The War that Saved my Life

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Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker (2015). The War that Saved my Life. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

This is one of my middle daughter’s all time favorite books. It is the story of a ten year old girl who is evacuated during the bombings in World War Two London, and how it changes her world forever. In addition to receiving the Newbery Honor, The War that Saved my Life was a New York Times bestseller, a Schneider Family Book Award Winner, and awarded for being one of the best children’s books of the year by the Wall Street Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly.

Ada is an unusual character for children’s literature, the object of intense abuse by a mother who embarrassed by her clubfoot, never allows her outside of their London flat.  She knows nothing about the world except what her younger brother has shared with her. Secretly teaching herself to walk, Ada escapes the city with her brother, Jamie, and hundreds of other children. When they finally disembark the train, they are the only ones not chosen to be housed by the villagers.

Under much protest, Susan Smith is forced to take them in. Living alone and grieving the loss of her best friend, she is forced to admit that she doesn’t “know a thing about taking care of children” (p.38). Susan learns not only how to care for and teach Ada and Jamie, but to love them as well. Ada, who finds it safer not to rely on or love others, finds healing she never realized she  needed.

The changes in Ada and Susan couldn’t be more beautifully portrayed. It’s a page turner filled with surprises including an extremely late climax- ending unexpectedly and with a punch.  Were the kids and I ever thankful when we discovered that a sequel, The War I Finally Won was being released in October 2017. Together we began reading it aloud the day it arrived, scarcely able to put it down.  The following is from the sequel’s flyleaf:

“This masterwork of historical fiction completes Ada’s journey of family, faith, and identity that began with The War That Saved My Life, and shows us that real freedom is not just the ability to choose, but the courage to make the right choice.” (2017)

We only wish it didn’t conclude the story of the characters we have truly come to love. While the heroines do have some misconceptions about faith and salvation, there is nothing objectionable and so much to learn from both novels. Together The War that Saved my Life and The War I Finally Won are a perfect introduction for upper elementary and middle school readers of the history of World War II England, but both are worth the read even if you’re not teaching this time period. As I mentioned in an earlier post (May 5th, 2017), Bradley is also the author of Jefferson’s Sons and Weaver’s Daughter, among other titles.

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Out of My Mind

Draper,Sharon M. (2010). Out of My Mind. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

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Sharon Draper and her books have won more awards than I can possibly list. Out of My Mind itself spent nearly two years on the New York Times bestseller’s list and has been translated into no less than ten languages. Draper, whose writing I was not familiar with before Out of My Mind, (probably because most of her works are classified as young adult, and my favorite books to read tend to be middle grade fiction) is a five time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award and won the Jeremiah Ludington Award for her lifetime contributions to children’s literature in 2012.

Not only is she an excellent writer, Sharon Draper is also a former National Teacher of the Year. This entitles her to speak honestly about the good and not-so-good special education and inclusive regular education teachers. As the parent of a child with a developmental disability she has experienced in a personal way the joys and the heartaches that occur in the lives of families with special needs children. As a special education teacher and parent of a child with a disability myself, I wholeheartedly agree with her perceptions. It’s no wonder teachers everywhere are including it in their required reading lists.

Eleven year old Melody has cerebral palsy. She isn’t able to express herself, walk, or take care of her personal needs. Most people assume she is intellectually as handicapped as her body is, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Melody has a photographic memory, loves words, and is a keen observer of the world around her. Her mother, sitter, and classroom aide can see the intelligence in her eyes. When Melody points to a classmate’s new laptop, they realize she wants a computer herself to communicate. When she finally gets one, it opens a whole new world- but will the other fifth grade students and teachers finally see beyond her physical limitations?

I’m not exactly sure why Out of My Mind is marketed as young adult fiction, and not middle grade. Perhaps Draper’s other works are more appropriate for older teens. But my twelve year old is loving this title, and the book itself is recommended for ages 10 and up. It’s a thought provoking story, and a wonderful way to teach your kids not only about disabilities, but that they are loved for who they are, and not simply for what they are able to do.

Cornelia and the Outrageous Escapades of the Somerset Sisters

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Blume, Lesley M.M. (2006). Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters. Alfred A. Knopf: New York.

The title sounds like a bit much, but Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters is so good it deserves to keep every word of it. The story of a lonely, eleven year old who strikes up a friendship with “the Scheherazade of Greenwich village” is one of the most well-written books I’ve ever read.

Cornelia is the daughter of famous pianists. Not wanting her daughter’s childhood to be reminiscent of her own, her mother Lucy leaves her in their New York City apartment under the care of Madame Desjardins while she flits around the globe from one concert to another. When she isn’t traveling, Lucy is closed in her music room practicing. Cornelia, who loves to deter Madame Desjardins and others with words they wouldn’t possibly understand, hides in her room with dictionaries, and explores her familiar neighborhood of Greenwich Village.

A chance meeting with new neighbor and famous writer Virginia Somerset opens an entirely new world for Cornelia. For the first time someone is interested in her for herself, and not just as the daughter of a renowned musician. Virginia, who has elaborately decorated the rooms of her apartment to reflect the various foreign places she spent time in as a young woman, tells Cornelia story after story of the adventures of herself and her sisters. Gradually Cornelia begins to see the value of words in storytelling, not merely as a way to get people to leave her alone. At the same time she slowly begins to allow the walls she has built to protect herself to come down, and begins to chance relating to others.

Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters is a wonderful book to integrate into curriculum for upper elementary homeschoolers, especially 10-12 year old girls. Not only does author Leslie M.M. Blume weave Virginia’s tales into Cornelia’s story, traveling to Morocco, Paris, India, and England, and introducing young readers to customs and history around the globe, she easily provides two weeks of vocabulary instruction. Even if the book is read aloud, students can record Cornelia’s high school and college achievement test level vocabulary and definitions, most of which even Mom would need to look up (if Blume hadn’t provided the meanings)! Copywork of descriptive passages, and creative writing of descriptive paragraphs will round out language arts completely.

Blume’s descriptions of characters and places is hard to rival. Should I ever teach a class on writing for children this book would be required reading. It’s another story where not a word is wasted, where the writing is so well crafted a reader can’t help but enter into the scenes. It plays out like a movie and I am stumped to not find any awards for it. Not a title to overlook!

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze

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Lewis, Elizabeth Foreman (1932). Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc.

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze is a must read for any literature based history unit on the Eastern Hemisphere. As the fortieth anniversary’s book jacket describes, “Elizabeth Foreman Lewis has vividly portrayed the turmoil of Chinese life during the 1920’s”- and she has. Winner of the Newbery Medal in 1932, and translated into more than a dozen languages, this book is a perfect example of how to make learning history fun.

It is the story of a changing period in the city of Chungking as seen through they eyes of a teenage boy experiencing adventures with bandits, fire, flood, and uprisings. This book keeps moving. Through page turning historical fiction readers learn about the Chinese fears of angering spirits, and of western ideas. They learn about social classes, customs, lifestyles, foot binding- even Marxist philosophy and drug abuse. As is common in Asian children’s literature there is an emphasis on the values of humility and diligence. Following the story are additional historical notes to fill in any gaps,

Young Fu is a likeable protagonist, as is the coppersmith, Tang, to whom he is apprenticed. Fourteen when the story begins, and eighteen when it’s finished, this book is perfect for fifth through eighth graders. Young Fu’s heart is one of integrity and kindness, and young readers (and listeners) will be blessed that while he makes his share of foolish mistakes, he always learns from them.

The Great and Terrible Quest

DSC_0003Lovett, Margaret (1967) The Great and Terrible Quest. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

For years this was my daughter’s favorite book, and sadly I was too busy with my own reading list to get to it. The Great and Terrible Quest is the story of a ten year old orphan’s adventures as he sets out to assist a wounded knight. Suffering from amnesia, his companion is plagued by knowing something of utmost importance must be done, but not knowing what that something is. Young Trad determines to protect and help him, and along the way learns about love, determination, and courage.

I love certain passages in this book especially. Huon’s adage, “What must be done, could be done” (p. 120, among other places), and the following reminiscent of Proverbs 17:22, among them:

“Trad came to believe that the times when Huon gave himself up wholly to those deep roars of mirth were like medicine, each one helping to strengthen and steady his mind,” (p.85).

And when Trad comes to the realization that  not everyone is good, Huon’s understanding and wisdom:

“His blue eyes were dark with a knowledge and grief Trad had only begun to glimpse, but steady too with courage and determination. ‘Yet you helped me, child, and the Wise Woman helped us both'” (p.73).

Trad and Huon are examples of compassion- a Christ-like character quality if ever there was one. Also, perseverance – not giving up in spite of obstacles. This is also a book about self-sacrifice. Trad, Huon, Marlo, and the Wise Woman all willingly risk their own safety, and give of their own meager possessions, to protect and help others. Finally, and not in the least, The Great and Terrible Quest is the triumphant story of a king restored, and good defeating evil: a story that shows that hidden among a despairing land are servants who persist in their hope of the true king’s return. While this book is technically not classified as Christian fiction, you’d be hard pressed to find one with a more Christian message.

For reasons unknown, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston did not reprint this masterpiece, and for a long time it was somewhat difficult to find. Rediscovered by Sonlight, it was reprinted with permission by the heir to the Margaret Lovett estate in 2008 by Avyx Inc. And I, for one, am really glad it was.

Words by Heart

Sebestyen, Ouida (1979). Words by Heart. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell.

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Words by Heart is a strongly written story about forgiveness, set in the racially tense South, in the early 1900s. Twelve year old Lena’s father chooses to move his family into a white community ,where she would have more opportunities than if they remained in their African American neighborhood in Scatterbrook. In the story Lena first becomes aware that she isn’t accepted based on the color of her skin.

Lena’s father is the person she most loves and admires. He is one of the most Christ-like characters to ever grace the pages of a work of fiction, children’s or otherwise. Not only does he continually forgive his enemies, but he chooses to do what is right even when he is afraid, and points his daughter to walk in love when nothing could be more contrary to human nature.

Words by Heart is a heavy story, which is likely the reason it hasn’t found much popularity in children’s literature. It is a shamefully realistic picture of what our country was like at the turn of the century. There is little to lighten it up: the subject matter, the fear of its characters, and some language (Lena’s father’s employer does a fair amount of swearing), make it most suitable for young adult readers. Just the same, it is a book families passionate about both faith and stories shouldn’t miss: a book that teaches more about loving your enemies than this one would be hard to find.

 

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Ouida Sebestyen’s first novel (incidentally, published when she was fifty-five years old) was awarded an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, was the winner of the IRA Children’s Book Award, and A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Lin, Grace (2009). Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. New York, NY: Little, Brown, & Company.

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In this middle grade fantasy author Grace Lin does an outstanding job of weaving Chinese folktales into an original, engaging story. Living beside “Fruitless Mountain”, Minli’s hard life working the rice fields alongside her parents, is brightened by only one thing: her father’s stories. When a talking goldfish provides her with directions to “Never-Ending Mountain”, Minli sets out to find the Old Man of the Moon and change her family’s fortune. Like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, a dragon who cannot fly joins the heroine in her quest when he is freed. Together they embark on a journey of courage and self-discovery, meeting more than a few interesting characters along the way.

This book is phenomenal for character studies and comparisons: Ba’s contentment versus Ma’s discontentment, Magistrate Tiger’s selfishness versus Jade Dragon’s children’s and other characters’ self-sacrifice, and Minli’s courage, to name a few. It is a perfect introduction to Chinese folktales, and a wonderful way to capture student interest when studying this culture. Opportunities to incorporate geography (the origins of the Jade, Pearl, Yellow, Long, and Black rivers, as given in folklore, are included), technology (Minli must make a compass for her journey), creative writing (they can attempt to write their own folktales), and history, abound. Grace Lin’s website offers a reader’s guide with ten questions that make excellent writing prompts. (These can also be found at the end of the Little, Brown, and Company 2011 edition of the book).

And the best news is Lin doesn’t stop here: sequels Starry River of the Sky and When the Sea Turned to Silver are nearly as good as the first book of the series. The books are quite intricately woven, and I would suggest students journal or illustrate the story as they read to aid in following them, especially the last in the trilogy.

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Recommended for ages eight to twelve, (grades three to seven), this Newbery Honor Book and New York Times best seller is too good to be missed, so if your teens haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy it, use it as a family read aloud. It is one of the finest works of children’s literature published since the century began, and I expect will remain in my top five favorites for upper elementary fiction for years to come.