Books for Kids
Book Reviewed: Anderson, Laurie Halse. (2002). Fever 1793. New York: Aladdin.

Summary: Mattie Cook is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in the city of Philadelphia in the year 1793. She lives above a coffee shop with her mother and grandfather. Unfortunately, Philadelphia is also gripped in a terrible fever epidemic. People around her are becoming sick and dying. And there doesn’t appear to be anything anybody can do to stop it. Her mother dies from the fever and she flees the city with her grandfather. After the plague has subsided, Mattie returns to Philadelphia to find the city a shell of the bustling metropolis it used to be. With the coming of frost, the mosquitos begin to die off and so ends the plague. Now Mattie is left to pick up the pieces and continue living as best she can.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Sometimes, the best stories are those which are based on actual events and this one certainly follows the plan. It is modeled on the outbreak in the late 1700’s which took place in Philadelphia, when a yellow fever epidemic wiped out ten percent of the city. As can be expected in a book about yellow fever, there are scenes of death and dying but there aren’t any scenes of outright gore. It’s a fast read, though, and it may not take kids very long to finish the compelling story.

Why middle school kids should read this book: If kids enjoy reading historical fiction, they are probably going to really like this book. Because the author has paid attention to historical details, kids will learn much about the time period even without having cracked open a textbook or app. And they will certainly learn more about post-revolutionary war society in America than playing a video game.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Compare medicine in 1793 with modern day medicine. What is different? What is the same?
  • Compare people’s reaction to plagues in 1793 with what would happen today should a plague occur? How would people’s reaction be similar? How would they be different?
  • How does the main protagonist, Mattie Cook, change from the beginning of the novel to the end of the novel? Find three examples from the book to defend your position.
  • Write a modern-day story about what would happen if a plague swept your neighborhood, town, city, county or state.
  • Do some research and find three examples of plagues which occurred in other parts of the world at other times in history. What was similar between the plagues? What was different?

Overall evaluation of this book: An excellent historical fiction book for kids. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Crowe, Chris. (2002). Mississippi Trial, 1955. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.

Summary: Hiram Hillburn is a white teenager who goes back to his boyhood home in Mississippi to spend the summer with his grandfather. Initially, Hiram is very fond of his grandfather and doesn’t understand why his own father wants nothing to do with his father. In fact, Hiram’s father moved the family to a University town in Arizona just to get away from grandfather and the State of Mississippi. Hiram knows his father considers grandfather to be a racist and nearly the entire state of Mississippi as a conclave of white repression of the blacks, but he doesn’t understand why that should prevent the family from getting together again. As the story unfolds, a young black kid who is visiting from Chicago is killed by several local racists and Hiram finds himself as a possible witness in the upcoming trial. Hiram is convinced one of the killers is his childhood friend, R.C., who has grown into a mean-spirited young adult who taunts the black kid, Emmett, shortly before he was murdered. As it turns out, R.C. is mysteriously missing from town, and the trial proceeds without him. Hiram’s grandfather suddenly begins acting mysteriously but Hiram can’t put the pieces of the puzzle together until after the jury acquits the white kids of murder, even though it is obvious to Hiram they really did kill Emmett. To find out what happens in the end, you’ll have to read the book because I’m not going to give away the concluding twist—which kids might not see coming.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a very famous book which contains language that may be offensive. The word “n—“ is regularly used throughout the story, but keep in mind the author is reflecting back to the mid-1950’s in Mississippi before the civil rights movements gathered steam and when it was still legal to provide separate bathroom and dining and schooling facilities for white and blacks. There are several disturbing scenes, one of which is an awful scene in which R.C. bullies Emmett, but the descriptions are true to form of what life really was like for many blacks living under the oppressive repression of white Mississippi. There is a faint whiff of a love story beneath the surface, but nothing comes of it.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Kids will learn what life was like for African-Americans living in a Southern state prior to the civil rights movement. They will also learn about racism and the inherent difficulties minorities faced in a system geared to protect the rights of the whites while helping the blacks “keep their place.” Four or five hours spent reading this book will teach them more about history than listening to twelve hours of lecture.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Find three examples of racism in the book. (If you don’t know what “racism” means, look it up before searching for the examples.)
  • Was it possible for the blacks in Mississippi Trial, 1955, to stand up to the whites and demand equal rights? What would have made it difficult or easy for this to have occurred? Find examples from the book to back up your claim.
  • Does Hiram’s grandfather change at all from the beginning of the book to the end of the book beside his obvious physical difficulties from having the stroke? Does he think any differently?
  • Imagine you were Emmett Till’s mother at the trial. How would you have felt walking into the courtroom and testifying before the jury and crowd?
  • Write a short two page summary or make a three minute video using pictures, clips, and stories of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Where does racism still occur in America and the world? What can you do to help stop it?

Overall evaluation of this book: A great book that every middle school kid should read. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Curtis, Christopher Paul. (2007). Elijah of Buxton. New York: Scholastic Press.

Summary: Elijah is an 11-year-old who lives in Buxton, Canada, just north of the United States border. The nearest large city in the U.S. is Detroit. Buxton isn’t your usual town, though. It is a small town founded by free blacks and Elijah is the first child born into freedom. Elijah’s life is going fine until he runs into the Reverend Zephariah W. Connerly the third who is a scam artist who eventually steals money from Elijah’s friend, Mr. Leroy. The problem is that Mr. Leroy was saving the money to buy his family out of slavery in the south. Elijah and Mr. Leroy embark on a mission to track down the Reverend and retrieve their money. But will they find the thief? And what other horrors await Elijah in Detroit?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There are a few scenes involving details of slaves in chains and references to beatings, torture, and lynching. The events in the second half of the book, because they are well done by the author and true to history, may cause some middle school kids to become emotionally involved. This is not a “feel good” story about how one boy and family escaped slavery, even though there are elements of that. The overall mood is somber and heart wrenching.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a historical novel about a period of time in history which is rarely discussed in your child’s history books—the creation of the free Black cities in Canada during the time slavery was legal in parts of the United States. Consequently, it broadens the picture and understanding of the days of slavery in America and how Canada was also involved. The role of slave traders snatching innocent and free Blacks is also hilted, as is the brutal capture and imprisonment of Blacks who were attempting to escape their slavery life by making it across the Canadian border.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Make a map of the places listed in this book. Try to make it as realistic as possible.
  • What important events were occurring in other parts of the United States at the time the story in this book occurred?
  • What would you have done if you had been Elijah?
  • What do you think happened to Elijah after this book was finished? What happened to him 10 years later?
  • Do some research and find out if Canada ever had slavery. Who were the slaves and who were their masters?

Overall evaluation of this book: Although this book starts out slowly and is not as fast-paced as other historical fiction books, the last half of the book will make your middle school child’s time well worth it. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Durbin, William. (1997). The Broken Blade. New York: Yearling Press.

Summary: Pierre is a thirteen-year-old son of a voyager, living at the beginning of the 1800’s. His father has an unfortunate accident with an ax, cutting off his thumb, and Pierre must sign on with the trading company to prevent the family from starving. He engages on a long trip to Grand Portage with a group of seasoned voyagers and must deal with teasing from other voyagers, contact with Indians, dangerous rapids, and work that is brutal and hard. Along the way, in this coming-of-age-story, he grows from a boy into a man.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This book has won some awards and is well-liked by middle school kids. It is sometimes used in classrooms when the unit of study is early America and the voyagers and the fur trade business. The book is rather short and can be read in four to six hours. The Broken Blade is probably best suited for younger middle school kids or for kids who don’t normally like to read.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This book has it all—high adventure, difficult work, dangerous animals, wild rapids, boisterous companions, and a magnificent natural setting. In addition, kids will learn more about the life of the voyager and the fur trading business than they will from a boring textbook. There is a sequel called The Winter War which is appealing to some kids.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Look at the map in the beginning of the book. Try to memorize the names of the Great Lakes and major cities along their banks. Then try to draw the map from memory. See how accurate you can be.
  • What is a voyager and what kind of people were they? Do some research if you don’t know.
  • What was Pierre like in the beginning of the book and what was he like at the end of the book? How was he the same? How was he different?
  • What is the most interesting part of the book for you? Why?
  • Compare the voyagers LaPetite and Beloit with one another. How are they similar? How are they different? Which one would you like to travel with?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is an excellent historical fiction book about the voyagers. As a bonus, middle school kids almost always like the story. This book is more suitable for younger middle school kids. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Flores-Galbis, Enrique. (2010). 90 Miles to Havana. New York: Macmillian.

Summary: It is 1961 and the Cuban revolution, led by Fidel Castro, is hitting Havana. Julian and his middle class family find themselves unable to leave the country as a family. Julian is sent to Florida by his parents and he spends time in a refugee settlement in Miami. There, he learns to cope with bullies and make new friends. In a daring rescue attempt, Julian returns to Cuba to find his family and bring them to America. Will Julian be able to reunite with his family? Or will the bullies in the refugee camp and back home in Cuba be the winners and get their way?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a novel which talks about a period of time which is not found often in historical fiction—the Fidel Castro Cuban revolution, as viewed by a survivor of the then-middle class. As such, the novel offers a unique viewpoint, making it suitable for all middle school kids, even though the reading level is closer to that of younger middle school kids.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This historical fiction novel is full of potential topics for discussion. Themes of bullies, family, power, democracy, revolutions, capitalism, socialism, kindness, and hope are prevalent throughout the book. Many middle school kids will be oblivious to the after effects of the Cuban revolution and many of today’s issues dealing with the aftermath of the revolution, will be surprising.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Do some research on the Cuban Revolution of 1961. Find three interesting facts about the events.
  • How are the bullies in the refugee camps the same as the bullies in Havana? How are they different?
  • Imagine that you were suddenly separated from your parents. What would you do—or not do—to get them back?
  • Pretend you are a character in the book. Write a 2-4 page story about a scene from the book, telling it from your character’s point of view.
  • The author of this book did live through the Cuban Revolution of 1961. What do you think his purpose was in writing this novel?

Overall evaluation of this book: A solid historical novel about a period in time most middle school kids know little about. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Gregory, Kristina. (1998). Jenny of the Tetons. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Summary: Carrie Hill is a fifteen-year-old girl who has lost her parents to an Indian attack in the 1980’s along the Oregon Trail. Worse, her siblings were captured and taken by the same band of Indians. With few options available to her, Carrie is taken in by an English trapper named Beaver Dick. However, Carrie is dismayed to discover that Beaver Dick’s wife, Jenny, is a Shoshoni Indian. Eventually, Carrie comes to accept and even love Jenny for her loving and gentle ways. But will Carrie’s new family survive the harsh life on the American frontier? Or will grizzly bears and smallpox doom the family? And will Carrie ever see her family members again?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is not a well-known piece of Historical Fiction, probably because it doesn’t have a happy ending and because the narrator is a fifteen-year-old girl whose name is not in the title of the book. The book is unusual in that the character of “Jenny” is a young Indian woman. In a sense, this book is half about Carrie’s understanding of her self and half about Jenny as a remarkable woman. Usually most historical fiction for middle school kids revolves tightly around the character development of an adolescent.

The books ends on a somber note—Jenny and her children are killed by the smallpox—but not all middle school stories need to have uplifting conclusions. In history and real life, thousands of settlers and Indians died as a result of smallpox.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This short and easy read is the perfect novel for middle school kids who visit the Teton Mountain range, just south of Yellowstone National Park. The book has maps which will coincide nicely with the tourist travel information you pick up and, as a bonus, you can visit the actual lake in the Tetons named after the Shoshoni woman, Jenny. How cool is that? However, a visit to Wyoming is not necessary for enjoying the story. It is also nice to find a book which portrays frontier Indians in a positive, favorable light.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Do some research about the areas described in the book. Find them on modern day maps. Try specifically to find Jenny Lake, named after one of the main characters.
  • Compare Carrie’s background with Jenny’s. How are they the same? How are they different?
  • Look at the diary excerpts from Beaver Dick Leigh which are included at the start of each chapter. Why did the author include them?
  • Who were Beaver Dick Leigh and Jenny, his Shoshoni wife? What were they really like? Do some research and find out.
  • Speculate on why the author included the epilogue at the end of the story. If you don’t know what an epilogue is, find out the answer before you speculate.

Overall evaluation of this book: This is an overlooked historical book. Girls will be drawn to the book more than boys. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Hesse, Karen. (1997). Out of the Dust. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Summary: Fourteen-year-old Billie Joe lives with her father on the Oklahoma Panhandle during the Great Depression in the 1930’s. Dust storms constantly pound their house and land, burying everything under a layer of grit and sand. No matter how often things are cleaned, the dust and sand always return. To make matters worse, a horrible accident has killed her pregnant mother and maimed Billie Joe’s hand. Her father also has skin cancer and is wasting away right before Billie Joe’s eyes. Day after day, Billie Joe and her father struggle to scratch out a meager existence in the middle of one of the worst droughts in United States history.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is one of the best books about the Great Depression you can place in the hands of middle school kids. The author doesn’t try to sugarcoat or glorify or paint the Great Depression as anything other than what it was on the Oklahoma panhandle—a miserable place where animals choked on dust and the rains rarely fell and the dust storms swirled on a daily basis, working their way into the tiniest cracks and under every piece of clothing. The book is written in free verse style, so kids may initially be taken aback by the prose. It is an easy read, however, and the plot line keeps moving quickly.

Why middle school kids should read this book: One of the best ways for kids to learn about what happened in the past is to read historical fiction. (Most middle school kids would rather read ten historical fiction books than one traditional boring textbook.) This Newberry award-winning book chronicles life for Oklahomans unfortunate enough to be living on the panhandle during the Great Depression. There are references to some horrible incidents but they are merely mentioned and the author doesn’t go into great details about them. You may need, however, to talk about these with younger middle school kids.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What was the Great Depression? Do some research and find out. Make a pamphlet about the Great Depression.
  • Locate the Oklahoma panhandle on a map. Study the surrounding area and states. What made the dust storms particularly bad on the Oklahoma panhandle?
  • Imagine you are Billie Joe and have just accidently thrown kerosene on your mother, helping to cause her death. How do you forgive yourself and go on living? What actions could you take to help you reconcile the event?
  • Pick an important event in America’s history and write a one page free verse, similar to the writing found in Out of the Dust. Write as if you were there at the time.
  • What types of farming practices made the Great Depression worse? Do some research and find out what farmers and politicians did to make the Great Depression worse than it could have been.

Overall evaluation of this book: An outstanding book for historical fiction buffs. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Hoffman, Alice. (2006). Incantation. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

Summary: The story takes place during the Spanish Inquisition around 1500 in a village where Estrella, 16, and her family have lived for hundreds of years. Estrella is best friends with another girl, Catalina, and themes of friendship and loyalty run strong throughout the book. But will that be enough? Though Estrella’s family appears to be practicing Catholics, in reality they are part of a conclave of Jews, who worship in a secret church in private. Horrible things happen to Estrella’s family—in the name of the Spanish Inquisition—and her mother is burned alive and the bones of her brothers broken by the local police. Ultimately, the question is whether Estrella can find any peace and happiness. Or will her life be eventually swept away by the unrelenting tide of ignorance and superstition?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is about the persecution faced by the Jewish people at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. Consequently, there are scenes of violence and brutality. Kids may need a bit of historical background information in order to fully appreciate the magnitude of the horrors experienced by some people, simply because they were Jewish. Because of the cruelty depicted in some scenes, this is a better fit with older middle school kids.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Historical fiction is a good place for middle school kids to learn about history and real events that occurred in the past. You can help them learn something while they enjoy a story which should not be forgotten. This is an excellent book set in a time period and geographical location which doesn’t show up in many middle school books.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What was the purpose of the Spanish Inquisition? Did it succeed
  • Can you think of any other periods in history where people have been discriminated against because of their religious beliefs?
  • Do people persecute other humans because of their nationality or religion beliefs anymore? Or did all of this maltreatment end years ago?
  • If you were Estrella, and you found yourself in her situation, what would you do?
  • If you were Estrella’s best friend, Catalina, and you found yourself in her situation, what would you do?
  • What specific things can you do to help other people who are being discriminated against because of their religious beliefs?

Overall evaluation of this book: A welcome addition to the cannon of literature documenting tyranny over those who choose to worship differently than the masses. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Holm, Jennifer L. (2010). Turtle in Paradise. New York: Random House Children’s Books.

Summary: Turtle is an eleven-year-old girl whose life is turned upside down when her mother takes a housekeeper’s job in Key West, Florida. Unfortunately, they have to live with Turtle’s aunt and uncle and their son, Beans, who isn’t thrilled with having to give up his room. Turtle is soon immersed in the culture of Key West and meets all sorts of interesting characters, such as her bad-tempered grandmother, a group of cousins who call themselves the Diaper Gang, and a lady who doesn’t like kids. Will Turtle be able to break out of her shell and socialize with everyone? Will her mother abandon all hope of her boyfriend ever proposing to marry her?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a pretty clean book which doesn’t have any violent scenes, vulgar language, or sexual innuendos. The story is probably better suited for younger middle schoolers, but kids of all ages who like character-driven stories will fall in love with Turtle and her viewpoint of the world. A funny, quirky, loveable book.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The depiction of life in 1935 leads this book into the historical fiction category. As such, the book has value as a glimpse into life in the Florida Keys before World War II. The real benefit of this novel, however, is the narration of the main character, as she roams about her new neighborhood in Key West. There isn’t a lot of plot tension in this story, as the author’s focus is on building the character of Turtle. Consequently, this is a really good character-driven story.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Tell the story from the perspective of Turtle’s mother. After you have finished telling the story, what did you notice about the story line? What changed? What stayed the same?
  • List three unusual things about the Diaper Gang.
  • What other book that you have read does this book remind you of? Why?
  • Draw a map of all the locations Turtle explores. Put the house Turtle lives in at the center of your map.
  • This book has been described as being funny. Think of three reasons why this book is funny. Find an example in the book for each one of your reasons.

Overall evaluation of this book: A charming and funny book about the world of an eleven-year-old girl in Key West, Florida, 1935. Many parents and teachers will also enjoy reading this novel. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Lowry, Lois. (1997). Number the Stars. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.

Summary: Annemarie Johansen is a young girl whose family helps Jews escape from Denmark and the Nazi’s in 1943. The story is told from her point of view. Her best friend is Ellen Rosen, who is one of the Jews destined to be deported by the Nazis. The storyline is a micro look at a small scale effort which actually happened, as some Danish citizens worked frantically to save the lives of thousands of Jews. The escape is daring because Nazi guards are everywhere on the lookout for escaping Jews and suspicious activity. At one point, Ellen pretends to be part of the Johansen family and manages to escape to Uncle Henrik, one of many in a chain of people trying to save Jewish lives. Will Annemarie Johansen be successful in saving her friend, Ellen Rosen, from life in a concentration camp? The ending of the book leaves plenty of room for speculation.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a famous book which is also a fairly quick read. Even though the story is about the extreme cruelty of the Nazi’s as they worked their final solution for the Jewish nation, the book doesn’t have lots of gore and blood. The book succeeds without it. So if you are looking for a great book for your middle school kids to read about the tragedy which befell millions of people during World War II—but don’t want to subject them to graphic depictions of death and gore—this might be the book you are looking for.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The story is told from the point of view of someone who is helping the Jews. We tend to forget that many people risked their lives as they helped protect innocent people from the brutality of the Nazi’s in World War II. Not often is the story told from their point of view. Not only that, but middle school kids should know about the horrors of war and the great upheaval that occurred among millions of innocent people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Kids should not only read about rainbows and bluebirds and happy things all the time.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Imagine you are Annemarie. How would you feel? What would you be afraid of?
  • Look in the book and find three examples of regular people who did extraordinary things in the face of great danger. Would you be able to do what they did?
  • Pretend you are one of the Nazi’s looking for Jews in Denmark in 1943. How would this story be different if told from their point of view?
  • To what extent, or how far, would you go to help a friend? Is there any point at which you would stop helping a friend? Why or why not?
  • Speculate on what you think happened at the end of the book. Why doesn’t the author tell us what happened?

Overall evaluation of this book: A great book about a horrible time in history. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Paulsen, Gary. (2010). Woods Runner. New York: Random House Children’s Books.

Summary: Samuel is a thirteen-year-old boy living with his family in Pennsylvania during the start of the Revolutionary war with England. Samuel loves hunting and feels at home in the woods and forests. One day he returns from a hunting trip to discover that his house has been burned and his parents are missing. Many of his neighbors have also had their houses burned. He also sees many dead bodies but his parents are not among them. Samuel follows the trails left by the departing mercenary Hessians in an attempt to free his parents. He eventually tracks them to New York where he is aided by a friendly merchant. Will he be able to find his parents in the bustling young city of New York and get them out? Only time and reading the book will reveal the answer.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a short book (161 pages) but suitable for all middle school kids. Paulson has been a very popular author for many years and kids may already have read some of his more famous books, such as Hatchet. This book differs from other revolutionary war books in that it tells the tale from the point of view of a common young farmer and hunter—Samuel—and reveals the hardship and horrors facing pioneers caught between forces larger than themselves.

Why middle school kids should read this book: In writing this book, Paulson inserts brief asides on topics related to the Revolutionary War—such as how wounded soldiers were treated, the tactics of the British army, the role of the Hessian mercenaries, the treatment of prisoners of war, civilian death, war orphans, and the common British soldier. I found these interesting and they added to the story, giving some historical facts to the fiction of the tale.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Imagine you are a young German in the late 1700’s. Why would you join a group of mercenaries and go fight overseas in a place you had never been before and with a country you were not at war with? (Note: You may have to do some research on the Hessian soldier to answer these questions.)
  • What role did the Iroquois Indians play in the war? Did any groups of Native Americans fight for the American rebels? The British? Pretend you are the leader of one of the Native American tribes at the time of the Revolutionary War. What would cause you to join one side or the other?
  • Did you find the manner in which Samuel helped free his parents from the British in New York believable? Why or why not?
  • The story talks about the events in Concord and Lexington. Do some research to find out what actually happened in Concord and Lexington.

Overall evaluation of this book: A readable and fascinating story told from the point of view of a young hunter. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Preus, Marji. (2010). Heart of a Samurai. New York: Abrams.

Summary: Manjiro is a fourteen-year-old boy who works aboard a Japanese fishing vessel in 1841. A storm causes their boat to become useless and they drift for days, away from the Japanese mainland. They finally land on an island and are subsequently rescued by an American vessel. Because Japan is closed to foreign visitors, the captain can’t return Manjiro to his native land. Consequently, Manjiro helps on the boat, is adopted by the captain, and eventually arrives in New England. Subsequent events lead Manjiro to San Francisco and the California gold rush. Will Manjiro ever be able to return to his homeland? Will he be able to learn the customs of his adopted country? And will he retain the heart of a samurai throughout his ordeals and trials?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a historical novel about an individual, of which middle school kids have probably never heard. Manjiro was a real Japanese boy who was shipwrecked and later rescued by an American whaling ship. Manjiro later did return to Japan and was one of the first Japanese to speak English and have contact with the west. He became advisor to the shogun and did eventually reach the honor of becoming a samurai. The story line does sometimes jump considerably and quickly from one time period to another.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Though the novel is written for younger middle schoolers, the unique nature of the story makes it applicable to all kids. I was halfway through the book before I realized the story was based on historical events and people. (I didn’t read any reviews or the book jacket before starting the novel.) The paucity of historical books for kids about this time in history is why this novel has garnered so much attention and praise. Sometimes it does help to hit the “sweet spot.”

Discussion points with kids:

  • Draw a map of the events and locations found in this book. Make it large enough to include all the major locations. Then draw a series of arrows indicating the journey Manjiro takes.
  • There are lots of drawings and pictures in this novel. Why did the author include them? How do they help or hurt the story?
  • What is a samurai? If you don’t know, do some research to find out.
  • Pretend you are stuck on an island and are rescued by someone who doesn’t know your language. In addition, they then take you away from your home for a long time. How would you feel? How would you survive? Could you do it?
  • Why is this book titled Heart of a Samurai?

Overall evaluation of this book: The uniqueness of the historical time period and context makes this book worthwhile. A better fit for younger middle school kids. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Rhodes, Jewell Parker. (2010). Ninth Ward. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Summary: Lanesha is a twelve-year-old girl who lives in the impoverished ninth ward of New Orleans with her eighty-two year-old grandmother, affectionately known as Mama Ya-Ya. The two live a simple lifestyle and are well-known throughout the neighborhood. Mama Ya-Ya has the gift of being able to foretell the future and Lanesha, herself, sees things, including her dead mother. Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans hard in 2005 and with the flood waters rising, Lanesha has to make choices as to how they will survive. She is assisted by a boy from the neighborhood and they eventually find a rowboat which they hope will take them to safety. But will Mama Ya-Ya survive?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This story is about the emotional bonds between a mother, daughter, and grandmother. The secondary story is about what it was like living through Hurricane Katrina after the levies failed in New Orleans.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Even though the ninth ward in New Orleans, prior to Katrina, was a neighborhood with little money and lots of poverty, the author paints the relationships among the residents as being one of hope and friendship. This is a refreshing break from the notion that poor neighborhoods are constantly engulfed in crime and corruption. The relationship which exists between Lanesha and Mama Ya-Ya is also worth purchasing the book—there is nothing of the cynical and somewhat popular belief that kids don’t want anything to do with their grandparents.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How would you characterize the relationship which exists between Lanesha and her grandmother? Find three examples from the book to support your claim.
  • What is Mama Ya-Ya’s view of life? Find three examples from the book to support your claim.
  • Does Lanesha really see her mother’s ghost or is she imagining this in her mind? Defend your answer with two examples from the book.
  • Explain Hurricane Katrina from a meteorological point of view. What happened in the Gulf Coast and New Orleans in 2005? (You may have to do some research to answer this question.)

Overall evaluation of this book: An engaging book about a relatively recent topic. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Sepetys, Ruta, (2011). Between Shades of Gray: One girl’s voice breaks the silence of history. New York: Scholastic Inc.

Summary: The story chronicles the journey of Lina, a fifteen-year-old Lithuanian, who is forced in 1941, along with her entire family, out of their home, and coerced to perform manual labor in a series of work camps throughout Russia. This book presents a facet of World War II which is rarely mentioned in many of the books written for young adolescents—the brutal “reassignment” of the educated elites during the purges by Joseph Stalin during the heyday of communistic Russia.

In telling the story, Sepetys weaves back and forth between the past and the present, as seen through the eyes of Lina, an innocent young girl who must grapple with the brutality of the present—guards who beat workers until they are senseless and a meager food distribution system which rewards only those fit enough to work—with flashbacks of happier times with her family in her homeland of Lithuania, which disappeared as a country in 1941 after the Soviet Union annexed the small nation.

The scope of this book is sweeping and enormous. The author takes us on a journey from the Eastern borders of the Soviet Empire deep into the heart of frozen Siberia and then through Yakutsk and across the Arctic Circle until the journey ends at Trofimovsk. During the long journey Lina must confront the deaths of her parents and witness the tragic suffering of a people whose only crime was to have received an education or have belonged to the wrong minority group.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Some of the scenes are brutal and while they don’t go into some of the finer details, kids may be repelled by the violence depicted in the scenes. The violence is necessary, however, so kids understand what life was really like for the relocated people who suffered under Joseph Stalin.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The book chronicles something that really happened and kids need to know about historical events—especially those which ended badly for millions of people. There is no comparative event in American history—though the treatment of the Native American tribes was close—as to what happened to ordinary civilians in Soviet Russia. The descriptions of the scenery and events will be attractive to kids. They are very well done. If kids like reading about historical events which occurred in places other than their immediate back yard, they will really like this book.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Take out a world map and find the locations described in the book.
  • Talk about World War II and how one of the consequences of the war was the massive relocation of the Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and the educated Russians, among others.
  • Discuss how, during World War II, entire nations, like Lithuania, were gobbled up by larger, aggressive countries. Talk about how this must have felt to the people living in those countries.
  • Discuss whether something like this is happening anywhere in the world right now. How are the events in places around the world different? How are they similar?
  • How can we avoid something like this happening again? What can you do?

Overall evaluation of this book: This book is outstanding. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Sepetys, Ruta. (2016). Salt to the Sea. New York: Philomel Books.

Summary: The story is told from the viewpoints of four teenagers who are either fleeing from the advancing Germans in East Prussia in 1945 or gearing up to help the German cause as the situation becomes bleaker and bleaker. The main characters, Florian, a Prussian boy who holds the secret to revealing purloined art work, Amelia, a pregnant Polish girl, Joana, a Lithuanian nurse, and Alfred, a budding Nazi devotee, end up boarding the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German luxury liner repurposed to haul refugees from the advancing Soviets, in a journey which ultimately results in the sinking of the famous ship. The story line moves back and forth, from one character to another, as the horrors of the war fall upon innocent refugees fleeing the chaos of war. What secrets do the refugees have? Will they manage to avoid the advancing Soviet army and the enigmatic German army? By the end, you will know everything.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There are references to torture, rape, and the killing of innocent people. Very little is graphically described, but the overall tone of the story is dark and somber—mostly because the bulk of the plot is revealed by the refugees, who simply want the war to stop. The author, Ruta Sepetys, is gaining lots of attention as a historical fiction writer. And it’s because she is very good at what she does.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Many historical fiction books from World War II tell the story from the point of view of the main combatants or principal soldiers. This novel deviates from that formula and tells the story from the viewpoint of the refugees. It also uses the setting of the Eastern theater of war as the primary backdrop, which only adds to its lure, as most other novelists for young adults set their story in the western theater.

The chapters are very short and rotate between the characters so some kids may initially be confused by the rotating multiple viewpoints. Although knowledge of World War II history is not required, it may be desirable to spend some time when kids are reading this book on the history of the German-Russian conflict.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What are the disadvantages and advantages of telling this story through four main characters?
  • Research the German-Russian conflict during World War II. Spend 30 minutes trying to figure out what happened.
  • Why is the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff not as famous as the sinking of the Titanic? Give three possible explanations.
  • Try to guess what happened to the main characters after the conclusion of the war. What are they doing? Where are they living?
  • Tell the story to a friend. Try to remember as many important details as you can.

Overall evaluation of this book: A great book about one of the most famous wartime tragedies your child has never heard of. The chapters are short and the action and writing will pull your child forward. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Sharenow, Robert. (2011). The Berlin Boxing Club. New York: Harper Collins Children’s Books.

Summary: Karl Stern is a fourteen-year-old living in Berlin during the Nazi’s rise to power and authority. His father is an art dealer but his mother seems incapable of much besides sitting in the tub all day. Karl is also a Jew, thought he doesn’t look like a Jew and his family doesn’t practice the Jewish religion. Karl has also never been in a synagogue. This, however, doesn’t stop the bullying and harassment he receives from his classmates who forcibly pull down his pants to prove he’s really a Jew. Fortunately, the famous German boxer, Max Schmeling, offers to train Karl in return for a painting his beautiful wife adores. The deal is struck and Karl eventually ends up putting all his efforts into becoming a boxing champion. His dreams of winning the city boxing championship for his age bracket come crashing down, however, after it is revealed he is a Jew. Conditions worsen as a mob breaks into their home and injures his father. The family is forced into hiding. Will Max Schmeling be able to help save Karl’s family? Or will he turn a blind eye toward the plight of the Jewish family?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There are some brutal scenes involving bullying and the physical beatings. There are a few references to the thoughts of a typical young boy toward his girlfriend, but nothing is presented as being grossly inappropriate. There is also a man known as the “Duchess” who likes to dress in women’s clothing. The “Duchess” however, ends up helping the family and is merely another symbol of what the Nazi’s hated and tried to eradicate. This book has won a number of awards and while not as literary as The Book Thief, I think this is a better book for middle school kids to understand what life was like for Jews living in Nazi Germany.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The inexorable grip of the Nazi hold on Germany and the psychology that the Jews were responsible for much of the country’s problems is well-done in this novel. This book also talks about the slow slide into chaos the Jews experienced while living in Nazi Germany. Consequently, a history of how the Jews went from being viewed as respectable citizens into being viewed as vermin can be gathered from the book.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Imagine you are in charge of the Nazi propaganda machine. How would you market Max Schmeling and his popularity to the German people?
  • How are the boxers Max Schmeling and Joe Louis used by the German propaganda machine? What message is the German propaganda machine trying to say?
  • With much hard work, Karl became a very good young boxer. How did boxing take his mind off the insanity surrounding him? Give several examples from the book. Have you ever worked hard to take your mind off something?
  • What is Kristallnacht and where does it happen in the story?
  • Speculate as to why the author included the “Countess” in the story? Give specific examples from the book to support your speculation.
  • What is the purpose of the cartoon figures Spatz, Winzig, and Fefellfarve? Why are they included in the story?

Overall evaluation of this book: For a multitude of reasons, this is one of the better books I have read for middle school kids. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Speare, Elizabeth George. (1958). The Witch of Blackbird Pond. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Summary: Kit Tyler lives on a large home on the island of Barbados. Her grandfather dies and Kit is forced to sell the house and sail for Connecticut in 1687 to meet a part of her family she has never met before. When she arrives in Connecticut, Kit is shocked at the intolerance and rigidity of the Puritans. Likewise, the Puritans are stunned at Kit’s manner of dress, speech, and behavior. Needless to say, Kit doesn’t fit in. Fortunately, Kit finds contentment in a large meadow and a friend in an elderly woman whom the Puritans have dubbed the Witch of Blackbird Pond. Is the elderly woman really a witch? Can Kit escape the witch-crazy Puritains? Or will she find herself swinging at the end of a long rope on the gallows?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This book isn’t nearly as popular as it once was but the story line and message are just as relevant, if not more relevant, today. While there have been recent additions to the historical fiction canon of Colonial life in the early Americas, The Witch of Blackbird Pond continues to be one of the finest written, even though its original publication date is over 55 years ago. The issue of politics and religion and intolerance continue to plague the world today. Middle school kids may need to talk about this book after they are done.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The story line of politics, religion, and intolerance, is part of this nation’s history. It is important for middle school kids to understand where society has been and where we are going. Unfortunately, current events around the world have made the main theme of this book as relevant as ever. This is ripe for a conversation about religious intolerance around the world, both in the history books and what is occurring around the globe today.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Why do the Puritans think Hannah is a witch? Give examples from the book.
  • As described in the book, explain the tension that existed between the loyalists to the King of England and the supporters of the Connecticut Charter. How did this tension set the stage for the American Revolutionary War which was to occur 90 years later? You may have to do some research to answer this question.
  • Where in the world today are people being intolerant of other people and claiming religious beliefs as justified reasons for their intolerance? Is this any different than what happened in The Witch of Blackbird Pond? Why or why not?
  • Recall the story line of this book and tell it to one of your friends or members of the family.

Overall evaluation of this book: This remains one of the better historical novels middle school kids can read. Unfortunately, most people have never heard of it. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Taylor, Mildred D. (1976). Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. New York: Puffin Books.

Summary: Cassie Logan is a nine-year-old African-American girl who lives with her large family in the Deep South in the 1930’s. Slowly, over time, Cassie comes to understand that some people are racist and that terrible things can happen to people who stand up for their rights. Even worse, her mother and father scold and beat her for not knowing her “place” in dealing with White people. Cassie experiences racism in stores, on the street front, and on the road—among other places—and must learn to deal with the problems as they occur. The story has all the elements of southern apartheid in the United States—night riders, lynchings, being forced to be treated as second class citizens, the threat of losing your land, and Cassie’s own gradual realization and understanding of how racism permeates many aspects of life.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This book is very famous and the odds are fairly good kids will encounter this book sometime in their upper elementary or middle school career. There are images of violence in this book, but I wouldn’t use that as a reason not to have kids read this story.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Kids needs to learn about what actually happened in history. Reading a book such as Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is an excellent way to learn about racism and how the impacts of racism have reverberated throughout history, even up to the modern day.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What is racism?
  • What if your family had experienced what Cassie experienced in this story? How would things be different? How would you feel?
  • Find three examples in the book of White folk who do not discriminate against the African-Americans. How difficult or easy is for them to go against what most of their neighbors believe?
  • How do Cassie’s beliefs change from the beginning of the book to the ending of the book? Why do you think her beliefs change?
  • Does racism still exist today? Do any of your classmates say or do racist things? What can you do to help stop racism?

Overall evaluation of this book: A great book about a troubling time in American history. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Wells, Rosemary. (2007). Red Moon at Sharpsburg. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Summary: India Moody is a 1-year-old-girl who lives in Virginia in 1861. The Civil War has just broken out and India’s life is suddenly turned upside down. Her father leaves for the war, her mother begins having emotional and mental difficulties, and India’s schoolteacher has left to fight for the South, leaving her without any formal education to pursue. Luckily, her godmother has a son named Emory who picks up the slack and becomes India’s tutor. Together, Emory and India form an inquisitive team, bantering back and forth on many scientific topics. India dreams of attending Oberlin College in Ohio but unfortunately, she lives during a time in history when women are not expected to be educated and are, rather, told to know their place and role as a southern belle. Will India manage to survive the war and continue her education? Or will the Battle of Antietam—identified as Sharpsburg in the book—be the end of everything she hoped for?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a Civil War historical novel about a young girl’s dream to shed the cultural expectation of what it means to be a traditional woman and instead, transform herself into a self-sufficient educated scientist. As such, the novel is really less about the Civil War and Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), than it is about the cultural and historical context about the role of women during the 1860’s in Virginia. There are few scenes which include any references or depictions of battle gore.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Historical novel readers and Civil War buffs will like this story, along with kids who are interested in the historical context of women and education. Because the primary emphasis in Red Moon at Sharpsburg is more about the rights of women in history than the actual battle, girls may be the primary readers of this story. There is lots of fertile ground for discussion here, because the author focuses on so many moving story parts.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Do some research on the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg). What happened?
  • Compare and contrast three differences between men and women in this story. How are they the same? How are they different?
  • Look up information on Oberlin College in Ohio. What is the college like today? What was the college like in 1861?
  • Predict what India Moody will be doing in ten years.
  • Explain to someone what you learned about slavery from this book. Is there anything new you learned?

Overall evaluation of this book: A decent historical novel. Girls will probably like this book more than boys, although boys could use the knowledge learned from the story just as much as girls. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Yelchin, Eugene. (2011). Breaking Stalin’s Nose. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Summary: Sasha is a young Russian who lives in Moscow during the Stalin years. He dreams of becoming a Pioneer and proudly becoming one of Stalin’s recruits. His mother is dead and Sasha believes she died in the hospital, though evidence emerges that she may have been a casualty of one of Stalin’s purges. As it turns out, his father is also a casualty of the purge and has been arrested and placed in prison. Consequently, the father will not be present to see Sasha proudly carry the Russian flag during the induction ceremony for the Pioneers. Sasha desperately wants to be a Pioneer and he clings to the belief that loyalty to Stalin is paramount above everything else—until, that is—he accidently breaks the nose from a bust of Stalin. What follows is heartbreaking and grim—students and adults turn on one another and it seems as though no one is safe from being identified as an enemy of the people. In the end, Sasha has to make a choice; will he rat out his friends and become a spy for the State Security senior lieutenant? Or will he renounce everything he has believed and run from the communist authorities?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Middle school kids may need some background about Stalinist Russia before they start reading this book. It won’t be a prerequisite, but it may help them in making sense of the story. At the very least, kids will need to do a little research when they are finished to find out what life was like for ordinary Russians when Stalin ruled the land with an iron fist. This is a very short book with plenty of beautiful sketches included. It may seem to be a very simple book but don’t be fooled—there are serious themes which resonate throughout the story.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a great book to learn about Russian life under Stalin. It is also a solid book to reinforce democratic values for your kids because the story paints Russian society as anything but democratic. Sometimes we take the little things for granted—such as not having the adults coach us into betraying our own parents.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How does Sasha’s belief in Stalin change over time? What events cause him to change his belief?
  • Explain why Finkelstein confesses to a crime he didn’t commit. What is he trying to accomplish?
  • Why does Vovka place Stalin’s nose in Nina Petrovna’s desk? Is it believable that the teacher would be arrested on such flimsy evidence?
  • What would life be like if people were worried about their neighbor turning them in as traitors to the government? How would your neighborhood or town or city be different?
  • Not everything is resolved in the ending of the book. We don’t know what happened to Sasha’s father. And we don’t know what will happen to Sasha. Why did the author end the book with not everything firmly concluded or resolved? What do you think happened to the characters?

Overall evaluation of this book: A simple but complex book. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Zusak, Markus. (2005). The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Summary: Liesel Meminger lives with her foster mother and father in Molching, near Munich, Germany during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Even though she can’t read, she retrieves a book from a smoldering pile of embers left after a book-burning rampage by the Nazi’s. As time goes by, Liesel begins to steal more books, primarily from the reclusive Mayor’s wife, who doesn’t seem to mind that Liesel is taking her books. Liesel learns to read from her books and shares many of the writings with her friends and neighbors and a Jewish man they have hidden in their basement. However, Liesel’s foster parents have placed the family at great risk by allowing Max, the Jew, a place of refugee from the Nazi’s who are rounding up all the Jews they can find and sending them to work or concentration camps. But how long can Liesel keep her stolen books a secret from the Nazi’s?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: The narrator of this book is the omniscient character of Death, who adds to the story by inserting its perspective on the situations occurring in Germany. Death is neither for nor against the events occurring, but merely the gatherer of souls when the time comes. Some of the scenes in the book are fairly intense and graphic and there is foul language which occurs primarily in the context of what bullies say to kids and what the adults say to or about the Jews living in the neighborhood. The author does not gloss over or diminish the intensity of these scenes.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Middle schoolers will gain a more comprehensive understanding of the events occurring in Nazi Germany through reading this book, something they won’t get by reading the famous Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, which has a more limited viewpoint of the total war. The insertion of Death’s dry comments about the events occurring in Germany during World War II adds to the story by giving it an omniscient, unemotional viewpoint. There also are occasional sketches and writings in different fonts which make the story more visually appealing for middle school kids.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Death is an omniscient narrator in the story. What is an omniscient narrator? Give three specific examples of how Death’s viewpoint changes the story.
  • Imagine you are the mayor’s wife. Why does she act so strangely and allow Liesel to steal her books?
  • Why is this story titled The Book Thief? Create three alternative titles for this story.
  • Occasionally the author inserts German words into the narrative. How does this help or hinder the story line? Find two examples to defend your position.
  • Research the Nazi’s attitude toward the Jews and beliefs about the Jews. Are there any places in the world today where similar attitudes and beliefs exist toward any group or type of people? As a bonus, see if you can answer this question—what types of conditions need to exist to make it easier for large numbers of people to adopt such negative attitudes and beliefs towards certain groups or types of people?

Overall evaluation of this book: An excellent book but not a great pick for younger middle school kids or for those who struggle with their reading skills. The Book Thief is best for older and more mature kids with grade level or above grade level reading skills. Five Stars ★★★★★

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