Like a River

like a river book cover

Leander and Paul are two young soldiers fighting in the Civil War. They join the army for different reasons, but when they cross paths in a Union hospital, they become fast friends. Both boys must make a difficult decisions. Leander must decide where he will go next, and Paul must decide whether or not to keep his secret and continue to fight for the Union Army. Along the way both boys wonder if they will ever see each other again.

This book details to story of two young Union Soldiers during the Civil War. The first part of the book is Leander’s story. Leander is the typical immature youth who wants to grow up too fast. The author was successful in showing the reader his immaturity and selfishness. We also get a sense of his jealousy towards his brother. Paul’s character is strong-willed and hardworking. He has a strong desire to help those around him. He is one of the better written characters in the book, because the author developed his character more so than the others in the book.

One of the supporting characters, Given, was very disappointing. The author did not give much depth to Given’s character. In the story, Given goes out of his way to help those who are weaker than him, almost to an extreme degree. Unfortunately, the author never explains or show why he does this, which makes his motives somewhat confusing. Given could have been one of the strongest characters in the story if the author would have spent more time developing his character.

This book was chalk-full of conflict, which is expected in a Civil War novel. The author tried to create conflict to mirror actual events that occurred during the Civil War. This, unfortunately, just made the story seem disconnected. The author should have focused more on building the story and less on trying to incorporate historical events that did not fit.

The author was successful in using conflict to change Leander’s character for the better. Through his thoughts and actions, it is evident that he has changed. Conflict is also used successfully to show Paul’s resolve. Paul never gives up on his fellow soldiers, and tries his best to keep them alive. Another successful aspect of this book was the author’s ability set up each scene. Her descriptions help the reader easily see locations such as the hospital and camp vividly.

In this book, the author offered a view of life for those captured by the Rebel army. Although this is rarely included in Civil War Fiction, the author was just was not successful in her execution of this story. This was not a lighthearted book. It offered a realistic view of the death and mutilation that occurred during the Civil War. The author tried to create a touching story, but the story ended up not being very memorable. There are better Civil War stories for Middle-Grade readers, such as: I Survived the Battle of Gettysburg 1863 by Lauren Tarshis or Iron Thunder by Avi.  However, I would suggest book to children who have already read many of the Civil War fiction books for kids, and are looking for something new.

Like a River. By Kathy Cannon Wiechman. Calkins Creek. 336 pages. $17.95
Recommended Reading Level: Grades 5 – 8
Rating: 3.0/5.0

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If You Find This

If you find this book cover

Summary:

When Grandpa Rose suddenly returns from prison claiming he knows where the family heirlooms are hidden, Nicholas decides to help his grandfather in hopes of solving his family’s financial troubles. With help from fellow outcasts Jordan and Zeke, Nicholas follows the path he hopes will lead him to this treasure.

 

Review:

The beginning of this starts book stars with Nicholas telling the reader that he is writing an account of the events that have occurred, just in case something happens to him. From this, the reader is led to believe that a great adventure will occur. Unfortunately this does not happen, as very little action occurs in this book.

 

This story had a number of issues with plot and characterization. Baker had many good ideas, but they really did not work as a whole; instead they made the story seem scattered. He incorporated musical dynamics such as forte and piano, which was distracting and really served no purpose. Some of the transitions in this story were awkward. At one point Jordan’s grandfather starts telling a story about his childhood. Baker had Nicholas refer back to this story later in the book, but it does not fit with what is happening in the book at the time. 

 

In this story, Nicholas’ brother dies as a baby, and the family decide to bury his body in the backyard beside a tree. Not only would this type of activity be illegal, it is not really appropriate for a children’s book. Later in the book, someone wants to buy Nicholas’ house and build a pool in the backyard. This brings up another issue of someone digging and finding baby bones.

 

It was really difficult to get a sense of the characters in this book. The author tells us information about each character, but we don’t really see firsthand their motivations and feeling. The only strong characters were the grandfathers. Baker was successful at conveying their fears and feelings, and it was easy to understand the decisions they made. Nicholas’ mother and father were almost nonexistent, however. Baker did not really develop these characters at all, and it was difficult to get a sense of their relationship with Nicholas.

 

Nicholas plays the part of the stereotypical nerd, such as: eating in the bathroom stall and meeting his bullies after school. His character was very surface level,  not very relatable, and he did not really change in any way. Baker tried to build up his character, by adding numerous aspects to his personality, but this just made Nicholas seem even more unrealistic. The bully characters in this story were exaggerated, which was most likely purposeful. This was not conveyed very successfully, however.

 

The ending of this book was somewhat weak and everything seemed to fall into place a bit too neatly. Although this book was not successful, I will be interested to see what Baker publishes next, because I believe it will be more focused and polished. Those seeking a true action-packed adventure should read The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch.

 

If You Find This. By Matthew Baker. Little, Brown and Company. 351 pages. $17.00

Rating: 2.5/5.00

Listen, Slowly

cover of the book Listen, Slowly

Twelve year old Mai is not looking forward to summer.  Mai would rather spend her summer at Laguna Beach with her friends, but instead she has to travel across the world to Vietnam. Mai’s  grandmother (Ba) is seeking information about Mai’s grandfather, and Mai’s parents ask her to accompany Ba. In this story Mai is taken to a world built upon tradition and pride. Thanhha Lai takes the reader on a journey to Vietnam, where we learn, along with Mai, about the beautiful culture, people, and complex language of Vietnam.

Mai is the typical tween from an upper-middle class family, and the most stressful thing in her life if trying to decide if her crush is interested in her. Lai allows Mai’s sarcastic tone to come through, which we get a sense of on the very first page. Her character is very believable, and I think many kids would relate to her. In her character we see the contrast between the lives of children in the United States than those in Vietnam.

Ba is a very strong character in this story. She never asks for anything, and spent her life sacrificing everything to raise her children. Mai lovers her dearly, and they have a very close relationship. Although she says very little in the story, she provides a pathway for Mai to understand and appreciate Vietnam.

Some of the side characters were not as strong as Mai and Ba. It was difficult to really get a sense of who Ut was. The author may have wanted to the reader to learn about Ut as Mai learns more about her, but this made it difficult to care about her character. Although many of the secondary characters were not strong, they are successful in showing the day to day duties of people in the remote villages in Vietnam.

This story had issues with pacing and dialogue. Some of the action moved so quickly that it was hard to keep up with what was happening. The dialogue was a bit confusing, as well. When two or more characters were talking, the author did not always state who was saying what, and it was not always easy to guess from what was being said.

Overall, Listen, Slowly was a beautifully captured story, in which the reader is taken to the captivating world of Vietnam. Lai has an amazing gift of using just the right word to help the reader see and feel what Mai is seeing and feeling. I would recommend this book to teachers in 6th – 7th grade as a read-aloud, and it would provide a great Geography lesson for students.

Listen, Slowly. By Thanhha Lai. HarperCollins Children’s Books. 260 pages. $16.99
Recommended Reading Level: Grades 6-7
Rating: 4.0/5.0

Blue Mountain

Blue Mountain Book Cover

Tuk is a Bighorn Sheep, and when he is born it is foretold that he will save the heard from scarcity of food and the threat of predators. As Tuk leads the heard of Bighorn Sheep to the Blue Mountain, he and the heard must weigh the consequences of taking an unknown journey and decide if this will lead them to safety or to their undoing. This novel, by Martine Leavitt, touches on the environmental impact of urban sprawl, and offers a picture of what life is like for Bighorn Sheep.

This novel had many successful elements. Leavitt is a masterful wordsmith, and she was able to describe events and locations in the book quite vividly. The book included trickster tale elements, and I also picked up on traces of Native American folklore.

The characters in this story were thoughtfully planned out, which helped the reader get a glimpse of each character’s personality. The need to get to a safe place with food is what motivates and propels the characters, and each character has their place in the heard. Although the main character, Tuk, does not change much in the story, the reader is able to see him as a natural leader who can make quick decisions in stressful situations. The other characters are also well developed. Rim and Ovis are other strong leaders and Dall is the wise woman of the heard. Mouf is the weakest of the herd, and she needs constant motivation. The interactions between these characters shed light on decisions made in the story.

Conflict is successfully interwoven throughout this story. The heard deals with scarcity of food and fear of predators and humans. The conflict helps propel the story, because each difficult situation forces the heard to make a decision.

Although this book was beautifully written and had a number of positive aspects, I do think that it works as a book for children. It was very philosophical, and read more like adult fiction. I don’t see children connecting to it, and throughout the book I kept thinking, “Who is this book for?” I understand that the author was trying to share her passion for preserving the habitat of the Bighorn Sheep, but I think a nonfiction narrative would have been a more successful way to reach a youth audience.

Blue Mountain. By Martine Leavitt. Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers. 164 pages. $15.99
Recommended Reading Level: Grades 6-8
Rating: 3.5/5.0

Mark of the Thief

Mark of the Thief book cover

Summary:
Nic, a young slave boy, spends his days working in a mine, but his life changes when he discovers a talisman belonging to the late Julius Caesar. When Nic is sent to Rome, he discovers that the talisman holds great magic, but this power leads him into danger. In the end, Nic knows he has to make a decision about who to trust, and what to do with the magic.

Review:
I had high hopes for this book, but unfortunately it just fell flat. One of the problems with this book was that the plot was not fully developed. Some of the action scenes were confusing, which made it a challenge trying to understand what was happening. It was difficult to tell where the plot was leading throughout this book, and the book seemed to drag until the conclusion.

Another issue with this book is that it was difficult to get a sense of the characters. In the beginning, the main character, Nic, shows strong will, resolve, and even a sense of humor. At first it is easy to understand Nic’s character. Unfortunately, as we get further in this book, Nic does not really show these same character traits. This makes some of his decisions in the book seem confusing and not believable in the context of the story. An example of this is when the Griffin named Caela is captured; we assume from what we know about Nic that he will rescue her. Instead, he lets her be captured and taken to Rome. Many of the secondary characters were also not fully developed, and it was difficult to understand their motives and actions. Crispin, the senator’s son, was a very confusing character. In the story, he makes belittling comments about slaves that go against his character. Felix, the man who buys Nic, is also a confusing character. His kindness towards Nic in the beginning does not make sense, and his actions later in the story are also unclear.

Some aspects of this book did work well. In many of the scenes Nielsen described the setting vividly, which made it easy to visualize locations, such as the coliseum. Nielsen was also able to successfully  interweave the fantasy elements in the story with historical information about Ancient Rome.

Overall, this book had issues that kept it from meeting its potential. I know Nielsen was trying to leave some things unexplained for the sequel, but due to the lack of character and plot development, the reader may be left with a feeling of indifference.

Mark of the Thief. By Jennifer A. Nielsen. Scholastic Press. 339 pages. $17.99
Recommended Reading Level: Grades 6-8
Rating: 3.5/5.0

Finding Serendipity

finding serendipity book cover

Summary:
When world famous writer Serendipity Smith goes missing, her daughter, Tuesday Mcgillycuddy, leaves on an unexpected journey to find her. Through her journey, Tuesday learns the value of a good story, and that courage and imagination will lead her to her mother.

My Review:
This book had a number of issues, including a weak plot. The transition between realism and fantasy was rushed and did not make very much sense. The conflict in this story was not suspensefull, and the “turning point” was anticlimactic.

Character development was also lacking in this book. The authors wanted us to believe that Tuesday changes at the end of the book, but we really do not see any evidence of this. I do not think that events in the story shaped her, and she did not grow in any way. Tuesday was also not a relatable character. We do not really know who she is, and her motivations do not make sense. Vivienne’s character was also not very well developed. It was difficult to get a sense of her as a character. We are told things about her in the story, but we really do not get to see anything except the surface level of her character. Tuesday’s parents were not well developed either. The mother character was very flat, and the father was too eccentric.

The authors of this book were trying really hard to make a quirky story, but it just did not work. The long descriptions were not charming, and they made the story drag. The authors seemed to have good overall ideas, but these ideas were poorly executed.

Finding Serendipity. By Angelica Banks. Henry Holt and Company, LLC. 280 pages. $16.99
Recommended Reading Level: Grades 4 – 6
Rating: 2.5/5.0

Stella by Starlight

stella by Starlight book cover

Stella’s eyes are filled with fear as she and her brother witness a burning cross. Stella knows that this is a sign of the Klan, which means trouble for the people in her small community. The book Stella by Starlight is about the struggles that many African American families in the South faced in the early 1930’s. This story is told through the eyes of Stella. Stella’s community deals with racism, unfair work practices, and voter discrimination, but they are still able to stay strong and come together as a community.

In Stella by Starlight, Draper weaves a beautiful story about the strength of community and family. This piece of Historical Fiction is one that every child in 4th and 5th grade should read. As tragedy befalls Stella’s community, everyone bands together and they never give up hope. Draper has a way with words, and uses skillfully crafted imagery to help the reader see each scene vividly. Throughout this story we learn how things makes sense to Stella as she makes observations about the world around her. Stella’s father and mother are very brave, and they teach Stella and her brother to be hardworking and to care for those around them. Her parents and the people in the community never let tragic events keep them down. They look out for each other, and are able to band together when conflict arises.

The only thing that could be improved in this book, would be for Draper to add more depth to some of the secondary characters, especially Stella’s best friend and the doctor. Stella, her family, her teacher, and Spoon Man were written about in such great detail, and it would have been nice to see some of the other characters more fully developed.

Stella by Starlight. By Sharon M. Draper. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 320 pages. $16.99
Recommended Reading Level: Grades 4 – 5
Rating: 4.5/5.0