Tiger Boy


Tiger Boy, written by Mitali Perkins with illustrations by Jamie Hogan, tells the story of an Indian boy who lives in the Sunderbans, an archipelago of islands spanning Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, where the story is set. In this delta region, people live on half of the islands while the other half make up a mangrove forest preserve which is home to the last remaining wild Bengal tigers, endangered from poaching. Cyclones, deforestation, and global warming are some of the problems threatening the survival of the area as well as the people and creatures living there.

Neel is the smartest boy in the village. His family and elders in the community hope he will pass the exam to earn a boarding school scholarship. Neel doesn’t want to leave his village with its surrounding tidal rivers, mudflats, and creeks, and hopes he fails the test. His sister, Rupa would love to trade places with Neel. Like most girls in her village, Rupa had to drop out of school to work, or in her case, take care of their ailing mother and home.

When a baby tiger escapes from the preserve, Neel and Rupa race to find her before greedy, opportunistic, Gupta, and his henchmen capture and sell the tiger on the black market. Their father taught Neel and Rupa to respect and protect the plants and animals of the preserve, but even he has decided to work for Gupta to catch the tiger. His father wants the extra money for a tutor to prepare Neel for his exam. Neel uses his knowledge of the area and mathematical skills to chart and identify the most likely hiding places for the tiger. When Neel and Rupa find the baby tiger, they must go against their father to bring her to safety. Neel comes to understand the value of an education not only for himself, but to benefit his island community. He can use his boarding school education to help protect the land and expand opportunities in his village.

Author Mitali Perkins skillfully uses Neel’s dilemma to illustrate larger issues of poverty, changes to natural habitats, and education for boys and girls that beset the villages of the Sunderbans. The black and white drawings are a nice addition to the novel, giving a sense of place to the characters and the landscape.

Mitali Perkins was born in India and has lived in Bangladesh, Cameroon, Ghana, Mexico, Thailand, Great Britain, and the San Francisco Bay area. She is the author of numerous books. Visit her website http://mitaliperkins.com/.

The Jumbies

The Jumbies


The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste is a middle grade fantasy filled with magical creatures from Caribbean folk tales. Baptiste, who is from Trinidad, grew up with stories about forest dwelling creatures, some evil, some sneaky tricksters, who come at out night do mischief and prey on anyone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. During the day, Jumbies masquerade as members of the community and might be your next door neighbor. There are douens, spirit babies who appear as children with their feet and knees on backward, and La Diabless, beautiful women who wear long white dresses with big fancy hats and have one cow’s hoof in place of a foot. Soucouyants are old ladies who shed their skin at night, shape-shift into balls of fire, and fly around sucking people’s blood, and there are the chain-wearing, coffin-carrying lagahoo.

Set on an island in the Caribbean, eleven-year-old Corinne La Mer must call upon the magic inside of her to save her father from an evil Jumbie who possessed him and has organized a Jumbie army to destroy the entire island. Corinne gets help from homeless brothers, Bouki and Malik, and a timid East Indian girl named Dru.

This exciting and suspenseful adventure comes with some lessons about accepting differences, taking care of the homeless, and making room for everyone, including Jumbies whom the islanders have pushed into dwindling habitat.

It was nice to read a fantasy based on Afrocentric lure. Anyone bored with dragons and unicorns, vampires and werewolves, check out The Jumbies. Learn more about Tracey Baptiste at: https://traceybaptiste.wordpress.com.

Tru & Nell

Tru & Nelle


Tru & Nelle by Greg Neri is a middle grade novel about celebrated American authors, Truman Capote and Nelle Harper Lee, when they were children and best friends growing up in the small Alabama town of Monroeville during the early 1930s. I was aware of Capote and Lee’s association as adults living in New York City, but was amazed to learn that the writers had been childhood friends. From a young age, Truman and Nelle were making up stories. If you’ve ever wondered where greatness begins, Tru & Nelle provides a peek at the early personalities of these prodigious talents and shares some of the character-molding experiences that informed their writing.  

The story follows fashionable and refined seven-year-old Truman and rough-and-tumble six-year-old Nelle, from their first encounter through various escapades while seeking enigmatic happenings like the ones in their favorite Sherlock Holmes adventures. Suspense and intrigue were hard to find in sleepy Monroeville, but Truman and Nelle knew all they had to do was wait, and eventually, a first-class whodunit would turn up.

Equally precocious, Truman and Nelle know the pain of growing up with an absent parent. Nelle’s father provides stability during the long absences of her mother who suffers from mental illness. Truman’s rascal of a father and self involved mother uproot him from New Orleans, and deposit him in Monroeville to stay with his adult cousins, eccentric siblings who live together in the family home. The two misfits forge a friendship based on empathy and love of books.

From their tree house headquarters, Nelle, Truman, and his young cousin, Big Boy, read, discuss literature, and ponder the connection between two cases of local vandalism, and a mysterious snake pit. Add in a cast of characters including Truman’s big-boned African-American cook named Lil Bit, a bully called Boss, and Catfish, his Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon dad.

Tru & Nelle is inspired by true stories from the memoirs of Capote’s cousin and aunt. Some of the capers are far-fetched, but in his author’s notes Neri states, “the more outrageous and unbelievable a scene, the closer it is to real life.” Neri’s voice has just the right amount of old fashioned elegance and southern charm to capture the time, place, and spirit of the tale. Characters Scout, Dill, and Jem, in Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, are based on Nelle, Truman, and Big Boy, aka, Jennings Carter. Middle graders and adults will love this book. Learn more about author Greg Neri at: http://www.gregneri.com.

Inside Out & Back Again

Inside Out and Back Again

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai is a sometimes funny, sometimes sad, always insightful account of a young Vietnamese refugee. Written as a free verse journal, Há Mã begins her story in the bustling city of Saigon, Vietnam, where she lives a middle class life with her three older brothers and mother. The year is 1975 and her country is engaged in a civil war with the Communists from the north in a battle against the south. Her father was a naval officer, fighting for the south when he became missing in action nine years ago. Her family does not know what happened to him, if he is dead or alive. As the fighting get closer to Saigon and the American soldiers leave, life becomes more difficult. The family has less food to eat and her mother must find extra work. Many of their friends are fleeing the country. Há doesn’t want to leave but when it becomes apparent that the north is going to overtake the south, Há’s uncle arranges for the family to flee the country on a ship.

Carrying one pack each, Há and her family leave their home and board a crowded ship. The trip out of Vietnam is dangerous with too many people and not enough food until an American ship rescues them. They land on the island Guam and live in a refugee tent city until they travel to  another tent city in Florida. From there, a man in Alabama sponsors her family. They begin a new life in the basement of their sponsor’s home in Alabama.

Adjusting to life in a new country is not easy for Há and her family. The food tastes terrible. The neighbors don’t like them. Her mother must go to work in a factory, and her brother, who was studying to be an engineer, gets a job repairing cars.  Há’s job is to learn English, which is difficult and perplexing. She goes from being one of the brightest students in her class in Vietnam to feeling stupid in her middle grade American school. The children make fun of her and a bully taunts her daily. Há and her family find allies and friends, and little by little, make a place for themselves.

Há’s story is based on Thanhha Lai’s experiences as a refugee from Vietnam whose family settled in Alabama. Inside Out and Back Again was her debut novel and won many awards including the Newbery Honor and National Book Award.


A Single Shard


A Single Shard


A Single Shard is a quiet book about a boy living in a small coastal village in mid to late 12th century Korea. The boy called Tree-ear has lived most of his life under a bridge with Crane-man, who although poor and disabled, took him in when he was orphaned as a young child. Tree-ear and Crane-man live in poverty, struggling for each meal, but their life together is rich in love and companionship.

Tree-ear is fascinated with pottery, which his village is famous for. He spies on the potters while they work, wishing he could learn the skill. He gets his chance when he begins to work for Master Min, the best potter in the village. Tree-ear hopes to become Master Min’s apprentice and learn how to make pottery, but the gruff Master keeps him busy chopping wood, collecting clay from the river bank, and refining the clay for pots and glazes. When Tree-ear finally gets up the nerve to ask Master Min to accept him as an apprentice he learns that the pottery trade is handed down from father to son. Master Min’s son died and an orphan like Tree-ear could not take his place. The news devastates Tree-ear at first, but if he cannot learn how to throw pots on the wheel, he will teach himself to mold clay into figurines.

When an emissary from the royal court travels to his village looking for a potter to award a royal commission, Min’s pottery, although finely crafted, loses to Kang’s innovative new technique of inlay. Master Min’s only chance for consideration is to incorporate the inlay technique into his pottery and send an example to the court. Min cannot travel the distance over mountains to reach the court, so Tree-ear offers to deliver the beautiful vases for him.

Tree-ear sets out on an adventure that will take him over mountains, through many small villages and a big city. Most people are kind, but Tree-ear knows there are dangerous animals and bandits along the way that he must avoid. Unfortunately, he cannot avoid the bandits. They steal his money and throw the prized pots over a cliff. All that is salvageable from the beautiful pots is one single shard. It takes all of Tree-ear’s courage to fulfill his duty.

Through Tree-ear’s chores, the reader learns about the process of pottery making in the 12th century. In a voice that is gentle and at times poetic, Tree-ear reveals his thoughts and feelings and shows us the culture and society of that time.

Linda Sue Park, a Korean American, won the Newbery Award and many others for A Single Shard. She has written numerous novels, and picture books for children.

Return To Sender


Return to Sender is a story about a family of undocumented Mexican migrant workers and the American family who employs them to work on their dairy farm in Vermont. The story is told by two sixth graders, Mari Cruz, the oldest of three sisters whose father and uncles work on the dairy farm, and Tyler Paquette, who lives on the farm with his parents and grandmother. Mari tells her story through a series of lyrical and heartfelt letters and journal entries, while Tyler relates his experience directly. Ms. Alvarez peppers the story with Spanish words easily understood through context.

Both Mari and Tyler are grieving the recent deaths of a grandparent. Tyler misses his grandfather deeply and has been depressed about it. Mari grieves the loss of her grandmother, but she is more worried about her mother who has been missing for almost a year. Her family fears she did not survive the dangerous trip across the border from Mexico to the US.

It is against the law to hire immigrants who have come into the US illegally and do not have the proper documents to work. Tyler’s family hires the undocumented Mexican workers after Tyler’s father is unable to work due to a farming accident. Without enough workers, they will have to sell the farm. Tyler knows that his family is breaking the law, and at first he doesn’t want them on his farm. With time he reasons that the Mexicans need the work and his family needs the workers. He has made friends with Mari and her family and knows that they are good people. Tyler comes to believe that the law, which prevents Mari’s family from working, is unfair.

The following year brings challenges and changes for to both families. Although Mari reunites with their mother, the family is deported back to Mexico. With nobody to help them run the farm, Tyler’s family has to sell it. Mari and Tyler continue their friendship through letters and visits.

The title, Return to Sender, was the name of a 2006 dragnet called Operation Return to Sender which raided many workplaces around the US, deporting undocumented workers. Although it is a fictional story, many undocumented workers in the US experience the struggles of Mari and her family. This beautiful book introduces children to both sides of the immigration debate. It gives a face to the thousands of families who take great risks to come to the US for the chance at a better life.

Julia Alvarez was born in New York City and lived as a child in the Dominican Republic and New York. She is an accomplished writer of adult fiction, essays, poetry and books for young readers. She is best known for her novels, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In The Time of The Butterflies. She lives on a farm in Vermont.


PS Be Eleven

PS Be Eleven

PS Be Eleven is the sequel to the wonderful and critically acclaimed One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. Set in the late sixties, both books tell the story of the Gaither sisters: Fern, the youngest, Vonetta, the middle sister, and Delphine, the oldest, who tells the story. In One Crazy Summer, the Gaither sisters travel alone from their home in Brooklyn, New York, to Oakland, California to visit with their mother who left them when Fern was a baby. During the course of their visit, the girls bond with their poet mother and develop a new sense of independence as they are expected to fend for themselves. They attend the Black Panthers summer program for kids where they learn about black pride, and become a part of the Black Power movement.

In PS Be Eleven, the Gaither sisters return to Brooklyn after their summer in Oakland to big changes at home. Their father has a fiancé, and their uncle, Darnell, is fighting in Vietnam. Their grandmother, Big Ma, hasn’t changed a bit. She’s old fashioned and doesn’t appreciate Black Power, or her granddaughters’ new attitude.  Delphine, who is older than her years from being responsible for her sisters, must learn how to pull back, and let her sisters assume some of the responsibility as everyone grows up. She is also facing sixth grade, being the tallest girl at the school dance, and how to get tickets to the Jackson Five concert.

Author Rita Williams-Garcia renders a sensitive portrait of Delphine as she works her way through the changes to her family and the change in the way she sees them and the larger world.

It’s a great read, and like One Crazy Summer, it leaves you wanting more. The girls are headed south to visit Big Ma in the next installment, Gone Crazy in Alabama.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming (Newbery Honor Book) by Jacqueline Woodson http://www.amazon.com/dp/0399252517/ref=cm_sw_r_pi_dp_6xwlvb000G0ND

In Brown Girl Dreaming, author Jacqueline Woodson describes her childhood growing up in Ohio, South Carolina, and Brooklyn, New York through a collection of lyrical poems. Brown Girl Dreaming engages all of the senses to express experiences and feelings that are both universal and uniquely her own.

Ms. Woodson was born in Ohio in 1963, the same year of the Birmingham, Alabama children’s campaign at the height of the civil rights movement.  Woodson believes that growing up during the sixties and seventies, a time of upheaval and social change, helped to form who she is.

On her website, Ms. Woodson said, “I wanted to understand who my mom was before she was my mother and I wanted to understand exactly how I became a writer. So I started researching my life, asking relatives and talking to friends – and mostly, just letting myself remember.”

Although she lived her early years in Ohio, her father’s home, Woodson moved to South Carolina with her mother and siblings when her parents separated. Her family moved in with her mother’s parents in a house in the country surrounded by farmland where her grandfather cultivated a garden that provided fresh vegetables for the family.

Woodson’s poems from that time describe a wonderful childhood, surrounded by nature and the love of her family. She was especially close to her grandfather. Her mother travelled to New York to find work and eventually moved the family to Brooklyn, New York. Woodson tells stories about her experiences in New York, her best friend, Maria, her grandfather’s death, and her strict religious upbringing.

As a child, Ms. Woodson struggled with reading and writing. She taught herself to read and write by reading the same books over and over again until she memorized them, copying the lyrics to songs, and writing down the words to TV commercials. She liked to read picture books even though everyone thought she was too old for them. What young Woodson did best was listen. She was a careful observer and much of what she saw was worked into her stories.

Woodson was good at making up stories but had trouble writing them down. Even with all her difficulties, she knew she wanted to become a writer and she never gave up. Her first book was a collection of seven poems called Butterflies. She cut out pages and stapled them together, writing a poem on each page. In the fifth grade, her teacher told Woodson that she was a writer and had her read a poem that she had written to the class.

We know Ms. Woodson grew up to become a very successful writer. She has written dozens picture books, middle grade, and young adult novels and has won many awards. Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Award for 2014. Visit her website http://www.jacquelinewoodson.com to learn more about the author and her books.



Fifty years ago Selma, Alabama, became the focus of a campaign to register African American voters. Dr. Martin Luther King, joined forces with the student organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had been working on voter registration in Selma since 1963.

Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed voter discrimination, the southern states continued to prevent African Americans from voting by refusing to register them. Unfair and often ridiculous requirements, from having to pay a tax, to reciting portions of U.S. and state constitutions, were mandatory for blacks who tried to register. The state of Alabama, under Governor George Wallace, was determined to prevent blacks from voting. Only two percent of Selma’s African Americans succeeded in registering to vote.

On February 18, 1965, an Alabama State Trooper shot and killed protester Jimmie Lee Jackson when segregationists attacked a small group of people peacefully demonstrating for the vote. SNCC and Dr. King organized a 54 mile march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery to protest Jackson’s murder.

A group of 600 protesters set out on Sunday, March 7. As soon as they crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge, the Alabama State Troopers attacked savagely on foot and horseback, shooting teargas and wielding clubs on the peaceful protesters. The troopers pushed the protesters back across the bridge, beating them mercilessly while news reporters broadcasted the story around the world. They called it Bloody Sunday.

Outrage over Bloody Sunday drew people from all over the country to Selma to support the marchers. On March 9, King led another march but turned back, fearing an attack. That evening a group of segregations brutally beat James Reeb, a young minister from Boston who had joined the protesters. He later died of his wounds.

George Wallace tried to prevent the protesters from getting a permit to march, but a U.S. district court judge overruled him and a new march was planned. President Johnson went on television to pledge support for new voting rights legislation.

On March 21, 2,000 people set out to walk from Selma to Montgomery, protected by U.S. army federal troops and the Alabama National Guard. They traveled 12 hours per day and camped out in fields along the way. On March 25, the protesters arrived in Montgomery and joined forces with additional supporters, swelling their numbers close to 50,000. After Dr. King delivered a speech at the State Capital Building, the marchers tried to deliver a petition to Governor George Wallace, but refused to appear. They presented the petition to his secretary instead. Later that evening, members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered Viola Liuzzo while she was driving marchers back to Selma. Liuzzo was a mother of five from Detroit who had come to Alabama to support voter registration.

That August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act which guaranteed blacks the right to vote and banned practices that prevented voter registration. This legislation made it possible for blacks to elect African American officials to represent them.

I continue to be amazed and proud of the ordinary people who fought for freedom and justice in our country. Take some time to remember these brave Americans. You can learn more about the Selma marches at http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/selma-montgomery-march