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1. A Quilt for Christmas (2014)

A Quilt for Christmas. Sandra Dallas. 2014. St. Martin's Press. 256 pages. [Source: Library]

For readers who love to read about quilters or quilts, this one may prove satisfying. Also, this one would be a good match for those who like to read about the Civil War. This one is set in Kansas during the last year of the Civil War. I liked Sandra Dallas' A Quilt for Christmas even though I don't consider myself fitting into the ideal audience. (I don't particularly seek out books about quilts. I don't seek out historical fiction set during the Civil War.)

Eliza Spooner is the heroine. She loves, loves, loves to quilt. She loves to get together with other women in the community. The war has had an effect on the community. Many husbands (and brothers, fathers, sons, etc.) are gone, away fighting for one side or the other. Eliza's husband, Will, is fighting for the Union. The novel opens with Eliza finishing a quilt she's made for her husband. She'll be sending the quilt along with a soldier who is returning to her husband's unit from leave. Her love for her husband is obvious, and, not just because she's spent all this time making a quilt. There are dozens of flashbacks. These flashbacks give readers a chance to get to know the couple. However, I must admit that these flashbacks are confusing at times. They are not really set apart in the text, and the transition from present-day to the past can be sloppy at times.

Readers meet Eliza and her son and daughter. Readers meet men and women of the small community as well. Mainly, readers get to know Missouri Ann and her daughter. When Missouri Ann's husband dies, she takes the opportunity to flee from her abusive in-laws. Eliza opens her home to the pair, and this isn't without some risk. Missouri Ann's in-laws are probably without a doubt the meanest and cruelest in the county--if not the state. But not everyone in the community is as immediately open to including Missouri Ann in their group. Her in-laws have tainted her, a bit, no one wants to get close to someone who would marry into that family.

At one point, at a quilting party of sorts, the discussion of slavery and runaway slaves comes up. Opinions are mixed. Prejudices are voiced. Even though most of the women are for the Union--for the Yankees--most if not all have very strong views about blacks.

Eliza's own views will be tested when she's asked to hide a runaway slave: a woman who murdered her mistress. Will she welcome her home to this slave and put her own life and the lives of her children at risk?

A Quilt for Christmas is an odd book at times. It seems to have a handful of plots and stories, any one could be the MAIN one, but really not one seems to stand out as being the one it's all about. It's definitely NOT a plot-driven book. It's mainly about the lives of women in a particular community during the fall of 1864 and throughout 1865.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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2. Brown Girl Dreaming (2014)

Brown Girl Dreaming. Jacqueline Woodson. 2014. Nancy Paulsen Books.  336 pages. [Source: Library]

Brown Girl Dreaming is a lovely, often fascinating, memoir written in verse. "Verse novels" can be tricky for me. Sometimes I love them, sometimes I really don't. But in this case, it works well. The writing is just lovely, for the most part. The book is rich in detail capturing what it was like to grow up in Ohio, South Carolina, and New York in the 1960s and 1970s. The people. The places. The sights, sounds, and tastes. The feelings. It's a book that feels personal: an intimate look at family and friends. I very much enjoyed reading it.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir of an author. So it's no big surprise that the focus of this one is on words and stories and reading and writing, of using words and stories to make sense of the world, or, to make a whole new world. But in addition to being about an author's journey, it is a novel about identity as well: who am I, why am I here, what am I supposed to do, etc.
How can I explain to anyone that stories
are like air to me,
I breathe them in and let them out
over and over again. (247)
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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3. The Plantagenets

The Plantagenets. Dan Jones. 2013. Viking. 560 pages. [Source: Library]

I enjoyed reading this overview of British history. The book examines the reigns of a handful of Plantagenet kings: Henry II, Richard I, John, Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III, and Richard II. It spans several centuries: 1120-1399. It also overlaps a bit with French history.

The book opens with "The White Ship." It's a dramatic way to start a book. Henry I, the son of William the Conqueror, loses his son and heir in a shipwreck. Henry I has two dozen illegitimate children--give or take one or two. But his only legitimate child is a daughter, Matilda. He remarries hoping presumably to have another child--a son, a new heir. But that is not to be. He marries the widowed Matilda off--it was anything but a love match--and she starts having children of her own, many of them sons. He leaves his kingdom to his daughter, supposedly everyone has sworn their allegiance to her, but, in reality, she's never in a position to reign as queen. Her cousin, Stephen, reigns instead. War follows, naturally. It is not a short war, a quick and decisive war. It is a here and there, on-and-off again war where the people suffer for the family squabble most. Eventually, an agreement of sorts is reached, Stephen will pass the crown to Matilda's son, Henry II. He is the first Plantagenet king. Henry II, if you remember, is married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the former French queen as well. They have many children together...

The book follows the reigns of each king. It goes into detail with politics and economics. It goes into detail with the struggles of each king. Their strengths and weaknesses, their battles. Sometimes these battles are with the church; sometimes these battles are with the French; sometimes these battles are with the Irish or the Welsh or the Scottish; sometimes these battles are with their own flesh and blood, their family; sometimes these battles are with their own countrymen, the barons, the nobility, or even the peasants. No one king has it all. No one king has a perfect, problem-free reign. It wouldn't necessarily be fair or right to sort the kings into two groups of "good" and "bad." Some kings had a reputation of being horrible, and yet they didn't do anything over and above what other kings before them or after them did. Writers of all centuries can label kings this or that, but, that is because historians can be biased. (Some are openly biased. Some not so much.)

As for the details about each king, what can I say? It's an overview, a detailed overview, to be sure. Some readers may be more of an expert and find fault with statements here and there throughout the book. They may spot myths presented as fact. But I certainly can't be among them. I don't know enough about each and every king.

I found the book to be interesting. Some chapters were more fascinating than others. Some chapters even seemed a bit confusing. But I kept reading.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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4. Palace of Spies (2013)

Palace of Spies. Sarah Zettel. 2013. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 368 pages. [Source: Library]

Peggy Fitzroy lives with her aunt, uncle, and cousin. She knows she's not wanted, her aunt and uncle have made that clear. But she gets along quite well with her cousin, Olivia. The novel opens with Peggy in a difficult position. Her uncle has arranged a marriage for her. She's not thrilled instead more than a little hesitant. Her hesitation only increases AFTER she meets him at a ball. Her intended isn't the only person she meets there, however. One other mystery man makes her acquaintance. He offers her a way out. He tells her that he knew her mother. He wants to make a deal with her, of sorts. He wants her to spy for him, to impersonate one of the Queen's maids. (Ladies-in-waiting?) He leaves her with his card. She's curious but just as hesitant about that option as well. If only she could have some control over her own future...

With a title like Palace of Spies, it's obvious what her choice was. She will become Lady Francesca Wallingham. Can she learn enough from Mr. Tinderflint and Mr. Peele? Do they know enough about her to tell her everything she needs to know to pass as this lady? Is either man trustworthy? What are their intentions? What will they do with the information she provides? Who can she trust at court? Did Lady Francesca have enemies? How will she be able to discern who her friends were and who her enemies were? Will she fool anyone? Will she fool everyone? Will she ever get a minute to call her own? How long will this deception last?

I enjoyed this one. I think I enjoyed it even more having read Lucy Worsley's The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace earlier this year. I was familiar with several of the characters. It was quite entertaining with a nice balance of danger and romance.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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5. My Year with Jane: A Darcy Christmas

A Darcy Christmas: A Holiday Tribute to Jane Austen. By Amanda Grange, Carolyn Eberhart, and Sharon Lathan. 2010. Sourcebooks. 304 pages. [Source: Library]

I reread two of the three novellas in A Darcy Christmas. I reread Amanda Grange's Christmas Present and Carolyn Eberhart's Mr. Darcy's Christmas Carol. I chose not to reread Sharon Lathan's A Darcy Christmas. Each novella was around a hundred pages. A perfect length, in my opinion, for both stories.

Mr. Darcy's Christmas Carol is an interesting and often entertaining read starring Austen's characters and borrowing much from Charles Dickens. The premise is simple yet not completely predictable. Mr. Darcy is oh-so-happy that Bingley and Jane have married. But. He's still alone this holiday season. Unlike the original, he did not propose marriage to Elizabeth soon after Bingley and Jane's happy announcement. Georgiana, his sister, wants a new sister, a new particular sister for Christmas. His cousin has made a similar request, a particular new cousin. It isn't that Darcy doesn't still love her, want her, need her. But he's a bit proud and stubborn. So on the Christmas Eve in question, Darcy is visited by the ghost of his father who warns him of his faults and promises the visits of three spirits in the night. He adds that they will come with familiar faces. (Can you guess which "familiar face" is the ghost of Christmas future?)

I have conflicting thoughts on Mr. Darcy's Christmas Carol. On the one hand, there would be scenes and passages where I'm: it works, it really works, I can't believe this is working!!! And then perhaps just a page later, I'm: I take it back, this doesn't work at all, how am I suppose to believe this?! So there were plenty of scenes I liked. I liked how she fit it all together and made it work at least some of the time. It would be hard to fit all the great bits of Pride and Prejudice with all the great bits of A Christmas Carol. So I'm surprised it worked as well as it did actually. I like how one of my favorite scenes of A Christmas Carol is reworked from the beginning to the near-ending. That was something! I don't LOVE this one necessarily. As I mentioned, there are places where it is an almost-but-not-quite. It was a fun idea, perhaps, but not absolutely flawless. I alternated between wanting to shout at the book, and cheering. Still, it's worth reading at least once.

What did I think of Amanda Grange's Christmas Present? I liked it very much!!! I tend to like or love Amanda Grange's Austen adaptations. I think she does a great job with keeping Austen's characters as we know them and love them. She is able to capture the essence of each character. In this novella, readers get a glimpse of their second Christmases. (I believe, the two couples married in November or possibly early December?) Bingley and Jane have a baby. Elizabeth and Darcy are oh-so-close to having a baby as well. But have-her-own-way Elizabeth is insistent that even though she is due to have a baby any day, she is perfectly capable of traveling a few hours by carriage so she can spend the holidays with her family. Darcy gives in, of course. So what does a family Christmas look like? Well, this family Christmas borders on insane! Through half-a-dozen coincidences it seems, that most of the family (minus Georgiana) are brought together to share these few days. Including some you might not be expecting to see: Lady Catherine. Mr. Collins. The novella is comical. It's just a satisfying way to spend an afternoon. Sometimes a good, quick read that is light-hearted fun is just what you need.

This is my final post for "My Year With Jane." Here's a look at all the posts about Jane Austen:
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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6. Eight Christmas Books

Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree. Robert E. Barry. 1963. Random House. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

Mr. Willowby's Christmas tree came by special delivery. Full and fresh and glistening green--the biggest tree he had ever seen. He dashed downstairs to open the door--This was the moment he'd waited for.

I loved, loved, loved Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree. It celebrates giving in a fun and playful way. Mr. Willowby starts off a long chain of giving when he chops off the top of his too-tall Christmas tree. A tree that is splendid in every other way. He gives the tree-top to the upstairs maid. She's delighted. Very delighted. How thoughtful! How cheery! But the tree is too-tall for her small room. The top must go! Chances are you can predict at this point how the story will go. But that doesn't mean it is in any way less delightful. This little tree-top gets passed down and re-trimmed again and again and again and again and again. And it's just WONDERFUL to see how much happiness and cheer it brings to others.

I loved the premise. I loved the writing. The rhyming was delightful. It worked very well for me! I think this one would make a great read-aloud. I also loved how uplifting it is. (After reading Baboushka and the Three Kings, I needed a cheery story!)

Why didn't someone tell me about this wonderful and charming picture book?! Why?! Well, I am glad to have discovered it now!

Which Christmas books would you consider classic? Which would you recommend?

Uncle Vova's Tree. Patricia Polacco. 1989. Penguin. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

Uncle Vova's Tree is rich in detail and tradition. The author, Patricia Polacco, is drawing from her past and recalling some of her childhood Christmases. She writes, "As a child I celebrated Christmas as most American children did, but at Epiphany in January, my brother, my two cousins, my grandparents and I would go to the farm of my Great Uncle Vladimir and Aunt Svetlana to celebrate in the Russian tradition." The book recalls two family gatherings specifically. The first is Uncle Vova's last Christmas. Though of course, most everyone did not *know* it would be his last Christmas. The second is that first Christmas without him. The book definitely has tones of sadness, but, it is ultimately hopeful. Memories, good, strong happy memories, remain.

The book is rich in detail and tradition. It is informative in many ways. Did you know about the tradition of putting hay underneath the tablecloth to remember and honor the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born? But in addition to honoring tradition--in this case, Russian tradition--it also celebrates families. Readers meet a family that is close and loving and supportive. Little details make this one work well.

Too Many Tamales. Gary Soto. Illustrated by Ed Martinez. 1993. Penguin. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

Snow drifted through the streets and now that it was dusk, Christmas trees glittered in the windows.

Too Many Tamales is a great family-oriented Christmas story. Maria, our heroine, is helping her mom make tamales. She loves helping her mom, loves being grown-up in the kitchen. But things don't go smoothly with this first batch of tamales. And it is her fault. Mostly. Maria really, really, really wanted to try on her mom's ring. Unfortunately, this-too-big ring falls right into the masa mixture. Hours later, she realizes that she never took the ring off. She doesn't know for sure where the ring is. But she has a strong suspicion that it may very well be in one of the twenty-four tamales. With a little help from her cousins, Maria is in a race to find the ring before her mom--and all the other relatives--realize what has happened. Will she find the ring? Will her mom find out? Will her cousins ever want to eat another tamale?!

I liked this one very much.

Angelina's Christmas. Katharine Holabird. Illustrated by Helen Craig. 1986. Penguin. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

Christmas was coming, and everyone at Angelina's school was working hard to prepare for the Christmas show.

I enjoyed reading Angelina's Christmas. I enjoyed meeting Angelina and her family. I loved how thoughtful and empathetic Angelina was. She realizes that there is one house in the village that is not decorated. She notices that there is one "old man huddled by a tiny fire." She learns from her parents that this old man is Mr. Bell, a retired postman. She decides that she will do something special for him so he won't be all alone at Christmas time. (And Angelina isn't the only one joining in to help make this Christmas memorable for Mr. Bell.) She makes him cookies, her mom sends along mince pies and fruit, her dad cuts him a Christmas tree. They visit him, Henry, Angelina's brother comes along too. But perhaps even more importantly than showing him kindness through things, they take the time to listen to him, to include him. This one is a lovely book.

The Trees of the Dancing Goats. Patricia Polacco. 2000. Simon & Schuster. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

At our farm just outside Union City, Michigan, we didn't celebrate the same holidays as most of our neighbors...but we shared their delight and anticipation of them just the same.

I enjoyed reading The Trees of the Dancing Goats by Patricia Polacco. She is sharing yet another holiday memory with young readers in this picture book.

The story focuses on one holiday season when the town is hit by an epidemic, scarlet fever, I believe. The heroine's family is not sick, but, most of their neighbors are. As they are preparing to celebrate Hanukkah, they realize that most of their neighbors are too sick to prepare for and celebrate Christmas. They love their neighbors. They want to do something for them. Working together as a family, they decide to bring Christmas to their neighbors: food, a tree, decorations. Since they don't own any Christmas ornaments, they use animals carved out of wood. One of the animals, as you might have guessed, is a goat. When hung on the tree, it appears to be a dancing goat. Can one family bring Christmas cheer to a community?

I liked this one. I liked the family scenes very much. It is a thoughtful book. I'm glad I finally discovered it!

Morris' Disappearing Bag. Rosemary Wells. 1975. Penguin. 40 pages. [Source: Library]

It was Christmas morning. "Wow!" said Morris.

Morris' Disappearing Bag probably isn't my favorite Rosemary Wells, but, this one is enjoyable enough that it's worth reading at least once or twice. Morris stars in this one. He has three older siblings: one big brother, Victor, and two older sisters, Rose and Betty. It is a Christmas book, of course. After all the presents are opened, the three older siblings play with their presents and play with each others presents. Victor got hockey stuff. Betty got a chemistry set. Rose got a beauty kit. They take turns sharing. Much fun is had. But not by all. For Morris has only his present (a teddy bear) to play with. He doesn't get a turn with his siblings' presents. But that changes when Morris discovers a fantastic present under the tree. A bag. A disappearing bag. Whatever is in the bag disappears. His siblings all want a turn, and, he lets them in the bag. While his siblings have disappeared for the day, Morris plays with their stuff before settling into bed with his bear.

Max's Christmas. Rosemary Wells. 1986. Penguin. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

I love watching Max and Ruby. I've seen the adaptation of Max's Christmas plenty of times before I read the book. If you like the show, chances are you'll enjoy reading this book. It is very similar. For those new to these lovable siblings, Ruby is the older sibling. She seems to be raising Max all on her own. (Ruby and Max don't have parents. They have a Grandma, but, she does not live with Max and Ruby.) Max is the younger sibling. He is many things: cute, clever, curious. Yes, he can be mischievous, but, he is also super-observant. I love, love, love them both. I might like Max a tiny bit better than Ruby. But still. I love them both.

In this book, readers join Ruby and Max on Christmas Eve night. Ruby is trying her best to get Max to get ready for bed, to go to sleep. Max is excited, of course. Once he knows that Santa is coming to his house tonight, he wants to see it for himself. So he goes downstairs to wait for Santa....

I liked this one very much.

Wombat Divine. Mem Fox. Illustrated by Kerry Argent. 1995/1999. HMH. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

I found Mem Fox's Wombat Divine to be charming. I loved Wombat. He loves, loves, loves Christmas. More than anything, he wants a part in the nativity play. At the auditions, he tries his best. But there are so many parts that he's just not right for. I love the refrain, "Don't lose heart. Why not try for a different part?" which is used throughout the whole auditioning process. He auditions for Archangel Gabriel, Mary, a wise king, Joseph, an innkeeper, and a shepherd. But there's one role that he'd be just perfect playing. Can you guess it?

I liked this one. I thought it was cute and sweet. I liked the writing. I found it unique and oh-so-right.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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7. A Time to Dance (2014)

A Time to Dance. Padma Venkatraman. 2014.  Nancy Paulsen Books. 320 pages. [Source: Library]

I wanted to love A Time To Dance. I wanted to love it as much as I loved Climbing the Stairs, also by Padma Venkatraman. But I didn't. I didn't love it. I'm not sure if it was because it was a verse novel. Or if it was because of the focus on dance. That being said, I liked it well enough. For readers curious about India, Hinduism, or dance, this one may have plenty of appeal, or extra appeal. I suppose this one will also appeal to those that like inspirational or feel-good stories.

What I liked best about it was the characterization. I liked Veda, the heroine. I liked getting to know her and her family. I particularly enjoyed Veda's relationship with her grandmother. I liked getting to know Veda's friends. There is a bit of romance.

Veda is a dancer. She loves, loves, loves to dance. She's always loved to dance. It is her EVERYTHING. So when she's in a car accident and one of her legs must be amputated below the knee, she's devastated. Who is she if she's not a dancer? Dance is what makes her, her. So giving up dancing isn't an option for her. Though plenty expect just that, for her to find a new dream. She will dance again. Someway. Somehow. An American doctor offers her a second chance. His specialty is making artificial limbs. He wants to make her a prosthetic leg that she can dance on...

But it won't be an easy journey for Veda, to dance again, to live again. The book is just as much about finding inner peace and accepting yourself as it is about actual dance. It is a book with a lot of spirituality packed in.
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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8. Ghosts of Tupelo Landing (2014)

Ghosts of Tupelo Landing. Sheila Turnage. 2014. Penguin. 368 pages. [Source: Library]

I enjoyed reading The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing. I am not sure I loved, loved, loved it as much as the first book, Three Times Lucky. But I'm not sure that matters. What I loved most about the first book is still present in the second.

Primarily what I love about both books is the narration by Miss Moses LoBeau (Mo). I love, love, love her voice, her narration. She's a wonderful character. I love seeing things through her eyes. I love getting to spend time in her community, getting to spend time with her own, unique family, getting to spend time with her friends. This is a book that is just oh-so-easy to enjoy. The writing just has an oh-so-right feel to it.

Mo and her best friend, Dale, have a challenge or two to face in this mystery. Miss Lana has just bought--impulsively bought--an old inn that is haunted. When she bid at the auction, she had no idea that it was haunted. (Not that Miss Lana believes in ghosts.) But Mo and Dale in their exploring before and after, know that it is in fact haunted. And, I believe, it is Dale that impulsively signs him and Mo up to interview the ghost for a history assignment. Regardless if it was Mo or Dale following an impulsive, this quick and hasty decision proves challenging from start to finish. How can they prove the ghost is real? Especially since they don't see it or feel it every time they visit the inn? And even if they happen to capture the ghost in a photo, how are they going to ask interview questions and record the answers?!

Ghosts of Tupelo Landing is a mystery novel. There is a mystery--from the past--to be solved from the community's past.

What I liked best about this one is the characterization, the setting, the writing itself. I also really liked meeting the new kid in town, Harm Crenshaw. I wasn't thrilled with the actual mystery in this one. The ghost story itself.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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9. The Man Who Invented Christmas (2008)

The Man Who Invented Christmas. Les Standiford. 2008. Crown. 241 pages. [Source: Library]

Different readers will have different expectations when they see the full title of this one: The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.

The focus is not so much on Christmas, as it is on Charles Dickens: his private and public life, his writing career, his inspirations, his fears and worries, his relationship with his publishers. The focus isn't solely on A Christmas Carol. Yes, this work gets discussed in detail. But the same can be said of many of Dickens' novels. The book, despite the title, focuses on Dickens' career as a writer or novelist. This book mentions and in some cases discusses most of Dickens' published works. Not just his books published BEFORE A Christmas Carol, but his whole career.

A Christmas Carol gets special treatment in this one, perhaps, not because it has a Christmas theme, but, because it is a significant to his career. Before A Christmas Carol, he'd had a few really big bestsellers. But. He'd also experienced some failures. His last three books were disappointing to his fans. They didn't sell as well. The critics didn't like them. His publishers were discouraged and worried. Dickens needed his next book to be something wonderful, something that would sell, something that would be loved by one and all. He needed a success: a feel-good success, something to give him confidence and something to give his publishers confidence in him again, and a financial success, something to get him out of debt, something to pay his bills.

The secondary focus of this one is not Christmas. Readers might expect it to be related to Christmas, the history of Christmas, its invention, or reinvention. But. Something gets more time and attention than Christmas. And that is the writing and/or publishing industry. The book gives readers a history lesson in publishing. How books were written, illustrated, printed, published, sold. Not just what went on BEFORE it was published, but also what typically happened next. How novels were adapted to the stage by others, by many others. How little control--if any--that the publisher and author had over their books, their stories, their characters and plots. Plays could do justice, at times, to the books they were based upon. But they could also be absolutely dreadful. The lack of copyright laws or international copyright laws. How publishers in other countries could steal entire books, republish them, not paying the author anything at all. The book even has a chapter or two on fan fiction. Not that he calls it fan fiction. But he writes of how other writers could "borrow" characters and give them further adventures and publish them.

Does the book talk about Christmas at all? Yes. It does. It tells of two extremes: those in the past who celebrated Christmas too wildly, too wantonly, and those in the past who refused to celebrate it all, who would have it be illegal. Either extreme seems a bit hard to believe, perhaps, for modern readers. The book tells of traditions. Some traditions being somewhat established before A Christmas Carol, and other traditions becoming more established by being described in A Christmas Carol. What I probably found most interesting was his mention of how traditionally it was goose served for the Christmas feast UNTIL the publishing of A Christmas Carol. When Scrooge buys a turkey to give to Bob Cratchit and his family, it seems he inspired his readers to change their traditions. Turkeys becoming more and more popular.

For readers interested in the life and death of Charles Dickens, his whole career, this one has some appeal. It provides plenty of details about his books and the publishing industry, how he was received by the public.

For readers looking for a quick, feel-good holiday read, this one may prove to be a chore to get through.

I liked it well enough. I've read a good many of his novels. I have some interest in his life. It worked for me. It was packed with plenty of information.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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10. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle on 34th Street. Valentine Davies. Illustrated by Tomie de Paola. 1947/2001. HMH. 136 pages. [Source: Library]

I have almost always loved the movie. I can now say that I love the book. If you love the movie, and, if you love to read, then, you should consider reading Miracle on 34th Street. True, it is not substantially different from the movie. But there are subtle differences, I found. I liked these differences small as they may be. The book is sweet and charming in all the right ways. I liked spending time with Kris Kringle, Doris and Susan Walker, and Fred Gayley. The book moves quickly, from scene to scene to scene. The book may not be as detailed and descriptive as a typical novel; it still has a movie-feel to it: going from scene to scene without pausing to ponder or describe. If I read the book first, would I get a sense, true sense, of the characters? I'm not sure. I'd like to think so. But it's hard to come to this story new. I know this story. I love this story.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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11. Ivan: The Remarkable True Story

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla. Katherine Applegate. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 40 pages. [Source: Library]

Ivan's story is told through verse in Katherine Applegate's latest book. Ivan, of course, was the inspiration for her award-winning The One and Only Ivan. It opens beautifully: "In leafy calm, in gentle arms, a gorilla's life began." It closes beautifully: "In leafy calm, in gentle arms, a gorilla's life began again." For most of his life, Ivan was a shopping mall gorilla. His early years of captivity, he spent at the shopping mall and at the home of one of the employees, I believe. He was treated very much as a pet/child. But once he began growing and developing, he lived caged-up at a mall. The book is about his life at the mall, and, how people helped him gain his freedom by writing letters, signing petitions, and holding protests. Eventually, he was moved to a zoo exhibit with other gorillas. He spent the remaining years of his life there, lonely no longer.

I enjoyed this one. I enjoyed the novel too. I think the illustrations by G. Brian Karas were great. I would have loved a few more pictures of the real Ivan, however. But still, the illustrations were well done.
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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12. Tumtum and Nutmeg (2009)

Tumtum and Nutmeg: Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall. Emily Bearn. Illustrated by Nick Price. 2009. Little, Brown. 512 pages. [Source: Library]

I definitely enjoyed Tumtum and Nutmeg: Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall. Did I enjoy all three adventures equally? I'm not sure I can say that I did. The book contains three adventures--perhaps the first three adventures--of Mr. and Mrs. Nutmouse: Tumtum & Nutmeg, The Great Escape, and The Pirates' Treasure. Tumtum and Nutmeg are the nicknames this husband and wife have for one another. He is Tumtum. She is Nutmeg. The mice live in Nutmouse Hall, and Nutmouse Hall itself is in a closet (of sorts) in Rose Cottage. The mice are more well-to-do than the humans that reside there. Mr. Mildew lives at Rose Cottage with his daughter, Lucy, and son, Arthur. Tumtum and Nutmeg feel sorry for them all, but, especially for the two children who live in the attic. They decide to be good Samaritans. They will fix what needs fixing or mending. They will do what they can, when they can, to make things better. The children definitely notice. They believe it is the work of a fairy. That's enough of a background to appreciate the three stories in this one.

In Tumtum and Nutmeg, readers meet the mice, the family, the children. It focuses on what happens when Aunt Ivy comes to stay. The dangers that come about from her visit. And what the mice do about it. How they handle the situation. Readers also meet General Marchmouse.

In The Great Escape, the focus is on General Marchmouse. He was captured by the children in the attic. This visiting mouse against the good advice of Mr. and Mrs. Nutmouse became too fond of playing with the children's toys. He was NOT a careful mouse. The children take him to school and he's put into a cage with a dozen or so gerbils. I can't remember if it was a dozen gerbils or twenty-four gerbils. But A LOT. When Mr. and Mrs. Nutmouse learn of the situation, what will they do, how will they make it right?!

In The Pirates Treasure, the focus is on a camping trip gone wrong. Mr. and Mrs. Nutmouse, for better or worse, feel certain that the children NEED them so much that they just have to go along with the children on an overnight camping trip. All might have been well if it hadn't been for that bothersome General Marchmouse. Quite accidentally on Tumtum and Nutmeg's part, they find themselves at sea, or, at pond. They are on board the toy boat that the children float on the pond. They end up--with General Marchmosue, of course--shipwrecked on an island. What will they do? How can they get back to their home? Is the island dangerous?

I like the premise behind this series. I like the characters of Tumtum and Nutmeg. General Marchmouse is infuriating. But. I can also see that he is what makes these into adventure books. He brings the action, and, perhaps also the laughs.
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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13. Two by Mo Willems

My New Friend Is So Fun! Mo Willems. 2014. Hyperion. 60 pages. [Source: Library]

I love Gerald. I love Piggie. I love Mo Willems. This is the twenty-first book starring Piggie and Gerald. I did enjoy it. How could I not enjoy it? I couldn't imagine not loving a book starring my favorite pig and favorite elephant.

In this addition to the series, Piggie becomes friends with Brian Bat, and Gerald becomes friends with Snake. Gerald and Snake are talking. They become worried, very, very worried. The more they talk, the more they think, the more they think, the more anxious and excited they become. What if Piggie becomes BEST, BEST friends with Brian?! What if Brian the Bat doesn't *need* Snake anymore?! What if Piggie doesn't *need* Gerald anymore?! What if Piggie decides that it is more fun to spend time with Brian?! Gerald and Snake would be doomed if that happened. They can't let that happen. They just can't. So they go to confront Piggie and Brian....

Will Gerald and Piggie stay best, best friends?

This one is cute enough. Of course, Gerald has nothing to worry about. Piggie is loyal through and through. (As is Brian the Bat.)


Waiting is Not Easy. Mo Willems. 2014. Hyperion. 64 pages. [Source: Library]

Note: This one will be Cybils eligible next year! Don't forget!

Did I love the twenty-second Elephant & Piggie book? I did! You know I did! I adore Gerald and Piggie!!!

In this addition to the series, Piggie has a surprise for Gerald. But it is a surprise that can't be given or shared right away. Which means that both Gerald and Piggie have to wait...and wait...and wait. Piggie, at least, knows why. But Gerald, well, he doesn't. And the suspense is torture for this oh-so-emotional elephant!

What I love best about the series is the expressiveness of the illustrations. Spotlight on Gerald!!! I love watching his expressions on every page of Waiting Is Not Easy. I think my favorite is Gerald's groaning. (p. 20/21, 30/31, 38/39).

The story is fun and playful. It is oh-so-easy to relate to Gerald's impatience and frustration!

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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14. Ten Christmas Picture Books

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Robert Lewis May. Illustrated by Denver Gillen. 1939/1990. Applewood Books. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

I enjoyed this one more than I thought I would. This is the original story by Robert L. May with the original illustrations by Denver Gillen. It is so different from the song and the stop-motion animated special. And I think it was the fact that it was different that made me appreciate it more.

The story is told in rhyme. It's essentially one long (perhaps poorly punctuated) poem. Here's how it begins:
Twas the day before Christmas, and all through the hills
The reindeer were playing…enjoying the spills
Of skating and coasting, and climbing the willows…
And hop-scotch and leap-frog (protected by pillows!)
While every so often they'd stop to call names
At one little deer not allowed in their games:--
"Ha ha! Look at Rudolph! His nose is a sight!"
"It's red as a beet!" "Twice as big!" "Twice as bright!"
While Rudolph just wept.
What else could he do?
He knew that the things
they were saying were true!
Readers first meet Rudolph, a young deer who is teased by his peers. He does NOT live at the North Pole. And he's not one of Santa's own reindeer.
What we do learn is that he's a very good, very obedient deer who is expecting Santa to leave him some lovely presents because he's been so very, very good.

Readers then meet Santa and learn of the horrible weather conditions that prove most challenging. Santa starts out on his trip, it isn't until he's delivering presents to Rudolph's house that he notices the brilliant light of his nose.

Santa then decides to wake him up and ask for his help. The rest of the journey goes much easier for Santa!

The book concludes with Santa returning Rudolph to his family, to his hometown. He is now a hero, of course.

I liked this one. I liked some of the rhymes more than others. There are definitely some quirky lines!
Come Dasher! Come Dancer! Come Prancer and Vixen!
Come Comet! Come Cupid! Come Donner and Blitzen!
Be quick with your suppers! Get hitched in a hurry!
You, too, will find fog a delay and a worry!"
And Santa was right. (As he usually is!)
The fog was as thick as a soda's white fizz.
The book is definitely text-heavy. So a longer attention span would be needed for little ones to enjoy this one.

The copy I read was a facsimile edition. A 75th Anniversary edition with new illustrations was released in September 2014.

On Christmas Eve. Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrated by Nancy Edwards Calder. 1938/1961/1996. HarperCollins. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

It was the middle of the night. And night of all  nights it was Christmas.

I enjoyed Margaret Wise Brown's On Christmas Eve. It is a descriptive look at what Christmas--at what Christmas Eve--is like for children. It focuses on simple things: what your eyes see, what your ears hear, what your nose smells, what your hands and feet touch. It seeks to capture the emotion of the holiday: the excitement, the waiting, the longing.

Lots of details, lots of adjectives. It's rich in imagery and description. There is also a bit of repetition. The text is lyrical in places.

I can't say that I loved it. But it was very enjoyable. I was also glad to see that one of the presents under the tree was a train. The children are just in awe of the magic of Christmas, of the stockings and packages, of the snow falling outside, of the carolers outside.

It was a sweet story about three siblings.

Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story. Cynthia Rylant. Illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet. 1987. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

Silver Packages is a picture book for older readers most likely. I wouldn't say it is for an exclusively adult audience. But I think readers need some perspective in order to appreciate the book fully. I think it can resonate with readers, it has the potential. But I don't think the emotional reaction would be--or even should be--automatic. One can't assume that every reader will respond with tears and "this is the best book I've ever read!!!"

Silver Packages is about giving back to the community. In this instance, one very specific community--Appalachia. The book is about the Christmas Train. It starts with one man who wants to show his appreciation for the community that helped him when he needed it. He was injured in an accident, the community took in this stranger and nursed him back to health without asking for anything in return. He decides that he will come every year--by train--and hand out packages to the children who meet the train. These packages are wrapped in silver paper. Every story needs a protagonist. Silver Packages introduces us to Frankie. Readers first meet Frankie as a boy. He's a boy with a dream. He wants to be a doctor. And he really, really, really wants a doctor kit for Christmas. But each year, he's slightly disappointed. He receives a handful of silver packages through the years. Every gift seems to have a toy--something a boy or girl might want--and something a boy or girl might need. The practical gifts include: socks, mittens, hats, scarves, etc. Readers later see Frankie all grown up. He is a doctor. He reflects on his life, on his past Christmases, he has a light-bulb moment. He decides it is his turn to give back to the community in his own special way. It's a book about kindness and gratefulness and community awareness.

The All-I'll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll. Patricia C. McKissack. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. 2007. Schwartz & Wade. 40 pages. [Source: Library]

Christmas always came to our house, but Santy Claus only once in a while.

I haven't read The All-I'll-Ever Want-Christmas Doll in years. It was just as good as I remembered. The book is set during the Depression. A little girl, Nella, knows that her family is poor, that Santy may not come this year at all. Yet, she can't resist writing to him all the same begging for a Baby Betty doll. Her two sisters perhaps think a little less of Nella for her dreaming so big. She shouldn't expect so much from Christmas. But on Christmas morning, there are a few surprises. Each girl gets a Christmas sack filled with walnuts, peppermint candy, an orange, and a box of raisins. But there is one present, one special present remaining: a doll. Nella thinks the doll should be HERS and hers alone. After all, her sisters haven't gone around talking about the doll nonstop, her sisters didn't write Santa a letter begging for the doll. Why should she have to share the doll with them? But does the doll make her happy? Is the doll truly all she'll ever want? She has a few lessons to learn for sure!

I really enjoyed the story and the message.

The Bells of Christmas. Virginia Hamilton. Illustrated by Lambert Davis. 1989/1997. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 64 pages. [Source: Library]

I didn't dislike Virginia Hamilton's The Bells of Christmas. But I didn't love, love, love it either. I think it depends on what exactly you're expecting from a Christmas book. The Bells of Christmas is very much a celebration of a Christmas long ago. Christmas 1890. Readers meet a young boy, Jason Bell, and experience the holiday through his perspective. We learn about his mom and dad, his brothers and sisters, his cousins, his aunt and uncle, his friend, Matthew. The book is set over a period of several days. Among the things readers learn that Jason's dad is a carpenter, that he wants his sons to join him in his business one day, his dad has only one leg, that his dad wears a peg leg part of the time and is in his wheel chair the rest of the time. Readers also learn that Jason is just a wee bit obsessed with wheels--mainly trains, but, also wagons, etc. The book has plenty of detail and characterization which is a good thing. Jason is waiting for quite a few things: 1) he can't wait for Christmas morning and presents! 2) he can't wait for the Bells to arrive--his uncle and aunt and cousins, 3) he is excited about church, most everyone is performing and participating in some way. (Jason is singing a solo.) The book perhaps seeks to capture one Christmas for one extended family. It is a pleasant, enjoyable book. It isn't quite a chapter book or novel. It isn't quite a picture book.
 
The Gift of the Magi. O. Henry. Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger. 1905/2006. Simon & Schuster. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

I've seen adaptations of The Gift of the Magi--who hasn't? (My favorite is Bert and Ernie and Mr. Hooper.) But this is the first time I've read the actual short story. I haven't decided how I feel about it. Is this couple wise or foolish? Or are they at times foolish and at times wise?

The wife, Della, takes extraordinary pride in her long hair. She doesn't seem the vain sort except for when it comes to her hair. And even if she is vain about it, there's no indication it's anything besides a private vanity. The wife apparently has been coveting expensive hair combs as well. The husband, Jim, takes extraordinary pride in the family watch. The narrator uses exaggeration when discussing the woman's long hair and the man's gold watch. I didn't love the narrator. In fact, I think the narrator is a distraction. He won't let the reader forget for a moment that this is a precious story.
Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.
The wife can't afford a gift for her husband. The husband can't afford a gift the wife. The wife knows this--or should know this. The husband knows this--or should know this. The wife has saved $1.87. The husband might have saved a small sum as well. Readers don't know one way or the other. Both husband and wife will have something to offer the other, however. Something more than love. For both have decided--quite independently--to give sacrificially. To give up what they supposedly value most: her hair, his watch. And this giving up wasn't to support the family, but, to support the other's vanity.

I think actions can speak more than words. I think the narration took away some of my enjoyment of this one. It felt odd at times. There were sentences that were eloquent and refined and then it would slip into something else.
"It's sold, I tell you--sold and gone, too. It's Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with sudden serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?"
I think I like the adaptations better.

The Tailor of Gloucester. Beatrix Potter. 1903. 58 pages. [Source: Library] 
In the time of swords and periwigs and full-skirted coats with flowered lappets—when gentlemen wore ruffles, and gold-laced waistcoats of paduasoy and taffeta—there lived a tailor in Gloucester.
He sat in the window of a little shop in Westgate Street, cross-legged on a table, from morning till dark.
All day long while the light lasted he sewed and snippeted, piecing out his satin and pompadour, and lutestring; stuffs had strange names, and were very expensive in the days of the Tailor of Gloucester.
I enjoyed rereading Beatrix Potter's The Tailor of Glouchester. In this delightful Christmas tale, readers meet a tailor, a cat named Simpkin, and some lovely mice. It is several days before Christmas. He's working hard to finish a coat and waistcoat for the Mayor of Glouchester. The Mayor is getting married on Christmas day. The tailor has just enough money to finish the coat. Not a penny to spare. He sends his cat, Simpkin, with his money to buy what he needs: a little for himself (food: bread, sausage, milk) a little for his work (one twist of cherry-coloured silk). It is only after the fact that he questions whether he should have sent the cat or gone himself. The cat returns, but, in a mood. The cat is upset for he's discovered that the tailor freed the mice he had captured and hid under the teacups. The cat hides the twist. The man is upset, of course, and sick. He takes to his bed unable to work. The oh-so-thankful mice go to his shop and finish his work for him. But since they are one twist short, they are unable to finish completely. Still, they do what they can, and they do a wonderful job. The cat who spies them at work, I believe, has a change of heart and gives the twist to the old man on Christmas morning. He has just enough time to finish. The Mayor is very, very pleased. And the tailor's luck changes for the better, and his business is much improved. This one is a lovely, delightful read from start to finish.

Lucy's Christmas. Donald Hall. Illustrated by Michael McCurdy. 1998. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 40 pages. [Source: Library]

I enjoyed reading Lucy's Christmas by Donald Hall. Lucy's Christmas is a picture book set in 1909 in New Hampshire. In the fall of 1909, Lucy and her family start preparing for Christmas. For Lucy, this means starting to make her own gifts for her family and friends. It pays to plan ahead since so many gifts take time, and thought must be placed into each gift. She's not the only one thinking ahead. This year the family is ordering a new stove for the kitchen. The family has spent a lot of time browsing in the Sears catalog. Lucy's choice is the one the family decides upon: the Glenwood Kitchen Range. The focus is not just on gifts: planning, making, giving, receiving. The focus is also on family life and community life. Readers get glimpses of the school and church. Both places are very busy! I enjoyed this glimpse into the past! It was interesting to see the family prepare for the new year--1910. The enthusiasm in the story is sweet. The author's note reveals that this picture book is based on family history.

I really liked this one very much. I liked Lucy and her family. I liked the fact that the church plays such a HUGE role in the Christmas celebrations. There are gifts, it's true. But it's not commercialized and selfish.

Baboushka and the Three Kings. Ruth Robbins. Illustrated by Nicholas Sidjakov. 1960/1986. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

Long ago and far away, on a winter's evening, the wind blew hard and cold around a small hut.

Baboushka and the Three Kings won the Caldecott Medal in 1961. It is Russian folktale with a Christmas setting. The three kings--wise men--come to Baboushka's hut. They only stay a few minutes. Long enough to extend an invitation to the old woman. Will she join them in their procession, in their quest, to find the Babe, the Child? She'd love to join them, she'd love to bring gifts to the Child. But she is not ready to go just yet. Couldn't they all wait until morning? Couldn't they wait for her to finish up a few small, tiny chores first? Couldn't they wait for the storm to clear? Their answer was firm. Their journey to the Child was too important to postpone. They couldn't linger longer. She watched them depart. But they were not easy men to forget. The next morning, she begins a journey of her own. A journey that will take her far. But will her journey lead her to where she wants to go?

It's a simple story, nicely written. "It is no ordinary Babe they seek. Yes! I must go and follow them! To find the new Babe, to offer Him her gift, was now her one yearning. This thought burned in her mind like a candle in the dark." It is also nicely illustrated. The illustrations complement the text well. Both illustrations and text have a different flavor, an authentic flavor, but not exactly American. After several readings, I came to appreciate both a bit more.

In case you're unfamiliar with the story, the book is bittersweet at best. While it is true that Russian children everywhere look forward to Baboushka's gifts each year as her journey continues, it is also true that Baboushka's journey has no happy ending. She never finds the Child. She is never able to give Him her gifts.

Polar Express. Chris Van Allsburg. 1985/2009. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

The Polar Express is one of my favorite Christmas books. It is. The book is a thousand times better than the movie. (Though the soundtrack of the movie isn't bad.) So if you've only seen the movie, you might want to give the book a try to. You might have a different response to it.

The Polar Express is about belief and doubt--in Santa. It's told in the first person, so we never learn the protagonist's name, but it is a little boy with a younger sister named Sarah. One Christmas Eve, the little boy is awakened by The Polar Express. He goes to the North Pole on the Polar Express train, there are other passengers too. All presumably boys and girls on the verge of not-believing. At the North Pole, he sees Santa, reindeer, and elves. He happens to be chosen to receive the first gift of Christmas. He asks for a bell from Santa's reindeer. This gift is not in his possession for long, however, because he has a hole in his pocket. On Christmas day, he receives a special gift under the tree: the bell he had lost. He can hear it. His sister can hear it. But his parents do not. The book ends wonderfully with a message for "all those who truly believe."

I loved this one cover to cover, though I love the ending most of all.


© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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15. Children in the Holocaust and World War II

Children in the Holocaust: Their Secret Diaries. Laurel Holliday, ed. 1996. 432 pages. [Source: Library]

Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries is an almost must-read in my opinion. It is incredibly compelling and emotional. Memoirs are great. They are. I have loved many autobiographies and biographies. But diaries are a bit unique. They tend to stay in the moment; there is a rawness perhaps in the emotions. They capture specific moments in time. They record the best and worst and everything in between. These diary entries are well worth reading.
These children's diaries are testimonies to the fact that telling the truth about violence is not harmful. In fact, one wonders how much greater harm these boys and girls would have suffered had they not written about the horrific events they were experiencing. Far more dangerous than reading about atrocities, I believe, is the pretense that atrocities do not occur. To turn our eyes away and refuse to see, or to let children see, what prejudice and hatred lead to is truly to warp our collective psyche. It is important for all of us--adults and children alike--to acknowledge the depths to which humankind can sink. The children teach us, by sharing their own direct experience of oppression, that nothing is more valuable than human freedom. This lesson alone is reason enough to read and to encourage children to read, these diaries.
This book gathers together diary entries from twenty-two writers. The countries represented include: Poland, Holland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Lithuania, Russia, Belgium, England, Israel, and Denmark. Seven of the twenty-two writers are from Poland. Some writers survived the war. Others did not. I believe that all of these entries have been previously published in some format, in at least one language. The listed age refers to the writer's age for the first diary entry printed in the book. This book provides excerpts from diaries. None of the diaries, I believe, are reprinted in full. These excerpts represent the diaries as a whole, and provide a bigger picture for understanding the war.
  • Janine Phillips, Poland, 10 years old
  • Ephraim Shtenkler, Poland, 11 years old
  • Dirk Van der Heide, Holland, 12 years old
  • Werner Galnick, Germany, 12 years old
  • Janina Heshele, Poland, 12 years old
  • Helga Weissova-Hoskova, Czechoslovakia, 12 years old
  • Dawid Rubinowicz, Poland, 12 years old
  • Helga Kinsky-Pollack, Austria, 13 years old
  • Eva Heyman, Hungary, 13 years old
  • Tamarah Lazerson, Lithuania, 13 years old
  • Yitskhok Rudashevski, Lithuania, 14 years old
  • Macha Rolnikas, Lithuania, 14 years old
  • Charlotte Veresova, Czechoslovakia, 14 years old
  • Mary Berg (pseudonym), Poland, 15 years old
  • Ina Konstantinova, Russia, 16 years old
  • Moshe Flinker, Belgium, 16 years old
  • Joan Wyndham, England, 16 years old
  • Hannah Senesh, Hungary and Israel, 17 years old
  • Sarah Fishkin, Poland, 17 years old
  • Kim Malthe-Bruun, Denmark, 18 years old
  • Colin Perry, England, 18 years old
  • The Unknown Brother and Sister of Lodz Ghetto, Poland, Unknown Age and 12 years old
I won't lie. This book is difficult to read. Difficult in terms of subject matter. It is an emotional experience. Readers are reading private diary entries. The entries capture the terror and horror of the times. They capture the uncertainty that almost all felt: will I survive? will I survive the day? will I survive the war? will my family? will my friends? will I witness their deaths? will I have ANY food to eat today? tomorrow? how much worse can it get? when will this all be over? will I be alive to see the end of the war? what if the Nazis win? The diaries capture facts and details. But they also capture feelings and reactions.
Shootings have now become very frequent at the ghetto exits. Usually they are perpetrated by some guard who wants to amuse himself. Every day, morning and afternoon, when I go to school, I am not sure whether I will return alive. I have to go past two of the most dangerous German sentry posts..., Mary Berg, February 27, 1942, p. 233
Dr. Janusz Korczak's children's home is empty now. A few days ago we all stood at the window and watched the Germans surround the houses. Rows of children, holding each other by their little hands, began to walk out of the doorway. There were tiny tots of two or three years among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. Each child carried a little bundle in his hand. All of them wore white aprons. They walked in ranks of two, calm, and even smiling. They had not the slightest foreboding of their fate. At the end of the procession marched Dr. Korczak, who saw to it that the children did not walk on the sidewalk. Now and then, with fatherly solicitude, he stroked a child on the head or arm, and straightened out the ranks. He wore high boots, with his trousers stuck in them, an alpaca coat, and a navy-blue cap, the so-called Maciejowka cap. He walked with a firm step, and was accompanied by one of the doctors of the children's home, who wore his white smock. This sad procession vanished at the corner of Dzielna and Smocza Streets. They went in the direction of Gesia Street, to the cemetery. At the cemetery all the children were shot. We were also told by our informants that Dr. Korczak was forced to witness the executions, and that he himself was shot afterward. Thus died one of the purest and noblest men who ever lived. He was the pride of the ghetto. His children's home gave us courage, and all of us gladly gave part of our own scanty means to support the model home organized by this great idealist. He devoted all his life, all his creative work as an educator and writer, to the poor children of Warsaw. Even at the last moment he refused to be separated from them. ~ Mary Berg, August, 1942, p. 239
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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16. The Right Fight (2014)

The Right Fight. Chris Lynch. 2014. Scholastic. 192 pages. [Source: Library]

 I enjoyed Chris Lynch's The Right Fight. Roman, the protagonist, loves, loves, LOVES baseball. But he loves his country even more. That is why he enlisted even before America entered the war--the second world war. The book chronicles his early experiences in the war as a tank driver. Readers see him through training, war games, and going overseas, his various assignments and missions. (Most of the book sees him in North Africa). Readers experience it from his point of view and from a few letters as well. One sees how his fellow soldiers--the men in his tank specifically--form a family. One also sees the many (often-ugly) sides of war.

I enjoyed this one. I thought there was a good balance of action (war) and characterization. I liked getting to know Roman, his fiancee, his war buddies.


© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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17. West of the Moon (2014)

West of the Moon. Margi Preus. 2014. Abrams. 224 pages. [Source: Library]

I enjoyed reading Margi Preus' West of the Moon. Astri and her younger sister, Greta, have been left in the care of their aunt and uncle. Their father has gone to America. If all goes well, he will send for them. But their aunt and uncle aren't thrilled to have two additional mouths to feed, to put it kindly. The novel opens with the aunt selling Astri to a stranger, a goat farmer. Her time as his servant is unpleasant, horrible in fact. But she's planning an escape. Not just an escape, but a rescue mission too. She is planning on escaping, rescuing her sister, and somehow, someway, making it to America to find their father. Ambitious, yes, very much so. But Astri is resilient, strong, and determined.

The novel is titled West of the Moon. Throughout the book, Astri makes comparisons between her own life--her own miserable life--and fairy tales or folk tales. The one she uses most often is East of the Sun and West of the Moon. But there are other references as well.

West of the Moon is a historical coming of age story. It is a tale of survival. Astri is many things, as I've mentioned, but she's not perfect. Throughout the entire book, Astri is put into difficult situations, and sometimes a choice is required of her. Choices that will ultimately have consequences. Astri's decisions give readers something to think about perhaps.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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18. Seven 2014 Picture Books

Santa Clauses: Short Poems From the North Pole by Bob Raczka. 2014. Lerner Publishing Group. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

December 1rst
Wishes blowing in
from my overfilled mailbox--
December's first storm.


I enjoyed reading Bob Raczka's Santa Clauses. The book is a poetic countdown to Christmas. Each of the twenty-five poems is written from Santa's perspective. Each poem is dated. Each poem is haiku. I found this to be a delightful read. I loved some of the poems. I liked all of them, for the most part, but there were a few I did LOVE. The book gives young readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at Santa's life. Very cute.
Some of my favorites:
December 3rd
Mrs. Claus making
an angel, becoming a
little girl again.
December 10th
The north wind and I
whistling to "Let It Snow!"
on the radio.
I would definitely recommend it. I've read it a few times now, and I just love it more each time.

Text: 5 out of 5
Illustrations: 4 out of 5
Total: 9 out of 10

A Little Women Christmas. Heather Vogel Frederick. 2014. Simon & Schuster. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

For people who LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, I think this one is well worth reading and rereading. I have read the novel once or twice, certainly enjoyed it well enough, but it's never been one that I've gushed about or LOVED passionately.

This picture book focuses on one of the Christmases written about within Little Women. The 22nd chapter of Little Women. The illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline are wonderful. If you're a fan of his work, you'll probably want to seek this one out because they are BEAUTIFUL.

I do think it is a picture book for older readers. I think it's a beautiful book for fans of the book or movie.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 5 out of 5
Total: 8 out of 10

Once Upon An Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters. Oliver Jeffers. 2014. Penguin. 112 pages. [Source: Library]

It opens with the premise: "If words make up stories, and letters make up words, then stories are made of letters. In this menagerie we have stories, made of words, made for all the letters."

Once Upon An Alphabet is indeed a book of twenty-six "short stories," one for each letter. The stories can best be described as odd and quirky. I think you have to have a certain sense of humor to "get" the stories and how they all fit together, if they indeed do fit all together. (Some do fit together. I know. But do all twenty-six fit together? I'm not as sure of that.)

This one will definitely be for older readers, not preschoolers. This is NOT Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. But I wouldn't say that it's a book that would appeal to one and all, a book with universal appeal. I could see how some readers might LOVE it and others not so much.

I liked some stories, some letters, better than others. A few I didn't like at all. A few I really did enjoy. But I didn't LOVE this one. I do think it's an interesting premise, however.

Text: 3.5 out of 5
Illustrations: 3.5 out of 5
Total: 7 out of 10

Penguin in Peril. Helen Hancocks. 2014. Candlewick. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

One afternoon, three hungry cats ran out of food. They searched the house high and low and found three gold coins. They set off for the grocery store. On their way, the cats passed a movie theater. A movie called The Fishy Feast was playing. They handed over the three gold coins and went in. 

Three cats are inspired by a movie, The Fishy Feast, to kidnap a penguin. Why do they want a penguin? The way they see it, a penguin can catch fish for them. But will the kidnapped penguin agree to such a scheme? Or will the penguin find a way to escape? Will the cats' scheme result in a bounty of fish or in jail time?!

I liked this one. I can't say I loved it particularly. But I thought it was creative and playful. Definitely worth reading at least once.

Text: 4 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 7 out of 5

The Animals' Santa. Jan Brett. 2014. Penguin. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

"It's your first Christmas Eve, Little Snow. The animals' Santa comes tonight!" Big Snowshoe told his little brother. "Who is the animals' Santa?" Little Snow asked. "We don't know who he is," Big Snowshoe said. "Did you ever see him?" Little Snow asked. "No," the forest animals chimed in. "But we find presents from him on Christmas."

For those of all ages who love Jan Brett, who love, love, love Jan Brett, I think you'll find much to love and appreciate in her newest picture book, The Animals' Santa. The Animals' Santa is in many ways similar to her previous books. (Incredibly detailed illustrations with animals and nature as the subject.)

In The Animals' Santa readers meet Little Snow, Big Snowshoe, and their animal friends. Every animal is happy to share what he/she knows about the "animals' Santa." One by one, they recall what they've received in previous years, trying to show Little Snow, the skeptic, that the animals' Santa is real, and, that he is coming that night. Every animal seems to have an idea of *who* the animals' Santa might be. But all the talking does little to change Little Snow's mind.

Readers will discover along with Little Snow and all the other animals just who the animals' Santa is. I was a bit surprised by the twist in this one, it was not who I was expecting it to be.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

The Book With No Pictures. B.J. Novak. 2014. Penguin. 48 pages. [Source: Library]

There are no illustrations in this picture book. The book exists in order to make adults reading aloud to children say silly things in silly voices. That is the oh-so-simple premise. That words can be entertaining even if they aren't accompanied by pictures. The premise isn't a bad one necessarily. That being said, I want pictures in a picture book. The text can be as over-the-top and silly and ridiculous as can be. It can say things like "My only friend in the whole wide world is a hippo named Boo Boo Butt". It won't change my mind, I still want pictures.

I don't think it takes a picture-less book to get adults to read dramatically and make listeners giggle. I think that is just a part of reading books aloud to kids. Depending on the book, of course, some books may be funnier than others and allow for more opportunities.

The book is also "interactive" in that it addresses the reader directly. This has been done in other picture books, better picture books with actual illustrations. My favorite happens to be We Are In A Book by Mo Willems. And earlier this year there was Help! We Need a Title!

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: none
Total: 3 out of 5

The Great Thanksgiving Escape. Mark Fearing. 2014. Candlewick. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

It was another Thanksgiving at Grandma's. "You can play in here with the rest of the kids," Gavin's mother told him. "We'll call you when the turkey's ready." "Have fun!" Gavin's dad called. But Gavin knew it was not going to be fun. Not fun at all. "Hey," someone whispered. It was his cousin Ronda. "What do you say we break out of here and head for the swing set in the backyard?"

How much fun will Gavin have on Thanksgiving at his Grandma's house? More fun that he expected at any rate, in large part due to his cousin, Rhonda. These two sneaky kids team up. The mission: escape the house and actually have some FUN. But it won't be easy. There are obstacles on the path to freedom. And one of those obstacles is "the GREAT WALL OF BUTTS!" There are also zombies to avoid. (Who are the zombies? The teenagers in the basement that are playing video games or on their phones/tablets.) There are SO MANY people in this house: dozens of adults, dozens of kids, dozens of teens. Gavin's family must be HUGE or else Grandma invited the whole neighborhood. Either way, Gavin is going to have a memorable Thanksgiving.

I didn't love this one. I didn't hate this one. I've never really found a Thanksgiving book that I actually loved.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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19. Port Chicago 50

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights. Steve Sheinkin. 2014. Roaring Brook. 208 pages. [Source: Library]

Wow! What a book! Port Chicago 50 is a compelling nonfiction read. It is informative and detailed, but, it never felt like it was too much, like it was too-information-heavy. It was fascinating and at times shocking. It examines HOW African-Americans were treated in the navy during the second world war. It deals with prejudice and discrimination and injustice. Specifically it focuses on a select group of soldiers stationed at Port Chicago. The soldiers moving explosives from docks to ships were all African-Americans. These soldiers received no special training or instructions. It didn't take them long to figure out that disaster could come at any time, that every day came with big, big risks. Disaster did come. It was awful. It changed the survivors--haunted the survivors. So when these men are asked weeks later to go back to work with explosives, well, some decide to say no. The book is ultimately about 50 men who decided that they did not want to obey orders to load explosives. About the consequences of their actions--or inaction as the case may be. The men were charged with mutiny and put on trial. Would justice be served? Would they have a fair hearing?

The Port Chicago 50 is emotional and fascinating. It was a beautifully written story about the fight for justice and equality. It was everything a nonfiction book should be.

Definitely recommended.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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20. Courage for Beginners (2014)

Courage for Beginners. Karen Harrington. 2014. Little, Brown. 304 pages. [Source: Library]

I would definitely recommend Karen Harrington's Courage for Beginners. This middle grade novel is a compelling coming of age novel. It would pair well, I think, with The Swift Boys and Me by Kody Keplinger.

Mysti Murphy is a seventh grader with special challenges. Her mom is agoraphobic; for as long as Mysti can remember her mom has been that way. Her dad does it all: all the driving, all the errands. But the fall of her seventh grade year, her dad has an accident, and ends up in the hospital in a coma for several months. The guy who has been her best friend--by all appearances--decides to drop her. She won't fit in with his new "hipster" persona. He's decided that by wearing a hipster hat and being a huge jerk, he'll become more popular with people who count. Mysti definitely doesn't count. At least when there's a small chance that others are watching. Mysti struggles. No doubt. The book is about her growing pains--everything going all wrong at once. But does she have the strength and courage to face her problems and cope with them?

I enjoyed this one. I enjoyed spending time with Mysti. I was very glad that she got to make some new friends. I thought there was a nice balance of scenes between home and school.
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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21. The Family Romanov (2014)

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia. Candace Fleming. 2014. Random House. 304 pages. [Source: Library]

I've had this one checked out from the library for months, it seems. But once I actually started reading it, it moved quite quickly. That doesn't mean it was an "easy" read, however. It was just as dark and depressing as you might expect. It isn't always easy to read a book when you know the ending.

This one is rich in details, I thought. And it did a great job of putting everything into context, especially in terms of social classes. One got a feel for what life was like for the rich and the poor. It was easy to understand WHY the masses were ready for change, ready to rebel, ready to have a voice, ready to be taken seriously. Desperation. The book dwells on the desperation felt during these decades. That and despair. It's not an uplifting book. It's not a book with a lot of hope to it.

I think it authentically captures the times, the injustice of the times. And in a way, it is fascinating enough. But it's also heartbreaking. Because it doesn't matter if you're looking at the before or after picture, life was HORRIBLE, living conditions were awful.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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22. The Quilt Walk (2012)

The Quilt Walk. Sandra Dallas. 2012. Sleeping Bear Press. 215 pages. [Source: Library]

I enjoy historical fiction. I do. And I enjoy a good pioneer story. The Quilt Walk is a middle grade pioneer story. It was satisfying for what it was.

Emmy Blue and her mom and dad are traveling with a wagon train to Golden, Colorado. Her aunt and uncle are also going. Her dad and uncle are the ones who really, really, really want to go. Her aunt and mom, well, they'd have been happy spending the rest of their lives right where they were. Her mom is more outwardly accepting of this change. Her aunt complains plenty. There are things she's sad about, things she's hopeful about.

The focus is on the journey for the most part. Readers meet several other characters traveling in the wagon train. Emmy and her mom make new friends. Emmy makes one friend close to her own age. Emmy makes several friends who are older than her. One woman is newly married. One woman has three children under the age of four. Every person has a story of their own. What will Emmy's story be?

Based on the title alone, one can suppose that her story has to do with a quilt. At the start of the journey, Emmy hates quilting. She does. Not that she's ever properly given it a go. She knows that her mom loves, loves, loves to quilt. Loves getting together with other ladies to quilt. But Emmy sees it as tedious and boring. But. Her grandmother gives her blocks to quilt together to make a quilt top for her doll. Blocks to piece together on the journey, on the trip. And her mom expects her to do just that. To piece this quilt together some each day. And Emmy does. And by the end, she might have begun to change her mind about quilting. At least a little bit.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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23. A Snicker of Magic (2014)

A Snicker of Magic. Natalie Lloyd. 2014. Scholastic. 320 pages. [Source: Library]

A Snicker of Magic would be a great choice for fans of Wendy Mass' 11 Birthdays or Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn Dixie. It has that oh-so-magical-feel to it, a certain rightness somewhere between charm and sweetness.

Felicity Pickle is the heroine of Natalie Lloyd's Snicker of Magic. She is oh-so-easy to love. She's a word-collector. She's an awkward public speaker. She doesn't have the easiest time making friends. But she's a wonderful person, very lovely. I loved seeing her relationship with her sister. I did. But nearly as much as I loved her developing relationship (friendship) with Jonah. I loved, loved, loved every scene between Jonah and Felicity. Well, to be honest, I loved most of the scenes in general. I loved meeting so many characters, hearing so many stories, learning all about the town in the past and present. I cared. To sum it all up, this is a book where it is easy to CARE.

Felicity is tired of moving around. She wants to find a place for them all to settle down. And she's really, really hoping that that place to settle down will be Midnight Gulch, the place her mom grew up, the place her aunt still lives. The novel opens with Felicity, Franny Jo, and their mom arriving in town...

From start to finish, the book is lovely. One of those rare books where you could open it up to almost any page and find something to smile about or a quote to share. For example: "Making new friends, in a new place, when you're the new girl, is harder than fractions" (25). That being said, I could have done with a little less spindiddly vocabulary.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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24. Tell Me (2014)

Tell Me. Joan Bauer. 2014. Penguin. 272 pages. [Source: Library]

I have loved some of Joan Bauer's novels in the past, titles like Rules of the Road and Hope Was Here. I didn't exactly love, love, love Tell Me. Not as much as I was hoping to anyway.

Tell Me is a middle grade novel starring a twelve-year-old girl named Anna. She's been involved in drama--acting--for most of her life. Her current job, her current role, is dressing up as a cranberry for a store at the mall. She loves to dance and be silly and crazy, anything to bring in a crowd. Change is coming, however. Anna isn't exactly welcoming it. Her parents have been fighting a lot. She fears divorce is coming. She loves her Dad oh-so-much. But even she can't deny that he's had problems with controlling his anger since he lost his job. He has changed, their family dynamics have changed. Now her parents are separated and in counseling. Her mom wants her to spend the summer with her grandmother. Her mom needs her to spend the summer with her grandmother. Even though this isn't the way she thought she'd be spending her summer, she handles it relatively well. She arrives. She meets new people. She gets a new role: this time dressing up as a petunia. She makes new friends. She learns to trust herself. She learns to speak up. She learns to ride a horse.

One day, presumably while dressed up as a petunia in the library, she witnesses something disturbing. She sees a scratched-up van arrive in the parking lot. Their is a scared-looking girl being dragged by an Asian woman. They want to know where the bathroom is. Minutes later she sees this same girl try to make a run for it in the parking lot. Anna's instincts say that this girl--this girl that appears to be around her own age--is in big, big trouble. She needs help. Probably. Definitely. Could she be a kidnap victim? Anna is frantic to remember as much as she possibly can. She records all the details she can remember--and she adds to this list throughout a week or two. She is determined to do something, to act, to not let this go until she knows the girl is safe. The local sheriff is unconvinced. But. Anna is one stubborn girl. Surely there are adults that will listen, that will act.

I liked this one. It was a quick read.
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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25. Bo at Ballard Creek (2013)

Bo at Ballard Creek. Kirkpatrick Hill. Illustrated by LeUyen Pham. 2013. Henry Holt. 288 pages. [Source: Library]

I loved Bo at Ballard Creek. Did I love, love, love it? I'm not sure. Time will tell. I certainly loved many things about it.

I loved the setting, that it's historical fiction, set in Alaska, set in a small mining town, in the 1920s. I loved the perspective, Bo, the heroine is young adopted girl. For most of the book, she's too young to attend school. So perhaps in the four to six range throughout the book. Readers meet Bo, her two fathers Jack Jackson and Arvid Ivorsen. (One is black. One is Swedish.) Readers meet the whole community: other miners and former miners mostly men, of course, all ages and ethnicities; Eskimo families, and the dance-hall girls. I loved the narration and the amount of detail. I love that the book covers a whole year, if not a little more. So readers see the community in detail throughout the year. One gets a real sense of what was like on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month basis. On ordinary days. On special days. Special days being not just holidays, but, also days where airplanes stop and land, the days when supplies arrive. I love the vignettes of the whole town. I loved the strong sense of family and community in this one. It just felt right from cover to cover. I also loved the illustrations. I'll be honest. It was seeing LeUyen Pham's name that made me pick this one up. That being said, I may have loved her illustrations. But I also LOVED the text itself.

If the book lacks anything, however, it may be a strong plot. Think Little House In the Big Woods. The chapters are strong in description and characterization and little happenings. I loved it. I did. I loved meeting Bo. I loved some of the relationships in the book.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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