Category Archives: book review

Refugee, Alan Gratz


Wow. The power of stories is exemplified in this novel. It’s fiction BUT based on absolutely true events and people. If books are mirrors of the world, of real life – then this book can only teach us empathy and compassion…

Published by Scholastic and written by a skilled writer of books for children, this one is for older readers. I would not quite give this to my 11 year old grandson yet. Three horrific stories in one:

Three different kids, three different eras, but the same mission for each of them and their families –

Josef, a Jewish boy in 1930s Nazi Germany. Having survived Kristalnacht and with the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world…

Isabel lives in Cuba in 1994. Riots, hunger and unrest plague her country, and she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety and freedom in America…

Mahmoud lives in Aleppo, Syria in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward the safety of Europe…

Each faces a harrowing journey in search of a safe place to live. All face unimaginable dangers – from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But for each of them, there is still the hope of tomorrow. Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, yet surprising connections tie their stories together in the end – showing that each of us has an obligation to help others in this life, in this one world we share.

A portion of the sale of this book is donated by the author to Save The Children and UNICEF.

Two Weeks With The Queen by Morris Gleitzman

Remember to 1] support your local bookseller, but 2] you can order from
Dear Your Majesty the Queen,

I need to speak to you urgently about my brother Luke. He’s got cancer and the doctors in Australia are being really slack. If I could borrow your top doctor for a few days I know he/she would fix things in no time. Of course Mum and Dad would pay his/her fares even if it meant selling the car or getting a loan. Please contact me at the above address urgently.

Yours sincerely,
Colin Mudford.

This is not a hoax.
Ring the above number and Aunty Iris will tell you.
Hang up if a man answers.

This is how Two Weeks With The Queen starts.
I like Morris Gleitzman’s books for their tongue-in-cheek humor. But when I finished this book I was struck by the fact that he dealt with difficult issues: homosexuality, cancer and more – in such a wonderful, lighthearted manner.

This is a humorous but deeply moving story about Colin, who refuses to believe that his younger brother is dying of cancer. Colin takes matters in his own hands and decides to go to the top for help, who better than the all mighty Queen? Colin’s efforts to reach Her Majesty are hilarious, surprising and doomed to failure. But even if Colin can’t find a cure for cancer, he does find a way to help some of his new friends, as well as discovering the best thing he can do for Luke and his family. A tender, tough story that could be serve as a read-aloud to discussion the issues together.

  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Puffin Bks (March 4, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014130300X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141303000

Walking Home, by Eric Walters

Walking Home

  • Age Range: 10 and up 
  • Grade Level: 5 and up
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday Canada; 1St Edition edition (September 23, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385681577
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385681575

Eric Walters has written over 90 books for children, many of them award winning titles. I have read most of them. But his latest book, Walking Home, did something none of his other books ever had: it made me cry at the end. I found it to be touching, interesting, heart warming and a well written story.

Walking Home is the story of a young brother and sister who become orphaned in a troubled, violent time and region of Kenya. The two decide to walk to the region where their mother grew up, in hopes of finding relatives who will take them in. Rather than be separated by government officials who will place them in different homes, they walk over 200 KM, through Nairobi, through villages and deserted stretches.

Eric Walters did his research for this book. To the extreme.
Not only has he build an orphanage in Kenya, and continues to support it financially as well be involved in many day to day operational decisions. He also took a group of children and walked the entire track described in his book. Putting his own feet in the dust of African roads, eating oranges from roadside stalls and hoping to find water from wells, he was able to make this a story that takes the reader right along. It introduces us to Kenyan customs and beliefs. It shows the landscape and the fabric of African life.

The margins of the book have symbols throughout. These symbols seamlessly combine the paper pages (or the e-book) with additional information online. Videos, interviews, maps and other details all add information to the story.

A portion of the cost of this book will be donated, by the publisher to Creation of Hope, Walters’ orphanage in Kenya.

This title can be complemented in the classroom by Eric Walters’ African picture books: The Matatu, My Name is Blessing and Hope Springs. The latter two stories come directly from the orphanage and are based on the true stories of children living there. Both are heartwarming tales, complemented by back pages with information.


Book Review: Bloomability by Sharon Creech

Bloomability by Sharon Creech
One of those lovely books to curl-up with, this is the story of coming-of-age of a girl attending an international school in Switzerland.
After having been “kidnapped” by an aunt,Dinnie Doone discovers all the “bloomabilities” that life has to offer. 
As with many good tales, getting rid of the parents often seems important to allow the main character to blossom. In Dinnie’s “second life” in Europe, her family continues to neglect her, forgetting even to let her know where they’ve relocated. Dinnie gradually adjusts to her new environment and makes friends with other students from around the world: exuberant Guthrie; bitter Lila; and language-mangling Keisuke, who says “bloomable” when he means “possible.” 
Together, these middle schoolers share classes and adventures, and explore ideas and emotions. A great middle school read from Newbery Award-winning author Sharon Creech 
Paperback, 273 pages HarperTrophy ISBN 006440823X (ISBN13: 9780064408233)
For more details and a teaching guide:

Counting By 7’s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

You know those books that allow you to crawl inside the main character’s head and allow you to dwell there for a while? Those comfortable, even if disturbing, books that are so real.  Those books that are like a lollipop – you start licking (reading) slower so that the good feeling with last longer…

That’s how felt while reading Counting By 7’s.
This is an intensely moving middle grade novel about being an outsider, coping with loss, and discovering the true meaning of family. Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly happy life . . . until now. Willow’s world is suddenly, tragically, changed when… well, I won’t tell you ’cause you have to read it yourself. The triumph of this book is that it is “not” a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read.

“Holly Goldberg Sloan writes about belonging in a way I’ve never quite seen in any other book. This is a gorgeous, funny, and heartwarming novel that I’ll never forget.”–John Corey Whaley, author of “Where Things Come Back”

“Willow Chance subtly drew me into her head and her life, so much so that I was holding my breath for her by the end. Holly Goldberg Sloan has created distinct characters who will stay with you long after you finish the book.”–Sharon Creech, Newbery Award-winning author of “Walk Two Moons”

The London Jungle Book by Bhajju Shyam

The London Jungle Book by Bhajju Shyam
I felt very lucky when I ‘discovered’ this unique book, several years ago. It’s one of those gorgeous books, and story, that makes a fascinating read for adults, a coffeetable art book AND a children’s book.
“A beautiful book. I would like to give it to everyone I love when they are traveling by choice or necessity.”—John Berger

“Bhajju Shyam is causing quite a stir among museum-goers in London. . . . This is London as you’ve never seen it before. An incredible vision.”—BBC World Service

This stunning visual travelogue by an Indian tribal artist turns a modern metropolis into an exotic bestiary. Bhajju Shyam, from the Gond tribe in central India, had never left his native village when a European visitor encountered his art and invited him to London to paint the interiors of a chic Indian restaurant.
With radical innocence and great sophistication, Bhajju records his experiences and observations showing a modern city as you’ve never seen it before, combining his vision with native lore — the London Underground becomes a giant earthworm, Big Ben merges with a massive rooster, and English people are shown as bats that come out to play at night. It is rare to encounter a truly original vision that is capable of startling us into reexamining familiar sights. By breathing the ancient spirit of wonder back into the act of travel, The London Jungle Book does just that. Bhajju’s work is well known throughout India and has been exhibited in the United Kingdom, Germany, Holland, and Russia. From the walls of his tribal village home to international acclaim, Bhajju’s has been an incredible creative journey.

Check out what Delhi street children did with art based on this book:

The Underneat by Kathi Appelt

The Underneath The Underneath, Kathi Appelt.
Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-1-84738-311-2

This book.
What a book it is.
Not poetry really, but such a story.
Woven around some kittens and a hound.

This story is dark, heavy, gripping. Yet light as a feather. I couldn’t put it down – wanted to taste the words and swirl them around on my tongue. How does one author make such words, put them in such a delicious order?
This author.
She is a story spinner.

Some stories are built on strong characters, with strong settings. A plot.
This story has all that, spun out of wonderful words.
It draws you in, like the whirlpools in the dark river in the story.
I was scared. Scared for the kittens and the hound.
Scared of the snake and the gators.
Scared of the darkness of the man.

But there was light, too.
Light of love, and hope.
Always hope. Hope for a happy ending…
This is a story to read aloud, share with children the story this author spins.
If you are a writer, read these words. See how she spun them. Into a story that will tug at your heart strings. A story of love and friendship. A story of deep running hatred. A scary story that is beautiful.
Part folklore, part fairytale. A tale set in the south.
A tale that you will not soon forget.
Oh, such a tale.

Awards for The Underneath:

  • Borders “Original New Voices”
  • Book Sense “Pick of the Week”
  • Starred review, Booklist Magazine
  • Top Ten Bestsellers, Indie Bound
  • Finalist, The National Book Awards
  • John Newbery Honor Book, ALA
  • Finalist, Heart of Hawick Children’s Book Award
  • PEN Center USA Award Children’s Literature
  • Winner, Writer’s League of TX Award for Children’s Literature
  • New York Times Bestseller

On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing, Stephen King

Let me beginning with confessing that I am not a fan of Stephen King’s novels. I’m not ‘into’ horror at all, even though they are, undoubtedly, well written horror stories.
However, horrible as the writing life can sometimes be – what with rejections and all – his book On Writing is a spot-on, often funny reflection on the profession.
I found it to be a helpful encouraging, down-to-earth guide for writers at all stages of their career. The book does not make things more rosy than they are. It states clearly the not even attempt to write for publishing if you don’t have anything to say. But it does make it clear how exciting a writer’s life can be if you love research and storytelling.

“Long live the King,” said Entertainment Weekly upon the publication of Stephen King’s On Writing: Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported near-fatal accident in 1999 — and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery.

Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it — fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told. If you are serious at wanting to be a writer, get it.

Mass Market Paperback, 297 pages
ISBN 0743455967

The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest by Lynne Cherry

The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest by Lynne Cherry

The rain forest is full of amazing animals, trees, vines and flowers. But one day a man enters the forest and the animals hold their breath. He is told to cut down the great kapok tree. The man tires and naps. While he sleeps the creatures take turns whispering in his ear what the tree means to each of them. When he wakes up, he gathers his axe and leaves. The forest can breath again.

This book – which looks at what the Kapok tree means to the creatures that live in it, and what rain forests mean to the world’s ecology – was at the forefront of the ecological movement and continues to resonate profoundly with children everywhere.

Beautifully written, with a strong message, this book can be enjoyed as a picture book and used in classrooms on many different levels.

Paperback, 40 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ISBN
0152026142 (ISBN13: 9780152026141)

Lesson Plan:

Radical Reflections: Passionate Opinions on Teaching, Learning, and Living – by Mem Fox

Radical Reflections: Passionate Opinions on Teaching, Learning, and Living  by Mem Fox

Mem Fox, internationally acclaimed children’s book writer and educator offers insights into the learning process, language education, and the pleasure, growth, and power that reading and writing can bring.
Some of her most well known titles include Possum Magic and Koala Lou, I Do Love You.
But this title is fabulous reading for any educator, including homeschooling parents. She explains how no child will ever get passionate about filling in the blanks, but how to turn anyone into an avid reader.

At the same time I should mention Mem’s book specifically at parents:

Reading Magic is a great guide to reading with children, now in a new and revised edition. Fox reveals the incredible emotional and intellectual impact reading aloud to children has on their ability to learn to read. With passion and humor, Fox speaks of when, where, and why to read aloud and demonstrates how to read aloud to best effect and get the most out of a read-aloud session. She discusses the three secrets of reading, offers guidance on defining and choosing good books, and–for this new edition–includes two new chapters on boy readers and phonics, a foreword, and a list of “Twenty Books That Children Love.” Filled with practical advice, activities, and inspiring true read-aloud miracles, this book is a turn-to classic for educators and parents.

I have often used these books as gifts for educators or new parents. Hope you love them.