Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Letters from Rifka

Letters from Rifka
Karen Hesse
Holt, 1992    148 pgs     Grades 4-8

Written in a series of letter to her cousin back in Russia, Letters from Rifka offers a first person account of a young girl's journey to America from 1919-1920.  Rifka's story begins in Russia, where we see the prejudice and hardships endured by the Russian Jews of the time.  After a dangerous and secret escape, Rifka's family flees to Poland where they must remain for some time battling Typhus.  After overcoming the dreadful disease Rifka is detained again, this time with Ringworm.  Her family continues on to America, while Rifka is left behind with a kind family in Belgium to recuperate.  Months later after finally healing Rifka boards a ship and after a harrowing journey reaches America's shores.  Before finally reuniting with her family, Rifka is detained yet again, this time at Ellis Island because her baldness from the Ringworm has left concerns with the American authorities.  Rifka survives by her wits, kindness and ability to master new languages and finally is allowed to enter America, where she is reunited with her family and ready to start her new life.

Whew!  A lot happens in this book.  The plot keeps moving along at a steady clip and just when you think nothing else could possibly happen to this girl, another wrench is thrown into the works.  It makes for an exciting read which does not allow the reader to get bored, let alone take a breath.  Through it all, Rifka is a well developed and likable character.  During this whole process Rifka is only twelve and thirteen years old.  She is strong, resilient, brave, and intelligent.  Rifka provides a great role model, while sharing the struggle of immigration to a young audience.  Almost all American kids have an immigration story somewhere in their family tree and this book will encourage them to learn it.  Letters from Rifka is based on the real-life experiences of the authors's aunt, which makes the seemly fantastical story seem that much more so.  An introduction and historical note at the end provide background and authenticity.  I loved this book when it first came out in 1992 and after reading it again for a book club still love it.  Letter's from Rifka brings the past to life for young readers in an exciting and approachable way.  It encourages the reader to delve into their own past to pull out the stories that are lurking.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Todd Strasser
Candlewick, 2013    258 pgs     Grades 6-8
Historical Fantasy

Eleven year old Scott is a typical boy living in a Long Island suburban town in 1962.  The Cuban Missile Crisis looms as Scott and his friends begin a new school year and have adventures and misadventures.  The nearly idyllic childhood is shadowed by the threat of war.  Scott's father prepares for the worst and builds a bomb shelter in the basement, much to the embarrassment of the family.  The teasing of the neighbors turns to panic as the whole neighborhood attempts to gain access to the shelter when the unthinkable happens and New York is bombed.  Through Scott's eyes we see three families fighting for survival, sanity and basic dignity as they remain trapped in the shelter.  Will they ever get out and what will they find if they do?  These questions keep the reading turning pages until the end.  Alternating chapters between life in the bomb shelter and the time leading up to the attack provide contrast and anticipation.

Fallout provides a first-hand account of the Cold War as seen through an eleven year old American boy.  Right up to the dropping of the bomb it is historically accurate.  Then Strasser leads us on a journey of "what if"...?  Some background knowledge of the Cold War would be helpful going into the book, but is not necessary.  The plot is so interesting that young readers won't get caught up in the history, but at the end of the day will walk away knowing something about the time period.  Strasser leaves us with subtle lessons that are still applicable today about the price of war and seeing other sides of political conflict.  The publisher recommends this book for grades 5-8.  There are some parts of the book that are a bit inappropriate for a younger audience, so I would recommend the book for at least sixth grade.  I wish the author left those parts out because young people do not like to read books with characters younger than themselves and the inappropriate bits limit the scope of the audience.  Fallout would appeal to boys more than girls, but could be enjoyed by both.  I labeled this book as "historical fantasy" because it really is a bit of each.  There is no magic that would make it a fantasy, just a re-writing of history that could have happened if Khrushchev pressed that fatal button.  The alternating chapters between life in the shelter and the time leading up to the bombing really help to keep the pages turning, but may lead to confusion for struggling readers.  Will the survivors make it out of the shelter?  And if so, what will they find?  The answers to these questions will keep readers plowing ahead to a mostly satisfying conclusion, yet one that leaves some things still unanswered.  Fallout is book sure to lead to thoughtful discussion, all while learning about an often over-looked time in history in children's literature and all the while wrapped-up in an exciting plot.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Forbidden Library

The Forbidden Library
Django Wexler
Penguin, 2014    373 pgs     Grades 5-8

Alice's only known relative, her father, dies in a tragic accident and she is sent to live with an uncle she has never heard of.  He lives in a creepy old old house with equally creep servants.  There is a huge library that Alice is not allowed to explore even though she is a voracious reader.  Finally, with the help of a talking cat Alice enters the library.  Once she opens a book in the library, she finds herself inside the book.  The books in the library contain trapped evil creatures and Alice can learn to harness their power.  This ability makes Alice a "reader" and an important commodity to her "uncle" and other competing wizards.  Alice learns to work her new abilities while determining who to trust, all the while trying to find answers about her missing father.

The Forbidden Library has a great premise.  I'm a sucker for any book dealing with libraries and magical books.  I found The Forbidden Library to be a bit of a disappointment.  It was very dark and Gothic without the tight, atmospheric storytelling of, for example, Neil Gaiman.  There was no contrast and felt a bit bogged down.  My mind kept wandering as I read the book and I felt it went on too long.  There were some surprising twists to the plot, but it takes a while to get there,  The book leaves the answer to Alice's father's whereabouts open, setting itself up for a sequel, which I also found a bit tedious.  The characters are undeveloped and I feel like I still don't know Alice, even after spending 373 pages with her.  I may have gone into the book with a preconceived notion of it being similar to Inkheart (where the heroine can read characters out of books).  Inkheart is a lot more exciting, more fun, better written and has an interesting setting.  That said. The Forbidden Library will satisfy kids looking for creepy fantasy.  And it does contain secretive, talking cats, who are pretty cool.  The book will contain illustrations, but since I was reading a pre-published copy of the book, I didn't have a chance to see them.  I will be purchasing a copy of this book for my library and it will find an audience, but its not for impatient readers.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Mad Potter: George Ohr, Eccentric Genius

The Mad Potter: George Ohr, Eccentric Genius
Jan Greenberg & Sandra Jordan
Roaring Book Press, 2013    53 pgs     Grades 2-Up

George Ohr, a wonderfully eccentric potter from the turn-of-the-century is a little know American icon.  His house and studio in Biloxi, Mississippi was a landmark in its day.  Ohr made what he considered "art pottery" and every piece he created was original.  His work was very contemporary and, although he was considered "interesting" he sold very little art in his time.  Ohr's art pottery was re-discovered by an art deal in the 1970s and since then has sold at action for enormous sums.  Greenberg and Jordan present a full account of his life.  They also provide what makes Ohr's pottery special and explain the ways to examine contemporary pottery.  A generous amount of original photographs of Ohr as well as pictures of some of his work are dispersed through out the book.  A bibliography and source notes round out the volume.

What a cool guy!  I would have loved the opportunity to get to know George Ohr.  He seemed like a talented, crazy, and fun-loving person.  The cover photo says it all.  He had huge blacksmith muscles and a full bushy mustache and looks like someone's crazy uncle.  Many of the photos included are trick photos that he set up himself.  But the real star of the book is the pottery.  The work Ohr created is beautiful in shape and color and is incredibly ahead of its time.  It is unbelievable that such work was crafted in post-civil war Mississippi over one hundred years ago.  The Mad Potter celebrates art, creativity, and an unknown great American.  I learned about art history and contemporary pottery and, moreover, had fun in the process.  The book would be perfect for kids to read for recreation or would be great for an adult to share with a class or a child at home.  My only complaint is that it is very short, limiting its use for reports or biography assignments.  Longer than a picture book, yet too short for book reports, this book may have a difficult time finding its audience. That said, come to the Fair Lawn Library and pick this book up.  You will be glad you did!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster
Deborah Hopkinson
Scholastic, 2012    289 pgs     Grades 5-8

Step into a time machine and prepare yourself to travel back to the turn of the century, where we relive the sinking of the ship considered "unsinkable" at the time of its fatal maiden voyage. Over one-hundred years later, the Titanic continues to fascinate.  Join Hopkinson as she presents historical background and first-person accounts of the famous tragedy.  Rare photos of the ship and illustrations from the time of the disaster supplement the text.  We experience life aboard the ship and the eventual sinking through the eyes of people ranging from children through senior citizens.  All three classes of passengers, as well as crew are represented.  Hopkinson includes all kinds of bonus features, such as maps, time-lines, bonus facts & figures, original letters from actual passengers, and an extensive bibliography and index.  Also included are accounts of what eventually became of the people featured in the book, as well as other famous passengers of interest.

I am always on the lookout for "readable" non-fiction and this book fills the bill.  Hopkinson weaves the different first-person accounts seamlessly, as we live through the Titanic disaster in a linear fashion.  It is an excellently well researched piece of non-fiction that also happens to be fun to read.  Titanic: Voices from the Disaster is useful for kids working on research projects, as well as a great suggestion for those who have a non-fiction book report, but don't think they like non-fiction. Even Titanic experts will walk away with new bits of information and many Titanic myths are dispelled. The book is so chuck full of photos, letters, illustrations and bonus materials it reads quickly and never gets boring.  Between the sensational sinking of the great ship and the romanticized view we have of the event from popular media, the book is an easy sell.  With the Titanic II being constructed as I write this, interest in the doomed ship is sure to continue.