Book Review: The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis

Synopsis

When the Taliban take over Afghanistan, eleven year old Parvana’s life is turned upside down. After leaving four homes because they’d been destroyed by bombs, she and her family find themselves living in one room of an apartment building not completely destroyed by bombs. Before the Taliban, Parvana’s mother wrote for a newspaper and her father was a school teacher, her bossy older sister was planning on going to university. Together they live with her younger sister and brother as their father tries to make a living selling trinkets and reading letters for the illiterate in the market. Parvana’s already desperate life gets worse when Taliban soldiers arrest her father over dinner one night because he was educated in England.  In order to survive in Taliban controlled Afghanistan where women are not allowed outside without a male escort, Parvana cuts her hair and becomes a boy in appearance. As Kaseem she is able to take up her father’s business and earn money. In the market she meets another girl from her class in school who has cut her hair. Together they work to find ways to earn more money. The rest of the story is filled with adventure, hardship, courage, more hardship and eventually, a plan to reunite the family.

Review 

 The Breadwinner is an inspiring story of courage, perseverance and hope. It is also devastating. With clarity and powerful storytelling, Deborah Ellis takes readers into the heart of Afghanistan under the Taliban in the late 90s. Written for young readers the book is accessible and well written and does a good job of giving a picture of the evil of the actions of the Taliban in a way that is relatable and not too much for nine and ten year olds. It is a great book for anyone looking to learn about another culture and a situation relevant to our current time. The Breadwinner helped me grow in compassion toward the people of Afghanistan, many of whom have come as refugees to North America and Europe in the past decade.

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By Aaron G. Myers

Age: 10 – 99

A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.

— C. S. Lewis

One of the great benefits of youth fiction is that, when written well, and so many are, any adult can pick a book up, read it and find deep joy in stories that are engaging and delightful. Yes, the characters are almost always ten, eleven and twelve year olds, but the stories often delve into the deep themes of life that touch the human heart. They are well told and leave behind the hubris and unnecessary sensuality of young adult fiction. They are a joy to read aloud to our children as child and adult alike can be drawn into the sometimes fantastical, sometimes heart wrenchingly realistic plots that unfold in so many of the books written for youth. 

I remember finding myself unable to continue a chapter near the end of Okay for Now that I had been reading aloud to my kids as I fought back tears. Other books have had me laughing out loud or raging with anger at injustice or simply smiling with joy at the kindness of a character. These books, written for young children, are often some of the best I’ve read. Yes, they can lack the depth of plot of the classics and the sentence structure is usually not as complex as adult fiction, but they are more often than not, just as good. 

This is the reason when we review books in this genre we always place the age as: 8, 10, or 12 – 99, though I suppose centenarians can enjoy them as well.

A good place to find these books – aside from our top ten lists – is the John Newbery Medal books. Each year since 1922 they have awarded one winner and any number of Newbery Honor awards to books in the children’s literature genre.  You can find the whole list of Newbery winners and honor books here: Newbery Medal

by Aaron G Myers

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Book Reflection: The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder

There is something in a good book that carries the reader away on a journey into goodness, truth and beauty, that leads out into an unknown and imaginative land where anything perhaps is possible. Sometimes this is fiction, the lie that tells the truth, after all as Neil  Gaiman says.  Sometimes however it’s autobiography mixed with remembrances that may or may not be fiction so long ago was the memory from the writer.  

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder is one of those stories that our family has enjoyed twice in the last ten years, narrated wonderfully to us through the voice of Cherry Jones. The audiobook has twice carried us south to Kansas from South Dakota, to visit family, usually as the cold of winter sets in around Christmas time. Mrs. Wilder’s stories are always painted in the hues of Michael Landon’s television series, robbing our own imagination of creating the pictures, the faces and the landscape of the series. But we don’t worry about that too much. The TV series did the stories well.

The Long Winter is just as the title describes. The length and intensity of the winter is solemnly prophesied by both a muskrat and a stoic native American right at the outset and neither were wrong. The first blizzard storms across Dakota Territory in October and the snow doesn’t melt until May. Everything in between is snow and wind and blizzard and a desperate struggle to survive. It’s a mesmerizing story, surprisingly captivating seeing as how much of the story is trapped by snow inside the Ingalls home.  But there is something in it that captures the imagination, that draws the reader into a time and place, something about the experience of winter that slows a person down and causes one to take stock.  

Winter is that way, isn’t it?  Or at least it could be if only we’d lean in, shut off the TV and listen. The short days and cold weather drive us inside to books and to reflection. Annie Dillard put it this way: “It’s winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is, has come to stay. I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting.” 

The Long Winter is an excellent choice of book to read in the cold of winter.  As the days grow shorter and then miraculously, slowly begin to lengthen again even as the temperatures drop, it’s a book that will help you slow down, take stock, and find the blessings of the year that has passed even as you begin to dream about the one that lies ahead.

by Aaron G Myers

Book Review: The Jumping-Off Place by Marian Hurd McNeely

Synopsis

 When their Uncle Jim dies, leaving Becky, Dick, Phil and Joan Linville orphans, the only thing they have left is the land in Dakota Territory their uncle had claimed and his written instructions to lead them. Leaving their town in the east, the siblings, guided by Becky’s mothering instincts and Dick’s growing strength, set off to “prove” the land by living on it and improving it for fourteen months. When they arrive in Tripp County and to the home their uncle has left them, they are enamored by the beauty of the prairie. Things go well at first as they set to planting a garden, making a home in the barn and getting to know their neighbors. Soon however challenges begin to mount up.  Another family who has also laid claim to their land, squatting in a makeshift shack, begins to make trouble for the young settlers. A desperate drought sets in, destroying their crops and much of the food they had hoped to put up for winter. Life becomes a struggle to survive but with a little luck, a lot of determination and the kindness of neighbors, the Linvilles not only survive, they begin to thrive.

Review 

If you like the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, you’ll love this book. Written three years before the first Little House story, The Jumping-Off Place by Marian Hurd McNeely is an adventurous and touching story of determination, grit and the kindness of good neighbors. The children are likable and refreshing as they mature and grow. The struggles they face – mean spirited and cruel squatters, the stone cold harshness of prairie weather and their own assailing doubts – ring true to the real life biographies of those early settlers making this a masterfully written piece of historic fiction. The story will leave you rooting for the Linville kids and hoping they will succeed.  The Jumping-Off Place is a great piece of historic fiction set in the last days of the settling of the prairie in the early 1900’s.  

  • Ages: 12 – 99
  • Awards: Newbery Honor Book (1930)
  • Pages: 319
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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By Aaron G. Myers

Book Review: Sweep by Jonathan Auxier

Synopsis

Nan Sparrow is young, covered in soot and an orphan. She is a chimney sweep living in the Victorian London of the late 1800’s and five years ago her beloved benefactor simply known as the Sweep left, leaving her with but one gift, a small lump of coal.  With no one else to care for her, she finds herself working for a heartless chimney sweep overlord named Wilkie Crudd who regularly sends young children down dangerous chimneys. Through hard work, cunning and a little luck, Nan escapes one tight spot after another. But then one day, as she is cleaning the chimneys at Miss Mayhew’s Seminary for Young Ladies, Nan gets caught in a chimney fire and her luck runs out. In a fantastic miracle, her small lump of coal mysteriously transforms into an ash and coal monster who has carried her away to safety.  For the rest of the story, Nan and her monster who she calls Charlie make a way for themselves in this cruel world, protecting one another and helping other sweeps along the way.  

Review 

A Dickensian tale of adventure, fantasy and history, Sweep by Jonathan Auxier is a wonderful story of friendship, compassion and courage.  Auxier is masterful at creating characters rich with personality that readers will immediately grow to love.  The story itself is a mixture of historic fiction and fantasy and I thoroughly enjoyed the plot as it climbed to its climax. The description of the people and places of late 19th century Victorian London are masterful.  One reviewer wrote that the story was, “at once both magical and moralizing, hopeful and heartbreaking.” I couldn’t agree more. Sweep by Jonathan Auxier is a great book that I’ll be reading again soon.

  • Ages: 8 – 99
  • Awards: 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Award
  • Pages: 344
  • Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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by Aaron G. Myers

Youth Fiction: Our Top Ten Lists

As a family of readers, we’ve shared hundreds of books together and collectively read hundreds more. We have varied tastes and find ourselves sharing a love of some books but also find there are others we just can’t agree on. With today’s post we want to share our individual top ten favorite books in the youth fiction category. Our family defines youth fiction as books which feature young protagonists, usually between ages eight or nine and thirteen to fourteen. Themes may be intense but the content – language, violence, sexuality, etc are appropriate for kids that same age. If these books were rated they’d be rated G or PG.  Finally, we heartily agree with C.S. Lewis who said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” 

Books with a star following (*) indicate that it is part of a series.

Without further adieu then, here are each of our ten favorite books in the youth fiction category.

Aaron’s List

  1. Towers Falling by Jewel Parker Rhodes *
  2. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpoole
  3. Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
  4. Refugee by Alan Gratz
  5. Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Johnathan Auxier *
  6. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis *
  7. The Elephant Thief by Jan Kerr
  8. Trouble by Gary D. Schmidt
  9. The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley *
  10.  The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau *

Consuelo’s List

  1. The Jumping Off Place by Marian Hurd McNeely
  2. Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
  3. Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpoole
  4. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
  5. The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Mary Rose Wood * (audiobook suggested)
  6. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
  7. Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
  8. Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes
  9. The Bark of the Bog Owl by Johnathan Rodgers * (audiobook suggested)
  10. The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder * (audiobook suggested)

Malachi’s List

  1. Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
  2. Redwall by Brian Jaques *
  3. The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson *
  4. The Moffats by Eleanor Estes *
  5. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  6. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling *
  7. All the Wrong Questions by Lemony Snicket *
  8. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket *
  9. Treasure Seekers by Edith Nesbit
  10. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George 

Sonora’s List

  1. Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt
  2. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery * 
  3. The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon *
  4. Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Spear
  5. Nowhere Boy by Catherine Marsh
  6. The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall *
  7. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart *
  8. The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley *
  9. Boy by Roald Dahl
  10. The Avion My Uncle Flew by Cyrus Fisher

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Who Are We?

Book Reflection: The Chosen by Chaim Potok

When a seventeen year old student of mine threw out the expression, “What you talking about Willis?” to a good friend a few years ago, it begged the question – Did she have any idea where the expression came from? 

She didn’t. 

She had the tone of voice right, but she had absolutely no idea how an expression from a classic seventies sitcom had transcended time and culture to become a part of twenty first century teen slang. 

Her example serves as a starting point in understanding a problem that I, as a member of western society, have every time I open up and read my Bible. I read expressions like “the blood of the lamb” and have an understanding of the concept of a sacrifice that has saved me from my sins, but having not been raised in a society where animal sacrifice is a part of the very fabric of every day life, I can only acknowledge that my understanding lacks a depth that resonates to the core of my being. 

And then there is the curious term Abba. A Hebrew word that first century Jews used to talk affectionately about their earthly fathers, Jesus shocked his contemporaries by using it as a term of endearment for the great “I Am”, God himself. I am told by preachers that it was scandalous to followers of Judaism who saw God as so holy that they would leave out the middle letter of G_d, lest they somehow mispronounce it and offend. 

Having no Jewish roots, I have to believe that once again, I am missing the magnitude of this shift from a God no one felt comfortable addressing to the loving, father God, Abba. How can I ever understand Abba? 

Chaim Potok, the Jewish author of The Chosen, gave me my first real insight into understanding this shift. A story of two boys, brought together in the classic playground brawl and reconciled to best friends, The Chosen takes the reader into the heart of the Jewish communities of Brooklyn, New York during the final days of World War II and the genesis of the new Israel. 

It is in this setting that Revuen Malter and Danny Sunders explore friendship, faith, Freud and fathers, and while the story centers on the first three, it is the latter, fathers, that seems most important. 

Throughout the novel, the boys’ fathers play like background music at a department store. Slowly, patiently though, Potok turns up the volume until in the end, the reader wonders if the story wasn’t so much about two sons after all. 

Perhaps The Chosen is a novel about two fathers; Abba and G_d.

The story has done much to help me understand the magnitude of the endearing Abba that Jesus chose to call his father as well as appreciate anew the G_d we are called upon to revere and fear. 

So if you too have a deep desire to grow in your understanding of the God of the Old Testament and the Abba father of the New, pick up The Chosen and listen for the heartbeat of the love of the father, God.

  • Ages: 14-99
  • Awards: National Book Award Finalist
  • Pages: 272 Pages
  • Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

by Aaron Myers

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Book Review: The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

Synopsis

Twelve year old Deza Malone has a decent life in Gary, Indiana. Her mother and father love her. She has a great teacher who believes in her and a wonderful best friend in Clarice Anne Johnson. Her older brother Jimmie may be annoying but his singing voice is that of the angels. There is only one thing. It is 1936 and her family is dirt poor.  So poor in fact that her one pair of shoes are way too small and her decaying teeth are left untreated for lack of funds. Her decent life begins to fall apart when her father loses his job and finds that no one will hire a black man.  Her father decides to take to the road in search of a job. Shortly after that, her mother loses her job as a maid and together they make the decision to leave Gary and go in search of their father. The family travels north to Flint, Michigan, her father’s home town and ends up living in a hooverville on the outskirts of town because the family they had hoped to find in Flint were no longer there. They cannot find their father, Jimmie leaves to try his luck at making money with a band and the police raid the hooverville and burn their tent to the ground. By the end of the story, the family is reunited but it is not without tragedy, a deep look at the causes and effects of poverty and the kind of grit and determination that give a girl like Deza the nickname, the mighty miss Malone.

Review

While Curtis’ book Bud, Not Buddy is probably a better written story, there is something about the spunk, determination and hope of the Malone family that make The Mighty Miss Malone my favorite of all of his books. While the book stands as a sort of exposé on the ravages of poverty during the depression and the deep racism of the time that made it even harder on black families, Deza Malone is a masterful narrator who invites the reader to get to know the whole Malone family.  With twists in plot and a great attention to historic detail, the reader will be drawn into rooting for the Malone family to find their father and for the family to find its way back together again. While the plot occasionally wanders down interesting paths that don’t add a lot to it, the overall story is quite good.  It’s a great book to help readers enter into the challenges of the depression era. If you liked any of Christopher Paul Curtis’ other books, you’ll surely enjoy The Mighty Miss Malone.

  • Age: 10 – 99
  • Awards: None
  • Pages: 320
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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By Aaron Myers

Book Review: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

Synopsis

When 12 year old Sam Gribly gets fed up with big city life and his family’s crowded New York City apartment, he hatches a plan to run away to his great grandfather’s abandoned farm in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. There he begins to live out every twelve year old’s dream; learning to survive in the wilderness. Sam initially realizes that his wilderness survival skills – learned from books at the New York City Public Library – aren’t nearly good enough but with the help of a new friend and a few lucky breaks, he soon begins to make a life for himself in the woods. He learns to build traps to catch small game, to fish, to forage for food and soon begins the big project of building a home for himself in the burned out interior of a giant hemlock tree. Along the way Sam learns to avoid rangers, makes friends with the local wildlife and tames and trains a peregrine falcon who becomes both a companion and a skilled hunter.  The story wanders through the fall and preparations for winter and into the loneliness of solitude and the delight of unexpected friendships.

Review

My Side of the Mountain was one of my favorite books as a child. The author’s description of the mountain setting painted a picture of the glories of nature that thrilled my heart and made the story all the more real. While Sam’s character is far more mature than any twelve year old, his tenacity and can do spirit inspired me. Every page had a new adventure or a challenge to overcome and Sam was up for all of them. Characters pop up throughout the story at just the right time. Bill, Baron Weasel, Bando, Frightful the Falcon and many more wander in and out of Sam’s days on the mountain bringing him much joy and occasional grief. I loved My Side of the Mountain when I was a boy and I loved it still more when I read it again a few years back. It’s a great book for kids, filled with lessons of perseverance, courage and ingenuity.  And it would be a great book to introduce to young boys who are reluctant readers.

  • Ages: 10 – 99
  • Awards: Newbery Honor; ALA Notable Book
  • Pages: 177
  • Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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By Aaron G Myers

Book Review: Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt

Synopsis

Before jumping into the synopsis of Just Like That, it should be said that there is much in this novel that will make more sense and be more impactful if you have first read Wednesday Wars as this story begins just months after Wednesday Wars ends..  This is not essential but would certainly be my recommendation.

Now, on to the story.  When 8th grader Meryl Lee Kowalski is sent off to St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls in the fall of 1968, her world is already in turmoil. There she encounters the world of upscale privilege, boarding school tradition and the notorious “inner rings” of established groups driven by prestige, gossip and arrogance. Running north and parallel to Meryl Lee’s story  is Matt Coffin, who finds himself surviving on the Maine coast near St. Elenes with a pillowcase full of $100 bills and the daily fear of being found by the criminal he took it from.  When their paths cross under the watchful eye of the school’s mysterious yet kind headmistress, they both begin a journey toward renewal and growth – for them and for all those whose lives they touch.

Review

Just Like That is another masterpiece from Gary D. Schmidt.  Filled with adventure, mystery and deep lessons about friendship, accomplishment and what it means to be a good person, this book will surely be a family favorite for all who read it.  Meryl Lee actions bely a heart tuned to truth and justice and her pursuit of all that is right and fair and good will be an inspiration to any who journey with her.  She shows again and again the power of small acts of kindness. Exquisitely written, the story will suck you in so that you don’t want to put it down.  Everything about this book is wonderful!

  • Ages: 10 – 99
  • Awards: None
  • Pages: 403
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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By Aaron G Myers