Friday, January 29, 2016

Woodford Brave

Woodford Brave
by Marcia Thornton Jones; illus. by Kevin Whipple
192 pages; ages 9-12
Calkins Creek, 2015

Cory Woodford's best friend has deserted him, his father is fighting overseas, and a Nazi spy lives just down the street. Cory needs to be brave, like his father and grandfather. Like his favorite superhero, Mighty Space Warrior. He needs to be Woodford Brave. He writes letters to his dad, drawing cartoons at the bottom of the page - the Space Warrior's Kid. Will his dad notice that he's drawn his own face tucked inside Warrior Kid's Helmet of Power?

This is a fun mystery - is the guy with the suitcase really a Nazi spy? - with a dash of ghost story - is the house down the street really haunted?- some baseball, and a crazy go-cart race that nearly ends in disaster.

The black-and-white comic book illustrations add to the feeling of going back in time. And even though it's fiction, there's an author's note with resources for anyone who wants to lean more about World War II, women's baseball, and the history of comic books. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Exploring the North Pole

Keep On! The Story of Matthew Henson, Co-Discoverer of the North Pole
by Debora Hopkinson; illus. by Stephen Alcorn
36 pages; ages 6-10
Peachtree, 2009

I realize this book was published a few years ago - but this seems like the perfect time of year to read about Arctic explorers. Most people, if you ask who discovered the North Pole, will say "Robert Peary". They might not realize there was another explorer whose courage, skills, and fluency in Inuit language contributed to the success of Peary's expedition.

Matthew Henson was born in 1866, just after the Civil War. It was a time, writes Hopkinson, when poor black boys had few chances of visiting another country - much less the top of the world. But at the age of 13, Matt set out to look for a job - and adventure - and was taken on as a cabin boy aboard ship. He learned history, math, navigation, how to tie knots and fix most anything.

Later, he had the opportunity to join Peary on Arctic expeditions. Matt had to learn about surviving in the harsh climate. He took the time to get to know the Inuit people and learn their language, how to dress and hunt and build a dog sled. As with any grand venture, there are failures and Peary's team didn't make it to the North Pole until their last expedition in 1909.

Hopkinson details the rough, tough life of Matt, his brush with death and determination to reach the top of the world.

"The fact that Matthew Henson's name is not widely known even today reveals much about the times in which he loved and the prejudices he faced," writes Hopkinson in her author's note. That changed in 1945, when the Navy recognized the surviving members of the expedition.

This is a great book to put in the hands of an adventure-hungry kid any time of the year, but particularly suited for reading on a cold day when you can bundle up and explore your own frosty neighborhood. Also a good pick for Black History month.

On Monday we're joining the roundup over at the Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Three Girls; One Message-in-a-Bottle

by Jane Petrlik Smolik
336 page; ages 9-12
Charlesbridge, 2015

Bones, Lady Bess, and Mary Margaret have never met and don't know each other, but a bottle bearing a message crosses the ocean - twice- connecting their lives. Bones is a slave, working in Virginia in the fall of 1854. She was too young to remember the day her pappy had been sold to another landowner - "but she remembered everything about how she learned she was the personal property of another human being."

When Bones finds the Slave Birth Records for the plantation, she tears out the page with her name and birth date. Burdened with this incriminating evidence of her actions, she rolls the paper up, puts it into a bottle, adds a heart carved by her pappy, and seals the cork with wax. Then, in the dark of night, she sneaks down to the James River and tosses the bottle as far as she can.

The bottle bobs its way downstream and into the Atlantic where it gets picked up but the Gulf Stream current and pulled across the sea.

In August of 1855 Lady Bess finds the bottle, half buried in sand, on a narrow beach on the Isle of Wight. Could it be from pirates? Lady Bess wants to be an explorer like her father, and she's heard plenty of tales of adventure on the high seas. But no. When she unfurls the paper it says only: Agnes May Brewster. Born: July 1843. Colored slave. When a lad who works for the farm is accused of stealing, Bess discovers who the real thief is and determines to help her friend escape from jail. She gives him the bottle, adding a treasure of her own. Maybe when he reaches London he can find someone who can help solve the mystery of Agnes May.

Instead of reaching London, the bottle ends up traveling with the North Atlantic Drift back across the ocean. Mary Margaret discovers it bobbing against the pilings when she and her da go to the wharf to buy fish. It looks like a genie bottle and when she opens it she finds an engraved gold cross with pearls embedded in it, and the birth record of Agnes May.

Three very different girls whose lives touch each other's because of a bottle. Could a bottle really travel from Virginia to England and back to Boston? In back matter, author Jane Smolik writes about the history of sailors placing messages in bottles. Using ocean current charts, she figured out where a bottle tossed into the James River might land. Then she had to learn what was happening across the world in the 1850s to tie the stories together.

A fun story backed by research, sure to appeal to kids who love exploring history and mysteries. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Way to Stay in Destiny

With the coming of a New Year, I've decided to post book reviews on a weekly basis. Look for book talk, author interviews and other book-related stuff on Fridays. Starting with...

The Way to Stay in Destiny
by Augusta Scattergood
192 pages; ages 8-12
Scholastic Press, 2015

January is such a perfect month to curl up with a good book. So for the next few Mondays, I'll be digging into my book basket for some longer reads, both fiction and non.

I was pulled into this book by the first line: The crazy lady in seat 2B hasn't stopped singing "You Are My Sunshine" since the glare hit the windshield three hours ago. When the bus pulls to a stop in Destiny, Theo grabs his bags and baseball glove and follows his uncle out the door and into the Florida heat. He sees old men wearing shorts and flip flops... and slithery gray stuff hanging from the trees. What am I doing here? Theo wonders.

Sharing a room with his uncle at Sister Grandersole's Rooming House and Dance Academy, doing the laundry on Saturdays, finding some unexpected friends, and discovering he has an ear for the piano - that's what Theo's doing in Destiny. And then there's the history of baseball tied up with the history of the town: did Hank Aaron really play there?

Add to that the mystery of interpersonal relationships: Who is this girl who ditches dance class to play ball? Can Theo manage to play the piano when his uncle expressly forbids it? And why is his uncle so angry?

This book is a perfect blend of mystery and adventure, and a warm story about what it means to be family.