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.

Splendors and Glooms

Splendors and Gloomsby Laura Amy Schlitz

400 pages of eerie delight and gruesome mystery

Splendors and Glooms is a creepy, captivating story; dark and light at once.  Gaspare Grisini, is a devilishly evil puppeteer who owns two children that do his bidding and work:  Lizzie Rose, noble and true and Parsefall, a talented scamp.  They perform marionette shows around the streets of Victorian London, an “icy stew of mud and straw, horse manure and urine.”

It is at one of these shows that their paths cross with Clara Wintermute, the daughter of a well to do doctor.  Clara’ life, though blessed, is far from happy. Her four siblings have all died of cholera and she bares the secret shame of surviving.  Secrets and lies, combined with magic and morbid cruelty unite the children in a fight for survival and a desire to live with honest care and love.

The final part of the story develops through the tale of the dying witch, Cassandra.  She has drawn her lasting power from the fire opal that is now consuming her very life.  As she tries to save herself she calls them all from the city.  Grisini, Lizzie Rose, Parsefall  and the magic that surrounds, consumes and saves them.  Spells are woven and broken as the children discover only they can undo the folly and malevolence placed on earth by the blinding greed of adults.

This book makes my skin crawl.  The image rich language brings history to life – every bit of it; the feel, the sound, the smell.   Poverty is here, desperate and raw – in striking contrast between those with warm food and gifts and parties.  Those with

means and those without is strongly is a vivid image in this book for me.  That children can be bought and sold because there is no one to care for them, and then once bought, there is no public eye to their continuing care and well-being makes me wonder.  Have times changed all that much?

Read Splendors and Glooms for its unique story, its incredible language, it’s vivid look into history and lingering images that stay with you long after you are done reading.  Will you be inspired to learn more, to take action and to recognize the need to kindnesses in our lives no matter how small?


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?

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.