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June 5, 2010

Cuba 15

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Cuba 15

Author: Nancy Osa

Page Length: 277

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Violet Paz is turning 15. Her Cuban grandmother insists that she must have a quinceañera to celebrate her passage to womanhood. At first, Violet resists adhering to the old traditions, especially Cuban ones she can’t identify with at all. Through a project at school, Violet begins to learn more about Cuba and her roots. She begins to learn to love her heritage; and, when Violet finds a way to add her own flair and style to her quinceañera she begins to be excited about the prospect.

REVIEW: The book is a first person narrative from the viewpoint of a 15 year old. She has humorous insight into the antics of her friends and relatives. Violet and her father are even found reading Quinceañera for Dummies in preparation for the big event. When Violet discovers the theatrical aspects she can blend into her celebration everything seems to come together. The novel is insightful look into the blending of cultures and all the challenges of growing up.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: historical applications, author’s purpose, conflict, mood, tone, sequence of events


RELATED BOOKS:  Once Upon a Quinceañera, Esperanza Rising, Becoming Naomi Leon


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor


August 30, 2009

Ashes of Roses

Ashes of Roses

Author: Mary Jane Auch

Page Length: 250

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY:  In the first decade of the 20th Century many immigrants from Europe are crossing the Atlantic to enter the United States at Ellis Island. The Nolan family is among these immigrants, coming to American to fulfill their dreams. 

Upon arriving, the youngest son was not allowed to enter because of illness. Mr. Nolan, returns to Ireland with his son. His wife and three daughters, Rose, Maureen, and Bridgett remain in the new country.  After just a few weeks of living with Mr. Nolan’s brother, Mrs. Nolan, decides America is not the country she thought, and returns to Ireland with her youngest daughter, Bridgett.

Rose, 16, and Maureen, 12, remain in America, alone and determined to be successful Americans.  Rose secures a job at a flower shop, but finds that her employer is abusive and takes advantage of his female employees.  After moving in with a Russian girl and her father, Rose takes a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, making dresses. Rose makes friends and seems to find her niche in America, when disaster hits and new challenges await the girl and her sister.

REVIEW:  This is an excellent book to read as a supplement to studies of the treatment of females and children before unions were successful in controlling labor laws. The book is filled with the challenges Rose and her family face as they struggle in the United States.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Historical Context, Point of View, Setting, Characters, Cause/Effect, Compare and Contrast

RELATED BOOKS: There Is an Isle, Through Irish Eyes, The Triangle Fire, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: The Living Century (PBS Documentary, 2000)

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

After the War

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After the War

Author: Carol Matas

Page Length: 133

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: As World War II ends, Ruth Mendenberg has just been released from Buchenwald, one of the Nazi concentration camps. She returns home to Poland, and finds that her maid has taken over the house and she is the only survivor of her family.

She meets a man named Saul from Eretz Israel, who encourages her to travel to Palestine with him and other Jewish refugees.  Although Ruth believes there is no hope, she agrees to accompany the refugees on the journey.  When the house they are staying at is attacked, Ruth must once again hide to survive.

Ruth is put in charge of twenty orphans.  It is her job to lead them safely to Czechoslovakia, Austria, Italy, and then to Palestine. She hopes that this duty will help her forget everything that has happened. The group survives both an ambush by Poland and Czech border guards and a long train trip.  They are taken to a camp and are instructed to encourage the children to tell their stories about the war.  Ruth dreads this assignment because she does not want to dredge up her own memories. Ruth has an attraction for Zvi, one of the other older refugees, but refuses to show her emotions because she fears she will lose him, too.

On the ship to Italy, Ruth learns that her brother Simon and her Aunt Sophie have also survived the war.  The group manages to reach Eretz Israel, but are picked up by the British and sent to a camp in Syrus. Simon, who escaped the British, helps Ruth and Zvi escape. They return to Palestine, and Ruth and Zvi begin a relationship together.

REVIEW: Ruth’s and the children’s stories are bitter truths about what happened to the Jewish people during Hitler’s reign.  Matas does not spare the horrors the people suffered.  She includes the role the brave Polish people played at the risk of losing their own lives.  This is an excellent book to read in the study of the Holocaust and life after the war. 

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

RELATED BOOKS: Snow Treasure, The Upstairs Room, Number the Stars, The Book Thief

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: The Diary of Anne Frank (1995), Anne Frank Remembered (1995)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 8, 2009

A Step from Heaven

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A Step from Heaven

Author: An Na        

Page Length: 160  

Reading Level: 5.5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Young Ju Parks moves with her parents from Korea to America when she is four years old.  She has heard stories of Mi Gook, the Korean name for America, and believes she is moving to heaven.  After a very long ride on an airplane, the Parks arrive.  However, what they encounter is not heaven.

First, the father, Apa, must find work.  Then, mother, Uhmma, has a new baby boy, Joon.  The family struggles to be like Americans, but there is not enough money to get ahead.  Eventually, both parents have two jobs, and still rent an apartment and drive a dated station wagon. The family struggles with the language barrier and adapting to the American culture.

As Young Ju does experience success at school, she witnesses her parent’s relationship crumble, her father turn to alcoholism and her brother skip school.  She is forbidden to associate with her best friend, Amanda, because she is a frivolous American girl.  As Young Ju matures into a high school student she strives to make good grades so that she can attend college.

REVIEW:  An Na writes her first novel from her own first memories of moving to American from Korea.  She uses Young Ju as the narrator and explains the story of a young Korean family whose dreams of a “good life” in America never develop.  The book is written in vignettes, and chronicles Young Ju’s life from the time she is four until she graduates from high school.

The characters are developed so that the reader feels empathy for each of them in their dire situations.  This book is an excellent book for the high school student who lives in a diverse community. It helps to understand the difficulties immigrants experience as they are moved into the American culture but attempt to maintain their own cultural heritage.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Setting, Point of View, Conflict, and Characters

TOUCHY AREAS: Domestic violence by the father to the mother and children

RELATED BOOKS: The House on Mango Street, Angela’s Ashes

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Ariring: The Korean-American Journey (2003)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

September 2, 2008

The Cookcamp

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The Cookcamp

Author: Gary Paulsen

Page Length: 115

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: America is in the throes of World War II and the boy’s father is away fighting in the war. His mother works at a factory and has been spending time with “Uncle Casey,” a strange man who has taken away his mother’s attention. One night the boy hears strange noises coming from the Casey and his mother. The boy is then sent to live with his grandmother. His grandmother serves as a cook for a camp of men laying new roads. The boy learns much from the big men. His grandmother loves him dearly and is always there when he is missing his mother and upset about Uncle Casey. Will the boy ever see his father again? Does his mother still love him?

REVIEW: This book is a beautiful, touching story of the realities of life for a child caught up in the drama and pain of WWII. Paulsen does a beautiful job of creating a wonderful grandparent with whom the boy learns much about love and life from. Any reader with a grandparent they were attached to as a child can connect to this story. The perspective of the little boy, shown in his ignorance and innocence, are wonderfully portrayed. A wonderful, fictional look at a pivotal time in history.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: main idea, predictions, summary, conclusions, connecting text to self, connection text to history, emotional appeal, imagery

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: the implied sexual activity of mother and Uncle Casey

RELATED BOOKS: Hatchet, The Cookcamp, Dogsong, Canyons, The River, The Crossing, The Foxman, Soldier’s Heart


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

July 29, 2008

Across America on an Emigrant Train

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Across America on an Emigrant Train

Author: Jim Murphy         

Page Length: 150

Reading Level: 8

Genre: Non-Fiction           

PLOT SUMMARY:  This is the story of writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, an emigrant from Scotland who travels across the United States in the late 1800’s by train.  He is in route to see his lover, who has fallen sick in San Francisco.  Stevenson made a hasty departure from Scotland to meet Fanny Van deGrift Osbourne.  Four years earlier, they had a rather scandalous affair in Paris.  Fanny was married and ten years older than Stevenson.  This did not sit well with the straight-laced society of Stevenson’s time. However, Stevenson was deeply in love and left his home country to be with Fanny.

The journey begins on a train out of New York and follows Stephenson’s travel across the Midwest with many “borderland” town stops. On the trains, Stevenson met other travelers, most emigrants looking for new homes in the west.  Many times they were crowded in the train cars with little or nothing to eat.  Stevenson was consumed with making the trip and getting to Fanny as quickly as possible.  He kept a log of his travels and one of the people he met was Davy Crockett.

As the author writes of Stevenson’s thoughts and experiences he also gives historical background of the building of the transcontinental railroad, the slaughter of the American bison, and the treatment of the American Indian as the west develops.

REVIEW:  This book did not appeal to me when I began reading it.  However, Jim Murphy developed an interesting and informative story of the history of the development of the west.  By chronicling Stevenson’s journey, there became a romantic interest.  He used many of Stevenson’s entries from his journal, which are descriptive and eloquently written (see pages 20, 35, 40, 43, 75, 95, 107,120 and 133).  Also, included are pictures from various museums and historical societies.  Murphy has an extensive bibliography that authenticates the story.  Through Stevenson and Murphy, the reader becomes interestingly educated on the history of the trans-continental railroad and the time it was built.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Historical Context, Setting, Sequence of Events, Informative Texts

RELATED BOOKS: Robert Louis Stevenson by Frank Swinnerton (1915); Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure by Robert Kiely (1964); Robert Louis Stevenson and Romantic Tradition by Edwin M. Eigner (1966); Robert Louis Stevenson: A Life Study by Jenni Calder (1980); Definitive Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Companion by H.M. Geduld (1983); Robert Louis Stevenson by Frank McLynn (1993); Dreams of Exile: Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Ian Bell (1993); Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Frank McLynn (1993); Robert Louis Stevenson: Life, Literature and the Silver Screen by Scott Allen Nollen (1994); Robert Louis Stevenson and the Appearance of Modernism: A Future Feeling by Alan Sandison (1996)

ART CONNECTIONS: Robert Louis Stevenson’s childhood home, 17 Heriot Row, Edinburgh (a museum)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

February 2, 2008

New Kids in Town: Oral Histories of Immigrant Teens

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News Kids in Town: Oral Histories of Immigrant Teens

Author: Janet Bode

Reading Level: 4.5

Page Length: 126

Genre: Non-fiction, Autobiography


REVIEW: New Kids In Town is a compilation of oral histories of immigrant teens.  The author, Janet Bode, a resident of New York City, visited schools and noticed as she looked around that 1/3 of the student’s head of household’s  were from other countries than  the United States.  In the 1800’s nearly all immigrants were from northern and western Europe.  Now, only 5% come from that part of the world.


Bode conducted a study and found where the majority of immigrants come from today.  She then located students from each of these countries:  Afghanistan, El Salvador, India, Cuba, Philippines, Dominican Republic, China, Mexico, South Korea, Greece and Vietnam.  The words she wrote were originally spoken in the immigrant teen’s own voices.


In each chapter, Bord gives an introduction of each country’s origin.  Then, there is a story by each immigrant.  They each share a story about their life in their old country, then a review of their life in America.


Most of the teens’ families experienced fear in the countries they exported from and are victims of discrimination in the U. S.  However, all of the teens appear to feel they are better off in America.


I especially liked the last paragraph on page 84. It begins, “they came here to American and he didn’t know how to speak a word of English.  Now, six years later he is a pharmacist . . . he introduced me to his staff. . .they all understood his English”.  I said, “This is a miracle!”  He answered, “Sook, America is where miracles come true”.


The last chapter about Von, from Vietnam, was the most detailed and touching to me. I think that may be because of my age ( 18 ) during the Vietnam War.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: This book would be good to use in the study of the cycle of immigration over the past 30 years.  It is a good non-fiction read that will influence teens to appreciate the U. S. and its’ opportunities.




REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner


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