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Children's Book Reviews

Summer Daze


Kate Marley

Just about every family will have something to be especially thankful for this month, and the following books reflect the variety of reasons for counting one’s blessings. Particularly as a nation that built itself on immigration, the quest for religious and political freedom is extremely apropos. But personal freedom is important also, and in one way or another, these books celebrate the endurance of the human spirit over adversity.


A Strawbeater's Thanksgiving by Irene Smalls. c 1998, Little, Brown. Set in slavery time, during the harvest festival when slaves shucked the field corn, this story is about a young boy named Jess who wants to be the strawbeater soooo badly he can taste it. But there’s another, older boy who thinks the privilege is his, and his alone. Gorgeous illustrations by Melodye Benson Rosales enhance this tender story of a boy’s longing for something just a little bit special to happen to him. And if you like this one, be sure to check out the author’s earlier book BECAUSE YOU’RE LUCKY.

My Freedom Trip by Frances and Ginger Park. C 1998, Boyds Mills Press. Written by two sisters who now live in the DC metro area, this true story is based on their mother’s flight from North Korea. In the early days of the partition, many families would escape over the border by ones and twos to more easily evade the soldiers set on guard. Her father goes first, and then the guide comes back for Soo. All through that scary crossing, Soo clings to thoughts of her father waiting for her, and of her mother to come after, and trying to be brave. Oil paintings by Debra Reid Jenkins wonderfully compliment this poignant tale of one family’s bid for freedom, and the terrible price they paid.

Marianthe's Story : Painted Words, Spoken Memories by Aliki. C 1998, Greenwillow. These are presented as two separate stories, told by an immigrant girl. At first she has no English, and so she communicates in school with her drawings. Later, as she learns the language, she can tell her classmates her feelings and memories of the loving village she and her family left behind. Born to Greek parents, the author knows whereof she speaks, and presents the heartbreak and promise of immigration with compassion and conviction.


Against the Odds by Joe Layden. c 1997, Scholastic. The cover leaves no doubt about the message intended; the NBA logo is in one corner and the subtitle is “inspirational, true-life stories of courage and character”. Eight players who have overcome various problems - traumatic childhoods, or drug and alcohol addiction, or heavy family responsibilities - are profiled. Each short, uplifting segment has a couple of photographs, and (natch) a list of career stats. A neat little book that emphasizes the good being done by some members of the NBA!

Donavan's Word Jar by Monalisa DeGross. c 1994, HarperCollins. Some kids collect marbles, rocks, or buttons…Donavan collects words. First he started noticing the neat sound some words made when spoken aloud. Then he started looking up their meanings. And so he wouldn’t forget, he started writing his new discoveries down on paper and collecting them in a jar. But now his jar is full, he needs a better solution of where to put all his nifty words. The illustrations by Cheryl Hanna also deserve a closer look by readers, and the author (a Baltimore native) comes up with a heartwarming ending that leaves the reader with great warm fuzzies. I think it’s a wonderful story on the power of language to make positive changes.

Amber Brown Is Feeling Blue by Paula Danziger. c 1998, Putnam. Quirky little Amber is back, and facing two new dilemmas - there’s a new girl in school with a double color name, but even more important…which parent should she spend Thanksgiving with? They are letting her decide, and she anguishes over the difficult choice and knowing that no matter what she chooses, someone will be hurt. It’s a problem that many children of divorce will understand. Hilarious drawings by Tony Ross bring this endearing child and her exploits to life.


The Turnabout Shop by Colby Rodowsky. c 1998, Farrar Straus Giroux. When Livvy’s mother dies, she has no family to take her in; it had always been just her and her mom. Her new guardian is a woman she has never met, who was a friend of her mother’s in college. Now Livvy has to move to Baltimore, live with a stranger, and start a new school. Through mental conversations she has with her mother, readers follow her painful but steady progress as this plucky ten year old rebuilds her life. Since this award-winning author actually lives in Baltimore, kids might find the setting fascinating.

Slavery Time When I Was Chillun by Belinda Hurmence. c 1997, Putnam. This is a great collection of slave narratives, recollections by the elderly of what it was like to grow up a slave - work, clothing, games, food. Since there are so many stories, kids will get many different points of view. Some slaves were, except for their freedom, well off; but too many others suffered tremendously, particularly when children were sold away from their parents. Most are written in the first person, in the vernacular, and there are also lots of photographs. Somehow, when one reads about kids being fed at a trough like livestock, or of an eight year old girl who picked a hundred pounds of cotton, it makes slavery seem more close-up and real - just not something that used to happen. And since slavery still exists in the world, it’s an even more important lesson (unfortunately) for kids to learn.

Foster's War by Carolyn Reeder. c 1998, Scholastic. Only eleven when America enters the war against Germany and Japan, Foster’s life in 1941 California changes dramatically. His older brother goes off to fight in the Pacific, his best friend is interned, and his struggle to live with and understand his cold, stern father intensifies. It’s a story that has been told before, about the patriotic fervor that swept the country during the war, but it’s especially well told here. Foster, his family, and their tragedy will speak to many.


Children Learn What They Live ; Parenting to Inspire Values. by Dorothy Law Nolte, c 1998, Workman. If the title sounds familiar, that’s because the author wrote a famous poem by the same title. In this full length book she expands on each line, giving examples and discussing ways for parents to teach values in a positive, rather than punitive, way. Personally, I found it to be uplifting - while the emphasis is on being a better parent, it might help one to just be a better person.

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