and Uncle Sam by Kate Banks. c 2000, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. A chance comment by one of his third grade classmates about his birthday being unlucky gets Howie's attention. Friday the 13th as well! That would explain why numbers seem to be such a problem for him, particularly after he's notified by the IRS that he owes them over one hundred dollars. This funny story about a boy's misadventures with numbers is also a gentle lesson against superstition and defeatism. Cute illustrations are by Isaac Millman.

Wild Weather: Floods! by Lorraine Jean Hopping. c 2000, Scholastic. A good non-fiction book about what causes floods and a few stories about some of the most famous floods in the United States and other parts of the world. There is also basic information on how scientists are trying to warn people of flood conditions before they happen. Realistic pictures are by Jody Wheeler.

My Brother's Ghost by Allan Ahlberg. c 2000, Viking. This beautiful, haunting story (in more ways than one) of an older brother who didn't let death stop him from looking out for his younger sister and brother is one of the best ghost stories I've ever read. Set in early twentieth century England (for the sister suffers from polio), the three siblings have been living with an aunt and uncle since the death of their parents. Theirs is a working class, seedy existence with an unloving and stern aunt. Tom's death just makes things even worse for Frances and Harry. The lyrical, insightful memories as Frances looks back and recounts those harsh days make for a tender story.

Give Me My Father's Body! by Kenn Harper. c 2000, Washington Square Press. In 1897, Robert Peary the explorer brought six Eskimos back from one of his many expeditions to reach the North Pole. There could be few greater contrasts than an Arctic village to New York City, and for the six Eskimos it was an alien world. One of them was a six-year-old boy named Minik, who came with his father. Set up as a living exhibition at the Smithsonian, abandoned by Peary, and uncomfortable with the strange weather and customs, four Eskimos succumbed to illness and died the first year, including Minik's father. One managed to make it home, but Minik was taken in and raised by a prominent white family. He soon became neither white nor Eskimo, and this would shape his whole, short life. In 1907, the boy learned that his father's body, instead of being buried as he had been told, was really being used as a museum exhibit, and that began Minik's fruitless struggle to have his father's body returned to him for proper burial. This sad, little known story of one young man who struggled for self-identity and a place to call home is compelling, disturbing reading.

Miracle's Boys by Jacqueline Woodson. c 2000, Putnam. Orphaned, the three brothers are on their own. Ty'ree gets a job instead of going to college, and becomes the head of the house. Charlie comes back from his time in a juvenile correction center a changed, bitter young man. And thirteen year old Lafayette struggles with the changes without and within. For all three, their mother Milagro was the glue in the family, and they don't know how they'll go on. This heartbreaking story of loss and discovery is a quiet anthem to the family within all of us, and the priceless gifts we can give our children.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan. c 2000, Scholastic. Esperanza has everything two wonderful, loving parents, a fine home, servants, social position, money but when her father is murdered it all changes. Greedy, unscrupulous uncles drive Esperanza and her mother out of Mexico, and they become part of the huge, impoverished farm labor force in California. Based on a true story of the author's grandmother during the American depression, it's an inspiring tale of how a young girl learns to live and find joy again after her life is turned upside down.

On the Fringe edited by Donald R. Gallo. c 20001, Dial. Collected short stories from young adult authors such as M.E. Kerr, Angela Johnson, and Graham Salisbury, this blunt and thought provoking collection tackles the problems of outsiders. Why do so many kids feel alienated? What goes through the minds of those who are outcast by the in crowd? What causes them to snap? Who is to blame, and how can we stop it? Even without the social implications and political consequences, these are some heavy-duty tales that will stay within you.

Don't You Know There's a War On? by Avi. c 2001, HarperCollins. Told in colloquial period language, in first person, this is a heart -warming tale of eleven- year-old Howie, and what fills his life in 1943 New York. There's so much to worry about his father's at sea, his mother is working long hours at a war job, air raid drills and blackouts, his best friend thinks the principal is a German spy, and his favorite teacher is about to be fired. So trying to help his teacher keep her job is about the only thing Howie can do in these tumultuous times. Funny and touching, it's an intimate glimpse into life on the home front. Journal of Jessie Smoke by Joseph Bruchac. c 2001, Scholastic. Another excellent book in the Dear America series, this story of a sixteen-year-old Cherokee boy is a vivid retelling of the events leading up to and including the Trail of Tears. The forcible relocation of the Cherokee Nation, in which nearly one fourth of their people died, was not one of America's finest moments, but Jessie has the maturity to differentiate between a greedy government and the honest whites that try to help the Cherokee. I liked the insight into a matriarchal society and the way Jessie reconciles the good of both cultures to his best advantage.

Witnesses to War by Michael Leapman. c 1998, Puffin. "Eight true-life stories of Nazi persecution" are gathered here, concentrating on the horrors that children all over Europe endured. Anne Frank left her famous diary, but the other seven stories are from children that survived kidnapping, concentration camps, rape, relocation, slave labor and other brutalities. Not all who suffered were Jewish Polish and Czech children who "looked" German were kidnapped and given to German families to raise, gypsies were imprisoned and worked to death, French who resisted paid the price. But most poignant, I thought, was the final paragraph in the author's introduction, even more apt today than when written in 1998. "It would be a consolation to reflect that what was done to these children so horrified the world that nothing like it will be allowed to happen again. Sadly, not even that comfort is available. War and conflict persist, in Europe and elsewhere, and children are still the innocent victims."

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