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January 1, 2011

The Road of the Dead

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The Road of the Dead

Author: Kevin Brooks

Page Length: 339

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Ruben has always been different. He can sense what others are thinking or feeling even when they’re not near him. One night he senses that his sister Rachel is in pain and is gripped by fear. The next day, his family finds out that Rachel was murdered. He and his older brother Cole set out on to avenge her death and find out who killed her. Before long, they are themselves victims of violence. Trapped in a web of deceit and surrounded by people who want to silence them permanently, Cole and Ruben must fight their way out. Their only goal is to take Rachel’s body home for a proper burial... if they can make it back alive.

REVIEW: Typical Kevin Brooks book – edgy, violent, dark, foul mouthed, violent… To some teens though – this might be interesting. I found the book to be a little shallow and unrealistic – 2 boys taking on an entire town – what are the chances? The fact that the girl has been raped and murdered is a little dark (not something the teenage mind always needs more of). The review on the back of the book mentions “brutal, vivid violence” – I totally concur. I would not read this book as a class. On a historical note, the road of the dead was a passageway, funeral processions walked along to arrive to the final resting place of the body many years ago.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: imagery, author’s purpose, sequence of events, cause and effect

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: many – violence, shooting, torture, rape, dead bodies, etc.

RELATED BOOKS: Lucas, Candy, Being


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

December 19, 2010

The First Woman Doctor

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First Woman Doctor by Baker: Book Cover

The First Woman Doctor


Author: Rachel Baker


Page Length: 210


Reading Level: 6


Genre: Biography

PLOT SUMMARY: It’s the early 1800s and Elizabeth Blackwell is a fortunate young woman. She’s been born to a progressive father who believes staunchly in equal rights. He believes in educating both his sons and his daughters broadly rather than confining the girls to studies of the home. He is the greatest champion for his daughters’ future success. Elizabeth will take the courage and determination she inherited and persevere despite hardships. She will often be told no – but she will not take no for an answer. Elizabeth wants to be a doctor, a surgeon, and even start her own medical school. Nothing can succeed in the face of such determination.

REVIEW: This is an excellent book. I love what it teaches everyone about courage and perseverance – where there’s a will there’s a way. Historically this book is also a great look at women’s rights, slavery, and even the treatment of the social classes. This book is an engaging and intriguing look into what early medicine was like (including the use of leeches).

AREAS FOR TEACHING:  sequence of events, cause and effect, character traits, making predictions, analogies, historical context, context clues

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: issues of prejudice

RELATED BOOKS: Mary on Horseback, After the Dancing Days, The Story of George Washington Carver

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: The Blackwell Story (1957)


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

November 15, 2009

Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging

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Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging

Author: Louise Rennison

Page Length: 6      

Reading Level: 247

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: This is a one-year diary account of the thoughts of Georgia Nicolson, a 14 year-old girl from England.  Georgia is the older sister of 3 year-old Libby, best friend of Jaz, and owner of Angus, a mixed breed cat who is very large and mean.

All of Georgia’s thoughts center on how to be a cool, sexy teen and survive the home life with her pet, sibling, and nerdy parents. Georgia relates the feelings she experiences when arriving at a costume party as a stuffed olive, paying Peter for kissing lessons, pretending she is a lesbian, and trying to attract Robbie (the SEX GOD). 

REVIEW: The book is written in a journal form with entries by months, days and hours.  Georgia’s accounts of life are hilarious, yet every teen-age girl can relate in someway to the feelings and experiences she has.  The book includes “Georgia’s Glossary” which defines many of the British/English terms used that Americans will not find familiar. 

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: References to lesbians and making out throughout the book but nothing inappropriate for today’s teen-age exposure

AREAS OF TEACHING: Figurative Language, Characters, Point of View, and Sequence of Events

RELATED BOOKS: On the Bright Side, I’m Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God, Knocked Out by My Nung-Nungas, Dancing In My Nuddy Pants, Away Laughing on a Fast Camel, Then He Ate My Boy Entrancers, Startled by His Furry Shorts, Love is a Many Trousered Thing, and Stop in the Name of Pants

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (2008)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

September 28, 2009

How I Live Now

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How I Live Now

Author: Meg Rosoff

Page Length: 194

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Daisy leaves behind her father and his new wife in New York in search of a sense of family. Daisy’s English cousins take her in with open arms and so a life of love, family, and adventure begins. Her Aunt leaves on a trip leaving the children all alone, and then their lives are irrevocably changed. War has erupted. There are no communications and that’s just the beginning. The children must survive occupation, no food, no medical help, and even separation. The world as Daisy knew it no longer exists. Can she persevere despite the hardships? Is there life after war?

REVIEW: The ideas presented in this book were fascinating. The reader catches a glimpse of the harsh realities of war and the backward trend society is forced to take because of it. With no electricity, supplies, or communication, and not enough weapons, the children must become resourceful and inventive. The characters are realistic and the story line is believable. Who ever stops to consider what we’d do if all our modern conveniences were suddenly non-existent? How would surviving anything so horrific alter the course of your life – if you survived at all? Rosoff tells a beautiful story etched with pain and suffering but enveloped in love and courage. This is a great thinking story and therefore a wonderful discussion piece.

AREAS FOR TEACHING:  character traits, cause and effect, author’s purpose, sequence of events, imagery, realism, first person narration

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: violence – p. 108 enemy attack, p. 105 “brains splattered everywhere,” p. 141 “birds were pecking at the dead face in front of me”

RELATED BOOKS: Dies the Fire by Sterling, 1632 by Flint, Islands In the Sea of Time by Sterling, War of the Worlds, Life of Pi, Hatchet by Paulsen

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Island of the Blue Dolphins (1964), War of the Worlds


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

August 30, 2009

Lion Boy

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Lion Boy

Author: Zizou Corder

Page Length: 275

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Charlie, son to parents of scientists, has a unique skill. He is able to communicate with cats! Due to a mixing of blood between himself and a young cub when Charlie was an infant, Charlie gained the ability to communicate with feline animals. This ability is kept secret from almost everyone.

One day, Charlie discovers that his parents have disappeared. Subsequently, a boy named Rafi forces Charlie to remain with him. Eventually, Charlie escapes from Rafi’s watch and sets out to find his lost parents. With the help of several cats, Charlie is able to gather updates about his parent’s situation. The helpful cats are even able to run notes back and forth between Charlie and his mother & father. On his trip to search for his parents, Charlie joins the circus on a boat bound for Paris. At the circus, Charlie encounters several lions in which he promises to set free and help them return to Africa. The lions, in return, assist Charlie in continuing his search for his family.

Their escape from the circus and subsequent arrival on the Orient Express is a success despite Rafi’s attempts to capture Charlie. While on the Orient Express, Charlie meets the king of Bulgaria who allows Charlie and his lions to remain with him in his lavish train car. As the train speeds towards Venice, the king of Bulgaria agrees to assist Charlie in his quest. The king’s assistant, Edward, reveals to Charlie that his parents have been captured by a drug company because of their knowledge about an asthma cure. Charlie can’t imagine why anyone would want to capture someone who is trying to help humanity. However, his thoughts quickly shift to his main mission – finding his parents and bringing them safely home.

REVIEW: The story ends without a resolution because Lion Boy is a trilogy. The story started out a little slow for me, but about a quarter of the way into the reading, the action began to pick up. Even though the book is fiction, I did find it a little unbelievable that so many cats could communicate effectively enough to allow many of the actions to occur “without a hitch”. There did not seem to be enough road blocks in this story to make it believable. However, I am interested in what the second and third book will reveal. The end of this book reveals the real world element to the story – a possible cure for asthma and the drug company’s attempts to take control of it to prevent it from being distributed.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: creative writing, motivation, cause and effect

RELATED BOOKS: Whittington by Alan Armstrong, Lion Boy: The Chase, Lion Boy: The Truth


REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

Catherine, Called Birdy

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Catherine, Called Birdy

Author: Karen Cushman

Page Length: 212

Reading Level: 8

Genre: Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY & REVIEW: Catherine (Birdy) is the stubborn daughter of Sir Rollo and Lady Aislinn who live in England in the year 1290.  The story is a journal of daily entries of Birdy’s 14th year of life. 

Birdy is being groomed to be a wife and mother by performing the skills that most girls learn at her age.  Birdy, however, does not want to be married off so that her father can collect money for her.  She does practice the skill of medicine well as making several concoctions that remedy many ailments. 

Birdy tells of her day to day life and introduces us to many characters who share her life in the village, castle and manor.  Her father drinks “ale” often and she notes how he often hits or kicks her under the influence.  She refers to her father as a beast and does not understand how her mother could love him.

Birdy spends the year attending weddings, feasts, a monastery and funerals.  All the time, Birdy tries to avoid the thought of being married off by her father and is successful at warding off most of those who call on her.  However, she is promised to an old, man whom she calls Shaggy Beast and spends most of the book worrying about how to avoid marrying him.

REVIEW:  Birdy could be one of the first feminists as she strives to be independent and not forced into marriage. She strives to avoid the common life of women of medieval times.  In the author’s note at the end of the book, Cushman, states that although the characters and events are all fictional, the setting, customs and practices depicted by Birdy follow authentic medieval practices.  

This book would be an interesting novel to read to coincide with a study of the Canterbury tales.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Setting, Theme, Sequence of Events, Point of View

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: references to alcohol and physical abuse

RELATED BOOKS: The Canterbury Tales, Innocent Wayfaring, The Door in the Wall, Adam of the Road, A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Crusades (1935), Elizabeth-The Golden Age (2007), The Sword in the Stone (2001)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

September 23, 2008

Alex Rider Point Blank

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Alex Rider Point Blank

Author: Anthony Horowitz

Page Length: 274

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction, Action/Adventure         

PLOT SUMMARY: As Alex Rider returns to school he feels like an outsider.  He longs for another adventure as he just experienced with the M16 of England’s government.  He soon discovers that things are different at school, and attributes that to Skoda, a former student at his school, who is now dealing drugs to his friends.

Alex takes it upon himself to sabotage Skoda’s drug ring, by lifting a barge with a crane and placing it next to the police station.  His plan goes foul, when the crane breaks and the barge lands in the center of the city conference center.  Although Alex does manage to break up the drug ring, he finds himself in jail.

It is Mr. Blunt and Ms. Jones from the M16 who rescue Alex, but only so that he can help them investigate two recent deaths of wealthy Englishmen.  Alex is sent as a spy (he is only 14 years-old) to a very exclusive boarding school for boys who have been in trouble, either with the law, school, or drugs.  The basic thing all of the boys have in common is that their parents are very, very wealthy. 

In recent weeks, two of the former student’s fathers have died.  The M16 want Alex to learn what, if anything, the boarding school might have to do with the deaths.

 REVIEW: This is the second book of the Alex Rider Series and I am “hooked”.  In this book, Alex, demonstrates even more daring spy moves with little defense or aid.  Because of the high action and adventure, it is hard to put the book down. 

It is an easy fast read which will keep the reader turning one page after another.  I would use this series to help those who think they do not like to read develop leisure reading skills.  If students like spy movies such as the Mission Impossible, Jason Bourne, or James Bond series, I think they would like this book.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Sequence of Events, Compare/Contrast, Cause/Effect/, Conflict

RELATED BOOKS: Stormbreaker, Skeleton Key, Eagle Strike, Scorpia

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: “Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker” (2006), “Mission Impossible l, ll, and lll”, “The Bourne Identity” (2002), “The Bourne Supremacy” (2003), “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

July 1, 2008

No Shame, No Fear

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No Shame, No Fear

Author: Ann Turnbull

Page Length: 293

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: The story begins in Shropshire, England in the 1662. Susanna, a young Quaker girl, works alongside her mother to care and provide for her family after her father is taken away to a debtor’s prison. Suffering is commonplace to her family, and Susanna learns that Quakers maintain dignity and hold steadfast to their beliefs despite the circumstances around them. One day, her path crosses that of a dashing young man, William. William becomes quite taken with Susanna who as chance would have has come to reside in his town as a servant to a printer. Their different social standings and religious backgrounds only seem to complicate their budding relationship. When their friends and parents disagree with their alliance, their new love is put to the test. Can their love survive the circumstances, prejudices, and persecution of their time?

REVIEW: What really made this book interesting was that each chapter alternated the viewpoints of Susanna and William. This would be a great teaching tool for point of view and for catching the interest of both male and female audiences. As a historical novel, it was very enlightening to learn about the Quaker viewpoint and to realize how steadfastly they clung to their beliefs despite imprisonment and in many cases at the risk of losing everything. This novel is very eye opening to the dangers of religious persecution and of the prejudices that are all too often to easily imagined and believed just because someone is different. This novel yields to a good lesson on tolerance and understanding of others. Over all, this book is an informative, interesting read.

For reluctant readers, beginning with an understanding of the times, cultural habits, and beliefs of the Quakers in the late 1600’s would help to improve engagement in the story. This might sound great on audio if it was recorded by both and male and female reader.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: tolerance, diversity, conflict, symbols, compare and contrast, plot, sequence, cause and effect

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: prison, public flogging, prejudice

RELATED BOOKS: American Religious Experience: The Quakers, The Quaker Colonies: A Chronicle of the Proprietors of the Delaware, Forged in the Fire (sequel to No Shame, No Fear), Josie Under Fire, Gunner’s Boy


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

March 12, 2008

The Witches

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The Witches

Author: Ronald Dahl

Illustrator: Quentin Blake

Page Length: 208

Reading Level: 5


REVIEW & PLOT SUMMARY: Ronald Dahl writes an exciting story about witches, a grandmamma, and her orphaned grandson that kept me enthralled as he did in my previous reading of his book, The Giraffe, and the Pelly and Me.  Once again, by looking and reading the cover, I thought this book would be a bit juvenile for the high school student.  However, barely into the first chapter, my attention was captured by the imaginative descriptions Dahl uses in writing a story about witches.


The setting of the story is in Europe, in the countries of Norway and England.  The narrator, a 7-year old boy from England, goes to live with his grandmother who lives in Norway after his parents are killed in a car accident.  Dahl avoids the entire issue of the parent’s dying and quickly establishes the bond that develops between the boy and his story-telling, cigar smoking grandmamma.


Grandmamma loves to tell stories, especially about witches.


Unlike the stereotype image of a witch in black who flies on a broom, across the shadow of a full moon, grandmamma tells her grandson the characteristics he should know about the witches of Norway. First of all, they have no toes, just square feet. They always wear wigs and gloves because they are bald and have no fingernails.  Grandmamma warned him the nasty women had large nose-holes with amazing smelling powers, especially for clean children.  The pupils of their eyes are not black but change colors from fire to ice.  The final characteristic was that their spit is blue. 


The boy had a hard time believing these facts about witches, but he was convinced they had to be true, as his grandmother was the “nicest” person he knew and attended church every Sunday.


The old woman and boy move to England to fulfill the wishes of his parent’s will.  However, grandmamma suffers a case of pneumonia which becomes very serious.  She does recover and at the end of the school term, the odd twosome goes on vacation to Hotel Magnificent in Bournemouth.


This is where the adventure begins.  Whiled training his two pet mice, the boy accidentally gets caught in a meeting room of lovely women called “The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.”    He became intrigued watching them as they all began scratching their heads as if they had nits.  Then, one lady actually scratched so hard her head of hair moved.  A wig!  It only took him a few minutes of observation to realize they actually weren’t lovely women. When the revelation hit him that he was in a room full of witches, he fainted!


As the boy continues to spy on the witches’ meeting, he learns of their plans to destroy all the children of England.  As the meeting comes to a close, one of the sharp-nosed witches smells him.  He is trapped and along with Bruno, another boy staying at the hotel falls prey to the group.


The boys are not killed but their identity changes.  They are able to escape the horrific women and make it back to Grandmamma’s room.  Here, the boy and grandmamma devise a plan to sabotage and destroy the witches.  Grandmamma is quite clever and mischievous for an 82 year old woman.  It is her goal to destroy the evil women of England then, all witches of the world.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: This book is fun and entertaining.  It could easily be made into a movie.  An idea for teaching sequencing would be for students to illustrate the gory events. I also think it would be a good read aloud book or to be read as a class.




REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner


January 30, 2008

Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims

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Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims

Author: Clyde Robert Bulla

Illustrator: Peter Burchard

Page Length: 112

Reading Level: 4th

Genre: Non-fiction, Biography


REVIEW: The biography of Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims, begins in the village of the Patuxet Indians several years before the Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock.


As a young boy, Squanto was deeply intrigued with the white man who landed on shore in the huge ships in the ocean.  He convinced his uncle, Chief of the Patuxet, to communicate with the white men.


Squanto was not afraid of the firestick—the white man’s gun.  So one day, Squanto spied on the men.  When one of the men fired the firestick, Squanto let out a scream and as a result, met the group of nine men.  Squanto became friends with the men, against his mother’s will.  Her female intuition was working and her fear’s were substantiated when Squanto agreed to be a guide for the white men, eventually traveling back to England with them for several years. 


Although friends with the white men, Squanto suffered from discrimination.  In England, he was put on “show” as a wild savage.  He was also bought and sold as a slave.  He eventually returned to America, but not before his mother and the entire tribe vanished from a disease that spread through their village.


I thought Squanto’s character was very patient and kind.  He withstood many hardships and although he wanted to get home, he accepted time and time again that his trip home was inevitably a long journey.


After his many years living in England with the white man, he found himself comfortable in that setting.  This is how he became such a good friend with the Pilgrims.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: This book can be used in the study of early U. S. history and Thanksgiving.  It has large print and is easy to read.




REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner


January 22, 2008

Crispin: The Cross of Lead

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Crispin: The Cross of Lead

Author: Avi

Page Length: 262

Reading Level: 5th

Genre: Fiction


REVIEW & PLOT SUMMARY: This book started out rather slow for me. It took awhile for me to get into the setting of England in the year 1377. It is almost as if the choice of words and language that the author uses in the very beginning does not reflect that of a young boy. After about 20 pages, however the story picked up some momentum. The book is essentially about a poor boy who is described by people as “Asta’s son”. Asta is the name of the boy’s mother. The boy does not know his real name. He also does not know who his father is. His mother keeps this a secret for good reason. One of the excuses she uses for the father’s absence is death from the Plague. The boy doesn’t question this since many people during this time suffered from this event. In addition to Asta’s son, the reader is kept in secret of the father’s identity for quite some time. In his community of Stromford, Asta’s son had few friends and felt very shunned. He does not know the reason why.


After a course of events, the steward of the area, John Aycliffe who serves Lord Furnival, makes up a story about Asta’s son breaking into his home. As a result, Asta’s son is labeled a “wolf’s head”. This means that anyone may shoot him on-site. Asta’s son runs to his close companion, Father Quinel for help. The priest reveals to Asta’s son that his mother named him Crispin and that she could read and write. Both pieces of information puzzled the boy. The priest seems to have so much more to reveal, but his time on Earth is limited as he is murdered. Crispin feels that it is his fault since he is a “wolf’s head” and sets out far away from his village with a cross in hand that his mother gave him. Another piece of information that Crispin and the reader are left unaware of is what is written on the cross of lead.


As Crispin treks away from Stromford, just ahead of his “hunting party”, he runs into a man named Bear. Bear is a very large man with a red beard. He is a juggler and plays the recorder for people’s amusement. Bear eventually forces Crispin to be his personal servant. The two then venture off towards the city of Great Wexly. When Bear and Crispin reach Great Wexly, Crispin feels that Bear is more than just a juggler. Bear engages in secret talks and dealings with individuals behind closed doors. It eventually comes out that some citizens are unhappy with the current ruling body. They yearn for more freedom, however talk of such things is considered treason in the eyes of the authorities.


It is later revealed in the story that Crispin’s mother, Asta, was most likely the daughter of Lord Douglas. Now Asta caught the eye of Lord Furnival who between the two of them bore a son – Crispin. Crispin is considered a “bastard” son. The current people in power want Crispin dead, not for any true crime, but for being a possible heir to the ruling party. To be more exact, if word got out that an heir to Lord Furnival (who is dead now) is alive, then Lord Douglas (Crispin’s grandfather) might want to stake a claim for authority. The individuals in high power in the area, want things to remain the same as Lady Furnival is currently in power.


As a side note, it is revealing that in the short time that Crispin has known Bear, he is more of a father to Crispin than his true father, Lord Furnival, ever was. On page 222, a theme among many of the townspeople is best stated by the quote, “no man, or woman either, shall be enslaved to any other, but stand free and equal to one another”. This is the type of revolutionary thinking that some of the people were engaged in. Again, these were dangerous thoughts.


Towards the end of the book, Bear is kidnapped in order that John Aycliffe may get to Crispin and kill him. Crispin eventually uses his cross of lead (with its inscriptions) as proof that he is of royal blood to force Aycliffe to let Bear and he escape from Great Wexly. The cross in return would be given to Aycliffe. Aycliffe agrees to this arrangement in the beginning. However, he eventually dissents. Bear is upset and “throws” Aycliffe to his death. Bear and Crispin are then allowed to leave the town after Crispin places the cross of lead on Aycliffe’s bloody chest.


We can assume that now with Crispin’s new found freedom, he and Bear will have many adventures and grow closer together. Bear never achieved the societal freedom that he wanted but he achieved something that he wasn’t looking for – freedom for a boy who deserved so much more.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: The book ends with 14 questions that a teacher could use for discussion or essays and 3 activities (map, writing, and drama) that could supplement elements of the story. This story would be a great supplement to a unit on England during the 1400’s as well as a unit about themes such as freedom and family.




REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton


January 8, 2008

Pocahontas and the Strangers

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Pocahontas and the Strangers

Author: Clyde Robert Bulla

Illustrator: Peter Burchard

Page Length: 176

Reading Level: 4th

Genre: Non-fiction / Biography


SUMMARY: In this biography, by Clyde Robert Bulla, Pocahontas is a very young girl, quite curious about the white men coming to her land.  She is eager to meet them, although most of her tribe is hesitant to make friends.


She eventually meets Captain John Smith who becomes her friend. Through different events, her dad, the chief of her tribe tries to put Smith to death.  But Pocahontas asks for John Smith to be her man.  As a tradition, if a man I ask for, he is given to that woman.


Pocahontas was not old enough to marry but continued to visit John Smith.  He promised to take her to England someday.  However, a string of events happened and Pocahontas heard that Captain John Smith had died and was being returned to England on a ship.


Pocahontas continues to be involved with the new people who have come to America, not always by choice.  She eventually marries, has a baby and travels to England.  Although her life offers her many opportunities with the English, in the end, she longs to be in her homeland. 


REVIEW: This book gave me a different perspective of the relationship of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith.  I learned more about the last part of her life than I formerly knew. 


AREAS FOR TEACHING: This book would be a good book to read when studying the settling of early United States.




REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner


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