October Dawn – by Jim Walker (2001)

October Dawn

It’s late 1962, and Johnny Pera is at his parents’ home in Morro Beach, California for the first time in many years. His father is the head of an organized crime group on the West Coast, overseeing casinos in Las Vegas.

Johnny made the decision many years ago to separate himself from the family business. He also rejected the family’s Catholic background, choosing a Protestant church instead and becoming a minister. He married, had two kids, and then was widowed. His kids are teenagers now, but have never met their father’s relatives. But it’s Johnny’s parents’ 50th anniversary, and he takes the kids to meet their grandparents for the first time.

Continue reading “October Dawn – by Jim Walker (2001)”

My Year In The Middle – by Lila Quintero Weaver (2018)

My Year In The Middle

Lu Olivera is constantly in the middle of things. It’s 1970 in Alabama, and the public schools have just been integrated. In her 6th grade room, the white kids are seated to one side, the black kids to the other side, and hispanics and “others” occupy the middle section.  There’s also a political divide. Governor Albert Brewer is running against George Wallace. Some of the students’ families support Brewer, some support Wallace. Then there’s the rivalry between their school and the neighboring school, against which they will be competing on Field Day. And of course there are circles of friends at school that don’t get along with different circles of friends.

It’s a confusing world. Why does everyone have to be so divided? Thankfully, Lu has caring parents, a protective older sister, and kind neighbors that give her a solid base while she grapples with the issues of race, politics, and just plain meanness.

The book was inspired by the author’s own experience of coming to the United States from the country of Argentina. Although Lu and the town in the story are fictional, the racial tension and the political campaign are true. This novel is a good read for anyone 4th grade through adult.

Necessary Lies – by Diane Chamberlain (2013)

necessary lies

It’s 1960, and newly-married Jane Forrester has just gotten a job as a social worker for Grace County in North Carolina. She wants to help disadvantaged families, so this seems like a good fit. The work is harder than she thought it would be. Her clients live in tiny, primitive shacks in the middle of nowhere. They need so many basic things – food, clothes, shoes, indoor plumbing, and medical care. They are all on welfare, and it’s up to Jane to monitor them for signs of unreported income, or neglect or abuse of their children.

Jane quickly becomes attached to the Harts – grandmother Nonnie, 17-year-old Mary Ella, her 2-year-old son Baby William, and 15-year-old Ivy. They live in an old cabin on a tobacco farm, and are given free rent in exchange for working on the farm. The little family doesn’t function well. The grandmother has diabetes that she does not manage well, Mary Ella has a low IQ, William is mentally underdeveloped, and Ivy is sneaking out at night to meet a boy.

The job quickly becomes unpleasant. Jane’s husband disapproves of her working. Her co-workers complain that she is getting too emotionally attached her clients. And worst of all, she finds out it’s her job to order the sterilization of Ivy. At that time, social workers in North Carolina could petition to have a person – man or woman – sterilized if they had serious medical conditions, a low IQ, or were simply sleeping around. These folks were all on welfare assistance, and more babies meant more cost to the taxpayers.

Jane finds out that Mary Ella has been lied to by the previous social worker, who had her surgically sterilized, while saying her appendix was removed. Now it’s Ivy’s turn. But Jane has a hard time believing that it’s necessary to lie and manipulate her client into doing something she may not want to do.

Although this book is fictional, the background of the story is true. In their attempt to “help” people that they deemed inferior, the Eugenics Sterilization Program in North Carolina sterilized more than 7,000 people. The program began in 1929, continued through the Great Depression and World War II, and was not closed down until 1975. It began mostly with people who were institutionalized, then shifted over to people collecting welfare. It was often done without the patient being told the truth about what was happening, supposed for their own good. Is it ever necessary to lie? That is the question of this book.

Shooting The Moon – by Frances O’Roark Dowell (2008)

Shooting The Moon

Jamie Dexter is a 12-year-old girl living on a military base with her father (the Colonel), mother, and older brother T.J. During summer break from school, she volunteers at the base’s rec center in the morning, when there’s not much happening. Private Hollister, who works there, plays endless card games with Jamie, and they become good friends.

The Dexters have always been a patriotic family. But when T.J. breaks the news to the family that he has enlisted in the army, the Colonel does everything he can to convince him to change his mind in the 30 days before boot camp. But T.J. insists on going, and is quickly shipped out to Vietnam, taking his trusty camera with him.

Letters to the family come from T.J., but they don’t really seem to say much about the war. T.J. also starts sending his sister Jamie rolls of black-and-white camera film to be developed. Instead of taking it to the store to be developed, Private Hollister shows her how to use the darkroom to develop the prints. Jamie soon becomes quite expert at film printing. In each batch of pictures, there is always one of the moon. It is a reminder to Jamie that even though they are on opposite sides of the world, they are still looking at the same moon. The other pictures T.J. takes give Jamie a more realistic understanding of what the war is like. And it’s not a pretty picture.

This novel does a good job of showing what it was like to be the younger sibling of a soldier during the Vietnam War. It shows the love, patriotism, and pride that so many families felt, but also the fear that their loved one might not come home. This novel is suitable for anyone 5th grade or older, and is a good summer read, as the book covers Jamie’s summer.


Running On The Roof Of The World – by Jess Butterworth (2018)

Running On The Roof Of The World

Tash and her friend Sam live in a small village in Tibet, a peaceful and good place until the Chinese army invades and occupies their country. Many of their freedoms disappear including the right to practice their Buddhist religion.  Tash’s father runs a newspaper, and is being told what he must print. As you might suspect, a resistance group springs up to try to regain control of their village, and Tash’s father secretly prints pamphlets.

One night the Chinese police bang on their door, and arrest both parents. Tash escapes only because her mother shoves her out the back window with a backpack, and an important resistance message. She hides in a neighbor’s barn by their yak overnight. In the morning her friend Sam finds her. Together they flee toward the mountains on yaks, and journey toward India. There they hope to speak with the Dalai Lama and deliver the message from the resistance group. The journey is nearly impossible as they battle snow and ice, steep mountain trails, and nomads that are informants to the Chinese.

This historic novel is probably set in the early 1950s, although the book really does not give a point in time. This is an unusual setting for a children’s book, but anyone who is looking for something with a world history twist might enjoy it. Stories like this remind us how fortunate we are to live in a country that gives us the right to worship  as we wish, speak freely, and write journalistic articles that challenge the government in power.

Snow Treasure – by Marie McSwigan (1942)

Snow Treasure

When our first snowfall of the season hit, it seemed the perfect time to pull out one of my favorite childhood novels, “Snow Treasure”. The book was written in 1942, while World War II was still going on. It’s about a small community in Norway in 1940 that is on the verge of becoming Nazi-occupied. A local banker devises a scheme to smuggle a large amount of gold bullion out of the country so that the occupying forces cannot take it. The village children will put bricks of gold on their sleds, and slide down the hill right past the soldiers, then pull the sleds the rest of the way to Uncle Victor’s ship, which will transport it to the United States.

I must say I found the story to be more exciting when I was a kid, believing it to actually be true! As an adult, I can see the improbability of this plan working. There was a fair amount of gold smuggled out of the country, but not by children on sleds. That being said, it makes an inspiring story for children, and shows that even if you’re only ten or twelve, there’s a lot you can do for your community.

The Mighty Miss Malone – by Christopher Paul Curtis (2012)

The Mighty Miss Malone

If you enjoyed either “The Watsons Go To Birmingham 1963” or “Bud Not Buddy”, this book will grab you from beginning to end. Once again the author uses his home state of Michigan as the backdrop. The Malone family starts off living in Gary, Indiana – Father, Mother, 12-year-old Deza, and older brother Jimmie. At the beginning, Deza is a happy child with a best friend Clarice, a librarian that encourages her, and a teacher that she adores. She does not yet realize that financially, her family is hanging on by a thread.

But the country is in the midst of the Great Depression. First Father loses his job, then Mother. Deza’s father leaves for Flint, Michigan, where he hopes to find work. When he goes missing, the rest of the family heads for Michigan as well, determined to find him. The search is much harder than they anticipate; they experience hunger, homelessness, and the hobo life. But through it all, there is hope. Hope that they will someday find Father. Hope that there will be work for Mother. Hope that Deza will get a good education and continue to develop her brilliant mind. Hope that Jimmie will grow to a normal height. But above all, hope that the four of them will be together again as a family.

There were so many things about this book to love. I loved the way the author handled the subjects of poverty and prejudice against African Americans without turning it into an angry story about blacks versus whites. It was more about the Great Depression versus everyone. I loved Mr. and Mrs. Malone, who never allowed their children to feel like victims. They taught love for the family, the value of hard work, and the courage to keep going when the situation looked impossible. I loved Deza, with her passion for books and large words she found in the thesaurus. And I loved big brother Jimmie for his pursuit of work to support his family, despite the fact that he was not even an adult yet.

This is an outstanding book that can be read by anyone from age 10 to 110!


Before We Were Yours – by Lisa Wingate (2017)

Before We Were Yours

Adoption is a beautiful thing – a coming together of children who need a home and someone to love them, and adults who are ready to raise, protect and love them as their own flesh and blood. There are many excellent adoption agencies that put their heart into building families.

But back in the 1920’s, there actually was a woman named Georgia Tann who started her own black market adoption agency. She kept a sharp eye out for children that looked desirable – specifically blonde-haired, blue-eyed ones, and whose parents were poor and uneducated. The children were taken by what was supposed to be protective services, and temporarily kept in a large house where they were meagerly fed, abused and in some cases molested. Then they were sold off to wealthy clients with claims that the birth parents were dead, or had abandoned the children. Incredibly, this racket went on until 1950 before it was legally stopped.

This book is a work of fiction, but is based on events that actually happened to children at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. The child-trafficking organization left a trail of broken hearts and lives behind for decades, even after it was closed. It is almost unbelievable that such a thing could happen here in our country – but it did. It’s up to everyone to listen when children tell us things we don’t want to believe, and to confront evil when it rears its ugly head.

Dead End In Norvelt – by Jack Gantos (2011)

Dead End In Norvelt

What’s an eleven-year-old boy to do if he’s grounded for the entire summer? It’s tough being at home all day, especially with parents who are constantly spatting. Jack’s father hates the town of Norvelt and wants to move elsewhere. His mother is devoted to the senior citizens of the town, and cannot imagine living anywhere else. She grows corn, which she then sells to make money for her casseroles-to-the-elderly meals. When Jack’s father tells him to get out the tractor and mow down Mom’s corn field so that he can make a bomb shelter to hide from the “Commies” if needed, Mom goes ballistic. In her desperation to divert Jack to something other than helping build an underground bunker, she arranges for him to help one of their elderly neighbors, Miss Volker, for the summer.

Miss Volker is the town historian, and she faithfully writes the obituary of anyone in town who dies. But her hands are so crippled with arthritis that she needs a helper at home and a scribe. So Jack becomes her right-hand man. At first he is squeamish about death, but as the summer goes on, he comes to understand it as part of life. In the end, Jack becomes just as fanatical as Miss Volker in making sure that each of Norvelt’s citizens are given a glorious write-up in the newspaper upon their passing.

I love the 1960s flavor that oozes from this novel. The hysteria of the Russian threat. Women taking care of the elderly in the community. Kids being allowed to roam around town unsupervised. The small-town newspaper that everyone reads. The old folks who remember when Eleanor Roosevelt helped to start the town during the Great Depression. (Note: Mrs. Roosevelt did help to build the actual model town of Norvelt.)

The book is categorized as juvenile fiction, but it’s really not suitable for kids to read because of things we don’t want them to try doing. Like Jack driving around Miss Volker’s car with no driver’s license. Or Jack’s friend sneaking him into the local funeral parlor to see a dead person for the first time. Or kids buying rat poison at the hardware store and sprinkling it on top of cookies. Also, the theme of death and dying that permeates the book makes it more suited for teens and adults. Despite the seriousness, there is enough humor in this novel to make it a fine read.


Running Out Of Time – by Margaret Peterson Haddix (1995)

Running Out Of Time

Margaret Peterson Haddix is best known for her book series “Shadow Children” and “The Missing”. But her earliest book – a standalone novel – is “Running Out Of Time”, the story of an Indiana community in 1840. The main character is 13-year-old Jessie, one of six children. Her father is the local blacksmith and her mother the midwife. Although life is full of hard work and no luxuries, Jessie is content with her life.

When several of the neighbor children fall ill with diphtheria, Jessie’s mother begins to act strangely, then quietly tells her daughter a secret: it is actually 1996, not 1840. Years before, the adults in the community made a choice to live without the conveniences of modern life. They agreed to be part of a historic reconstructed village that tourists could view through hidden cameras. The adults all know the truth, while the children are blissful ignorant. Families were supposed to be able to leave any time they wanted, but things have changed and now no one is allowed to leave.

Jessie’s mother is desperate to get some modern medicine for those who are ill, and keep the diphtheria from spreading. She tries to describe the outside world to Jessie, and quietly sends her out to seek a person she believes will rescue them. The new world is a confusing and scary place, but Jessie knows she needs to find someone to help the village before people start dying.

This is a great first novel from Ms. Haddix. There are different recommended reading ages, from 3rd to 8th grade. Personally, I think some of the concepts would be a little overwhelming for third and fourth graders. I would say the book is suited for anyone 5th grade and older.