Bo at Ballard Creek

Bo at Ballard Creekby Kirkpatrick Hill

278 pages of small town adventures for intermediate readers – it would make a fun read aloud for younger readers too.

Jack Jackson and Avrid Ivorsen had arrived in Alaska in 1897 Klondike Gold Rush.  They were both big men – bigger than most and that’s how they met each other.  They helped each other get the large sized clothes they needed.  Once they met, they figured out they were good help for each other – Jack ran the kitchen and Arvid did the blacksmithing for the mine.   They were good company.

One day Arvid was taking a break, standing on the riverbank watching the commotion of the logs and passengers being loaded on a steamship when Mean Millie, one of the good-time girls, walked up him and handed him her baby. Told him to take it to the orphanage in Nulato next time he went to town and walked away.  Arvid had no idea of what to do with a baby, but Jack did.

When the time came to take that baby to the orphanage, Avrid and Jack just walked on by and that was how Bo came to live at Ballard Creek with her two Papas.  She worked in the kitchen with Jack helping out with all she could.  She cut the biscuits and filled the wood box with kindling.  When her chores were done, Bo went to find Oscar – the only other child not yet old enough for school and they’d go visiting.  Sometimes they’d read magazines at Milo’s Roadhouse, sometimes they’d visit Lilly and Yovela or sometimes they’d visit Nakuchluk and Unakserak, the oldest people in town.  Bo could speak English and Eskimo.  She was a friend to everyone and everyone at Ballard Creek looked out for her too.

It is interesting to learn about life at the turn of the century in Alaska.  Interesting to learn how the gold was mined, how the mail was delivered, how supplies were shipped and how traditional ways were married with new customs so that all in the village survived and prospered.

The About the Author blurb says, “Kirkpatrick Hill was born into a mining family:  her father was a miner as was her grandfather.  When she was little the family lived at Cleary Hill Mines near Fairbanks, Alaska – a place much like Ballard Creek.  She says, ‘I almost always write bout true events and my characters are often based on actual people.  I couldn’t make up anything more interesting than things that really happened.’  That means that Ms. Hill has known some wonderfully caring people and they have shared some amazing times together.  Reading Bo at Ballard Creek is a real treat!  I hope many readers will join Bo in her small town and meet all the her friends as well.

Hero on a Bicycle

Hero on a Bicycleby Shirley Hughes

a different view of of World War II – the tension of being caught in between

In 1944 in Florence, Italy, Rosemary Crivelli, Paolo’s mother… “knew she should remind him of the dangers of what he was doing and forbid him – forbid him – to go out alone again at night, but somehow she could never find the heart to do it…She reflected grimly on the old cliché that wartime, when not terrifying, was a combination of long stretches of boredom and grinding hardship.”

Paolo can’t stand doing nothing.  He sneaks out at night to ride his bike through the city –the tension of breaking the rules brings some excitement to his life. Controlled and commanded by authority that could snap at any moment, Paolo is looking for a way to do something in the chaos that surrounds him.  His father left secretly two years ago to join the resistance and now the Crivelli family is under close watch by the ever-present Gestapo.  Signora Crivelli is British, another reason to be watched closely by Colonel Ritter – where do the true sympathies of the Crivelli family lie.

Paola thinks his rides are secret, but they are not.  Both his mother and 16-year old sister, Constanza know of them.  They hear him leave and the lie awake until he returns well after midnight.  This last time, Paolo was given a message at gunpoint to take to his mother. That one message removes all hope of being left alone to endure whatever ordinary hardships might come their way.  That message brings them into direct contact with Il Volpe, the leader of the Italian resistance and puts them in charge of seeing that the escaped prisoners of war make it back across Allie lines.

Quick thinking and smart decisions barely keep the Crivellies safe through to the liberation of Florence.  They suffer when friends bend and break under the pressure of fear and distrust.  The witness the horrific cruelty and pain of war and the fearless dedication of those committed to their cause.  While I wished for more detail and for the plot to be developed more completely, I appreciate how this original tale, set in a different place and with a unique vantage point, adds to our understanding of World War II.  Intermediate and middle grade readers interested in this topic will like Hero on a Bicycle and will be compelled to turn each page as the tension mounts and secrets unfold.


Gingersnapby Patricia Riley Giff

recipes seasoned with herbs and care are always the best – even when ingredients are rationed and scarce.

Janea lives with her brother Rob.  He’s nine years older than she is and has just become old enough to gain custody and take her from foster care.  That’s been their dream since she’s been five and Rob has visited her every Sunday.  Finally they can build a home together.  It is a home of love, stories, shared meals, soup and change. Rob is a cook at the Navy base and he’s about to be shipped out on the USS Muldoon.  He’ll be cooking meals for the sailors and Janea will be living with their landlady, Celine until he comes back.  Rob assures her it won’t be long.  When the war is over and Rob is home they plan to open a restaurant where he’ll make the meals and “Gingersnap” will make the soup.  Gingersnap is the nickname Janea’s mother gave her because of her ginger-colored hair.  The name makes Janea feel closer to her family.

Rob leaves and the days pass by.  Celine thinks that Janea needs to learn manners and perhaps she does.  Janea tries her best to be a quiet, neat girl.  She tries to stay out of the way.  She cares for Theresa the turtle in the soon-to-be dried up pond in their old backyard.  She carries the rock girl with her always – the funny rocky face from one of the last days at home with Rob, when she’d been trying to pick a yellow flower in the pond and become stuck in the mud completely.  Rob had rescued her and found the curious rock that looked like a face. He’d given to her with a quip and that’s when she’s seen the ghost – her but not her.  Curious.

Then the unthinkable – Rob’s ship is sunk and he is lost in the Pacific.  Celine feels burdened by the responsibility of Janea.   Janea feels totally alone.  Both want their old lives back, but have no idea how that can be.  At the insistence of the ghost, Janea goes back to their house one more time.  She finds a box of carefully saved things that must once have belonged to her parents.  There is book of carefully written recipes with a photograph of woman in front of a bakery named “Gingersnap.”  Janea knows right away that this is a key – her grandmother she dares to hope.  There is an address and so Janea, along with Therea for company, sets off to Brooklyn full of hope in search of her place to belong.

You’ll have to read Gingersnap  what happens to Janea when she arrives in the city.  You might become a soup specialist too – Janea shares her recipes with you.  Savor every page – it is delicious.

Button Down

Button Down as you read you’ll learn about family and football, the 1930’s and dedication.  just right for middle readers – when you’re done you’ll be hoping for more stories about the Buttons.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our assumptions and unexamined stereotypes make us act.   And I’ve been wondering how books can help us change. Button Down is the second book by Anne Ylvisaker about the Button family.  They’re from rural Iowa.  During the Depression the Button family may not have much, but they do have each other – and they have the Hawkeye football.

For the first time in Goodhue history their high school football hero is going to State to play ball.  Ned, being a Button through and through is not very talented, but he is dedicated to the game.  As Lester is leaving for college he tosses his ball out and miraculously Ned catches it. He only has seconds to savor his catch before Burton grabs the ball from his hands and claims it as his own.  Burton is Lester’s younger brother and son to the owners of the Ben Franklin.  He claims he can do whatever he wants to a Button, and he does.  But you can’t play football alone.  You need a team to play against so Burton and Ned set up a game – the winner get to keep the Lester’s ball.

Ned and his group can’t practice in the field.  Burton’s team does.  Ned’s team has to play with a newspaper ball wrapped with twine.  It’s the best they have, and not nearly as good as the real thing. It seems there’s no way they won’t get killed.  Sometimes in order to succeed, you need someone who believes in you and that’s when Granddaddy Ike get’s involved.  He can hardly walk.  He can hardly hear and his heart seems to be failing, but he helps Ned understand that winning football is not about what you have or how hard you can hit; it’s also about strategy, plays and doing what they other team doesn’t expect.

“I might have underestimated you,” said Granddaddy.  Figured you were like the rest of this lot, tree roots growing out of the soles of their shoes, tethering them to this one spot of soil, now to kingdom come.  Rather hear about a thing than do a thing.  Hmmmm…”

Nothing is as it seems or as smooth as we wish, but reading Button Down to find out how the game goes is worth every page – when you finish you’ll have a new idea about what it means to have heart and how much is matters to have someone who knows you inside and out and believes in you all the way.  Go out – play the game, if you don’t you’ll never know it you can.

The Luck of the Buttons

The Luck of the Buttonsby Anne Ylvisaker

224 pages for intermediate and middle grade readers who enjoyed Turtle in Paradise, Three Times Lucky or Moon Over Manifest

I like Tugs Button.  She’s her own person.  She’s a lover of words and of action.  She’s curious about what is happening around her and while she doesn’t have much, she makes the best of it.  Tugs is part of a family that gets by – nothing special or fancy.  She moves through her small Iowa town without many expectations.  After all, it’s mostly the same day in and day out, year after year.

But change is in the air.  First there is the man with the Panama hat, Harvey Moore claiming that Goodhue should have its own newspaper.  Then Aggie Millhouse notices that she and Tugs are the same height and invites Tugs to be her partner in the Independence Day three-legged race.  “The Independence Day three-legged races were the stuff of legend in Goodhue.  Children remembered the winning teams the way they remembered who won every Iowa Hawkeye football game.  Tugs had been paired with her cousin Ned for the past hundred yeas, and she was resigned to the same fate this year.” If that was not enough “different”, Miss Lucy, the librarian encouraged Tugs to enter the essay contest.  Tugs wrotes about patriotism and progress. She doesn’t think it’s too good, but Miss Lucy says that’s all up to the judges.  And then on top of those changes– just for helping Mr. Pepper unpack some boxes in his photo shop, Tugs is given the last few raffle tickets as a thank you.  Her name is in the drawing for a brand-new Kodak Brownie.  She has a chance.

Independence Day arrives and it seems that the whole town comes to the Green for the celebration and contests.  Ribbons and prizes surround the bandstand.  Tugs knows something will happen, but will it be different.  She is a Button after all and all of Goodhue knows the luck of the Buttons.


A Drowned Maiden’s Hair

A Drowned Maiden's Hair: A Melodramaby Laura Amy Schlitz

389 pages of wonder, spirits and trickery that will have middle grade readers turning page after page in amazement.

After I had  finished reading Splendors and Glooms, I kept thinking about it – the characters, the setting, the plot.  I kept smelling the smells and feeling the feelings, both real and emotional.  The writing stayed with me and so I began exploring and several different people suggested I read A Drowned Maiden’s Hair.  They thought of it as their Laura Amy Schlitz favorite.  So of course I gave it a try – wow!

Maud is a strong willed child.  She’s feisty and very likely to defy Miss Kitterage, the orphanage’s director.  That is why on the day that the elderly Hawthorne sisters come to the Barbary Asylum for Female Orphans they find Maud locked in the outhouse singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  At once Maud is the child for them and they whisk her away to a new life, unlike any she has ever known or imagined.  Maud is entranced by Hyacinth, the youngest sister at 70.  She is fearful of the elder and stern Judith and troubled by argumentative Victoria.  Still she becomes the Hawthorne sisters’ secret child.  She is hidden away and must make sure she is never seen by outsiders.  She learns to hide at a moments notice.  She learns to speak clearly and prettily.  She learns endless manners and along with the secrets of the family spiritualism business – they run seances.  When Maud has practiced enough to be deemed worthy, she  becomes the centerpiece in an elaborate sham designed to get the Hawthorne sisters everything they need and want.  Maud, however, is not sure how she fits in to their plan or their future. What at first seems an innocent game, soon becomes tedious, treacherous and cruel.

How far will a person go to know forgiveness and feel love?  In reading A Drowned Maiden’s Hair you’ll begin to imagine depths of grief, loneliness, greed, compassion and wonder in ways you hadn’t even thought of before.  Better than Splendors and Glooms – I don’t know about that, but I am certain it’s just as wonderful.  Enjoy this delicious book from cover to cover.

An Elephant in the Garden

An Elephant in the Gardenby Michael Morpurgo

195 pages to add another face to the story we know about World War II

An Elephant in the Garden shares an unusual story of war. At the same time that it is devastating and tragic, it is uplifting and hopeful.  Lizzie is old and frail; so fragile that she has been moved into a nursing home.  The narrator of the book is a nurse there.  She is also a single mom, so on weekends, snow days or days when she takes on extra hours her son Karl comes too.  If the weather is right, he brings his friends and they play in the snow outside the home – often to the great delight of the people living there.  It was on one of those days that Karl met Lizzie.  They formed a special bond and each day when he came he would sit by her and listen to her stories.  His mom questioned them and wondered if they were just the addled ramblings of the elderly.  Karl doesn’t think that is true because she is so sure and certain as she speaks.

February 13th is the anniversary of an event that shaped Lizzie’s life and with Karl there on that day she is compelled to tell the tale, her tale about what happened when an elephant came to live in her garden in Dresden Germany.  Lizzie starts at the beginning – explaining how her Papi was off on the Russian front and with most of the men gone how the women had done their work.  She explained that Mutti (her mother) had begun to care for the animals in the zoo.  She had seen an elephant born and had been asked to name her.  She chose Marlene, after the actor and singer popular in the day.  When Marlene’s mother died Mutti was the only one who could comfort her.  As bombing threats became certainty, plans were made to kill the larger, more dangerous animals so they would not become a threat to those who survived.  Mutti could not bear the thought of gentle, sweet, baby Marlene being shot and so she worked out a deal with Herr Direktor.  And that is how Marlene became a member of Lizzie’s family, residing with them in the garden.

All was fine (well, as fine as living day to day surrounded by the threats of war can be) for a time, but then the Allies bombed Dresden.  Wave after wave of bombs fell.  Already agitated, a frightened Marlene ran and the family – Mutti, Lizzie and her little brother, Karli followed afraid of being separated.  Together they joined the long line of refugees fleeing the city, moving out into the country and to the relative safety of being behind enemy lines.  They chose to move toward the Allies.  Lizzie’s family could not move with the others – they were not like the others. They had an elephant in their family- an elephant who leads them into and through incredible events as they travel toward safety, together.

An Elephant in the Garden is inspired by a true story, and while is does not shy away from the harshness of war there is no fighting and killing in this tale.  This book shares the plight of the people who are innocently caught in the crossfire of war.  It shares how those people feel about the war around them and recounts how little acts of kindness and moments of sheer terror shape lives.  I came to love Lizzie’s family and to marvel at their courage and fierce commitment to what is right.  I was amazed by what they did and how stayed together through turmoil with care and respect.  You must read An Elephant in the Garden to find out what happens to Marlene and her family, to discover how Lizzie is here to share her story and gain greater understanding of the long reaching affects of war.

 This book reminded me of Faithful Elephants by Yukio Tsuchiya ( a picture book I have never been able to successfully read out loud.  I just can’t) and Kelly Milner Halls recent Saving the Baghdad Zoo.  These book also share how zoos and animals suffer the consequences of war.Saving the Baghdad Zoo: A True Story of Hope and HeroesFaithful Elephants: A True Story of Animals, People, and War


King of the Mound

King of the Mound: My Summer with Satchel PaigeMy Summer with Satchel Paige

by Wes Tooke

155 pages of baseball history for intermediate readers and sports fans

It had been just over a year that Nick had entered the hospital over 500 miles from home.  Nick had contracted polio and he needed to be at the Mayo Clinic if he were going to survive.  Miraculously he has fought through the fever and the tingling and the paralysis.  He right leg was weakened, but he could walk with a brace thought the heavy leather and iron chafed his leg.

He hadn’t seen his dad much in all that time.  It was far too come, so he’d been alone most of the time.  Now Nick was going home.  It would go back to being just his dad and him, and with his brace the only thing they had in common, baseball, was out of the question.  His father saw him as a cripple and cripples couldn’t play.

His dad was the catcher for the Bismark Churchills and since Mr. Churchill had made sure that most of Nick hospital bills were taken care of, Nick was working for the team.  He didn’t mind.  He’d spent most of his time before at the stadium with his dad, but this was different.  His dad seemed angry and ashamed.

Mr. Churchill is happy to see Nick back and getting better.  He’s also excited because he’s been able to convince Satchel Paige to pitch for the season.  He’s predicting that the Churchills will go all the way and he is counting on Nick to help get there too.  Nick strikes up a relationship with the pitcher who takes an interest in him.  He helps him reestablish his stride by telling him he can count on himself more that he thinks.  Satchel lets him know that if he believes he is crippled, he will be.  He let’s him know there are other choice too be made.  “Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common.”

King of the Mound is a great look at semiprofessional baseball in the 1930’s.  It is interesting to learn of how segregation influenced with whom and where Churchills could play.  There are many obstacles to be overcome in the game and in life – keeping your eye on the ball and on the prize can make things happen.  After you read about Satchel and Nick let us know what you think.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose

“An important book for all people living in free society.” -Peter Sis, Author of The Wall says on Breaking Stalin’s Nose.

Peter Sis makes a very good point in his quote that I think everyone who read this book would agree with. Breaking Stalin’s Nose is a thought provoking, mind-boggling novel about the Soviet Union for a lot of reasons.

Sasha Zaichik becomes worried because on the day before her Young Pioneers rally when her dad whispers in her ear, “If anything ever happens to me, go to Aunt Larisa. She’ll put you up.” That night Soviet Union night patrol come and arrest Sasha’s dad for a reason unknown to him. And things don’t get any better. He breaks a classmates glasses, and commits an “act of terrorism” by damaging a bust of the great Comrade Stalin. Will Sasha’s lifelong dream to become just like her father as she knew him, (in the words of Stalin, “He is an iron broom purging the vermin from our midst.”) to become a Young Pioneer, and then a Communist come true?

The great website that goes with the book:

Dead End in Norvelt


Dead End in Norvelt

352 pages for middle grade readers and beyond

Summer has finally come, but nothing is going as Jack had planned. His vacation freedom is quickly lost when he is grounded “grounded for life” for accidentally discharging the rifle his father brought home as a souvenir of WWII.  The blast from the gun caused his elderly neighbor to drop her hearing aid into the toilet and so the only thing he will be allowed to do is to help her.  At first helping Miss Volker seems like torture – after all he has to be there at 5:30 am -, but he quickly realizes it might be the only way he will survive the summer. Miss Volker cannot write because of her arthritic hands, but she is the author of the town’s obituaries and the keeper of the town’s history and someone must tell the story.  Jack becomes her scribe.  He doesn’t think there’ll be much to do, but soon it becomes apparent that all is not as it should be.  Not only are the original residents dying off at an alarming rate, but the town of Norvelt itself, may be nearing its end.

History, obituaries, nose-bleeds, Hell’s Angels, Eleanor Roosevelt, Girl Scout cookies and a homemade airplane combine to create a laugh-out-loud story that will make you think and wonder.  It has a serious side too.  How do promises get made and twisted?  What is the importance of history and how do we know and understand it?  How do communities work?  Can you every really be alone and disconnected?

Jack Gantos has combined truth and fiction to present you with an interesting view of small town life in the early 1960’s – an time of change.  It is interesting to me to come to the end of Dead End in Norvelt and realize that my life has now become historical fiction.  All three of the books selected by the Newbery committee this year are set in the time when communism was on our mind as the evil opposite of democracy.  It has been interesting for me to read and wonder at how that mystique was created and to wonder what is being created now.  Vietnam was the war of my youth.  Afghanistan is the war now.  What things change, and what things stay the same?