Posts Tagged ‘middle grade fiction’

The Wonderling, written and illustrated by Mira Bartók
published in 2017 by Candlewick Press

Arthur is a groundling, a curious part-animal, part-human creature whose dear fox face and lovely chestnut eyes speak volumes of the sensitive, kind heart within. 

His quiet tenderness does him no favors, however, in the dismal, dank Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures where he lives along with scores of other raggedy, pitiful youngsters. Miss Carbunkle, a woman with a dreadfully pinched heart, rules there without mercy. Not a morsel of celebration, not a squidgeon of beauty, and certainly not a single drop of music is tolerated.

One day Arthur bravely protects a little bird named Trinket from some schoolyard bullies and in so doing earns a true and valiant friend. These two not only stage an epic break-out, but wend their way into extraordinarily strange places, meet a gamut of characters — some wise, some cunning, some downright villainous. What they overhear, stumble upon, and seek, turns into an adventure with vast repercussions for their world, and Arthur’s destiny as the Wonderling is at the center of it. 

Mira Bartók’s voice is sumptuous. Her fantasy gushes with richly descriptive passages, inventive cityscapes, and highly-imaginative elements, and she’s chosen to give a starring role to Music, weaving it throughout the account. That alone makes this a more thought-provoking fantasy than many others.

  Arthur himself is a bit of an antihero. He is no swarthy, swashbuckling captain figure, but a timid soul who gradually, bravely, blossoms into all he is meant to be.

The book as a whole is not as lightning-paced and action-packed as some fantasies, yet don’t let these charming fox-drawings fool you — it is similar in many ways to Oliver Twist with its settings, intensity, and sinister figures. 

All that, and the final moments take place on Christmas Eve, making it a perfect holiday read for ages 10 and up. I thoroughly enjoyed it. This story is already in the process of becoming a movie, so do yourself a big favor and Read. The. Book. First!


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I’ve been on a mission lately to find great new reads packed with action, adventure, mystery, humor, grit. Books you might hand to those who might not relish quieter, understated, or more relationship-centric stories. And I found some winners! I loved every one of these:

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts, by Avi
published in 2017 by Algonquin Young Readers
313 pages

High adventure, derring-do, rogues a-plenty, villains, thieves, pickpockets, wretched poorhouses, Dickensian schoolmasters, and the constant threat of a hanging hovering about our dear Oliver’s head — that’s the flavor of this action-packed yarn from one of the great storytellers, Avi.

Taking place in and near London, 1724, the story is steeped in period atmosphere, told with an olde-fashioned-y English flavor, seasoned with gusto and wit. Run, hide, dodge, and escape with our 12-year-old hero as he finds himself caught up in a criminal world and searches through smoggy, mucky London for help. You won’t catch your breath until the very last page, and even then, we’re teased with one final line: To be continued in Book Two! 10 and up.

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King, by Ben Hatke
published in 2017 by First Second
207 pages

Don’t miss the final episode of Ben Hatke’s thrilling, fantasy, graphic novel trilogy! If you’ve missed the first two books in the series, do not pass go, do not collect $200 before grabbing them from your library and setting out with Jack and Lilly. You can read my review of those here.

When we left off, Jack’s little sister Maddy, a non-verbal child on the spectrum, had been captured by an ogre emerging through an other-worldly portal. The portal itself emerged courtesy of some crazily-bewitched seeds Jack and Maddy planted in their back yard. Ever-bold, audacious Lilly and fiercely-loyal, intrepid Jack charge after her.

What they encounter there, the hazards to be overcome, the enormously-surprising species, and one sweet vintage Shelby Mustang — will have you turning the pages madly, grinning, cringing, and cheering.

Also — Hatke leaves us with quite the teaser ending! A series to relish for ages 7 and up.

The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade, by Jordan Sonnenblick
published in 2017 by Scholastic Press
193 pages

Jordan Sonnenblick creates realistic fiction with biting wit, dry sarcasm, and a host of flawed characters who unapologetically steal our hearts. This latest title of his is no exception, an unflinching look at understanding the backstories of the glitchy people we meet and what it actually means to be a hero.

Maverick is the shrimpiest kid in sixth grade. He’s also missing a dad, and the mom he’s got is mostly out-of-commission due to severe alcoholism and a penchant to drift from one abusive relationship to the next. He attracts bullies like raw meat beckons flies, and when he tries to heroically stand up for others his efforts tend to backfire and land him in detention. Yet Maverick is determined to make his school a better place for others.

How does a kid like this make it? Part of the answer lies in a couple of exceptional adults in his life who stick with him, choose to see potential in this loyal, well-meaning, hurting boy. The other part of the answer is his deep reservoir of desire, a desire to be one of the good guys.

The dysfunctional home lives of kids in your school and neighborhood are laid out here in all their non-glory, as is the difference a person can make and the real meaning of heroism. With humor and grit, it will transform perspectives of its readers, ages 11 and up.

Clementine Loves Red, written by Krystyna Boglar, illustrated by Bohdan Butenko, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Zosia Krasodomska-Jones
originally published in Poland in 1970; English translation published in 2017 by Pushkin Children’s Books
192 pages

This new English translation of a classic Polish children’s book has all the verve you might expect from its racy-tomato-red cover and those slightly off-kilter drawings.

With characters ranging from a small boy called Pudding, to a grouchy artist named Phosphorus Twisk, one forlorn girl by the name of Macadamia, several frantic policeman, a German Shepard called Pickles, and a sneezing car, the story takes on a lovely quirkiness. Throw in a madcap search for the lost Clementine… in the nighttime forest…during a cracking storm…with all the bumbling and near-misses of the Keystone Cops — and you’ll arrive at its zesty, witty flavor.

Butenko’s wobbly, eccentric line drawings, all done in that same splash of red, add greatly to the book’s excellent design. It’s quite a ride from start to finish for readers ages 8 and up. Could also be read-aloud to those a bit younger. (Contains a few expletives in the heat of the chase and several references to “playing Red Indians.”)

Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of the Wizard of Oz, written by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark
published in 2017 by Harper Collins

Michael Morpurgo, one of  children’s literature’s godfathers you might say, has retold the classic Wizard of Oz story from Toto’s point of view. It reads with ease, doggy-friendliness, and a pleasant degree of informality. Boosting the story’s panache are Emma Chichester Clark’s flamboyantly colorful, cheery illustrations, strewn generously throughout.

Morpurgo has followed the original story to a large degree, though he digresses from both the original and the classic Judy Garland film at some points. He’s added in Toto’s predilection for sausages which works very well as a running theme and condensed the action for an evenly clipped tale.

Children ages 6 and up will enjoy this and it would make a fine read-aloud as well. If they like it enough, it could act as a gateway to L. Frank Baum’s original story with the challenge of spotting the differences (I predict some great surprises!), as well as Baum’s many other Oz stories. Several of my daughters loved that whole series when they were young. It’s a treasure trove for young, voracious readers. 

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I’ve just finished a highly-original adventure story narrated by a gorilla. Goes by the name of Sally Jones. Brilliant at chess. Also excellent with ships’ engines and the odd accordion in need of repair.

It comes to us from Sweden where it has already received several prestigious awards, and I’m recommending it for advanced readers ages 10 to adult.

The Murderer’s Ape, written and illustrated by Jakob Wegelius, translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves
originally published in Sweden in 2014; English translation published in 2017 by Delacorte Press
588 pages

I fell in love with it the moment I got my hands on it. This is a book that revels in its physicality and makes every non-digital reader coo with pleasure. Its stout, tome-like size and shape, exotic turquoise cover image, gorgeous end papers decorated with illustrated maps, stylish typography, swoon-worthy catalogue of key characters, and handsome illustrations heading every chapter all add up to one visual treat, a striking gateway to the world unfolding in its story.

One of the endpapers, in its original Swedish.

Plus, there are 80 chapters! 80! Most of them quite, quite short. Immensely satisfying, that is, to polish off 80 chapters, wouldn’t you say?

Of course, the main question is: Has a good yarn been spun? And the answer is: Absolutely.

The novel is framed as a typewritten account of a hair-raising, far-flung, nail-biter of an adventure, reported by its main participant, Sally Jones, a gorilla of most surprising capabilities.

As our story begins, Sally is happily working with her dear friend, a good-hearted sea captain, Henry Koskela, on his little tramp steamer, the Hudson Queen, running cargoes to ports far and wide. While in Lisbon, the two of them are hired by a fellow who turns out to be up to his neck in shady business dealings. Seriously murky stuff going on here. Two treacherous seconds later and Henry is in prison, falsely accused of murder. Sally, bereft, must navigate a world that certainly is unprepared for her while simultaneously following clues that will clear Henry’s name.

Those clues will take her to exotic locations, stunning new adventures, and life-threatening confrontations. She meets a huge cast of characters, some kind, some cruel; some loyal, some treacherous; a wealthy, petulant maharaja; an accordion repairman; an infectious disease specialist; an unscrupulous businessman. She travels in rickshaws, biplanes, and ships’ holds; dines in opulence and hides in cemeteries.

It’s a sweeping odyssey, a bit reminiscent of Jules Verne’s Around the World. In children’s literature, the most akin novel I can think of is Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, though it’s much more suspenseful and plot-driven than Hitty.

Wegelius does not pander to children’s vocabularies or life experiences, giving this book a more classic tone than many contemporary novels. The narrative is peppered with foreign proper nouns which may snooker novice readers but will add to the immersive experience for the savvy. Sally Jones appears to be a highly educated gorilla who writes her memoir in sophisticated, mature prose. And although this is an account of murder and mayhem, the narrative flows along unhurriedly, with lengthy descriptive passages and internal musings. For children who require a cliff hanger at the end of every chapter, this will be a new pace.

My squeamish alarms went off only one time in recommending this to children due to some oblique references to spousal abuse fairly early in the account. I’d have been happier without that element.

This book can’t win many of the big American awards, not being by an American author, but it can win the Batchelder Award for books originally published in a different language and subsequently translated into English and brought to the U.S. — and I hope it does!

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A Boy Called Bat, written by Elana K. Arnold, illustrated by Charles Santoso
published in 2017 by Walden Pond Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
192 pages

I thoroughly enjoyed this endearing story about a small boy with a huge heart, and one little, striped skunk.

Bat Tam is in third grade at Saw Whet School, chosen especially for him because the wonderful folks in charge accommodate Bat’s autism so well. In fact, Bat’s teacher, Mr. Grayson? You’ll all wish he lived next door!

Bat’s mom is a veterinarian and one day she winds up with a tiny, motherless skunk kit. Her plan is to care for it at home for about a month until the wildlife rescue center has a spot for it. Bat’s plan, within about a nanosecond of meeting this sweet little fella, is to keep it forever.

They are pretty cute, after all.

Earnestly attempting to grow into a capable skunk-owner while managing his autism plus the challenges of his parents’ separation is not an easy path for Bat, but with resourcefulness and immense heart, plus the support of some wise, empathetic adults, Bat succeeds. And wins our hearts in the process.

Excellent story, characters to love, and a great spotlight on autism. Read it aloud or hand it to ages 7 and up.

Cavern of Secrets, by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by James Madsen
published in 2017 by Harper
320 pages

This is the second page-turner in Linda Sue Park’s Wing & Claw trilogy. I reviewed the series’ opener  here.

Though it’s been a year since that first book came out, I was immediately swept back into the world of Obsidia, where a young boy named Raffa Santana has been raised to be an apothecary, scavenging the Forest of Wonders for botanicals he can pound and mix into tinctures and powders imbued with marvelous healing capabilities. Raffa has discovered one particular vine whose properties can be used for surprising good, or immense evil.

The Chancellor of Obsidia is secretly engaged in using it for evil. It’s up to Raffa, his cousin Garith, best friend Kuma, and a handful of trustworthy others to stop her. The stakes are high and the obstacles daunting. Assisting them is an amiable, immensely-charming bat named Echo. Who talks.

The adventure and tension are definitely ratcheted up in this volume which has a cliffhanger ending. How will we wait until next year for the conclusion?! Excellent fantasy for middle graders and up and a choice candidate for reading aloud as well.

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My grandma and her beloved blueberries!

My glorious, spunky grandmother took care of the “old people” until she was in her 80s. Tended her glorious roses. Tramped through northern Minnesota meadows picking buckets of wild blueberries. Walked to and from her ceramics class on bitter cold winter evenings. And then, gradually, she began to fade away. Not her body, but her mind and her good cheer.

It is hard to watch someone we love alter in such devastating ways. Hard to hear snappish words when that’s so out of character. Hard to sense the strain of confusion. Really, really hard to not be known by ones so very dear.

I’ve read a number of books touching on this situation, seeking to come alongside young children who are experiencing something so sad and shocking. I haven’t just loved them, though. Some have offered what seem to be trite solutions, when there are no such things.

The books I have today have really good things to say to us. One is a picture book, one a short novel. Maybe one of these will speak some good words to you or your kids in a tough time.

KidsLogoORIGINALFILEWhat a Beautiful Morning, written by Arthur A. Levine, illustrated by Katie Kath
published in 2016 by Running Press Kids

Noah is the lucky recipient of his grandpa’s and grandma’s joyous affection and attention.

Summer mornings at their house begin bright and early “with a booming song.” It’s Noah and Grandpa, singing in the kitchen. While these two energetically brew coffee for sleepy Grandma, walk the dog, gobble French toast, and put things “on the docket” for the day, they sing with glad abandon.


This year, though, things are strangely different. Forgetfulness, a bit of gray vacancy, and fatigue seem to be erasing the animated grandfather Noah loves. One terrible day, Grandpa doesn’t even know who Noah is. Devastating.

Noah tries to carry on with the usual routines and serendipitously discovers that music still has a way of touching Grandpa’s real self, bringing him out of the gray for a moment. Golden.

There are still painful adjustments to make. Grandma steps up to fill the void in ways she can. A new, tender, hesitant normal works itself out, with songs being, at least for now, one of the happy constants.


This touching story rings true. The sweet relationships and personalities, the bewildering illness, Noah’s honest responses, and the measured hope of the story’s resolution, are authentic. No sugar-coating. It’s also true that music touches our minds and souls even when the fog settles in.

Katie Kath’s illustrations beam with love, welcome, and comfort. Her ingenuous device depicting the changes affecting Grandpa communicate extremely effectively. A fantastic collaboration, for ages 4 and up.

the-acb-with-honora-lee-cover-imageThe ACB with Honora Lee, by Kate De Goldi, drawings by Gregory O’Brien
first published in 2012; published by Tundra Books in 2014

Perry, age 9, is the only child in her family. Her parents are a bit preoccupied with their own lives, frankly, and her mother believes that “only children must be kept busy. They needed plenty of activities…plenty of other people in their life.” So, Perry is kept busy with after-school activities. Every day. Week after week. Until Brita, the teacher in her Music and Movement class, pulls a muscle and cancels class. Leaving a void in Perry’s week.

Recently Perry and her father have begun visiting Perry’s grandmother — Honora Lee — in a care facility on Saturday mornings. Perry has never really known Gran before. Only met her once, at the age of two. And Gran is quite a character. Mostly her memory has slipped right away. Visits with her are kept short and are predominantly a time of Perry’s father asking Gran questions that she doesn’t answer. If Dad leaves the room, Gran usually asks Perry who “that man” is. “His name is Jonathan Sunley. He’s your son,” Perry replies. “Are you Imogen?” asks Gran. “No, I’m Perry.” “That’s a boy’s name. Are you a boy? Where is Imogen?”


As you can see, there is mostly an abundance of confusion. Gran’s questions and comments hop from here to there like crickets, with very little rhyme or reason.

And yet. Perry enjoys spending time with her and the rest of the muddled residents of St. Lucia’s. With a new gap in her weekly schedule, she wangles more opportunities to visit Gran on her own. This results in a peculiar sort of attachment, friendship, understanding of Gran and her neighbors on Perry’s part. Plus, an offbeat alphabet book, co-authored with said residents.

It’s a decidedly quirky story, but at the same time endearing. Warm the-acb-with-honora-lee-illustration-by-gregory-obrienconnections do happen between the elderly and the young, even the mostly-confused elderly who can be a tad bit cranky, particular, and blunt. When someone takes the time to simply sit in their world, as Perry does, a sliver of personality, a glimpse of preference, a flash of comprehension can result. Perry is comfortable in her own skin and able to catch those nuanced clues about her grandmother, and I love her for it.

Try this one with mature, thoughtful kids ages 10 and up.

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I love a good piece of multicultural children’s fiction and am delighted today to share three novels set in contemporary Africa that present non-stereotypical portraits of this immensely-varied continent. The stories are set in three regions seldom spotlighted in children’s literature – Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Côte d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast).

These novels accommodate a broad swath of ages. I’ll start with the one appropriate for the youngest audience:

the-fastest-boy-in-the-world-cover-imageThe Fastest Boy in the World, written by Elizabeth Laird, illustrated by Peter Bailey
published in 2014 by Macmillan Children’s Books
158 pages

Solomon is 11 years old, or thereabouts. He lives in the cool highlands of Ethiopia, 20 miles from the capital, Addis Ababa, with his Ma, Abba (father), small sister Konjit, and his revered, dignified, Grandfather, a man of few words.

The thing you must know about Solomon is that he loves to run. His nation is a nation of runners, slender, mighty marathoners who have won gold medals in Olympics competitions for generations. These runners are the heroes of the country, the superstars, and Solomon has in mind to join their ranks.


One day, quite unexpectedly, Grandfather announces he’s got an errand in Addis Ababa and wants to take Solomon with him. What can it be that would take Grandfather there? For Solomon, it’s tremendously exciting, but while in this strange city Grandfather collapses. It’s up to Solomon’s sturdy runner’s legs to fetch the help they need.

Perfectly paced, with joys, tensions, yearnings, fears, and triumphs for characters we immediately care about, this is a warm, engaging chapter book that could be read aloud to children ages 5 or 6, or independently at a few years older. I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope to seek out more of Laird’s work.

cartwheeling-in-thunderstormes-cover-imageCartwheeling in Thunderstorms, by Katherine Rundell
published in 2011 in Great Britain; 2014 in the U.S. by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
246 pages

Will – that’s the name she much prefers to her given name, Wilhelmina – lives an immensely wild, wind-borne life on a farm in Zimbabwe. Gazelle-fast, baobab-sturdy, free as air, tough as elephant hide, content so long as she’s cartwheeling through life with her best friend, Simon, and her dear father.

Then, shatteringly, Will’s life is up-ended when her father dies, and the callous woman partially responsible for his death glides in to occupy Will’s home, packing her off to the incongruous, cold, walled-in, backbiting world of an English boarding school. Where her schoolmates are far crueler than a thornbush. Where Will is impossibly forlorn, painfully squeezed into a culture that doesn’t fit.

There’s only one thing to do: make a run for it.

This is one of the best books I’ve read for a long time. I couldn’t put it down. Rundell’s language, her innovative, piercing juxtaposition of words, and her ability to capture the ethos of Will’s life in rural Zimbabwe, are stunning. Her characters wrapped themselves around my heart in a speedy minute. How I love that fierce wildcat, Will.


In addition, the unflinching, visceral portrayal of the shock of a new culture is critically important reading for anyone who has either experienced it first hand or has a close relationship to a third-culture kid. Highly recommended for ages 10 to adult.

the-bitter-side-of-sweet-cover-imageThe Bitter Side of Sweet, by Tara Sullivan
published in 2016 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons
300 pages

Amadou, age 15, and his little brother Seydou, were tricked.

With little to eat in their local Ivoirian village, the two of them boarded a bus, the boss men promising they’d be taken where they could earn a bit of money, find food for themselves.

That was years ago. Their actual destination: a remote cacao plantation where they have been enslaved ever since, brutally forced to harvest, prepare, and ship the cocoa beans worth so much money to the wealthy, corrupt businessmen at the top of the food chain. Attempts at escape have only resulted in more heinous beatings.

Now, strangely, a young girl has been brought to the camp. First girl. First time a worker has arrived on her own rather than in a busload. She doesn’t look like, act like, talk like someone from rural Ivory Coast. Yet she’s fighting like a wild boar for her freedom.


Tara Sullivan has crafted a tense, brutal, shocking story in order to shed light on the horrifying-yet-common practice of using child-slave labor to produce the chocolate that you and I enjoy as a soothing pleasure. While the end of the book reads a bit more like an exposé than a novel, the subject matter demands our attention and Sullivan grabs that, no kidding, in this story of three young kids, fighting back with everything they’ve got. Ages 15 to adult.

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It’s been 15 years since 9/11 which means that anyone from about the age of 19 and down will have dim or nonexistent memories of that terrible day which left an ugly gash, at the very least, in the rest of us.


What an odd jolt it is to teach modern history to this tribe of newly-teenaged persons and realize they have almost no emotional response to those events. They don’t even know how many planes there were or that the Pentagon was hit. They can’t remember the slow creeping horror as we realized this was not an accident. The dumb shock of seeing gigantic towers crumple and a dust-covered throng of workers stumbling away, away from galloping storms of ash. They weren’t there, listening to the cell phone messages that smote our hearts or the eerie sound of military jets encircling our cities. They didn’t experience the new trauma of vulnerability. They don’t know where they were when they heard the news. All of it is just a historical event from before their time.


It has taken some years for me to connect that sort of historical detachment to the need for children’s literature on this subject. As titles have popped up in the past, my own visceral response has been that 9/11 is too raw a subject to hand to kids. I’ve realized, though, that children are perhaps more ready and capable of hearing about 9/11 than we are of telling the stories.

Today I’ve got four books introducing children in a range of ages, through a variety of angles, to the events of 9/11.


Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey, written and illustrated by Maira Kalman
published in 2002 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons

The title most accessible to the youngest audience is this gem by the one and only Maira Kalman, published just a year after 9/11.


Kalman has an uncanny knack of connecting honestly, compassionately, and perceptively with young readers. She talks to them forthrightly, in ways they can understand, without a scrap of condescension. She offers them quirky tidbits of information that would never occur to others of us to include, which act like the perfect dash of seasoning in a pot of soup. Yet she paints the entire large picture cohesively, riveting our attention and our hearts to the fortunes of one old fireboat and its heroic role on that tragic New York day.


It’s the story of the John J. Harvey, a fireboat built in 1931, retired in 1995, destined to be turned into scrap metal, but saved and lovingly restored by a grand group of friends. Restored in time to assist in a most surprising way when the unthinkable turns into grim reality in Manhattan.


Besides the engaging narrative, there is of course Kalman’s enormously tantalizing artwork, her bold colors and brush strokes and compositions are an outpouring of her vigorous self on every page. Magnificent. Even if you’re not purposing to introduce 9/11 to children, this is a story that begs to be shared. Ages 4 and up.


Seven and a Half Tons of Steel, written by Janet Nolan, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez
published in 2016 by Peachtree

Another boat-ish perspective, this one with a slightly stronger expression of the tragic nature of the day.

While Kalman’s book devotes a large percentage of pages to jolly bits about the fireboat’s history and the chipper crew who salvage her, this account dives immediately into the incident.


Maira Kalman, Fireboat

While Kalman’s book shows two planes in the sky, and two towers, there is no depiction of the impact of the planes into the buildings. Gonzalez shows one plane just as its nose strikes the tower.


Thomas Gonzalez, Seven and a Half Tons of Steel

Both books illustrate the chaotic smoke emanating from the towers, but Kalman’s is impressionistic while Gonzalez’s illustrations are very realistic.

Kalman tells children that “two airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers. CRASHED, CRASHED, CRASHED into these two strong buildings. The sky filled with fire and smoke. The buildings exploded and fell down to the ground. Many people were hurt. Many lives were lost.” Nolan writes, “On September 11, 2001, clouds of smoke billowed into the clear blue sky. The World Trade Center towers came down. Almost three thousand people lost their lives.”

I hope that helps you judge the emotional content of these two books. Beyond those descriptions of the crash, the remainder of both books tells an entirely different story. Kalman’s tells about the fireboat. This one tells a very cool story about the repurposing of one massive beam from the towers, into the bow of a navy ship, christened the USS New York.


It’s a terrific account, pulsing with courage and the will to move forward in the wake of tragedy.


Gonzalez’s vigorous, factual  paintings will greatly appeal  to children, particularly those fascinated by burly stuff such as steel foundries, massive ships, military choppers, and the like. Ages 5 and up.


America Is Under Attack: September 11, 2001: The Day the Towers Fell, written and illustrated by Don Brown
published in 2011 by Roaring Brook Press
64 pages

The exceptionally-talented Don Brown presents this episode in his series of books about historical events. It’s a much more complete story for ages 8 or 9 and up.

America is Under Attack

Brown doles out details with impeccably good sense, including the kinds of weapons used, specs on the towers, and the precise times at which key events unfolded that day in New York, D.C., and Pennsylvania. All of this is woven effortlessly into a narrative  that’s predominantly a collection of anecdotes following a number of people caught up in the disaster.


Fire Chief Joseph Pfiefer and his brother. Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz, working high in the North Tower. Stanley Praimnath, the lone survivor located directly where the plane hit the South Tower. And others. Ordinary people caught up in chaos. Their stories are compelling. Some died. Some astonishingly survived. They acted with courage and compassion. Grave danger, destruction, injuries, and the death toll are factually presented here, yet the overarching note is of the beauty and dignity of humanity, of people bravely, kindly, helping one another through unspeakable crisis.

America is Under Attack

Emotive watercolor illustrations usher us immediately into the towers, smoke, and panic. An Author’s Note follows up with further statistics about the losses of that day.


Towers Falling, by Jewell Parker Rhodes
published in 2016 by Little, Brown, and Company
223 pages

Finally, this middle-grade novel published this year by award-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes.

Deja is a fifth-grader from Brooklyn. Her family has just moved into a shelter, to her embarrassment, because her dad is unable to go to work. Depression, panic attacks, and a debilitating cough seem to have paralyzed him from participation in life, cast a gray pall around the man he used to be. Deja does not understand him at all.


Deja’s teachers have been assigned a new task this year, teaching about 9/11. It’s a subject more than usually traumatic for the personnel at this particular school. As Deja partners with her new friends Ben and Sabeen — a Muslim student — she learns more than she ever would have guessed about the events of that day, the meaning of home, the fabric of America, and why any of that matters.

I love that Rhodes’ angle on this was to peer into one small community — Miss Garcia’s fifth grade — and find out how events from the past impact who we are, the relevance of history to our lives and our neighbors. It’s a well-paced story, much more centered on the lives of these students 15 years after 9/11 than on the actual events of the day. I think it pairs exceptionally well with Don Brown’s account.

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