The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs

The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springsby Betty Birney

reviewed by the students in 3E – 2012

Sassafras Springs is a small town in Missouri.  Eben doesn’t think there’s anything exciting about his town.  He wants to go somewhere new; someplace special like the Seven Wonders of the World.  His dad challenges him with a bet:  if he can find seven wonders in Sassafras Springs in seven days his dad will buy him a train ticket to visit his cousins in Colorado.

Eben begins his amazing adventure through his town, listening to people’s stories and hearing about their unique adventures.  Will he find the wonders in time?  Will he be able to go.  Read The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs to find out.

If you’d like to see how Betty Birney got the idea for Sassafras Springs click in this link.  Sassafras Springs is based on a real place.

The Lions of Little Rock

The Lions of Little Rockby Kristin Levine

291 pages

On summer nights when Marlee hears the lions in the Little Rock Zoo roar  through the open windows she feels safe.  She is comforted by the normalcy of that wild and confident sound.

Words are not Marlee’s thing.  She doesn’t like to talk to anyone beyond her family and few friends.  In Marlee’s mind words are easy to confuse.  They are unclear and imprecise.  Numbers, on the other hand, are constant and steady.  They are reliable and relaxing.  Marlee will need their support to get through the next series of changes in her life.  Marlee brother is off to college.  The night before school is to start, Governor Faubus announces that in an effort to preserve local control and southern traditions, the high schools will not open. Until the issue of integration is settled high school students will remain at home. Marlee is beginning middle school, but her sister Judy will stay at home.

Marlee’s dad supports the integration of schools.  Marlee’s mom is not so sure.  Tension is high at home, in her school and her town and rising.  When Marlee goes off to school she promises to say at least five words.  She says them to a new girl, Liz.  From then on Marlee’s life is never the same.  She learns about courage, commitment and conviction.  She learns that a wrong left unaddressed can lead to greater wrong.  She also learns that it is never too late to right a wrong.  It is always the right thing to do.

Marlee’s struggles to overcome her fears and stand up for justice reveal the stories of others in her life.  At first they are each alone as they deal with the uncertainty, tension and bitter conflicts that surround them.  But later they learn by coming together they will be able to accomplish something to establish social justice.

The Lions of Little Rock is something for everyone to read – to know what it is to be a friend, to know what it is to make a commitment to others, to know when others are more important than yourself.  How do you overcome your fears?  How do you step in and take action?  How do you know it IS up to you?  This is a dazzling look at a piece of our past that we must continue to examine today.  Is there ever a place for hatred?

Three Books with a “turn-of-the-century” setting

Maggie and Oliver by Valerie Hobbs – an okay read

The Doll Shop Downstairs and Cats in the Doll Shop by Yona Zeldis McDonough – wonderful books that will make you wish for more and keep you thinking after the last page is turned.

three books for especially for 3rd and 4th grade girls who appreciate gentle, but honest stories

Maggie and Oliver or A Bone of One's OwnSet in Boston at the turn of the century, Maggie and Oliver, gives readers a glance at what it might have been like to live as a child in poverty at that time.  Readers learn of the time when school wasn’t available to all and children were taken advantage of as cheap labor in the mills.

Oliver’s owner has passed away and when her family comes to divide the property, he is left behind.  Maggie, never having had a family, is let go from her maid position when she speaks out of turn – she asks entirely too many questions and that is not good if you are to be seen, but never heard.  Both Oliver and Maggie find themselves on the streets of Boston at the end of winter – they both need food and shelter; they both need to find some way to ease the ache of the dark feeling of loneliness that has settled upon them.

They do, but not without many trials along the way.  Maggie and Oliver has been sitting in my “to read” pile for a few months.  It was okay, but I wished for more.  I decided to dig deeper into that pile to find  The Doll Shop Downstairs and its sequel, The Cats in the Doll Shop.  Set in the same time period, these books are full of rich descriptive language that washes over you with care and honesty.  The main character  is a girl I can fully understand.  If she could step off the page, we would immediately be friends.  From reading I know that much about her but I still want to know more.

The Doll Shop DownstairsAnna is in the middle.  Sophie is two years older and always knows more.  Trudie is two years younger.  She is always babied, and worst of all, adores everything Sophie says and does.  They live in a small apartment above their doll shop.  Papa repairs dolls and Mama sews clothes for them.  Working together they make a fine living until the war breaks out.

World War I has begun so there will be no more trade with Germany and that means no more parts for fixing dolls.  The family wonders about what they will do to make a living until Anna comes up with an idea – rather than repair dolls, perhaps they can make them.  They all work together to create a limited edition doll, Nurse Nora.  She is beautiful and brave and is discovered by Mr. Greenfield, the buyer for FAO Schwartz.  The Doll Shop will survive the war.

This is a wonderful story of family life in the city in the early 1900’s.  Anna’s parents are immigrants for Russia.  They have family in the old country and they are bridge the old and new ways by making sure their children have schooling and opportunities.  The girls work with their parents doing the chores they need to do so they can also have time for dolls and tea parties, penny candy treats and ice cream cones.

Anna struggles with her feelings of never being old enough or young enough.  She knows she mustn’t whine as little Trudie does, but sometimes it is challenging not too.  She knows she must not feel jealous of Sophie when she gets A’s and gold stars on everything.  She knows she must just work harder, but it is a challenge.  Caught in the middle she takes time for watching and knowing.  She takes time to be alone, to wonder and question.  Because of this, she has some pretty amazing things to share.

The Cats in the Doll ShopIn the second book a year has passed and the Doll Shop continues doing a good business. Nurse Nora dolls are sold at F.A.O. Schwartz and other toy stores too.  As the war continues and letters from the “old country” come more frequently.  Sometimes they seem happy news but not always.  At last Mama tells them that Tania, their cousin – born on the exact same day in the exact same year as Anna – is making “the crossing.”  She is leaving her mother and her country behind to stay with Anna’s family until her mother can save enough to join her.

While waiting and planning for Tania’s arrival Anna observes the continuing life and work of the city and shop. She notices a ginger cat, fat with babies.  She listens to the lilting voices and whistling of Kathleen and Michael who have joined Papa and Mama in the busier than ever doll shop.  She sees the cruelty of the man sweeping the ginger cat and her new babies off his fire escape to fall into the yard below.  Only peachy-colored Pluckie survives, though his leg dangles helplessly behind.

There is schoolwork to be done, planning and hard work for the holiday orders coming to the shop.  Anna tries to imagine what Tania is feeling.  She tries to figure out how to help the hurting cats.  At last an idea comes to her and in a moment of free time Anna designs and makes Tania a new doll.  It is a special doll.  A school-girl, whom Anna calls Shannon. Anna hopes she will be, a friend for Tania while she learns what it is like in this new country.

When Tania finally arrives it is nothing like Anna imagined.  It is hard for this poor, frightened, lonely girl.  It is hard for Sophie, Anna and Trudie too.  Though she is their cousin, Tania is quiet, shy and strange.  She is challenging to understand, but Anna tries.  To Anna, Tania seems as afraid and sad as Pluckie.  It is that sameness that brings them together and allows that family to see how change can be good, especially when it happens for the right reasons.

Again I admire the courage, honesty and bravery of Anna.  Though caught in the middle, she seems to know what to do.  The writing wraps around you and comes to life in your mind.  What a wonderful family to be a part of and what a wonderful friend Anna is for her readers.  I am hoping there is another books to share soon.


May B.

May B.May B.

By Caroline Starr Rose

225 pages written in verse

What is it like to love words but not able to gain command over them?  May wants to be a teacher, but she is not be able to stand and read on command in her one room school house where memorization and recitation are key.  What is it like to be asked to help your family by leaving home the only place you feel truly safe? That is what May does.  She moves to the next sod house to be a companion and housekeeper to the new wife who isn’t used to the hardships and loneliness of prairie living.  Not only is May alone, but Mrs. Oblinger seems to despise her as much as the sod walls, dirt floor and endless nothingness out the door.

After being forced to sit in the front row with the little kids because she can’t read well, May is taken from school and her dream of being a teacher. Schooling seems useless for her and she is asked to move to the neighboring homestead.  May agrees to  try this new life for six month.  At Christmas her father will check on her to see how it is going.  Isolated from her family and neighbors, the unthinkable happens.  She is abandoned – totally alone and then she is trapped in the soddy by a snowstorm that completely covers the house.

May might not be able to  read or recite from her reader, but she is an amazing person –  strong, determined, resourceful and knowledgeable. Having students in may classroom who worked as hard as May does would be a joy. I wish we could all be so inspired and follow lead through difficulty and failure to achieve our goals.

I wonder how thing will go for May as her story continues.  I hope she find the courage and support to achieve her dreams.  Certainly with her as a teacher, no child would feel the sting of humiliation and shame in that room.

The Door in the Wall

The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli

A very short book; but LOTS of Old English and words like thy and nought. 6th grade is a good time to read it. Set in Medieval times.

Robin is 10 years old, stuck in a without the use of his legs, and his parents are away to serve the kingdom. Saved by Brother Luke, a very kind monk, he heads to St. Marks to be taught skills like woodworking. After some good times at St. Mark’s, Robin receives a letter from his father telling him that Robin will be moved to a different castle. But when that different castle, the Castle of Lindsay, gets partly invaded by a very strong army, Robin finds that he is the only one who can save the castle from total invasion by pretending to be someone he is not. Read The Door in the Wall by Marguerite deAngeli to find out what happens.

I read this book in a book group, and it was a good book for that because there are a lot of things that you will need to talk about, like vocabulary and plot/timeline. I recommend reading this in a book group or just with someone else so you can talk about it.

Read it? Did you like this book?

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The Mighty Miss Malone

The Mighty Miss MaloneThe Mighty Miss Malone

By Christopher Paul Curtis

320 pages of characters you will love in situations that will give you much to consider

Deza loves school.  She is the best and the brightest.  She has a wonderful best friend, a passion for reading and her exceptional family.  What is not to like about Deza?  Well, maybe she is a little to verbose and maybe she is a bit to sure of herself and bossy, but… The Mighty Miss Malone is 12-year old Deza Malone part of a close-knit family whose motto is “We are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful.” Deza dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher just like her beloved, Mrs. Needham.

Dreams are hard to keep alive in the Great Depression. Deza’s father is out of work and further changes mean the Deza’s mother is also out of a job. This forces her fine friendly father figure to leave home in search of some kind of work.  When they hear nothing from him Deza, Mother, and her older brother Jimmie go to find him.  They try to stay together.  They try to make it right, but nothing seems to work.  Deza’s world seems to go up in smoke.  The hut they’ve been living in at the Hooverville outside Flint is burned down. Jimmie leaves to see if he can make it as a singer in Chicago. With one room to share, Deza and her mother want more than anything else is to have their family back together.  How can that be?

The twists and turns of the Malone family story reveal the devastation of the Depression and prove that Deza truly is the Mighty Miss Malone.  It’s hard to predict which direction the story will take.  The story keeps taking twists and surprise turns so you must keep on reading.  You just have to find out what happens to Deza and her family – there is no way not follow her through to the end of the story.  You’ll need to know what happens in the end.  Will her family find “wonderful” – the trip to find out is worth every step.   Along the way you’ll moments that will give you something to think about – no matter how bad off a person is, someone else has it worse. What an amazing story.  It offers an honest and painful look at a terrible time in our country through the eyes of an amazing girl who refuses to let go of her dream.  May we all be so courageous!

The Apothecary

The ApothecaryThe Apothecary

by Maile Melloy  368 pages of  adventure based fantasy and historical fiction mixed together is an exciting read from the start… would you fly if you had to?

The year is 1952 – the United States and the Soviet Union are in an arms race – who can have the most nuclear weapons to use as a threat.  The United States is afraid of Communism.  The Soviet Union is afraid of Democracy.  Each thinks they are correct and no one is talking.  Everyone is afraid that “the bad guy” is going to take over the world.  The message is “BE PREPARED!”  At least that is how I remember it when I was growing up.  I wasn’t around in 1952, but in 1968 that was how I understood the time  Janie lived through.  Lots of worry and blame.

In 1952 when The Apothecary takes place, Janie Scott, 14, lives in L.A. She wears her Katherine Hepburn slacks to school and feels as though she is on top of the world.  She is until her screenwriter parents get blacklisted in the Communist scare.  Though completely innocent they are forced to move to London to avoid jail. Janie feels very much the outsider at St. Beden’s until she meets Benjamin Burrows, whose father is the local apothecary. Ben doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps; he thinks being an apothecary is all about dispensing aspirins and salves for rashes. He wants to be a spy and he enlists Janie to help him follow Leonid Shiskin, one of their teachers.  Through their teamwork they learn he works for the Soviet embassy, and to their astonishment, discover the passing of a secret message to Ben’s dad. Soon afterwards, his dad disappears, but not before entrusting to Ben and Janie an ancient book called the Pharmacopoeia containing secret recipes for magic herbal elixirs.

In no time at all the teens are chasing and being chased by Russians, Germans, double agents, and chemists.  They learn that the art of  an apothecary is not nearly as mundane or sedate as Ben had assumed. To save the world Ben and Janie learn about atomic weapons and containment theory. The story is a skillfully woven mix of the spies, suspense, assasins, romance, evil genius, sinsiter bad guys and resourceful teenagers.  You’ll learn about the attitudes that prevailed toward the Communists and their sympathizers after World War II. It’s interesting to think about this time in our history as it develops in the heat of the chase on land, on sea and in the air through The Apothecary.

If you’re not sure yet if this book is for you (and I think it is if you have read this far) check out this book  trailer  .  It might be the final hook in – Read it and enjoy!

The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963

“And You Wonder Why We Get Called the Weird Watsons” says the title of Chapter 1 of The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. 10 year old Kenny Watson lives in with his family in Flint, Michigan. Oh, I forgot! I should introduce you to the Watsons. There’s Dad, Momma, little sister Joetta, Kenny, and “official juvenile delinquent” Byrone. After all the adventures the Watsons will have in Flint, Momma and Dad plan a trip to grandma’s in Birmingham. They hope that if they leave Byrone a grandma’s then his troublemakimg mind will be put to rest. But little did the Watsons know, that they were about to run into one of the worst acts of discrimination in history.

For teachers, click here for Scholastic’s Reading Guide for The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.

Click here for Christopher Paul Curtis’ website.

Click here for version on Christopher Paul Curtis.

Elephant Run

Elephant RunElephant Run

While World War II rages on, Nick Freestone and his mom’s apartment gets destroyed by a bomb dropped by enemy planes. When his mother decides that England is too unsafe for a person his age, he is sent off to Burma, where his real father owns a teak plantation. Nick’s mom sent him there thinking that it would be safer, and she would be right except when its a World War, everywhere isn’t safe. Japanese soldiers invade and capture the plantation, and one way or another his father becomes a Prisoner of War of World War II. Nick, meanwhile, is forced to work as a servant for the new rulers of the teak plantation. The village is very unstable for Nick and his friend, Mya so they start planning their escape. Read Elephant Run by Roland Smith to find out what happens.

Roland Smith, the author of Elephant Run, came to our school.  He gave a really great talk on who he is, how he wrote his books, and his second job! It turns out that Roland Smith, along with being an author, is a field biologist. He talked about saving animals from an oil spill and other field biology things. And also he pushed in some humor in those speeches. And the best part was, I was chosen along with my friend Isabel to have lunch with him. It was a great experience to talk to him in person.

Click here to view Roland Smith’s website. It has book descriptions, trailers an more!!

Elijah of Buxton

Elijah Of Buxton

11 year-old Elijah Freeman is a freeborn black child in who was born and is being raised in Canada. It is early 1860 and just before the Civil War, he lives a normal Canadian life with his Ma, Pa and friends. None of the people he knows are enslaved now, but some he knows have been enslaved. He has never had any experience with the brutality of slavery. But when a theif of their own kind steals the money that has been saved for freeing friends, Elijah crosses the border from Canada into the deadly dangerous America. He tries to track down the thief in America. If you want to find out what happens to the innocent young Elijah, read Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis.

Click here for the website on Christopher Paul Curtis. This website is a bit outdated because Elijah of Buxton is his newest book and  is not yet  on the website.

Click here for the take on Christopher Paul Curtis.

Click here for the Elijah of Buxton book trailer.

Click here for the The Stacks for take on the Elijah of Buxton website.