Hunger Winter by Rob Currie

Hunger Winter by Rob Currie
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Genre: Historical, Middle Grade, Inspirational
Length: Full (272 pgs)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rated: 4 stars
Review by Rose

Thirteen-year-old Dirk has been the man of the house since his papa disappeared while fighting against the Nazis with the Dutch Resistance. When the Gestapo arrests Dirk’s older sister, who is also a Resistance fighter, Dirk fears that he and his little sister, Anna, might be next.

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This is an exciting look back at a time in history when life was hard for everyone–the period of the Hongerwinter, the Dutch famine of 1944-1945 during the time the Netherlands was occupied by Germany, at the end of World War II. I have to admit I did not know much about this part of the war before reading this book, and it has spurred my interest to learn more.

Told from the points of view of Dirk, a 13-year-old boy who is trying to find his way to safety with his young sister, Anna, and his older sister Els, who is part of the Resistance and has been captured by the Gestapo, Hunter Winter, shares a  snapshot of the dangers and difficulties that people were facing during this time. It’s written simply so a child could understand, but is full of suspense at the same time and kept this grandmother on the edge of her seat wondering how these children would be able to survive…. to the extent that I finished the book in one sitting.

There is a Christian message throughout the book; not heavy-handed but enough to show where this family gets its strength. One of the many pieces of advice Dirk’s father had shared with him was “Keep your hopes up and your prayers strong,” and it definitely helped him as he struggled to keep his sister safe.

I highly recommend this book to families with children 10 and up. It might be a little much for younger kids, but it’s important that our children learn about times like these so hopefully they’ll know enough to keep history from repeating itself. There are some violent moments, but this was a violent time, so to leave those elements out would have been doing the readers a disservice.

The author has obviously put a lot of research into this time period and, until I reached the end of the book and discovered the characters were fictional, I would have sworn the author was telling a story torn out of his own family’s history–the characters were that real to me. Good job, sir.

Frederick Fly-Catcher by Helen C. Johannes

Frederick Fly-Catcher by Helen C. Johannes
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Middle Grade, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (80 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Frederick the frog isn’t looking for adventure. His life in the family pond—hanging out and catching flies—is perfect. Or it would be if a bully wasn’t harassing the youngest frogs. To defend them, Frederick accepts a fly-catching challenge, but what he catches isn’t an insect. It’s a magic ring, and Frederick has swallowed it! Whenever he burps or coughs, something terrifying happens to the pond.

“Frogs shouldn’t have anything to do with human things,” says wise Uncle Ben, so to protect his family, Frederick must leave the only world he knows.
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The world beyond the pond is frightening, but rather than hide or mope, Frederick sets out to get rid of this dangerous human thing. His only hope is to find the small human who tossed the ring into the pond, the boy chased by big men and bigger horses. The boy is in trouble, too, but how can Frederick, one little frog, save a human, much less the pond from an evil sorcerer?

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, including small, green ones.

This was the first time I ever remember reading about a character who accidentally swallowed a magic ring. Small details like that one were what made Frederick’s adventures stand out to me. While they followed many of the rules about what should happen in a fantasy story, the ones they purposefully bent in order to surprise or delight the audience were what made this such a fun read. The author clearly knew this genre well, and it showed.

I would have liked to see more attention paid to the world building in this story, especially when it came to the characters and their backstories. There were some fascinating things going on with the other creatures Frederick met while he was on his quest to get the magic ring out of his throat and back to wherever it was supposed to go. The connections between everyone were briefly touched upon, but there was so much going on that it sure would have been helpful if those explanations had been a bit longer and more detailed.

The magic in this universe was delightfully unpredictable. At first I wondered what the rules governing it were, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t meant to figured out ahead of time. Anything could happen each time Frederick burped, coughed, or otherwise jostled it as it was lodged in his throat. The best thing I could do was to relax and enjoy the ride, so that’s exactly what I did.

Frederick Fly-Catcher should be read by anyone who is looking for a lighthearted adventure.

A Boy in a Park: Tales of Wonder and Despair by Richard Parkin

A Boy in a Park: Tales of Wonder and Despair by Richard Parkin
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Middle Grade, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense/Mystery, Horror, Paranormal, Contemporary, Historical
Length: Full Length (188 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

The naive, misguided rascals in this charming collection of short stories wear their hearts on grubby, unwashed sleeves. From the boy who masters the art of conducting herons to the boy who just wants to be left to his daydreams, they long for a better life only to be led astray by talking animals, charismatic strangers, and their own too vivid imaginations.

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It was easy to forget that these tales were about ten separate boys because every one of them had the same naive, mischievous, and insatiably curious personality. Not only that, the background details of their lives were either nonexistent or so vague that one boy’s life story often blended into the next. Even their names were a mystery. I’ve never read a collection like this and truly enjoyed jumping from one world to the next while knowing that the protagonists would always be comfortingly predictable.

One thing I do wish the author had been more clear about were the time periods everything was set in. Some characters seemed to live centuries ago when orphans were left to live on the streets in large cities and fended for themselves from very tender ages. Other characters had a much more modern feel to them. Even these were educated guesses, though, as the narrator was always reluctant about explaining background information clearly. That made it hard at times to picture who the protagonists were and why they were so alone in the world.

There were so many genres represented in this book that I’d be hard-pressed to narrow it down to only one. Some of the boys lived in gentle fantasy worlds. Others were more firmly rooted in the horror, paranormal, or mystery genres. It was pretty interesting to move between all of these different types of storytelling as well to shift from what appeared to be the past and the present.

A Boy in a Park: Tales of Wonder and Despair was a mesmerizing collection that I’d recommend to anyone who loves being given a lot of freedom to come up with their own interpretations about what’s happening in a plot.

Reaching for the Moon by Katherine Johnson

Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson by Katherine Johnson
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Genre: Non-Fiction, Autobiography, YA
Length: Full Length (256 pgs)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

The inspiring autobiography of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who helped launch Apollo 11.

As a young girl, Katherine Johnson showed an exceptional aptitude for math. In school she quickly skipped ahead several grades and was soon studying complex equations with the support of a professor who saw great promise in her. But ability and opportunity did not always go hand in hand. As an African American and a girl growing up in an era of brutal racism and sexism, Katherine faced daily challenges. Still, she lived her life with her father’s words in mind: “You are no better than anyone else, and nobody else is better than you.”
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In the early 1950s, Katherine was thrilled to join the organization that would become NASA. She worked on many of NASA’s biggest projects including the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first men on the moon.

Katherine Johnson’s story was made famous in the bestselling book and Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures. Now in Reaching for the Moon she tells her own story for the first time, in a lively autobiography that will inspire young readers everywhere.

This woman got to the moon without ever leaving the ground.

I’m fascinated by those who can do math. I don’t mean the 2+2 kind. I mean the kind that sorts out how to get a rocket off the ground, geometry, high level algebra… you know, the people who can get things to the moon and back. Katherine Johnson is a bit of an unsung hero. Sure, she’s the subject of the movie Hidden Figures, but there’s a lot more to this woman and the best place to learn about her is from the woman herself.

I didn’t realize right away that this was a YA book. It’s listed in the library as YA, but it reads more like a conversation. Katherine Johnson’s autobiography talks about many parts of her life and doesn’t pull punches. She mentions her first marriage and how Jimmy passed. How it was hard to be a woman in the computing industry and how hard her family fought to get her an education. I loved how she taught her brothers to read because she thought they were behind, but it was more that she was so far ahead!

If you’re looking for a book that’s delightful and reminds the reader what’s important in life–getting an education and being happy while doing your work because you’re doing what you love, then this is the book for you.

Digger Doyle’s Book of Real Monsters by Daniel Warriner

Digger Doyle’s Book of Real Monsters by Daniel Warriner
Publisher: BWL Publishing Inc.
Genre: Middle Grade, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (210 pages)
Age Recommendation:10+
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Digger Doyle was eight when his father set off on a secret adventure but did not return. Three years later, a page from his father’s ancient book is sent to Digger from northern Japan—a page only he can read. With his wild cousins, he sails to Japan and meets the super smart Yukiko Satori. Together they venture into the shadowy woods around the eerie Mount Osore to search for a ferocious creature called a Kappa and any clues as to the whereabouts of Digger’s father. The forest is dying. The river is poison. Animals are fleeing. Something is terribly wrong. Digger must face his deepest fears to stop it, and discovers that even when things seem gone in the dark, they are often still there.

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There were some truly magical creatures in this world. I liked the way the author spent time explaining their looks and abilities to the audience, especially since I don’t have a great deal of knowledge of Japanese and Asian folklore. It was nice to have such clear images of what these creatures were and why people reacted to them the way that they did. Some of the beasts were feared while others were deeply respected. They were all worth getting to know!

The pacing of this book was slow in the beginning. I struggled to remain interested in it until the plot picked up even though I was originally pretty interested in the subject matter. While I was grateful for the backstory and world building that were established early on, it sure would have been nice to have more action in the plot to keep my interest levels high until Digger’s adventures truly began.

One of the things I liked the most about this tale were the detailed, imaginative descriptions. Mr. Warriner painted such vivid pictures of the places Digger visited that I could see all of them perfectly clearly in my mind. It was like I was exploring those forests, rivers, and other places right beside him! They made me wonder what might happen next and if the places Digger visited would have even more surprises for him than I expected.

I’d recommend Digger Doyle’s Book of Real Monsters to anyone who enjoys adventure novels.

The Big Book of Silly Jokes for Kids by Carole P Roman

The Big Book of Silly Jokes for Kids by Carole P Roman
Publisher: Rock Ridge Press
Genre: Contemporary, Young Adult
Length: Short story (149 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Aloe

800 silly jokes, limitless learning

The Big Book of Silly Jokes for Kids is chock full of knock-knock jokes, riddles, tongue twisters, and silly stats for endless hours of hilarious entertainment. The funny thing is―in reading and telling the jokes―kids improve their reading comprehension and verbal skills. The learning is hidden in the yuks!

This collection of jokes for kids is fully illustrated, family-friendly, and filled with modern, inclusive material. Prompts also encourage kids to write their own gags. These knee-slappers even get more challenging with each chapter, so this book tickles funny bones of all ages. Kids will be bursting to share the laughs every chance they get (parents, you’ve been warned).

The key word here is silly! You could also say they were “punny”. There are over 800 hundred jokes in this book and the majority of them will keep your children in stitches.

It’s broken down into the following Chapters:

Knock, Knock
Tongue Twisters
Wait For It…
Your Turn
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Some samples for you:

What are the strongest days of the week? Saturday and Sunday. Every other day is a weak day. (I told you they were “punny”.)

Knock Knock. Who’s there? Thumpin’. Thumpin’ who? There’s thumpin’ furry crawling up your back.

Shelly shaved six silly sheep. (Try saying this multiple times.)

I tried to catch some fog, but I mist.

What tells the time but needs no winding? A rooster.

Jada, why can’t dinosaurs clap? Jada thinks for a minute and says because they are extinct.

The last section is where you can create your own jokes.

My favorite part were the Silly Stats. Here’s an example of those:

Laughter is good for you! It decreases the chemicals in our bodies that makes us sick and increases the ones that make us feel better.

No matter what sense of humor you have this book will talk to you. Some of the jokes are corny. Some change the words to make it rhyme. Why not have fun with what you read? Some of these jokes remind me of ones I heard in grade school and that was a long time ago. Evidently Knock, Knock jokes will never go away…

Buying this book will make everyone in the family feel better.

Ruby’s Christmas Gifts by Nancy Oswald

Ruby’s Christmas Gifts by Nancy Oswald
Publisher: Filter Press
Genre: Action/Adventure, Historical, Holiday, Childrens
Length: Short story (30 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Aloe

It’s Christmas time in 1896 Cripple Creek, Colorado, and Ruby May Oliver and her donkey, Maude, roam the streets in search of Maude’s missing foal. Along the way, Ruby comes upon four people in need of gifts—gifts she discovers she can give. This gentle tale, enhanced by the evocative illustrations of Nathaniel Jensen, is a great read-aloud or independent read for grades 2 thru 4. Readers who have enjoyed the antics and adventures of Ruby May Oliver and her donkey, Maude, through the award-winning Ruby and Maude Adventure series, are in for a treat with this heartwarming story as Ruby enters more and more deeply into the true spirit of Christmas.

Ruby is getting ready for Christmas. Her father has gone to town to get a surprise so she bundles up and goes out to look at the stars in the sky. She’s having fun naming the star constellations and then their mule gets upset and interrupts her. When she checks Maude out, she finds Willie is missing. She takes Maude and her cat on the hunt for the baby mule.
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She finds Willie has headed into town. She leaves her father a note and heads out. When they reach the town, she and Maude help an old lady take her luggage to the hotel. The woman gives her a pin shaped like a Christmas star. She meets a young girl who is sad because they have no money for presents. Ruby makes a present of her hat.

A young boy is picking up trash but his hands are cold. She gives him a present of her gloves. And a disabled miner gets her silver dollar.

You’ll never guess where she finds Willie and her cat. She’s even more pleased about her surprise.

This is a well told tale with a common theme of kindness. Just what we all need at Christmas as well as all year long. Ruby would make a good friend.

Seacity Rising: A Tale of Unwatery Adventures by Elika Ansari

Seacity Rising: A Tale of Unwatery Adventures by Elika Ansari
Publisher: Black Rose Writing
Genre: Middle Grade, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (232 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

When the underwater animals of Seacity pond learn that their home is in danger, they decide to investigate further by doing something no one has ever done before – go up to land to seek the answers they need. An unlikely team of two royal turtles, a genius goldfish and a timorous frog are then assembled to embark on a series of adventures. Whether they are racing the fastest tortoise on earth, falling in love with travelling mice theatre, or bringing peace to warring ant colonies, each unique experience is taking the group of friends closer to the heart of what is really going on. But will they make it back in time to save Seacity before the Winter’s Slumber?

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This book was filled with plot twists. I was impressed with how imaginative they were, especially as Babak the Frog and his friends went further into their journey to discover why their home is in danger and what they should do to try to keep it safe. It was fun to be surprised by all of the wonderful and sometimes frightening things they learned along the way.

There were pacing issues in the beginning. While I liked getting to know all of the pond inhabitants so well, this didn’t leave as much room as I would have liked to see for plot development. I had trouble remaining interested in what would happen next because of that. The pacing did eventually pick up, but I do wish the beginning had been easier to get into.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about this tale was how much empathy the characters had for each other. Life wasn’t always easy in the pond or the land that surrounded it, but so many of the creatures who lived there were committed to helping each other when they had troubles. I’m always interested in reading about characters who are that compassionate and kind. Luckily, there were plenty of them to be found here!

I’d recommend Seacity Rising: A Tale of Unwatery Adventures to anyone who cares about animals.

Taking Wing by Clemency Crow

Taking Wing by Clemency Crow
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Length: Full Length (200 pgs)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rated: 3.5
Review by Rose

Twelve-year-old Freya enjoys karate and is the only one in her class who’s trusted with a part-time job. But everything changes when she meets a boy with yellow eyes. She learns about the guardians, and how an age-old fight has prevented them from fulfilling their purpose.

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But as the guardians’ war rages on, Freya realises that, although the shadow’s power can be useful, it can’t create peace. To do that, Freya and her friends must solve the mysterious crime that began the war. Can they bring the guardians together before they destroy each other?

Ms. Crow did a good job setting up the world in this first book of her Feather Down series. The world, in a different realm than humanity, is “peopled” by various bird clans who serve as Guardians over human beings. Unfortunately, they have found themselves involved in a generations-long war that takes up all their time and energy and keeps them from fulfilling their mission.

This is an ensemble piece that puts together Freya and her friends so they can work with the clans and help get them back together so they can fulfill their purpose. This group of young creatures also serve to show their elders the importance of judging everyone on their own merits, not just assuming you know what they will do or think based on the group they belong to.

There were a few cases of continuity issues and some word choices I found distracting, but this could very well be because I am an editor at my IRL job and things like that jump out at me. The average reader (especially ones on the middle-grade level which this book is aimed at) probably would not have an issue.

The action and the characters were well-done enough that these few issues did not take me out of the book much. The action–especially the further into the book I got–was non-stop and well-written with some amazing twists. I could see the action in my mind’s eye and think this would make a wonderful movie with the special effects available today.

I’m looking forward to the next book in this series.

The Jumble Sale by Lily Rose

The Jumble Sale by Lily Rose
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Middle Grade, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (68 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Zadi is part zombie, part fairy with a little bit of robot, which makes her a misfit monster. She lives with other misfit monsters, with their quirky parts in their makeshift town. They survive by hunting at the nearby hunting grounds taking items discarded by humans and making them into something useful. Hunting is risky because they could be captured by humans. Zadi is an excellent hunter and maker, but now she’s finding it difficult.Something unusual has happened. There have been no new deliveries to the hunting grounds. This means there are no new items which can be used to recycle into something useful, and they are beginning to worry and fight with each other. Can Zadi come up with a plan which will help the misfit monsters and bring them together as a community? Enter the world of the misfit monsters, their quirky lives, and be part of their fun and adventures.

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One of the first things that attracted me to the blurb was the references to the characters having ancestry from a wide variety of different types of creatures. I truly enjoyed seeing what the author thought someone would be like if, for example, they were part zombie, fairy, and robot. There was so much creativity woven in these moments that they made me curious to see what Ms. Rose will come up with next. I’d definitely like to see more of her ideas in the future.

With that being said, the cast of characters for this story was so huge I had a lot of trouble remembering who everyone was. There were something like fifteen different individuals featured in the plot. At less than seventy pages, there simply wasn’t enough room for all of them to get a fair chance to shine in the storyline or for the audience to get to know who they were. This would have worked much better as either a full-length novel or a series of short stories that focused on a few characters at a time in my opinion.

The world building was well done. Zadi and the other misfit monsters lived in a society that relied on human trash to survive but that also wanted as little to do with humans as possible. These sometimes contradictory rules lead to all sorts of interesting developments in how they spent their time. I can’t go into a great deal of detail about this without giving away spoilers, but I did enjoy the vivid imagery of what her culture looked like.

I’d recommend The Jumble Sale to anyone who enjoys creative science fiction.