Secrets of an Unlikely Convert + Openness Unhindered


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The Secrets of an Unlikely Convert: Expanded Edition by Rosaria Butterfield. Crown & Covenant, 2014.

Openness Unhindered by Rosaria Butterfield. Crown & Covenant, 2015.

What They Are: Secrets is adult memoir, and Openness is adult nonfiction/informational text.

What They’re About: Butterfield recounts her dramatic conversion to Christ out of a very public, very outspoken lesbian lifestyle. Through the faithful friendship and hospitality of a local pastor, she began going to church, renounced her former lifestyle, and even ended up marrying a pastor. Openness Unhindered continue the discussion, but is more pointed in terms of how Christians should understand and interact with the gay community (and, in particular, fellow Christians who are struggling with various aspects of this lifestyle).

What Works: Butterfield is a great writer, and her startling conversion is fascinating reading. Her openness with and challenge to her fellow Christians in these books is welcome and convicting. The sections on hospitality are particularly worth reading as she exhorts believers to practice hospitality with those unlike themselves.

What Doesn’t Work: Butterfield comes full circle from lesbian professor to pastor’s wife/homeschooling mother. It’s not a journey everyone struggling with homosexual issues will make, and, while she doesn’t claim that they will, the length of time she spends on that final reality might put some people off. Additionally, she spends quite a bit of time dwelling on the use of the Psalter (and the Psalter only) in both corporate and private worship as well as other distinct elements of the Reformed Presbyterians. These aren’t “problems,” per se, but they do limit her audience to those who share her particular beliefs or are sympathetic to them. There are many godly believers who might not only sing Psalms in worship (for instance) who would still find much to think about in Butterfield’s works.

What I Think/Recommend: A worthy addition to a church library, these also make good discussion material for small groups or Sunday school classes. They would be great material for college-aged groups as well.



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Booked by Kwame Alexander. HMH Books for Young Readers, 2016. 320 pages.

What It Is: A verse novel for middle grades and YA

What It’s About: Nick and his best friend Coby are top notch soccer players with their eyes on a big tournament in Dallas. But when Nick’s mom and dad start having marriage issues, and Nick gets injured, he’s forced to face the reality that things don’t always go as planned.

What Works: Nick is a very likable, typical kid. He’s great at words, thanks to his dad’s influence, but isn’t much of a student. His real love is soccer. Plenty of middle grades and early high school readers will relate to a love of sports coupled with lesser enthusiasm towards school. The touch of romance is handled well, too. Plenty of young readers, unfortunately, will also understand the parental tension.

What Doesn’t Work: The second person voice takes some getting used to. Additionally, Alexander’s command of the verse novel potential isn’t as strong as it was in Crossover. A few stock characters appear, like the super cool librarian and the strict (but talented) teacher.

What I Think/Recommend: This book will find its audience, definitely. It’s worth adding to library collections or checking out from a library. But I’d recommend checking it out before buying. Additionally, Nick’s parents are amicable, but they do not end the book back together. Realistic, but some may wish to know that going in.

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard


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Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard: a Peter Nimble Adventure by Jonathan Auxier. Abrams, 2016. 454 pages.

What It Is: A wild fantastic read for middle grades.

What It’s About: Sophie Quire is a quiet book mender who has been seeking out and saving fairy tales whilst missing her long-deceased mother, learning the ways of the old city’s winding streets, and helping her father in his bookshop. The city, led by Inquisitor Prigg, is planning for a large celebratory pyre in the coming days, a pyre that will hold all the (now banned) fairy tales and inventive stories Sophie and her father cherish. Peter Nimble and his trusty sidekick Sir Tode show up with a new-to-Sophie magical book in need of repair, and Sophie lands in the adventure of a lifetime. A magical book, truly evil villains, stories that come to life, and Peter’s desperado lifestyle make the book a wild ride.

What Works: Auxier weaves such amazingly intricate and exciting stories. Sophie Quire is a perfect companion book to the first Peter Nimble book with new, nuanced characters and a fantastic expansion of Peter’s original world. Auxier plunges the reader into the middle of the action on the first page, and the story doesn’t rest until the very last page. Friendship and family relationships are tested and hold true, and even a villain or two appears to soften. Auxier’s villains are true villains, though, and he’s not afraid of violence and blood and gore–fairy tale style, that is. Nothing is gratuitous, nothing is happening in our real world, and justice wins out. Perfect for middle grade kids! The theme of the importance of words and stories is nothing new, but Auxier makes it fresh. Additionally, the cover! Auxier gets the best covers for his books.

What Doesn’t Work: not much! The book is a tad long, but most kids who enjoy fantasy are used to hefty tomes.

What I Think/Recommend: Definitely purchase for library collections! For kids who love fantasy, this is a great gift option. There is magic, evil villains, and other usual fantasy material, so if your family is hesitant about fantasy, this may not be the best fit. That being said, the magic in this is not Harry Potter style with kids casting spells right and left. Rather, the magic comes from the books and the villains.


Detectives in Togas


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Lit_Detectives in Togas

Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld, translated by Clara Winston, and illustrated by Charlotte Kleinert. HMH Books for Young Readers, 2002 (originally published 1956). 272 pages.

What It Is: Middle grades historical fiction/mystery

What It’s About: A group of young Roman schoolboys get embroiled in a mystery when one of their own, Rufus, is accused of writing “Caius is a Dumbbell” on a sacred temple, their schoolmaster (Xanthos) is beaten up and robbed, Rufus is thrown in the notoriously terrible Roman prison, and nothing seems to add up. Set during Ancient Rome’s heyday, the novel covers quite a bit of cultural and historical information along the way as the boys team up with their schoolmaster to solve the mystery of “who dunnit” so that they can secure Rufus’s release from prison before he is sent off as a slave.

What Works: Lively pacing keeps the story moving along, and the mystery isn’t completely clear until the very end. Myriad cultural and historical details are inserted cleverly and casually; the book does not feel like a textbook in the least, but astute readers will learn a lot about Ancient Rome in the process.

What Doesn’t Work: The book was originally written in the 1950s, and it feels like it in parts. Some terms (like “oriental”), some clunky writing and choppy parts, and the near absence of female characters hint at the novel’s age. That’s not necessarily a negative; it depends on the audience! Those who enjoy old-fashioned fiction will likely enjoy this more than those who prefer a more crisp, contemporary style (with more nuanced characters).

What I Think/Recommend: This is a fun addition to any study of Ancient Rome (which is why this title lands on so many curriculum lists that involve Ancient Rome!). It works equally well as a read aloud or independent read, but it won’t hold up to the same level of careful literary study that other novels might. There is one scene where the villain dies a violent death; it is mentioned, but not graphic. At other times, other violence is alluded to (including the death of some children). The complexity of the mystery, especially when coupled with all the Roman names and customs, is another a factor that keeps this book firmly in the middle grades range and not as a read aloud to much  younger children, particularly sensitive ones.

Note: This title appears on several Christian homeschool curriculum lists (or informal lists from within the Christian homeschool community). It’s worth pointing out that this is not a Christian title in any sense and would work just as well as part of a public school library collection.



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Soar by Joan Bauer. Viking Books for Young Readers, 2016. 255 pages.

What It Is: Realistic middle grades fiction

What It’s About: Jeremiah, abandoned as a baby, was adopted by Walt, a guy who works on robots! Jeremiah and Walt both love baseball, living and breathing it. However, Jeremiah’s young heart has already failed him, and a transplant–which has been successful–keeps him from actually playing baseball. Walt takes a temporary job in the town of Hillcrest, a baseball-loving town if there ever was one, and both Jeremiah and Walt have high hopes of joining in the love. But something has happened to quell the town’s love of the sport, and Jeremiah’s positive outlook on life and can-do attitude are hard at work to bring the town back to its first love.

What Works:  Baseball! Sports books are always welcome, especially when the protagonist hardly mentions reading or school. The fact that Jeremiah wants to coach, and that he does coach, and that he tries to include all manner of players will reassure readers who might also love the sport but not be able to play well, or even at all. The realism surrounding Jeremiah’s heart issues is well done: the number of doctors and hospital visits that feature in his life, his desire to not make a big deal about it and just be a normal kid, and the reality of a life threatening condition that he can’t escape or ever forget. Kids who struggle with similar issues will resonate with Jeremiah; kids who don’t struggle with health issues will benefit from an inside peek at someone who does! Additionally, the town is struggling with the death of a favorite young player, a steroids/coaching scandal, and having to pull together as a town in the midst of this. The steroids use is a big deal in sports, and this novel tackles it helpfully. And the ending is nicely done overall: hopeful but without every single thing wrapped up.

What Doesn’t Work: I’ve enjoyed Bauer’s novels in the past, but this one wasn’t my favorite. It’s longer than necessary and may lose some kids in the process. Jeremiah’s positive outlook is a good feature, but it feels overdone in parts. This feels more like a novel that teachers and librarians will love and push, but not one kids themselves will eagerly push on their friends.

What I Think/Recommend: Give it a try–put it on your library shelves or check it out from your library if you have a young sports lover. And if you have kids that “bite,” by all means talk about the book with them! There’s some good meat here. And it’s a reliably “clean” middle grades novel that still tackles some heavy issues (drug use).

The Way Home Looks Now


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The Way Home Looks Now by Wendy Wan-Long Shang. Scholastic, 2015. 272 pages.

What It Is: Middle grades historical fiction

What It’s About: Twelve year-old Peter Lee and his family are Taiwanese-Americans who love baseball, especially the Pittsburgh Pirates. When Peter’s older brother dies in a car wreck, though, Peter’s family falls apart. His mother spirals into depression, and, using their shared love of baseball, Peter tries desperately to help her break out of silence. His father seems stern and unyielding, but the reader comes to know–along with Peter–that really, the father has been the one holding the family together. And yes, baseball is part of that strategy.

What Works: Baseball is a terrific “tie that binds” in this story. This is not another book about a nerdy kid who loves math or loves to read. It’s about a baseball loving kid, a baseball loving culture, and baseball! This book is set during the Vietnam era; that plays a part, but the political elements are very much in the backdrop and kids today will resonate with the sports issues even if they don’t know/care about Vietnam. The Chinese-American dynamics are well done: it’s a factor in the family’s experience, but it’s not really the “point” of the book. This is not a “race issue” book. There’s also an interesting treatment of depression and its effects on the loved ones around the depressed person. Classic middle grades themes of: accepting others and learning to understand them/where they’re coming from even when they’re different from you, starting to separate your identity from that of your parents, struggling with adversity on your own but still with the family safety net all make an appearance. But the best part of this book is the development of the father and son’s relationship. The ending is perfect: hopeful, but not too neat an happy.

What Doesn’t Work: There are some over-used tropes in this book (such as: bully has a drunk father and lives in the poor community). There’s a gender equality angle (in sports) that sort of comes out nowhere, but the context fits, it’s well done, and both boys and girls will enjoy this angle of the story.

What I Think/Recommend: Definitely put this on your library/classroom shelves and point your sports-loving students its way. It’s a contemplative read in many respects, but the baseball parts are done well and will draw some of those readers along. It would also be a great book to discuss, especially the ways in which the dad loves his son, the ways the cultural divide between father and son manifest themselves, and the general awareness of depression and its effects. Not much eternal hope is offered here, but discussing the ways in which the dad loves and supports his family can easily be extended to more spiritual reflections.


Samurai Rising


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Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune by Pamela S. Turner. Charlesbridge, 2016. 256 pages.

What It Is: Biography

What It’s About: Twelfth century samurai Minamoto Yoshitsune’s turbulent life and the rise of the samurai culture. Yoshitsune was one of the early samurai to practice a ritual (and gory) suicide in order to avoid being captured by the enemy. But his life up until that point was no less peaceful. On the run from birth, he found refuge first in a monastery and later in wealthy estate before taking on a leadership role in his family. But as his family rose to power, strife between him and his brother, strife between their family and the opposing samurai family, and general instability in Japan meant for a gripping, action-packed, and often violent existence.

What Works: The pacing is excellent in this book–hard to put down! The prose is well done. Words like “probably” and “he might have…” help indicate where the author is making educated guesses based on her research of the time period and culture. Speaking of research…. fully 60 pages are end matter: chapter notes, author’s notes, timelines, glossary, index. This gal has done her homework!

What Doesn’t Work: For a biography, not much. Expertly crafted and researched, this is a terrific example of a biography. But in terms of a biography to “teach” or “inspire” character traits…this might not be the best choice. That’s the subject matter’s fault, though, not the author’s. She attempts to show ways in which Yoshitsune is honorable and treats his comrades with dignity, but a samurai is still a samurai. Violence is the answer.

What I Think/Recommend: If you are studying Medieval Japan with anyone eighth grade or older, this is a fantastic addition. Anyone simply interested in history and/or Japanese culture will also find this a riveting read. But be forewarned: as the back of the book states (accurately), a lot of people die in this book…. and most are NOT from natural causes. The author isn’t overly graphic in her descriptions, by any means. But the samurai solve all their problems with violence and the weapons of the day meant, aside from archery, the battles were up close and personal.

One final note: Yoshitsune’s consort gets good attention (and she was heroic in her own way!), but some families may wish to know this beforehand. There are no graphic scenes; the text merely mentions that the two are not married and, eventually, that she is carrying his child.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler


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The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip Hoose. Farrer, Straus, and Giroux, 2015. 208 pages.

What It Is: Middle grades and YA Nonfiction

What It’s About: A group of young Danish teens set out to defy the Nazis through sabotage when Hitler’s minions invaded Denmark during WWII. Frustrated that their countrymen seemed to be doing nothing and inspired by Norway’s resistance, the boys formed a secret club, risked their lives, spent time in prison, and helped spur their fellow Danes on to standing up to the Germans.

What Works: The primary source material in this book is marvelous. Hoose interviewed Knud Pedersen and liberally included Pedersen’s own words. The book is easily half Pedersen’s. There are photographs and plenty of other direct quotations as well. The book’s trim size keeps the narrative moving. Action-packed, this is a book kids will speed through. End material includes brief blurbs on the lives of those in the book post-WWII, author’s notes, chapter notes, bibliography, and index. Finally, that cover is so well done!

What Doesn’t Work: Not much! This book is a terrific example of well done narrative writing.

What I Think/Recommend: Definitely stock in a school/public library. It’s not the kind of title most families will feel the need to own, but it works equally well as recreational or school-related reading. For 8th and 9th graders studying WWII or character traits such as bravery or even general “resistance to power” themes, put this book on the list! It would be an interesting comparison to the Civil Rights Movement in terms of resistance. It’s also a non-concentration-camp angle to WWII that would help round out a WWII study.

Note: Any work that presents the Nazis even remotely accurately will be full of heavy stuff. This book doesn’t shy away from the harsh prison terms the boys experience, for instance. I’d keep this on the upper end of middle grades for most kids (or early YA).

The boys are not saints, but Knud’s father is a Lutheran minister. References to their religious background are present, but there is little to no indication that any of the boys are doing their actions because of religious conviction. Rather, they almost come across as hot-headed teens who happen to be acting out in ways we think are laudable (because they are acting out against the Nazis instead of their parents or teachers). It would make an interesting discussion to see what teens think of this!

Pax by Sara Pennypacker and illustrated by Jon Klassen


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Pax by Sara Pennypacker and illustrated by Jon Klassen. Balzar + Bray, 2016. 304 pages.

What It Is: Middle grades novel (part talking animal story, part dystopian, part realistic fiction…hard to classify!)

What It’s About: A boy and his pet fox, hitherto inseparable, are abruptly separated. The boy’s father is heading off to war and taking his son to his grandfather’s. Along the way, he forces the boy to release the fox into the wild. And, like all good boy + loyal pet stories, the fox sets out to find his owner.

Oh, wait. Not in this story. This time, Peter sets out to find Pax even though it involves walking hundreds of miles. He breaks his leg on his journey, is rescued by a woman named Vola who rehabs him nicely (both his physical self and his wounded psyche), and finally finds his fox. The backdrop to all of this is the impending war that is taking over the country (and, more specifically, the foxes’ habitat). Pax has been having an adventure of his own, found a new fox family, and is wrestling with what the humans are doing to his “people.”

What Works: The prose is stunning. Every word is aptly placed. Every sentence is powerful. The chapters alternate between Pax’s point of view and Peter’s–and Pennypacker makes it work brilliantly. Pax doesn’t speak; rather, the reader sees his very fox-like thoughts. The pacing is well done for the first 2/3 of the book.

What Doesn’t Work: The setting, the theme, the characters, the ending. An alternate world is fine, but it felt too ill-defined in this story. Are we in America? Are we somewhere else? Is this a historical war? A war in the not-too-distant future? Hmm…. The theme of humans messing up everything, especially in war-time is hard to miss. It kind of hits the reader over the head. The theme itself is not a bad one, as themes go. But it’s heavy-handed in this book and takes away from the delicacy of the foxes’ relationships and Peter’s journey. The characters aren’t bad, they just fade into the background while Pax and war take center stage. I couldn’t even remember Peter’s or Vola’s names! And finally, with all the emotional heft of the prose, the weightiness of the theme, the reader needs more of an ending. I’m fine with open-endings. I can get why Peter ends up where he does. But it still felt a little vague for me.

What I Think/Recommend: There is great discussion material in this book, and the fox angle plus the brave-boy-on-survival-adventure will draw in a wide variety of readers. This is the kind of book teachers love to teach (and they will definitely do so!). The kind of book kids pick up on their own? I don’t know. Stock it in your school/classroom library and see what happens….. It will probably have shiny stickers on it come January, 2017.

Brown Girl Dreaming


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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014. 337 pages.

What It Is: autobiographical novel-in-verse

What It’s About: Young Jackie Woodson grows updating the tumultuous sixties, born in Ohio, living in South Carolina, and ending up in Brooklyn. Quite a range of locales, particularly given the time period for a young African American! Woodson eloquently recounts her different experiences, her family struggles as her mother leaves her father, and her close relationships with her grandparents. She longs for home, but doesn’t always know where home is.

What Works: The form! This is a stunning example of a novel-in-verse for which the poetry tremendously enhances the storyline. Woodson has such a way with words. Imagery, emotion, action–it’s all here.

What Doesn’t Work: Not much! There’s a reason this book garnered so much praise and so many awards when it first came out.

What I Think/Recommend: This is a fantastic title to use with a number of studies: poetry, Civil Rights, autobiography, African American studies, etc. It would be an excellent read aloud or audio book with the right narrator. Its length might scare some non-readers off, but the poetic form makes for a quick read. I’d recommend it for upper middle grades; there’s some “meat” here that younger readers might not grasp.

Woodson is raised Jehovah’s Witness by her maternal grandmother, and she reflects a good bit on this. She gravitates to the new Islamic faith her uncle acquires from his time in prison (coinciding with the Black Power movement). Helpful to know, depending on the religious affiliation of your family/school!