One day Emily receives a package that changes her life. The contents of the package prove the woman whom she thought was her mother is really her aunt and her late aunt, whom she never knew, was really her mother. Emily decides to travel from her home in Victoria to Vancouver, to learn more about her mother and possibly locate her father. Written at just above a fourth grade reading level, this novel is perfect for struggling and reluctant young adult readers. The eventful plot and fast pace should hold readers' interest. Harvey is successful at capturing an authentic teenage voice full of doubt and angst. The manageable length (104 pages) and eye catching cover art give the title shelf appeal. As with all Orca Soundings titles, the font size and margins are slightly larger than usual, making the book less intimidating. Despite its intriguing premise, Bull's Eye's unappealing heroine might cause readers to put the book down unread. Emily is irrational and ungrateful for her many blessings. For example, her immediate hatred of her adoptive mother, who has loved and cared for her for eighteen years, renders her unsympathetic. Although Emily softens some by the novel's end, it isn't enough to forgive her brutish behavior.
Delphine doesn't need a mother. She and her two sisters, Vonetta and Fern, and her father and grandmother, Big Ma, are doing just fine on their own. So imagine Delphine's surprise when Pa insists that she and her sisters travel all the way across the country to visit Cecile, their estranged mother who walked out them seven years ago. To make matters worse, once the girls arrive, Cecile isn't happy to see them and reminds them at every turn that she never asked for them to come. She sends them to the Black Panther Community Center and tells them to keep out of her way. How will Delphine and her sisters survive one day, let alone an entire month with this woman?
As long as you can overlook the fact that otherwise loving and protective guardians allow their children to travel alone to 1968 Oakland to stay with a mentally-ill woman, you're likely to enjoy this book. Williams-Garcia is a gifted storyteller. She achieves the rare feat of creating an entire cast of characters that come alive on the page. Delphine's voice in particular is a strength. At once practical, thoughtful, precocious, and age-appropriate, she's a heroine of Scout Finch caliber. Like Countdown, also out this year, Summer will nudge readers to reconsider their perceptions of the sixties. Delphine and her younger sisters navigate a complex world; although they are familiar with the changes being brought about by the Civil Rights Movement, they live in constant fear of making a "a great Negro spectacle" of themselves. This book has the potential to be a catalyst for discussion in middle grade social studies classrooms. For example, ask students what they knew about the Black Panthers before reading Summer and how their knowledge was or was not reflected in the story. A minor complaint is that the story ends abruptly and without a satisfying conclusion. Williams-Garcia would have been well-advised to add more denouement.
Although there are many theories, no one knows for certain why, in 1692, young Puritan girls accused their neighbors of practicing witchcraft during the infamous Salem Witch Trials. In Wicked Girls, Hemphill, winner of a Printz Honor for Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath, proposes that the girls faked their fits to gain attention and enact revenge against those who had wronged them. The story is told in verse and the perspective alternates between three of the young female "seers": an upper class girl named Ann, Mercy, Ann's servant, and Margaret, Ann's cousin. Each brief, free verse poem is titled and the speaker is identified in italics beneath the title. The resulting narrative reads like Mean Girls set in Puritanical times. Although the setting is historical, teens will recognize the forces that compel the girls to bear witness against their fellow villagers. Hemphill intends to represent the entire year of witch hunt hysteria and, as a result, the book drags considerably in the middle when little changes apart from more squabbling between the girls. Unfortunately, although Hemphill is a talented poet, the verse format often distracts from the story being told. The girls' narrative voices are not dissimilar enough to register, forcing the reader to rely on the identifications at the beginning of each poem and halting the flow of the story. The cover doesn't have much shelf appeal but teens are likely to enjoy the book once they are encouraged to read it. Further biographies on the main characters and a bibliography of recommended sources is included after the novel's conclusion. Hemphill also provides an author's note explaining her research process, her intentions, and some of the liberties she took to serve the story she wanted to tell.
This book would serve as a good inspiration for writing or drama classes, similar to Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, or a good counterpart to Arthur Miller's The Crucible.
It's 1962 and Franny is certain she's going to die. You see, President Kennedy just appeared on television and told the country that the United States is on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. In the first children's book in recent memory set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a brief but nerve wracking time when the world was the closest to assured mutual destruction as it's ever been, Wiles has set a very ordinary story of a very ordinary girl. Franny worries about the same things all fifth graders do - why her best friend has suddenly started taunting her, where her big sister goes when she leaves the house, and whether the cute boy across the street likes her too - but she does so in a heightened, tense environment that we hope our children will never experience. Every night Franny goes to bed composing a letter to Khrushchev, appealing to his humanity and begging him to not push his Big Red Button. Her frustration over her teacher ignoring her in class is forgotten when sirens sound during recess and she realizes this might be the moment, when Russia finally decides to strike with nuclear warheads and it's all over.
Wiles has captured the cultural environment of 1962 for modern children in a possibly unparalled way. Through Franny and her friends and family we experience firsthand the terror that the Cold War wreaked on average American citizens. And, although today’s children probably haven’t even heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s apparent how close disaster actually was. Because we care so deeply for her characters, Wiles never has to preach to get her pacifist message across. At the same time, the American Forces are represented with dignity and respect. Franny’s is a military family. Her father is employed by the Air Force and her grandfather served during World War I. Wiles herself comes from a military family and is undoubtedly drawing from her own experiences when she portrays the sacrifices career military make for their country’s good. But the implied questions remain, Why do we still require these sacrifices of our citizens? Why is peace so hard to achieve? Of course there aren’t any answers. Still, it’s never too early for the next generation to begin wrestling with these questions.
Wiles does not document 1962 only through her narrative. Archival photographs, accompanied by facts, quotes, and snatches of popular song lyrics, are interspersed between chapters. The result is a truly holistic approach, plunging the reader headlong into the turbulence of the time period. In-between Franny’s story, we witness the rise of the Civil Rights and the feminist movements, the escalation of fighting in Vietnam, the preparations for the Space Race, and the onslaught of propaganda regarding nuclear war. Biographies of important figures (Harry Truman, The Kennedys, Pete Seeger, and Fannie Lou Hamer), written in a child’s didactic voice (are they Franny’s school reports?) are also present. They impart important information in an innocent voice that, for example, contrasts the staggering totals of Vietnam War dead with the fact that “The middle initial S in Harry S Truman’s name stood for nothing.” The only snag in Wiles’ non-traditional approach regards her intended audience. Although the ironic juxtaposition of song lyrics with period photographs is clever to an adult's eye, I agree with New York children's librarian Betsy Bird and believe that the pairing won't be understood in the same way by children. It's unlikely that young people will connect the words "You'll Never Walk Alone," which looms beneath a picture of school children "ducking and covering" under their desks, with the title of the popular Rogers and Hammerstein hit from Carousel or its out of context sentiment. But, as a positive, it could be an opportunity for educators to discuss the notion of “irony” with students and how Wiles is using it within her supplementary materials.
A historical note on the Cuban Missile Crisis appears after the novel’s conclusion. Wiles has also provided a list of suggested resources (books and websites), as well as photo credits.
That a ghost will find its way home is a truth that Jennie Lovell knows all too well. After Jennie’s fiancé Will dies fighting for the Union Army during the American Civil War, her world is thrown into chaos. An orphan, Jennie was only afforded shelter in her aunt and uncle’s home because she was to be the next lady of the house. Now that her fiancé is gone, she very well may be thrown out at any time. To make matters worse, Will’s ghost begins haunting Jennie, torturing her and pushing her to the brink of madness. And then rumors start circulating that suggest Will was not the man he claimed to be. Readers will be spellbound as Jennie grapples to solve the mystery surrounding Will’s last days and the novel gallops like a runaway carriage to its thrilling end. If you enjoy gothic ghost stories, Civil War romances, and are interested in early photography, you will love this book. It’s especially recommended for fans of A Drowned Maiden's Hair: A Melodrama.
Adele Griffin's restrained prose is perfect for this haunting tale. She never oversells the mystical elements and often the descriptions verge on poetry. Lisa Brown's digital illustrations based on daguerreotypes and archival documents, are interspersed between each of the novel's short chapters. As in Deborah Wiles' Countdown, Brown's illustrations are not merely decorative; they provide clues to the central mystery and help carry the plot. It's a shame that the narrative begins slowly because the almost graphic novel format should appeal to reluctant readers. But if readers persevere, they will be rewarded. The last fifty pages provide edge-of-your-seat suspense. An author's note is included and explains the historical basis for the story, as well as elements that were fabricated.
This title would be a good Halloween/scary book for middle graders and teens.