Erika has traveled to and lived in many countries because she thinks the world is cool. Starting at age 18, she has lived in, or traveled to, 30 countries. Before she settled down to raise her family and publish her books, she worked as an au pair. Now she’s focusing on teaching children about at least some of the places she’s lived and traveled.
Her first book, Mission to Australia, is about an intrepid foursome of young travelers visiting Australia. The group of children is interesting in its own right since one of the travelers must use a wheelchair, but is undaunted by difficult places to access. The group represents many different cultures and ethnicities.
Questions for Erika
What compelled you to dream of visiting and living in different countries? Honestly, I have no idea. I did not grow up around people traveling to other countries. I just thought it sounded interesting and after visiting my first country, I enjoyed learning about the culture, history, and seeing the new sites so much that I wanted to see as many as possible.
How did you become an au pair? What hoops did you have to jump through to? There was a program I found online. It was a long time ago, so I don’t remember the details, but I know I requested to be an Au Pari in Spain. I believe I was provided with some information about families who were interested in me, and it was up to me to select. My grandma spoke Spanish so she spoke to them, and that was it. I requested the time off with my boss and I headed to Madrid.
Did you have a friend who inspired you? Or did a book lead you in that direction? Neither. I did not have any friends or family who traveled abroad. In fact, several of my families asked me why I wanted to go out of the country. I really have no idea what inspired me. I’m assuming seeing certain movies or pictures of places around.
Did you have to convince your parents that it would be safe for you to pursue this dream? Yes, but I was 18 when I first traveled, so there wasn’t much they could do to stop me. So, they chose to support me instead.
How did you pick the countries you wanted to visit? If you’re referring to Spain specifically, I didn’t do a lot of research. I just knew I wanted to go and since I had the program looking out for me, I thought it was a safe option. For countries since Spain, I research how safe it is, the best time to travel based on the weather, and what sites I want to see / experiences I want to have (i.e., all tourist sites, more cultural experiences, art, etc.)
What research did you do about the countries you wanted to visit?
I chose Spain because I believed I was Spanish (only recently learned I am Mexican) and I wanted to learn more about my heritage. After that, I started looking into the countries that I had heard about from people I have met on my travels, through people I have met through FB/FB groups, and now through my travel podcast.
What were your duties? It honestly wasn’t a good experience, so I usually don’t go into details as I don’t want to deter others from doing it. I honestly don’t believe my situation was the norm. I was supposed to teach the children English, but I only did this once. The rest of the time was spent cleaning and taking care of the kids. I believe my host family took advantage of au pairs, unfortunately.
Do you still keep in touch with the families? No.
Did you stick to just English-speaking countries? If not, did you already know the host country language? I spoke a little Spanish because of what I had learned in high school, but I was not fluent. I definitely spoke better Spanish when I came back though!
When you decided to be an author/publisher, did you go to school to learn how? My degree is in Business Administration with an emphasis in Marketing. I did not go to school specifically to be an author/publisher. I spent a long time doing my own research, joining author/publishing groups, taking online courses, and asking a lot of questions. Luckily, there are some authors/publishers who are happy to help new authors/publishers.
And do you plan to do more traveling with your family? What was your son’s reaction to visiting other countries? I believe you said he’d already visited two. Oh yes! We just got back from two weeks in Ireland. He had a wonderful time and came back with so many memories and experiences. When we asked him his top three experiences, he could only narrow it down to eight. Now we talk about him possibly doing summer camp in another country. We still have a long time to think about that, but that’s how much he loved the experience.
My son was only five when I first took him out of the country, so he doesn’t remember it as much, but he loves looking at the pictures and I know it’s helped to make him interested in other countries and cultures.
What is the next book in the series? Ireland!
And, lastly where are you and your family going next? This is tough because we keep getting different ideas, but I think it’s going to be southern Italy.
A lot of you may not remember the fall of the Soviet Union. I expect that Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev is turning in his grave with what Vladimir Putin has done to his country. So much for freedom and openness. But before that, the Soviet Union was not a nice place to live and part of Germany was under the Soviet Union’s control. Talk about repression, they wrote the book on it. This first book addresses how desperate people were to leave for a more just world. The second is also talking about repression but in a more oblique way.
Beyond the Blue Border
Translated by Elizabeth Lauffer
A fascinating tale of two teens escaping East Germany during the waning days of the Soviet Union. But they don’t just escape by sneaking through a break in the wall that still exists between the two parts of Berlin. No, they decide to swim across part of the Baltic Sea. Even in late August the water temperature is very cold, especially the closer the swimmer gets to more northern countries such as Denmark. The story is told by Hanna Klein who is very athletic and has trained as a swimmer most of her young life. Her swimming partner, Andreas, is not trained but is driven to escape his dismal life with an abusive father and no career options than factory work. Part of the reason the two are fated to bad career choices is due to Hanna’s anti-Communism grandfather who posts a petition for people to sign protesting the East German communist leaders. He signs Hanna and Andreas’ names to the poster as the supposed authors. No more school for them, but Hanna is able to continue with her swimming coach though not on the elite swim team. Ulrich, the coach, figures out why the girl is practicing so much and helps her meet her goal. The story switches between the two main characters’ time in the sea and their time when they were in school and met a new student, Jens, who ends up getting out legitimately with his parents. The end of this book is a bit confusing, but the story is so compelling and horrifying the reader will want to finish and remember the book. There is much for teachers to use for classroom discussion in the book, but a larger map at the front would have helped immensely.
An intriguing fantasy story with lots of thinly veiled messages on religion and loyalty, this story could use a big edit to weed out all the extra verbiage. The book is just shy of five hundred pages long and has a group of main characters who are trying to free an abrasive god who wants to world to behave his way or die. He has been captured and imprisoned in the soul of Beru who fits a losing battle to contain him. Her sister is the “Pale Hand” and has the thankless job of murdering people who go against the leaders’ wishes. And then there’s the deposed prince who should be ordained king of one part of the world, plus a host of other main characters with varying roles to gain control of the world. The story is a good yarn and interesting with lots of philosophical issues to discuss with students. Just remember to allot a number of hours to the project. The fly sheets have a map of the characters world to some extent, but could have been a bit more detailed. This appears to be the final story of a series called the “Age of Darkness,” but also works well as a stand-alone novel.
BIBLIO: 2021, Henry Holt and Company/MacMillan Publishing Company, Ages 14+, $19.99.
For Mother’s Day our daughter Michelle gave me three books she thought I might like. Oddly enough, I’d read the first one already for the Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. It addresses the issue of bullying amongst children. My impression is that children, even those who are popular and successful, are plagued with self-doubt as much as the less popular children, so, some of them are bullies just to not be caught out as being less than they seem to be.
The second book is about an old woman talking about her experiences during WWII as she, her brother. and their mother escape the town of Dresden, Germany. In addition to their journey to safer territory, it also about their journey with an elephant their mother rescued from the Dresden Zoo. The bullies in this story are the Nazis who wrote the book on how to be evil.
The last book is an autobiography of the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy of education for all people. Again, why do men seem to feel so threatened by females that anybody who isn’t male should be kept down. It isn’t just Muslims who make their women second class creatures. It wasn’t so very long ago that even females in the United States weren’t treated as equals.
But amongst all the cruelty we find hope, courage, and love. May it prevail
Holding Up the Universe
This is a well-written story of two damaged teenagers. Libby Strout ate so much after her mother died, she had to be lifted out of her house through the roof by a crane, which, of course, destroys the house. After several years of therapy and homeschooling, she tells her father she’s ready to go back to school at the start of her junior year. She girds herself for the torment she knows will come. Of course, the “in crowd” boys start a game of who can ride the fat girl longest with Libby and Iris Engelbrecht, a girl even fatter than Libby, as the targets. Iris ends up as the first target, but when she tells Libby what happened, Libby chases the culprit, who is only saved by a truck going by. Jack Masselin, the perpetrator’s friend watches the whole performance, cheering for the girls the whole time. Jack has a secret he doesn’t share with anyone. A glitch in his brain denies him the ability to recognize faces. He can’t even pick out his parents or siblings in a crowd or at home without recognizing one of their “tells.” At school, he plays it cool and waits for someone to come to him. Then he uses that person to let him know who others are. But after he and Libby get into a fight and have to serve detention together, their relationship changes. Jack learns that it’s what on inside of another person that really counts. Soon, they begin to see past their surfaces and become friends. Jack and Libby begin to hang out together, sharing secrets. After he tells her his secret about not recognizing anyone else, she encourages Jack to seek help. She even goes with him to give him moral support and he encourages her to take the test that will see if she carries her mother’s cancer gene. Because he hasn’t ever told anyone about his problem, his parents put him in embarrassing situations, like having to pick up his youngest brother from a birthday party. His brother doesn’t want to leave the party, so he doesn’t respond when Jack calls for him to leave. Jack pulls the wrong kid out of the party, which scares the boy, horrifies the birthday boy’s mother, and leaves Jack in a heap of trouble. You’ll end up rooting for both Jack and Libby, but wishing they would solve the problems whose answers are right in front of their noses. There’s a lot going on in this book that will engage the reader and teachers will have a field day orchestrating discussions around the issues.
BIBLIO: 2016, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House Children’s Books/Penguin Random House, LLC, Ages 14 +, $17.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Young Adult
There have been a plethora of books about the horrors of WWII and especially the Nazi’s part in the conflict, but this one will definitely grab your heart and soul, especially if you are an animal lover.
An Elephant in the Garden
The book is based on a true story and is very compelling. It is told by the nurse who is taking care of an aged woman, Lizzie, in Canada, but it also told mostly in dialog by Lizzie about her journey from her home in the beautiful town of Dresden, Germany. For most of Hitler’s war Dresden remained unscathed and the German residents went about their lives. When the Allied forces were advancing on Germany, Dresden came under attack and was pretty much destroyed by bombs. The storyteller’s mother was a caregiver at the zoo and witnessed the birth of an elephant. Unfortunately, the elephant’s mother dies leaving her child to grieve. When it becomes apparent that Dresden is due to be destroyed by bombs, the storyteller’s mother get permission to save the young elephant by taking her away from the zoo and keeping her in the family’s garden, hence the title. When the bombing starts, the family is taking the elephant they’ve named Marlene after Marlene Dietrich for a walk in the neighboring park. Marlene panics when the bombs start to drop and runs away with Lizzie’s family hot in pursuit. They end up caught up in the massive exodus from the city and head toward Lizzie’s aunt’s farm. The rest of the story is about their journey to safety in Switzerland. Lizzie meets her future husband along the way who is Canadian. Again, although there is much hope in the story, it is set against the hideous cruelty and bigotry that was Hitler’s way of cowing his fellow Germans, though he was actually Austrian. This book will most decidedly keep you reading and even move you to tears in parts.
I have never understood why men are so frequently terrified of letting women have equal rights. I remember a very bright female high school classmate who wanted to go to college back in 1959, but her father refused because it would be a waste of money given that she would end up getting married and raising a family. The rest of us were appalled and I believe in the end her father relented. Whether or not she finished college or had a career I don’t know, but the same point was not made for the guys. I also had a friend who left school when she graduated from Junior High School so she could get married and have a family. I don’t know what happened to her either. She was very happy to leave school and become a housewife. But many of the Muslim men in our world are so frightened of their females’ potential they refuse to let them even learn to read and write. I remember trying to teach a Yemeni woman with five children how to speak and read English. Because she’d observed men in Yemen reading from right to left, she started out trying to read English that way. Her husband was encouraging for the most part but was adamantly against her going to a gym because she’d not be able to exercise in her full proper burqa. Why are men so frightened that all other men are out to rape their wives? Why do they feel it’s the women’s fault if these men can’t control their urges? It wasn’t that long ago that American women were the inciters when they’d got raped. The teller of this story made headlines with her bold advocacy for female rights not only in her native Pakistan but then all around the world. I’m not a big fan of non-fiction, but this book will keep your interest throughout.
Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick
This young woman, with the help of her father and the support of her country, is trying to change the world for females and, at her tender age, has already been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. She has also been almost killed by Pakistani Taliban members because they think she’s defying Allah’s will by standing up for her right to an education. The book is told in her voice and because she is, indeed, the author is autobiographical. But since English is not her native language another person’s name appears alongside Ms. Yousafzai’s as the supporting author. The story is horrifying for what is happening around the world, particularly to Muslim females under Taliban or other Sharia religious groups who have found what they think is “God’s Rule.” But I guess no one has asked them why any god would make females capable of rational, intelligent thought and then declare they can’t use such abilities. Malala grew up in a small poor area of Pakistan where all children at least were allowed a primary school education, after which a lot of girls were married off at the tender age of eleven. Malala’s father runs a school where girls are encouraged to finish high school. That is until the Taliban take over. But even before then, girls are expected to wear figure-hiding clothing and cover their hair as is common in many Muslim countries. But even after the Taliban take over, Malala’s father keeps his girls’ school open though fewer older girls come anymore. And, at the age of 12 or 13, when Malala and her friends are riding home on the school bus, a Taliban fighter jumps on the back bumper and shoots Malala in the head, also wounding two other girls. Luck was with Malala on that day and she ends up being saved by doctors from Birmingham, England. Her recovery was paid for by the Pakistani government which didn’t support the Taliban’s efforts. Brave girl that she is, Malala still is fighting for females’ equal rights around the world and still going to school. And her mother is now learning English. May we all live by their bravery.
BIBLIO: 2014, Salazari Unlimited/Little, Brown and Company, Ages 12 +, $16.99.
Up until recently, I have always been proud of my country despite its flaws. And, in my heart of hearts, I am naïve enough to hope we can indeed live up to the hopes of our founders. The French part of my father’s side of the family, the Maurys and the La Fontaines, left southeastern France because they didn’t believe King Charles’ version of God. They were part of the Huguenot migration. They had their good points, though I must own up to their racist slave-owning past in Virginia. But my 5th-generation grandfather was the childhood teacher of Jefferson and Madison and one of my 5th-generation uncles was Mathew Fontaine Maury, otherwise known as the Pathfinder of the Seas. Some parts of the Bunker family, my mother’s paternal family, I believe left Germany because of religious persecution since they were followers of Martin Luther’s new church.
My point is though some of them were racist, they still did good things. Many generations later, both families tried to adhere to the ideals of being good people and believed in making a better life for us all. I grieve that my father and grandfather died in WWII to maintain and further a better, more equal life for all peoples; Black, White, Brown, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or whatever. And who cares if a person loves and wants to make a life with someone of the same sex? What does it matter as long as those involved are caring individuals? But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Maybe my father and grandfather died in vain?
It would be easy for me to climb up on my soapbox and rant and rave, but that’s not the point here. The point is for us all to be tolerant, me included.
Anyway the two books I’m reviewing here deal with these issues. Hope you find them interesting.
The first book deals with bullying and sexual discrimination, plus where schools do indeed mete out punishment fairly.
The (Un)popular Vote
Mark Adams didn’t start out life as a boy. Instead, he was born a girl and christened in the Catholic Church as Madison Teagan, daughter of Graham Teagan who is the U.S. Congressman from California’s second district. Dad shows his true colors when Mark reveals who he really is. The congressman insists that his daughter hide her new identity from the voting public. So Mark and his mother move to a different part of California, but she still appears at campaigning events or other political shows. Mark registers as Mark Adams, using his mother’s maiden name, and becomes friends with other superbright LBGTQ kids in school where he witnesses the bullying of a friend who asks for privacy about the incident. The friend is suspended for punching the star athlete who bullied him. Mark decides to take a stand and run for School President, which does not sit well with his father. As the story unfolds, Mark shows tremendous self-awareness growth and ends up coming out to the world, which, of course, tanks his dad’s chances of being the next governor of California. The book is well written and addresses many of the issues now plaguing modern-age children. All of the more important characters in the book show multiple sides to themselves, which is always a good thing. Teachers will find many areas in it as teaching points.
BIBLIO: 2021, Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins Publishers, Ages 12 to 18, $18.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Young Adult Fiction
The second book deals with racial/religious intolerance and secondarily with sexual preference and the tendency for schools to let athletes get away with more bad things.
Zara Hossain Is Here
Social and cultural equality have always been the myth of the United States of America, but have they ever really been the truth of this country? Zara Hossain has lived in Corpus Christi, Texas fourteen of her seventeen years. When she was three her parents left their Pakistani homeland to give their daughter what they thought would be a better life. Well, in part this is true, but all of them have felt the scorn of whiter skinned people. Zara is bright and a hard worker whose parents accept that she’s bisexual and that she tries to conform to the so-called American way. She does have friends in school who try to protect her, but they can’t always be there. One football star in particular seems out to get her and ends up causing her and her family to leave the country for good. There are so many compelling teaching points and discussion issues in this book, teachers could probably spend at least a month addressing them.
It occurred to me that I’d been discussing a lot of dark books lately so I’m trying to lighten the tone this week, though I didn’t quite succeed with the second one.
I have always had a great imagination, probably because my mother encouraged us all to imagine the fanciful. This first book is a picture book and is a great encourager of the use of imagination. I wanted to be all the various animals in this book.
I’m not Sydney
Illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay
Children’s imaginations should be encouraged to blossom and this book will help. Anybody who’s ever seen the 1947 version of “Miracle on 34th Street” will remember Santa Claus teaching the little girl to believe in pretending by making Natalie Woods’ character pretend to be a monkey. Imagination is an excellent way to stretch a person’s mind and thinking capabilities. This book does an outstanding job of showing that. The pictures are fun and the adventure Sydney goes on as he and his friends pretend to be different animals is inspiring. This is a good book to encourage children in the art of expanding their minds. Though hanging upside down in a tree or on a jungle gym can be scary for the parent to watch it is a good way to stretch both physical and mental muscles. Sydney pretends to be a sloth and then his friend pretends to be a spider monkey. The next child to join them pretends to be an elephant, and then an anteater friend joins to group. Next comes a bat who wants everyone else to be quiet because they’re interrupting her daytime sleep. Soon enough it’s time to turn back into their children’s selves, but boy have they had a good day. Teachers and caregivers should use this book regularly to encourage children to stretch their minds. The illustrations are enchanting, showing each child accurately portrayed in animal and human form.
BIBLIO: 2022, Groundwood Books, Ages 3 to 6, $19.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Picture Book
The second is quietly beautiful in discussing a very sad concept for anybody, but probably more so for a child.
Illustrated by Emilie Leduc
Death is always a hard issue to talk to children about and is probably worse if the dying person chooses to have an assisted suicide death, but this book will help make the passing at least gentler. Sad to say, the book may not be discussable in schools, but parents can use it as a teaching tool. But this story is so poignantly told, it would seem to be a hug for anybody reading it. The child’s age is not mentioned, but she does appear to be about 8 or so because she’s allowed to go snorkeling in her paternal grandmother’s wet suit. The girl and her father spend the last week of the grandmother’s life with her, greeting the friends who stop by to leave food and to say goodbye. The child is sad, but does seem to understand the situation and spends as much time as she can sitting with her grandmother. Not only can families discuss an impending death with this book, but also the issue of an assisted suicide death. The physical book, rather than the ARC sent to reviewers, will probably be in color, but somehow the illustrations presented in the ARC in gray and black tones add to the quietness and serenity of the story.
BIBLIO: 2022, Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, Ages 4 to 7, $14.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Picture Book
The third book is a self-published magical story about how to save the Polar Bears which are now in great peril of being wiped out by our warming climate. The author, Margaret Pollock, did her research about the bears and the Mohawk Indians who play a major role in the story. There is magic and compassion throughout.
Nikki Brant is at the annual Mohawk’s Strawberry festival in her town with her cousin and best friend, Charlie-Chum. Nikki is proud of her Mohawk heritage on her father’s side and loves seeing all the lovely and inspiring creative work on display. But this time she’s reluctantly pulled in by a possible witch who has a special wooden carving to give Nikki. The polar bear carving is indeed magical and comes to life when Nikki holds it. He tells her that his name is Followme, and that’s what she does. Together, along with Charlie-Chum she magically flies to the arctic with the bear and a Peregrine falcon she names Windy, who is good friends with the polar bears. There they convince the bears to move south to live amongst the brown bears. Turns out the two bears share a common ancestry. There is the usual mixture of tension and love along the way and they get to meet Mother Nature. It’s a good read and has a lot of useful information for teachers to use in discussions about the climate and the arctic and the Mohawk Indians.
BIBLIO: 2021, Margaret Pollock, Ages 8 to 12, $15.
When you were a child were you confident or did you struggle to think people would like you, especially the other children in your class? I was a mix, though I generally thought of myself as not being likable. Thinking back on it, people did like me and thought I was worth getting to know.
The children in these three books have different issues to contend with and so I thought it would be of interest to you for me to talk about them.
The first book is about a confident child dealing with a catastrophic loss in her life and how she copes with it.
Harvey and the Extraordinary
Illustrated by Anna Bron
Miriam MacNeil, who is called Mimi, just knows she’s extraordinary and that her equally extraordinary father is absent on her birthday because he is performing in a traveling circus. Of course, no one else believes that, but then no one else is as close them him as she is. She lives with her real-estate agent mom and Dominic, Mimi’s older brother. She doesn’t have any friends and, because of an incident at school, she is staying at home. She spends a good part of her day with her paternal grandmother who supervises her schooling. The story is told mostly by Mimi, well actually all of it is Mimi’s account, but part of the story is told as if her father is the main character. Mimi is given a hamster for her birthday and she names it Harvey, which is her father’s name. She has shunned her former best friend because the girl doesn’t believe what Mimi has told her. In the end, Mimi does have to face the reality that her father is not coming back ever. But by then she has learned to reconcile this with the story she’s made up. Teachers and caregivers, including parents and grandparents, will find this book very useful in helping children deal with painful truths. The story was originally a play.
BIBLIO: 2021, Annick Press, Ages 8 to 10, $9.95.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Young Middle- Grade
The second book is about a Chinese/Canadian girl who is caught between two cultures. She was born and is being raised in Canada, but her grandparents and other relatives still live in China. They constantly harangue her to make her parent proud by studying hard and being accepted into a medical doctor’s university or some other supposedly high-paying career. Olivia wants to be an artist.
Living with Viola
Illustrated by Rosena Fung
Growing up is hard enough for anybody, but add to the mix an evil naysayer living in your brain and you despair might. That’s what Olivia feels as she tries to meet what she thinks her family’s expectations are. Her imaginary demeaning twin, Viola, constantly harps and snarls that Olivia won’t ever have any friends. Eventually, she does find her worth, but partly because her parents understand that she needs professional help. This is such an important problem for children, but also for adults since we all feel inadequate at least part of the time. In addition to this, cultural differences are discussed throughout the book, since the main character is a first-generation Chinese/Canadian. Her relatives who still live in Hong Kong belabor their expectations that she be a dutiful daughter who should want to become a doctor or lawyer or some other high-paying career. Olivia wants to be an artist. Some readers might find the depiction of Viola to be distracting, especially at first, but the message is strong enough to push the reader to finish the book. And teachers can use the book to spark classroom discussions on showing tolerance to those who appear different. The descriptions of various Chinese dishes that Olivia’s family eats are mouthwatering and the short glossary of Chinese words for relatives and foods is helpful.
BIBLIO: 2021, Annick Press, Ltd., Ages 10 to 12, $17.95.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Middle-Grade Graphic/Comic Novel
The third book is about overcoming the school bully and discovering your own worth even if you are overweight, i.e. fat. It is important for children to understand that their physiques are not who they are. I did have a problem with this book not gently trying to show the boy how to make healthier eating choices.
The Supervillain’s Guide to Being a Fat Kid
Twelve-year-old Max Tercero’s first day at middle school isn’t any different than his last day at elementary school in that he’ll still being picked on by the school bullies. In particular, the eighth-grader super jock has targeted Max as his special bullying target for the year. Max is not just plump, he’s downright fat. Nobody should be targeted for bullying on any grounds, but overweight people do seem to get the brunt of bullying no matter what their ages. The new school has strict rules against bullying but Johnny Properzi seems to get by doing whatever he wants to whomever he wants. The whole school seems to be afraid of him. Max decides to fight back in the only way he knows how. He contacts Max Marconius, a.k.a. Master Plan, who is now in prison for life, but who also has done some good things in his life. He is the nemesis of the city’s superhero. Master Plan writes back to Max Tercero and helps him learn to feel better about himself and take charge of his life. Max does make friends in school and does learn to change the odds in his favor. He even gets Johnny suspended for bullying and learns that he is a worthwhile person even if he is fat. The only quibble that teachers can address is Max’s eating habits. He is depicted as having waffle sticks dripping in syrup for breakfast at school every day. Even if he is getting breakfast through the school program there surely is a healthier meal for him to have. Max is a good-hearted soul who shares his food with his friends who can’t afford to buy breakfast or lunch. There are a lot of good discussion points in the book.
I’m tired of talking about humans, so I thought I’d talk about other species this week. And pardon me if I’ve already posted about these books. I don’t think I have, but they have been out for a few years. I’ve always been an animal lover, even having gotten over my primal fear of snakes after seeing them so frequently in our barn when we lived in Maryland. Most rodents do have their cute points. I mean, who doesn’t think rabbits are cute? Or squirrels with their impish natures.
A neighbor’s oldest child was always fond of our horses and I remember once she asked me if I could choose only one animal what would it be? I think she assumed it would be a horse and looked a bit crestfallen when I said a dog. At the time we had three horses, a dog, and a cat. Still, there is something regal and awkwardly graceful about a giraffe and certainly, lions are indeed imperious, but one can always cuddle with a dog.
First, we’re vising Nepal to learn some customs and meet a cute dog.
A Dog Named Haku: A Holiday Story from Nepal
Margarita Engle, Amish Karanjit, Nicole Karanjit
Illustrated by Ruth Jeyaveeran
Written by the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate, this story tells of a Nepalese holiday to honor animals. But this particular year, the Nepalese decided to honor the service dogs that had hunted through the rubble caused by a massive earthquake. Young Alu and Bhalu hunt for a stray dog to feed, finally finding a black puppy to take home. They feed their mother’s festival treats to the dog and everybody ends up happy. The tale is simply told and introduces the reader to Nepalese customs, especially through the lovely illustrations of typical rice paintings. Teachers might use the rice paintings as a way to understand another culture and how to paint with unusual substances. The book is also, in general, a good lead in discussing other cultures’ customs. A glossary at the end explains Nepalese words used in the story, such as the children’s names. The puppy is named Haku, which means black. And other activities featured during the festival are shown.
What fun to read about interesting animals and look at excellent photos of them. That’s what this series of books, “Amazing Animals”, tells the reader about. This particular book is about giraffes with lots of fascinating facts. The reader might have guessed that giraffes are the tallest land animal, measuring between but might not know that they have the longest tail of any land animal and an enormous blue-black tongue that they use to rip leaves off of trees. Or that they are so tall they could look into the second story window in a house. The photographs in the books are clear and beautiful, making the reader want to linger over each shot. The books in this series have some words in bold type to let the reader know a definition of the word is at the bottom of the page. Each book in the series has a short tale at the back. The giraffe’s story is why he ended up with such a long neck.
One of my favorite jokes is: King Lion awakes from his comfortable bed at the edge of the jungle feeling quite refreshed and arrogant. He marches out onto the plain and spies an elephant. The lion grabs the elephant by its trunk, swirls the poor animal over his head, slams him onto the ground. “Who’s the King of the Jungle?” he roars. The elephant scrambles to his feet and, with a shaky voice says, “Why you are, sir.” Lion beats all the animals into submission and they all agree that Lion is indeed king. That is until he grabs a little field mouse. He beats the mouse to a pulp almost taking off the poor creature’s left ear. “Who’s the king of the jungle?” Lion roars again.
The mouse shakes herself, scrambles to her feet says, “Yeah, but I’ve been sick.” Most people don’t understand the joke, but I just love the mouse’s moxy. Still, there is something so commanding in a lion’s demeanor, that they probably are considered the rulers of the jungle.
Do you remember when you were a child you had to face hard problems? At least they seemed hard to you. And you didn’t feel you had any support from the grownups who were supposed to take care of you and comfort you. That’s what these stories are about. Sometimes the support you didn’t think was there actually was, but you couldn’t feel it. Most of us really aren’t alone, but then some of us are. That’s what these books are about. I wish I could comfort the children and tell them that life is smooth sailing once you’re grown. Haven’t found that to be the case.
The first book takes place in a not so wealthy west African nation—Ghana—bordered by Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Togo. Women in particular must struggle to feed themselves and their children. Their female children more often than their male siblings are expected to leave school early to help with younger children and bring in money. If a girl is raped, she is more likely to be blamed rather than considered a victim. Actually, not too long ago the same was true in the U.S.A.
Even when Your Voice Shakes
Ruby Yayra Goka
Amerley’s goal is to have her own sewing machine so she can earn a living altering and making clothes to sell. Life in Ghana is hard. She has to quit school not because she wants to, but because she’s now the main supporter for her family. Her father has abandoned the family of four daughters for a woman who will bear him sons. And her mother is pining away, seeming to take no interest in how to pay for her daughters’ education. Amerley is sent to be a servant for a wealthy family in the city, theoretically with the promise that it will be only for a year. Then the family will get her into the respected fashion design school. While she’s there, she is raped and beaten by the older son. Thanks to the family she helps out with their baby two times a week, the crime is sent to the courts, and Amerley’s abuser lands in jail. Amerley’s story resonates with other girls and young women who have been assaulted, who then speak up about their experiences. As is the case in many places around the world, the women who’ve been abused are considered to be somehow provocative and deserving of their mistreatment. There are many good teaching points in this well-written book, especially about the culture of Ghana, however, it would have been nice to have more clarity as to the meaning of Ghanian words that are used throughout the story. There is a glossary at the back, which is helpful. Amerley is taken under the wing of the woman whose baby she watches a couple of days a week and ends up becoming a lawyer.
BIBLIO: 2021, Acord Books/Norton Young Readers/W. W. Norton & Company, Ages 14+, $18.95.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on all of us. Whether or not you feel you have to follow the orders to get vaccinated or wear a mask, it has been hard to stay isolated and not interact with your friends. This applies to all of us. This book is about families in an apartment building and how they cope, or don’t cope, with the isolation. I know I have a hard time putting on a cheery face all the time. Can you imagine not having anybody to support or comfort you?
Sunny Days Inside and other Stories
This is a delightful series of stories about children and their families being shut in because of COVID-19. The families live in the same apartment building and the stories are titled by the apartment number where the family lives. In the title story, “Sunny Days Inside,” sisters in apartment 4A cheer up their mother who is depressed because they have to cancel their vacation. The twin boys in 2D pretend to be cavemen children for a school project about something historical. They practice living like cavemen including making up their own language. In apartments 3D and 4B, Juliet helps her neighbor, Reo by timing him while he runs laps on his balcony. In 3C Conner discovers he misses his teacher and helps his dad overcome depression. In apartment 1C Louis helps his mom’s hair salon keep afloat by setting up a business plan where she can do “virtual” hair cuts and styling and he begins his own business to keep the family dog from being too overweight. For a school project, Jessica of 2A learns sign language and strikes up a friendship with the deaf Meena of 2C. Together they save old Ms. Watts who becomes ill in her apartment. The final story has all the children sneak out of the building and take a walk after dark. They meet Ms. Watts relaxing after her stay in the hospital. There are a lot of good discussion points for teachers and parents to use to promote discussions about how we can all get through this ongoing pandemic.
BIBLIO: 2021, Groundwood Books/House of Anansi, Ages 8 to 12, $16.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Middle-Grade fiction
Have you ever felt that people you love and look to for support really aren’t on your side? That they are keeping truths from you? I’m sure we all have. But running away, tempting though it may be, is not the answer.
Maisie lives with her parents at the family’s art business. Dad is the painter and Mom handles the business end of things. Maisie does the initial drawings and sketches for whatever portrait has been commissioned. Maisie’s older brother, Calum, ran away several years earlier without so much as a goodbye to her. As far as Maisie knows no-one has a clue where he is. All of a sudden Maisie’s life is uprooted and she’s shipped off to Scotland to spend the summer with an aunt she didn’t know she had. Once there, she discovers that Calum has been living in Scotland and now London, England, having nothing to do with art. He comes to Scotland to see her and then she ends up running away from her aunt to stay with her brother and convince him to help the foundering family business. As usual, things don’t go as smoothly as she’d hoped. And it turns out her brother has not ignored art, but instead does artwork with his partner, Benji, by painting approved pictures on London walls. To add to all this Maisie is slower in her physical changes than her best friend. The story makes a number of good points about dealing with one’s emotions and understanding that truth is what makes us different. Maisie and Calum end up with a plan to save the family business and heal the rift between Calum and their parents. Teachers can use the book to spark discussions about family relations and sexual preferences and the changing dynamics of friendships.
BIBLIO: 2021, Jolly Fish Press/North Star Editions, Inc., Ages 8 to 14, $9.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Middle-Grade Fiction
Hope you all are doing well and at least being able to get a bit of your lives back to what you consider normal. I’m working on my YA novel, “Bad Hair Day”, my chapter book, “Excuse Me, Is this Yours?”, starting on a new short story for the next issue of Next Chapter Literary Magazine, and doing final revisions—I hope—on a short story titled “Thunderstorm.” Please drop me a line if you’re in the mood.
Never lose faith in yourself or lose your ability to laugh at yourself or the world around you. After having hit you with two weeks of more serious books, I thought we’d all enjoy some more on the lighthearted side. Happy Groundhog Day. I hope you’re bracing for 6 more months of winter weather. Though, here in Coastal North Carolina, I do hope no more snow or ice. Stay safe where ever you are. And laugh a lot.
Each of us has some kind of superpower, even we don’t think we’re anything but ordinary. For instance, there’s Arnold. I’ve grown rather fond of him.
Arnold the Super-ish Hero
Illustrated by Guillaume Perreault
Most people feel inadequate in some way or another, but all are superheroes in their own way. Perhaps one could feel sorry or embarrassed for Arnold, who comes from a family of superheroes since he doesn’t seem to have a single extraordinary skill. He can’t lift very heavy objects like a firetruck, let alone with just one finger. Nor can he fly at lightning speed or bounce high enough to leap over tall buildings. Arnold, however, is quite good at answering the phone. But one day when the phone rings, nobody else can come to the rescue. It is up to Arnold to save the day and the city and the people. And in his small, ordinary way, he does just that. The moral of this charming story is that we all have superhero talents, even if it doesn’t seem that way. The illustrations are perfect for the story and perfect for any superhero. Teachers will be able to encourage all their students to have confidence in themselves.
BIBLIO: 2021, Kids Can Press, Ages 6 to 8, $17.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Picture Book
What kid hasn’t played with the food? Have you ever watched the “Christmas Story” about Raphie’s time of wanting a bb gun? And how his younger brother, Randy, won’t eat his dinner until his mother lets him play with it. That scene of the boy with mashed potatoes all over his face and in his hair and on his bib is hilarious.
Bunny! Don’t Play with Your Food.
Illustrated by Paul Schmid
Children and the grown-ups will find this book amusing. The children because they’ll see they’re not the only ones who play with their food and have great imaginations. Grown-ups will smile affectionately because the book will remind them of their bunnies. The bunny in question makes his carrot snack into a Bunnysaur and eats the green stuff at the top as a dinosaur might. As a tiger might, this bunny can attack a tasty “Carrotpotomus,” or defeat the evil space beings in the Carrotship or be the zombie bunny, that is until Mom orders him to just eat his food and not play with it. Bunny, of course, says he is eating. He’s just having a bit of fun while he does eat. The story would most likely encourage even the pickiest of eaters to try a new food if allowed to use his/her imagination while doing so. The illustrations are whimsical and cute. Parents could use this book to discuss how food can be fun.
BIBLIO: 2021, Andrew McMeel Publishing/Andrew McMeel Universal, Ages 3 to 5, $8.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Board Book
I used to have an excellent memory. My husband says he relies on me to be his “cloud,” but of late I’m warning him that his cloud is dissipating.
Edmund the Elephant Who Forgot
Illustrated by Isobel Lundie
The embarrassment of it all! Elephants are supposed to remember everything, right? Not Edmund. His mother encourages him to sing her special song so he won’t forget and then she sends him off to collect the supplies for his brother’s birthday party. He’s sure he’ll get everything she told him to get because he’ll sing the song she taught him. Do you think it helps? Do you think he remembers everything? Follow along in the book and see what happens. Even though his friend Colin the Cricket tries to help Edmund, things do not turn out as planned. The young elephant proudly marches off pulling his little yellow wagon sure he’s going to get everything his mother told him to, but when he reaches for his list, he discovers he’s left it at home. That’s alright, he’ll just sing the song and then he’ll remember. His brother ends up with a very unique birthday party. The reader should try to spot Colin in each picture. Teachers can use the book as a way to teach young children tricks for how to remember things. The illustrations are sweet and whimsical.
BIBLIO: 2021, Scribblers/Salariya, Ages 3 to 6, $16.95.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Picture Book
Happy Groundhog Day. I hope you’re bracing for 6 more weeks of winter weather. Though, here in Coastal North Carolina, I do hope no more snow or ice. Stay safe where ever you are. And laugh a lot.
Do you ever feel that you have no control over your life? That people don’t see you as you’d like them to? Has something thrown a monkey wrench in your plans? Don’t feel so alone, it happens to us all. And people see more good in you than you thought was deserved? These three books touch on this theme in interesting ways. They encourage us to find the best in whatever situation befalls us. So have faith in yourself and the people around you.
I went through high school feeling that no one would ever be my friend and that I probably didn’t deserve friends. I did have friends and I did and do deserve them. So do you and so do the characters in these book
Luca has a career-ending fall, that destroys the boy’s hope for his future. This is the story of how he learns to deal with it.
Anything but Fine
Luca’s life’s plan comes tumbling down when he falls down the flight of stairs leading from the dance studio in his private school to the street. He breaks all the bones in his arch and knows he’ll never be able to stand on his toes again. Ballet is the only life he’s ever wanted, so now what will he do? Since he never bothers to study for any of his other classes, he’s kicked out of the school. He ends up going to the local public school, feeling all alone. He ignores all his friends from his private school feeling that they’ll not want to continue the friendships. He does find a boyfriend in his new school and slowly begins to realize that there are things in life than ballet. That there are academic classes that he actually likes and for which he has some aptitude. He even learns that he can find pleasure in participating in other ways with dance. There are many areas of discussion in the book, so teachers and caregivers can recommend it for students to learn from.
BIBLIO: 2022, Page Street Publishing, Ages 14+, $17.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Young Adult Fiction
Jordan and Max: Showtime
Illustrated by Michelle Simpson
Jordan is going to a new school and, being a shy boy who wears his hair almost to his shoulders, doesn’t feel he fits in. He likes wearing his hair long because he likes to play dress-up with his grandmother where he lives. He meets a boy, Max, in his class because the two are paired for a school project to tell everybody else a bit about themselves. Max is a bit of a showoff and brags about how good he is acting. Max wears a shirt that has NO THANKS emblazoned on the front of it. The two boys hit it off when they decide to dress up in Jordan’s grandmother’s fancy clothes and wigs. Jordan is sure they’ll flop, which they did, but the two boys become good friends. Jordan learned that it was alright to be what he wanted to be. The message of the book is that everyone can be acceptable, especially if they are genuine about who they are. However, it would have to nice to learn why Jordan was living with his grandmother why he’d had to switch schools. Teachers and caregivers can find many messages to discuss with children.
BIBLIO: 2021, Orca Echoes/Orca Book Publishers, Ages 7 to 9, $??
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Chapter Book Fiction
Spell Sweeper: Magic is Messy
Lee Edward Fdi
Cara Moone feels she’s probably the least magical person in the whole of the school for wizards that she goes to. But she’s not sure she wants to live at home with her non-wizardly family. Her older sister, Su, is no longer the supportive older sister she used to be and her mother is busy most of the time. The family was devastated when Cara and Su’s father was killed in a car accident. Cara hardly remembers him but feels his absence acutely. She has been assigned to the “loser” class at wizard school where she’s learning how to sweep up the remnants of magic. Turns out performing magic leaves a residue that can be dangerous. She has a special broom with which to clean up what’s left. But after cleaning up the leftovers of the latest magical performance of Harlee Wu, the top student in the school, Cara encounters a terrifying creature and a breach in the magical universe. She’s convinced that Harlee is using an illegal magic which causes the problem. Along with Cara’s friend and fellow Spell-Sweeper-in-Training, Gusto, along with their teacher’s magical fox, the teacher, and the hated Harlee, end up going on a top-secret mission to see what’s causing the breach. Turns out Cara’s sister Su has joined a cult and blames magic for the death of their father. As part of the cult they are performing their own magic and that’s what’s causing the rupture. In the end, Cara learns that she actually has special talents which make her one of the few who can clean up the magical messes. She also discovers that Harlee is not an evil person. Teachers can use the story to discuss why we should not be too hasty to judge people.