A Little Love Song

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A Little Love Song
by Michelle Magorian
written for ages 13-16 | not recommended
published in 1993 (1991) | Mammoth | 288 pages

Rose (17) and her older sister Diana are left unchaperoned after their aunt is taken ill, but decide to hide the fact from their actor mother, off on a tour. The cottage they are renting was owned by "Mad Hilda" whose diary Rose finds. It turns out that Hilda had a child before she was married. Her rigid parents had her locked up in an asylum for nearly ten years and the baby taken away and adopted. Diana helps out in the village and becomes quite a popular figure, while Rose grows closer to two boys, Derry and Alec, and starts to write her first book.

Told in the author's usual style, the book manages to keep a wider story going while focusing on the thoughts of the main character. The story portrays one young woman's struggle to find her own way, in spite of her well-meaning family and friends, and reflects the obstacles put in the way of another woman, treated cruelly by… click here to read whole article and make comments



Heart of a Samurai

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Heart of a Samurai
by Margi Preus
written for ages 11-14 | recommended
published in 2010 | Amulet Books | 320 pages

Fourteen-year-old Manjiro has always dreamed of becoming a samurai. He comes from a family of fishermen, and Japanese society does not allow him to pursue any other career. Fortunately, American society does. When Manjiro and the other men fishing with him are caught in a storm and rescued by a New England whaling ship, they think these strange Westerners will kill them. Manjiro quickly learns English and realizes that despite their strange ways, these sailors are big-hearted, brave men who respect anyone who works hard and demonstrates courage. Given the opportunity to go to America as the adopted son of the ship's captain, Manjiro sets off on an adventure that will eventually lead him back to Japan.

Based on a true story, Preus' illustrated book presents the hardships of life on the sea and the difficulties of facing discrimination. Manjiro overcomes his fear of foreigners and the prejudices held by Japanese and Americans alike. Readers accustomed to modern children's literature… click here to read whole article and make comments



A Little Lower Than the Angels

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A Little Lower Than the Angels
by Geraldi McCaughrean
written for ages 9-12 | highly recommended
published in 2003 (1987) | Oxford Children | 144 pages

Gabriel is an 11-year-old, apprenticed to a greedy stonemason, some time during the years of the Black Death. He runs away to join an itinerant troupe of mummers, putting on mystery plays in villages and towns, a daring enterprise when the guilds usually did that job. After disaster hits the troupe, his role as angel becomes more important, and Garvey the playmaster fakes miracles to encourage people to flock to see the angel. Gabriel is an innocent dupe in this deception, half-believing that he really can work miracles. Finally, the players set to winter in a ghost town, which turns out to be deserted on account of the plague. Having encountered a plague-stricken townful of people, the players disband, Garvey repenting and going on pilgrimage to Walsingham.

The book portrays some of the naivety and credulity of the time, while not being an exercise in church-bashing. Gabriel's innocence protects him from being drawn into the evils carried out… click here to read whole article and make comments



The Left Hand of Darkness

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The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula LeGuin
written for ages 15-18 | not recommended
published in 2000 (1969) | Ace Trade | 320 pages

Genry is the envoy from a human planetary Federation to the world of Winter. Used to a hot climate, he must endure the planet's constant cold plus the difficulties of being a lone envoy and the only single-sex human on a world where everyone is ambisexual, i.e., sexually latent for most of the month, but able to mate for a few days when one or other sexual characteristic will dominate. Genry's male sexuality is viewed as a perversion and when the political mood turns against him, he is thrown in prison. Estraven is a high-ranking official who befriends Genry and is exiled as a result. He risks much to rescue Genry from prison, at first out of political necessity but later out of friendship.

This is a book which explores the issues around the extent to which our societies are dominated by our sexual identities and dualities. Clearly this is not a book for younger readers. It may well not… click here to read whole article and make comments



Tom’s Midnight Garden

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Tom's Midnight Garden
by Philippa Pearce
written for ages 9-12 | highly recommended
published in 1992 (1958) | Greenwillow Books | 240 pages

Sometimes dreams are so vivid they seem real. For Tom, however, a stay with his aunt and uncle while he is under quarantine for measles brings dreams to life. He must remain indoors until the doctor is sure he is not contagious. But what boy can resist the great outdoors during summer vacation? Unable to sleep, Tom notices that the old grandfather clock in the front hall strikes thirteen at night. Curiosity gets the better of him. He must look at that clock! And while he is downstairs, what harm could there be in investigating the yard behind the apartment building?

Tom steps out the back door to a world that simply does not exist during the daytime: a garden from the past with a young orphan Hatty. While his days are monotonous, Tom spends his nights playing with this mysterious girl from another era. Reliving his adventures by writing about them to his sick brother Peter, Tom avoids thinking… click here to read whole article and make comments



The Larklight Series

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by Philip Reeve
written for ages 11-14 | recommended
published in 2007 (2006) | Bloomsbury | 416 pages

As the story opens we could be at the start of any Victorian adventure-to-be: Art is complaining about the state of their jumbled old house, his older sister's attempts to become a gentlewoman, the servants, his scientist father's devotion to his studies in the service of some Royal Society. But then we discover that the house is hanging in space just outside the moon, that the servants are brass-and-steam creations, and that Mr. Mumby is studying icthymorphs - fish which fly through space - for the Royal Xenological Society.

This is how Philip Reeve introduces us to his second take on retro-tech. A very recognisable Victorian milieu, but one where Isaac Newton has discovered The Chemical Wedding, the closely-guarded fusion of certain chemicals which enables sailing ships to travel through the aether. Britain has an Empire whose colonies are not only in the New World, but on new worlds entirely: Venus, Mars and Jupiter.

The story is tremendously enjoyable. Art… click here to read whole article and make comments



A Day No Pigs Would Die

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A Day No Pigs Would Die
by Robert Newton Peck
written for ages 13-16 | not recommended
published in 1994 (1973) | Laurel Leaf | 176 pages

Considered a "modern classic", this autobiographical novel presents the simple life of the Shakers in Vermont in the 1920's. Thirteen-year-old Rob's father slaughters pigs for a living, and Rob proudly participates in the work of the farm. His relationship with his father is one of deep respect and affection as he grows into manhood and accepts new and difficult responsibilities. Young readers will need some time to adjust to the dialect used in Peck's writing. Once they do, however, they will find that they share many of the same thoughts and feelings as teens from the beginning of the twentieth century.

Unfortunately, Peck included some less edifying anecdotes in his account. In one chapter Rob and his father must go to a graveyard where a neighbor has gone to dig up and claim the body of his illegitimate baby girl. Apparently he had had an affair with a family servant. After the woman gave birth to his child, she drowned the baby… click here to read whole article and make comments



The Highwayman’s Footsteps

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The Highwayman's Footsteps
by Nicola Morgan
written for ages 13-16 | highly recommended
published in 2007 | Candlewick | 368 pages

Inspired by the famous poem by Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman's Footsteps traces the adventures of William, a young runaway and his friend Bess, a highwayman's daughter. 18th century England is a context of national turmoil. Against this backdrop, the pair must determine the boundaries between right and wrong as they try to make a difference.

Morgan is certainly true to her inspiration and uses rich and vivid poetic language in order to bring the time and place of her tale to epic life. Words are carefully chosen and strong metaphors are used. Much of the book, if not historically accurate, is based on true circumstances. So reading The Highwayman's Footsteps is a great way to gain some background knowledge on the period, especially for younger readers. At the same time there is plenty of action and suspense to keep readers interested.

Bess and William each have weaknesses that they need to overcome and fears that they need to face.… click here to read whole article and make comments



The Cat’s Pajamas

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The Cat's Pajamas
by Wallace Edwards
written for ages 7-10 | recommended
published in 2010 | Kids Can Press | 32 pages

When taken literally, idioms can be quite humorous. Wallace Edwards beautiful and lifelike illustrations cleverly present various expressions of the English language and provides a wonderful tool for introducing the concept of figurative language to young readers.

Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher living in Ridgewood, NJ.

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The Lantern Bearers

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The Lantern Bearers
by Rosemary Sutcliff
written for ages 13-16 | highly recommended
published in 2010 (1959) | Square Fish | 240 pages

A young Roman decurion, unwilling to leave Britain with the last of the Legions, lights the beacon of Rutupiae one last time. It is an act of desperate defiance, a symbol of the struggle of the light of late-Roman civilisation against the dark of the Saxon invaders surging in on every spring tide. Years later, celebrating the fragile peace wrought by a victory against the Saxon alliance, the same man looks out through the branches of a tree in the courtyard and sees the stars of Orion's belt caught as though "fragile, triumphant blossom all along the boughs" of a damson tree.

Between these two images of light are years of darkness for Aquila: his family massacred, his enslavement and escape, his revenge overturned, battles with fickle allies against an outnumbering enemy, a political marriage. But also a loyal comradeship with the other warriors allied to the cause of Ambrosius, heroism in battle, the warming of love in his marriage,… click here to read whole article and make comments


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Reading Matters is MercatorNet’s blog about children’s literature. Our goal is to enable parents and educators to find quality books for young people. For an explanation of our evaluation system, click here. We welcome reader input and new reviewers. We love comments on the book reviews. Write to us at jennifer.minicus@mercatornet.com.

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