book review MG fiction

The Only Road


I was deep into nonfiction Cybils nominees when this book was published last October and I totally missed it. The plight of those who live South of our country is one that more children and adults in the United States should take the time to read about. In many countries, conditions are so bad that you’ll die if you stay so why not try and get to the United States. This is a middle-grade novel, but I read it with a parent at that age or wait and hand it over as a YA book in high school. As an adult reader, I found several sections nerve wracking.

Jaime makes the journey from Guatemala to El Norte (the United States) with only his 15-year-old cousin Angela, in a desperate attempt to escape the Alphas, the gang that murdered his cousin/best friend, and Angela’s brother, Miguel. They are sent alone with their money sewn into their jeans as an alternative to joining the Alphas.

This isn’t an easy read by any means and although much of terror is inferred it still exists and the kids are both hungry and scared for much of the book. The author has said that it is based on real events and therefore in my mind, it should be read and discussed.

The Only Road

 Hardcover – October 4, 2016

by Alexandra Diaz

MG fiction

One Good Thing About America

Anaïs writes letters to her beloved grandmother who stayed behind in Africa while Anaïs, her mother, and her younger brother Jean-Claude have come to the States to find safety.  Anais knows only a smattering of English, her family is divided, and she is living in a shelter with her mother and her younger brother. She misses the life she knew back home but her mother is seeking asylum for her whole family.

Anais starts school, learns English, and begins adapting to a different culture where almost everything seems odd. To help adjust to her new life, her grandmother tells her she must find one good thing about America every day. This book contains her her series of letters.

 The two best things about this story are that readers from the US really see how hard it is to assimilate to our culture and that you can’t help but gain empathy for the plight of all immigrants- especially those that simply cannot just go back where they came from. As well as being a real pageturner, this story is a great one one to discuss and ponder. 



book review MG fiction

The Wild Robot

Peter Brown takes nature and science and mashes them together in The Wild Robot.  It is a concept that doesn’t seem like it would work, but it does, surprisingly well. A hurricane sinks a ship that contained (among other things) Robots. Roz (short for ROZZUM unit 7134) finds herself (itself?) the only intact functioning robot on the shores of an unknown island. She meets some otters that trigger her “on” switch, and she proceeds to learn and adapt to life amongst the creatures. It takes some time for her to earn their trust and decipher their language. After that, she proceeds to assist them in making their lives easier, and I’d say more eventful.

I wanted to type that I thought it would be a better read for younger kids and then I thought about how much death there is in this story- so maybe not. It’s not a book that easily fits into a category. The illustrations are supreme. We checked it out in Kindle form, and the pictures even in that way were beautiful. What I didn’t like was the author breaking the wall and speaking to the reader. As in, “you, the reader.” It was disruptive to the story flow and just didn’t work for me.

I borrowed this book from the Chicago Public Library to read as a bedtime story. A Serendipitous update: I found a brand new copy of this book at a used bookstore about a week ago for a dollar! So, now we own it.

And there is a sequel in the works:  The Wild Robot Escapes

book review MG fiction

Bronze and Sunflower

Simple, sweet and satisfying are the words I would use to describe this book. There are seven books in this series, and I haven’t found plans to translate the rest from Mandarin. I’m hoping this sells well and they appear. This story is set in the 1960’s- 70’s during the Cultural Revolution in China. Sunflower’s father is sent to live in the Cadre School (actually a work camp) by Mao and Sunflower goes with him and is the only child in camp. The adults at the camp work all day outdoors and attend political meetings each night. Sunflower spends a lot of time alone and likes the to watch the children in the nearby village. The people in the community have no idea why these city people moved out here and why they work such long hours.

Sunflower wanders around all day unsupervised and one-day a mute boy named Bronze saves her after she gets in a boat that accidently drifts down the river. The story is told so simply that although it should be a scary scene it isn’t. Sunflower stays calm even after she is not rescued by the first person to see that she is in trouble.

When her father tragically dies Sunflower is adopted by the poorest family in the village and Bronze becomes her brother. The rest reads like Little House on the Prairie set in China- including locusts eating their crops. You’ll laugh and cry reading this one aloud.  I don’t really want to share any more of the story in this review because it will be so much more satisfying as a reader to discover it page by page. I’m pretty sure this is going to be an award winner for 2017, and again we need to hear the rest of their story. Fingers crossed that the sequels get translated and printed quickly.

I read a DRC in exchange for an honest review. I’m buying it when it gets published.

Bronze and Sunflower

Hardcover – March 14, 2017

by Cao Wenxuan (Author), Meilo So (Illustrator), Helen Wang (Translator)

book review MG Non fiction YA Non fiction

Norse Mythology

Edited to add: This is my most viewed post on my old blog and most relevant with Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and American Gods series being so popular right now. I used an Audible credit to hear that version as a sneaky way to get around my no new books 2017 pledge. That clearly is an epic fail as I’m buying this in book form ASAP. That pledge lasted all the way in April before I decided that new books are essential to my life force. I love hearing Neil read the myths and highly recommend either version. His take on the myths is brilliant. This collection is completely child-friendly and although sometimes disturbing always funny. I’m running this again to bring it up to the top and hope it is helpful in helping you choose more great books on Norse Mythology- my very favorite subject.


I thought I’d start with my favorite myths.  If you haven’t read the original myths, know that the tales are layered in complexity compared to the  Marvel comic versions.  After we had begun homeschooling and I read more than the few Greek myths that we read in school, I felt drawn to the Norse culture. I found the proverbs in the Havamal both practical and sage:

“A man who has his feet hacked off cannot scurry far.”

“The foolish man lies awake all night Thinking of his many problems; When the morning comes he is worn out And his trouble is just as it was.”

“To be without silver is better than to be without honor.”

After Odin had sacrificed himself to receive the knowledge to allow him to wield the runes he said:

Then I was fertilized and grew wise;

I truly grew and thrived

From a word to a word I was led to a word,
From a work to a work I was led to a work.

Odin continually sacrifices to achieve more knowledge. He presents a model of personal development.  The songs sung in his honor tell of how he wasn’t afraid to sacrifice what we might call his “lower self” to his “higher self,” to live according to his values unconditionally, accepting whatever hardships arise from that pursuit and allowing nothing, not even death, to stand between him and the attainment of his goals. I think that no matter what faith you hold that there are lessons to be learned from all religions and their mythos.

Someday, I hope to have bookshelves that will contain original sections of books. Right now, my books are shelved by size. It looks lovely, but it is hard to find books sometimes. Especially, now that my bookshelves are double stacked in some places. I dragged the ladder out this morning and pulled my favorite Norse books down.  As always, read the book yourself first, so you don’t have to edit on the fly while reading aloud. Ask me how I know.  

Elementary School:

Odd and the Frost Giants– Written by Neil Gaiman. It is a great intro for kids to hear a retelling of several Norse myths and get a good grasp of who’s who.

D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths– If you don’t know about this awesome husband/wife team read here and get yourself to a library. Anything that they wrote that is on the shelf deserves a read aloud by you.

The Children of Odin: The Book of Northern Myths– Written as a narrative with beautiful pictures.


Middle School/ High School:

The Norse Myths (The Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library)– This is a comprehensive introduction to the Norse myths.

Myths of the Norsemen (Puffin Classics)– A good intro for kids 10 and up. Tells Tales from the Tree of Life to Ragnarok

Gods and Myths of Northern Europe– More scholarly but a thorough retelling of the stories and an overview of the deities.

From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths– This one I like except for the obvious bias of the Christian author. We talked about it and moved on.

The Saga of the Volsungs (Legends from the Ancient North)-This is a beautiful edition of the poetry that inspired both Wagner and Tolkien.

The Vinland Sagas (Penguin Classics)– Consisting of The Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga, they chronicle the adventures of Eirik the Red and his son, Leif Eriksson.

The Sagas of Icelanders: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)-This volume offers nine full sagas and six tales, all new translations by various hands and all part of The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders, also edited by Thorsson. Published to mark the 1000th anniversary of Leif Eriksson’s voyage to North America, as told in the Vinland Sagas.

The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)– Written in Iceland a century after the close of the Viking Age, The Prose Edda is the source of most of what we know of Norse mythology.

Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travelers in the Far North (Penguin Classics)– a travel journal of an Arab man Ibn Farland and his trip to the North.

The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok– Stories that may or may not be right about Ragnar.

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún– The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is a previously unpublished work by J.R.R. Tolkien, written while Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford during the 1920s and ‘30s before he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Viking Language 1 Learn Old Norse, Runes, and Icelandic Sagas (Viking Language Series)– This one is on my wish list so I can’t tell you much other than the description: Learn Old Norse, Runes, and Icelandic Sagas” provides everything necessary to learn Old Norse, Runes, and tackle Icelandic sagas. Graded lessons, saga readings, runic inscriptions, grammar exercises, pronunciation, maps, cultural sections, student guide, and vocabulary teach about Vikings, Iceland, old Scandinavia, myths, and legends.

book review MG fiction

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts

I have to start out by saying that the Newberry Honor book, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle has been on my TBR list forever and now I’ll have to pick it up. I have read Crispin: The Cross of Lead several times throughout my homeschooling career, so I was familiar with the author. Also, spoiler alert: this book ends in a cliffhanger. Great if the sequel will be out quickly, frustrating if it won’t be. I would place Avi, and Gary Paulsen in the same category of these guys know how teen boys think. Since I am Mom to mostly boys, I appreciate that.

We’ve been reading Treasure Island in or around the sixth grade at the Viking Academy, and I think this year we’ll sub in this book instead. You get all the authentic atmosphere in a much more readable narrative. Oliver lives with his father and sister in a little seashore town in Britain. His older sister has had to take on most of his care since their mother died soon after his birth. After she turns eighteen, she realizes that things are never going to change in their home and leaves him with their gambler almost missing father and leaves to seek her fortune in London.

That is where Oliver’s bad luck begins. He awakes one morning to find his home destroyed in flood and his father gone. The note his father left is wet, and Oliver is forced to guess every other word and can’t really make sense of it. He gets sent to an orphanage, and things don’t actually improve for a good long while.

In the end, he does reunite with his father and sister briefly before the book concludes leaving us wondering if he and his sister will find each other in the sequel.  I enjoyed it and will be ordering it for our personal library. I read a DRC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts: Being an Absolutely Accurate Autobiographical Account of My Follies, Fortune, and Fate

by: Avi

May 16, 2017

book review MG fiction

Tru & Nelle

I had no idea that Truman Capote and Harper Lee grew up in the same small town and were friends. Truman had been sent to stay with his elderly relatives because his parents didn’t want him. He was an odd little duck in the south – dressed impeccably in white suits and fancy shoes and a couple of grades ahead of the other kids his age at school – but he and tomboy Nelle bonded over their love of Sherlock Holmes detective stories, and pretended to be detectives themselves. They need a mystery of their own to solve – and they get one when someone breaks into the local drugstore. This portrayal of small town life at the beginning of the Great Depression is fascinating and fun.

The plot is very similar to To Kill A Mockingbird. I didn’t do any research to see if it was historically accurate or not. My 11yo did not know who the characters were and had not read TKAM, and he enjoyed the antics of these two kids anyhow. The plot got a little dark at spots with mention of and dealings with reality. At the start of the book, I would have even recommended it to a younger age group as it was lovely and innocent but by the middle, it was very much an MG/YA novel. Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale will be published in November 2017 and I’ll be looking forward to see what their next adventure will be.

I borrowed this book from the Chicago Public Library to read as a bedtime story and to review here.

Tru and Nelle

by Greg Neri

March 1, 2016 

book review MG fiction

The Goldfish Boy

This reads like a middle-grade whodunit. Matthew is our detective. The neighborhood kids have nicknamed him Goldfish Boy because he is only comfortable in two rooms of his home and spends a lot of time looking at the windows observing his neighbors. Matthew suffers from severe OCD and it is one of the plots in this story that coincide with the larger plot of finding a lost toddler. The story moves along at a quick pace and the clues really keep you guessing. Several times I thought I had it figured out and was wrong. This is not a dumbed down plot for kids, the characters all have nuances and the reader eventually gets a glimpse into all of their past histories which explain some current quirky behavior. In addition to all of that this book is laugh out loud funny.  It is an honest representation of a family dealing with OCD or any mental disorder and sometimes that is sad, but you never doubt that this family loves each other and will work things out. Even YA readers will enjoy this as it so accurate in its suburban setting where nothing is exactly what it seems. Speaking of YA, if they like this book the Tom Hanks movie The Burbs happens to be free with Amazon Prime right now.  Big thumbs up from us. I’m positive this is going to be an award winner.

We purchased this book from Amazon (with our affiliate money- thank you readers!) and read it for fun.

The Goldfish Boy

Hardcover – February 28, 2017

book review

Libertarians on the Prairie

I found this review languishing in my draft folder, for some reason it didn’t make it to posted status. The Little House books were the first series that I ever read. Having read a lot of books about the background of Laura and her family, I went into this hoping for some little tidbit that I didn’t already know. There was some and any Laura fangirls who haven’t already read this- will want to.  Learning about the relationship between Rose and Laura both as mother/daughter and writer/editor, was intriguing. One thing that I never considered was how they managed to make a living after Almanzo couldn’t farm anymore.

As for the possible Libertarian slant that Rose wrote and edited with I think that part is entirely correct. Everyone has their own bias/agenda, and she was no exception. I liked reading about Rose and her personal life. The many pages of notes at the end of the book are no surprise because it reads as well researched and thoughtfully considered.

I read this as a DRC from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review- my apologies for the lateness of this post.

Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books

Hardcover – September 6, 2016

by Christine Woodside

book review

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter

Records vs. MP3

Moleskine vs. Evernote

Books vs. Kindle

Settlers of Catan vs. Super Mario

Analog life is analyzed and found to be superior in this in-depth analytical tome. Each chapter tells the story of the technology, the analog version and is filled with interviews that almost sound like unpaid advertisements for each analog item. The author claims that this isn’t an anti-digital book, but I don’t believe him. I didn’t find his tone likable and almost didn’t post a review at all.

After finishing this for the second time, I realized I could use it with my high school student as an example of bias. Reading each section looking for it, is a useful exercise. While I agree that there is a place for analog in our society I would never go so far as to say that one form or another is superior. In fact, analog is almost always the more expensive version, and the author comes off as an elitist. This is a theme throughout the book, as Sax talks about paying almost $450 a year to read the Economist and New York Times, or lovingly describes his “analog” summer camp from childhood (which currently costs nearly 10 grand per kid!). A lot of these things appeal to me, but I (and a lot of the general public) probably can’t afford to regularly drop $20 on a Moleskine notebook when Evernote is free.

I borrowed this book from the Chicago Public Library and decided to review it here.

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter by David Sax.

Hardcover – November 8, 2016