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New books reviewed by Mrs. Ellis, 2003      

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Any Small Goodness cover

Any Small Goodness:

A Novel of the Barrio
by Tony Johnston

 

Summary: 11 year old Arturo tells the story of his family's life in East Los Angeles, mixing Spanish words and phrases into the English text in a melding called Spanglish. His family deals with ordinary problems (a lost cat, the grandmother's disapproval of modern and American customs) with good humor, but when their house is sprayed with gunfire by a drive-by shooter, the adjustment is harder.  Arturo must make a choice between acting on his anger or bringing a small goodness into the barrio.

Personal thoughts: Good for illustrating the assimilation process for Hispanic immigrants, and a good discussion starter on gangs and violence. Shows how acts of kindness build a strong community.



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The Shakespeare Stealer     
by Gary L. Blackwood                                     

Grades: 4-8

Summary: In Elizabethan England, Widge, a young orphan, is trained by a clergyman to write in shorthand so he can steal the sermons of other preachers for his master's own use. Word gets out of Widge's skill, and he is sent to London to do the same for a rival theater manager at a performance of the new play "Hamlet," by William Shakespeare. Circumstances lead to Widge's eventual acceptance into the Shakespeare troupe, where he realizes how much work goes into the creation of a theatrical production and how wrong it is to steal other's creative work.

Personal thoughts: A good historical novel, with appealing young characters, and both humor and suspense.  Excellent illustration of the Elizabethan theater and of the concept of intellectual property rights. Includes enough action to make a good read-aloud, although the vocabulary is sometimes challenging.  One young reviewer on Amazon.com recommended it highly and wrote "I would read it every day if I could."
 

 

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Sequel: Shakespeare's Scribe

(not reviewed)    

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Comfort
by Carolee Dean

 

Grades: 8-12

 

Summary:   Kenny Roy Willson lives in rural Texas where he works every day at his mother's run-down cafe for almost no money. He resents having to give up playing football and being in the school band, at his mother's insistence, but he is fighting to hold onto his writing - mostly for the possibility of prize money but also because of the beautiful older girl who shares his love of writing. When his father is released from prison, family life becomes even more complicated, largely because of his mother's efforts to promote her husband as a country singer, a dream she clings to despite her husband's lack of desire and extreme stage fright. Kenny's own dream is to run away, but he worries about what will happen to his neglected little brother if he leaves.

 

Personal thoughts: I thought this book was very well-written, and the characters are very believable and complex, not simply good or bad, but a mixture of both. The author throws a lot of ideas into the plot, including domestic abuse, alcoholism, ex-convict adjustment, and rural isolation and poverty.  This book might appeal to students who face complicated and challenging situations in their own families.

 

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Up on Cloud Nine
by Anne Fine

Grades: 5-8

Summary: The friendship between practical Ian and head-in-the-clouds Stol is portrayed in flashback as Ian waits by Stol's hospital bed for the still-unconscious boy's too-busy lawyer father to visit. Stol has fallen out a second-story window, or did he jump? With accident-prone Stol it is impossible to know for sure, and with his parents unavailable (his mother is a fashion photographer on assignment in the rain forest), Ian's own family feels the need to step in to care for this remarkable boy. Both funny and sad, this is a beautifully written book. Set in England.

Personal thoughts:  A good discussion starter on the topic of families and friendship. Ian's decision to help Stol avoid being labeled as a child at-risk could prompt questions about what a true friend should do in a similar situation.

 

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Todaysgirls.com #2: Portrait Of Lies
by Terry Brown (Author), Dandi Daley Mackall (Author)

 

Grades: 5-12

 

Summary:     Jamie wants desperately to attend a summer art camp, but her single mother could never afford the fees. She enters a portrait in a contest which would win her enough money to pay her own way, not knowing that one of her friends has already sent in another portrait in her name. When the wrong portrait is selected by the judges as the winner, Jamie must decide whether to accept the price money under these circumstances, or do the right thing.

 

Personal thoughts:  Besides being an appealing story, this book also encourages good habits for internet safety. Jamie and her friends use a private chat room for their online chatting, and they are careful about personal information. (Their chat room is connected to a Christian web site which really exists.) Another book in this series (Stranger Online) deals with handling threatening emails. Both books have an unobtrusive Christian perspective, but the story stands above most Christian fiction for strength of plot and character development.

 

 

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Isabel: Taking Wing

(Girls of Many Lands)
by Annie Dalton

Grades: 5-9

Summary: 12-year-old Isabel Campion lives in Elizabethan England where girls and women are expected to live a life centered on their home and family. Her father and older brother, by contrast, travel extensively for their business. Adventurous Isabel doesn't seem to fit in at home, so she is sent to live with her independent-minded aunt. But bandits and the plague epidemic challenge her efforts to find a place of safety and happiness in a dangerous time.

Personal thoughts: This will appeal to girls, especially those who enjoy the Dear America series or fans of Karen Cushman (The Midwife's Apprentice). Part of the Girls of Many Lands series.

 

 

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Abarat
by Clive Barker

 

First of a planned 4-volume series.

 

Grades: 4-6

 

Summary:  Candy Quackenbush lives unhappily in a small town in Minnesota with her equally unhappy family, until the day she walks out onto the prairie and watches the sea of grass turn into an ocean. From that moment, she is swept into a non-stop adventure in the magical world of the Abarat, where fantastic creatures live not in a certain place, but at a certain time. During the wild adventures that follow, it becomes clear that Candy is not in the Abarat for the first time, and that she is not a regular girl from Minnesota.

 

Personal thoughts: Lavishly illustrated with full-color drawings by the author, this is certainly a visually appealing book. Readers will enjoy Candy's adventures, and find the many magical characters interesting, but the abrupt ending leaves many plot threads unresolved, so some readers will be disappointed. The author sometimes seems to substitute more action for serious character development.



 

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Confucius: the Golden Rule
by Russell Freedman

 

Grades: 4+

 

Summary: Students who have always heard teachers and parents quote the golden rule will be interested to learn that Confucius had the same idea many centuries ago. Students studying government will learn here that Confucius advised the rulers of his country to follow many of the democratic ideals on which our own country was founded. Teachers will be gratified to learn that when his ideas for government reform were rejected as too radical, Confucius dedicated his life to teaching young people to think deeply and independently, and left a deeper mark on the world than the rulers who ignored him during his lifetime.

 

Personal thoughts: An excellent book for many reasons, including outstanding writing, beautiful illustrations, and for the way this Newbery award winning author makes the life and ideas of this once-obscure, itinerant philosopher relevant to today.

 

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The Breadwinner
by Deborah Ellis

 

Grades: 6+

 

Summary: 11-year-old Parvana lives in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, where girls do not attend school and women are forbidden to appear in public without a male escort. When her father is imprisoned, the family decides to send the young girl out in boy's clothing and short hair to earn money since there is no man in the house.

 

Personal thoughts:  Students will learn about pre-war conditions in this battered country by reading this book. The cruelty of the Taliban is clearly shown, but Parvana keeps hope in her heart by doing what she can to help others while waiting for her father to be released from prison.

 

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Sequel: Parvana's Journey

Grades: 6+

Summary: An older Parvana is left alone after her father dies while traveling with her in search of the rest of their family, who had gone north in the previous story.  Still disguised as a boy, Parvana encounters devastating evidence of how fragile life is in war-torn Afghanistan when she finds a starving baby in a bombed-out village. Unable to abandon him, she carries him with her as she struggles to find enough food to keep them both alive. With two other children she meets along the way, she finally finds a refugee camp where there is more food, and medical care for the now-dangerously sick baby. There she loses her new "sister" to a land mine, which, ironically, helps her find her mother.

Personal thoughts:  Darker in mood than the first book, this installment shows the horror of life in a war zone. Air bombing and mine fields strike with random devastation. A realistic look the life of war refugees.