So Far From the Bamboo Grove – Yoko Kawashima Watkins

A story about a young Japanese girl fleeing Korea at the end of WWII, this is a children’s novel recommended by members of my book club. Published in 1986, the book has lost none of its relevance or punch. Eleven-year-old Yoko is living a happy secure life as the daughter of a Japanese official stationed in North Korea. Everything changes when the U.S. drops nuclear bombs and Japan surrenders. Yoko, her mother and her older sister, Ko, must abruptly flee Communists looking for revenge without her father or older brother.  Having lived the experience, the author is able to bring Yoko to life as a spoiled little girl forced to get tough to survive. The writing is spare, scenes of death, rape and other atrocities delivered without sensationalism yet all the more compelling for the restraint. Will the family get back to Japan and be reunited in this riveting tale of escape and survival? Highly recommended for all ages.

Brown Girl Dreaming – Jacqueline Woodson

brown girl dreamingThis beautifully written memoir is done in verse but don’t let that scare you because it’s a terrific children’s book about a young African American girl growing up in the 1960s. This author is so gifted at evoking the period, you feel you are there. Jackie is born in Ohio, but takes frequent trips to South Carolina to visit her mother’s parents, fun-loving, gardener Grandpa Gunnar and uber religious Grandma Georgiana. Unlike Ohio, the region is still highly segregated and the pace of life much slower. When her parents divorce, Jackie and her siblings end up living with Grandma and Grandpa. In South Carolina, Jackie comes to love the environment and her grandparents despite the racial divide. It’s difficult for everyone when Jackie’s mom decides to move to New York, but Jackie and her siblings eventually adjust and come to love their life in the north as much as the south. Throughout the story, the characters all but leap off the page they are so relatable. A magnificent tour de force in children’s literature.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

charcover15In this whimsical children’s book, Charlie is a poor boy fascinated by a famous chocolate factory owned by mysterious Willy Wonka. He’s thrilled when five tickets are hidden inside candy bars granting a factory tour, but can only afford a few tries and none win. One day, he finds a coin, buys one more and gets a ticket! His Grandpa Joe, 96, goes with him on the tour. The first stop is the Chocolate Room where the kids meet the wonderfully strange Oompa Loompas who run the show. However, greedy Augustus is sucked up by a giant pipe after he falls into the chocolate river. In the Inventing Room, Violet, an obsessive gum-chewer, grabs experimental gum and becomes a giant blueberry. Spoiled Veruca, insists on going into the off-limits Nut Room where she is attacked by squirrels, deemed a bad nut and thrown down the garbage chute. Mike, an aspiring gangster addicted to TV, accidental shrinks himself in the Television Room. As the last child left, sweet Charlie wins a totally unexpected prize, one that changes his life forever. This book spawned two successful movies and is beloved by people of all ages everywhere. 



Out Of My Mind – Sharon Draper

Out_of_My_Mind_novel_by_Sharon_Draper_book_coverMelody Brooks is a girl with cerebral palsy who can’t talk, walk or write. Despite having a photographic memory and being very smart, she’s trapped in a body that doesn’t work. Melody is in Special Ed in school even though she belongs in a regular or advanced classroom. Life changes when she gets a computer that can do the talking for her. Now, she can tell her family she loves them as well as communicate in school. However, Melody faces continuing discrimination because of her appearance, especially when she tries out for the Whiz Kids team, a group of students who compete in trivia contests against other schools. Eventually, she makes the team because her test results are so high, but continues to fight for acceptance from the students as well as the teachers.  This is a wonderful children’s book about inclusion much in the vein of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder.  It’s beautifully written and provides an important lesson in both tolerance and not judging a book by its cover. 

The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events) – Lemony Snicket

BadBeginningThis is the first book in a series of 13 wickedly funny novels for children which follow the turbulent lives of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire after their parents die in a suspicious fire. The children are placed in the custody of their Uncle, Count Olaf, who attempts to steal their inheritance. In the first book, he tries to marry Violet, despite her young age, by pretending it’s the storyline for his latest play. The plan falls through when Violet uses her left hand to sign the marriage document.  In subsequent books, Olaf tries many ways to steal their fortune, committing a slew of crimes along the way. The children routinely try to get help from the adults around them who remain oblivious to danger. These books are short, and the setting interesting in a Victorian-sort of way, but it is the humorous writing style of the author that truly sets them apart.


Little House On The Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder

LittleHousePrairie2This is the third book in a wonderful children’s series about a family of pioneers who help settle the American west.  It’s based on true stories from the life of the author who is the central figure along with Pa, Ma, sister Mary and baby Carrie. In 1869, Pa Ingalls decides to sell their log cabin in the Wisconsin woods and move the family via covered wagon to Indian Territory near Independence, Kansas.  There are rumors the land, still under Osage ownership, will be opened to settlement by homesteaders.  A theme running through the book is Ma’s prejudice against the Indians compared to Pa’s more egalitarian view.  In the end, the family leaves before being forced to by the Army as the land is not yet legally available, and they are off on their next adventure. There are few books that give such vivid flavor of the pioneering experience.  Using a rare technique, they increase in complexity as Laura ages.  I loved following this heart-warming intrepid family as they face the hardships and joys of life on the frontier.


Wonder – R.J. Palacio

wonderSo I cried two times while reading this wonderful children’s book, once because I was sad and once because I was happy. This is truly a wonder of a book — for all ages.  August Pullman was born with a facial deformity.  He’s never been to school. That changes as he enters fifth grade at Beecher Prep.  Auggie wants to be treated normally, but that’s impossible given his looks.  Most kids avoid him, a few are outright mean, one or two are friendly. But, during the year, Auggie makes a place for himself because he’s smart, funny and kind.  The book provides excellent social commentary on the nature of kindness and acceptance.  It’s told primarily from Auggie’s point of view, but we do get other perspectives.  His sister, for example, loves him, but it’s hard for her, too.  She’s been overlooked by their parents and is embarrassed to be seen with him.  Through it all, Auggie’s courage shines strong.  If you ever worried about where to sit in the cafeteria this book is for you.  If you haven’t, read it anyway, because it’s that good!

Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery

anne-green-gablesThis is an endearing children’s book about an orphan whose irrepressible nature earns her a family and a place in the community.  Anne Shirley is sent to Prince Edward Island to the home of a middle-aged brother and sister who want to adopt a boy to help run Green Gables — their Avonlea farm.  Anne is bright, eager to please, talkative and has a wild imagination. Matthew Cuthbert loves her right away.  Marilla Cuthbert wants to send her back — but relents.  Anne drives Marilla crazy with antics such as mistakenly dying her hair green, and inadvertently getting her best friend drunk.  At 16, she goes for a teaching license with friend, Gilbert Blythe.  She does well and earns a scholarship to pursue a bachelor’s degree, but when tragedy occurs, she gives it up to return home.  Gilbert switches teaching slots with Anne, an act that cements their growing relationship.  This book is old-fashioned, harkening back to a simpler time.  Reading it, or another in the series, is like eating meatloaf on Sunday — comfort food for the mind.

Tuck Everlasting – Natalie Babbitt

tuckThe writing is absolutely wonderful in this children’s book about a girl who discovers a family who cannot die.  The scenery becomes a character in and of itself given the author’s rich descriptions. Winnie has everything, wealth and respect, but the summer heat is not nearly as stifling as her gilded cage.  She longs for freedom and adventure.  One day, she encounters the Tucks, a close-knit family with a big secret.  They’re immortal.  Winnie falls in love with Jessie Tuck, and he with her.  Now she has a problem.  Does she drink from the fountain of youth herself and stay with Jessie, or accept the circle of life, knowing she will die?  Ironically, the Tucks seem as if they would make a different decision if they could choose again prompting Winnie to realize that death isn’t to be feared so much as a life not lived.