The Book Reviews – Website

November 15, 2009

Parvana’s Journey

Parvana’s Journey

Author: Deborah Ellis

Page Length: 199

Reading Level: 6.3

Genre: Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Sequel to The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey captures the reader’s attention from the very beginning. Parvana is alone in war-torn Afghanistan, her father dead, as she sets out disguised as a boy to cross the Afghanistan countryside in search of her mother and sisters. If the Taliban discovers her, thinking she is a boy, they would enlist Parvana into the army. If they find out she is a girl, they would punish her for being without a veil and without a male family member. She must then keep a low profile, not exposing herself to this danger. She sees death and destruction everywhere she walks.

First, she finds a baby boy lying near his dead mother and rescues him, feeding him the best she can with water and rice. When she tries to take shelter in a cave, she comes upon a boy about 9 years old, who has lost a leg to land mines. Asif is rude and angry, but he is good with baby Hassan, cleaning the clothes that serve as diapers and helping to keep him clean and fed. These three set out on the road until they come upon a minefield and a strange little girl who is taking care of her aged grandmother. The children rest here for a while until a bomb destroys their shelter and kills the old woman-then they take to the road again. Just as they are near death from starvation, they stumble on a refugee camp run by international agencies and are taken in, given minimal food and shelter. Their problems are not resolved, however, and more disasters await them.

REVIEW:  This book certainly displays the resilience of children who endure extraordinary circumstances. Ellis has been in Afghanistan collecting oral histories from women in refugee camps and this has been the basis of Parvana’s story. In one sense, it is a straightforwardly realistic narrative, but the circumstances the children face are almost unimaginable, certainly to children in the West. Strengthening the sense of reality is Ellis’s ability to capture the tension between the children–their bickering as their fears and suffering overwhelm them, their fantasies of safety and shelter, and their loneliness and desperate need for adults on which to depend. This is an excellent way for young Americans to understand the plight of the Afghani people.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: theme, setting, point of view, main idea and supporting details, characters, conflict,  plot, compare/contrast, cause/effect, conclusions, generalizations, predictions, audience and purpose, voice, mood, tone, narrative, writer’s motive, World Literature, drama, tragedy, and epic.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Sensitivity of children surviving alone crossing areas with mine fields and starving most of the time.

RELATED BOOKS: Habibi by Naomi Shihah Nye, A Little Piece of Ground by Elizabeth Laird, Shabanu: Daughters of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples, Under the Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Books by the same author: Breadwinner, Mud City, and Off to War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees.

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: The Kite Runner (2007), Massoud, l’Afghan (1998 documentary), Passing the Rainbow (2008 documentary), Massoud, l’Afghan (1998 documentary).

ART CONNECTIONS: (scroll down there is a short video displaying various pieces of artwork)


REVIEWED BY:  Tammy Leitzel


August 30, 2009

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

November 3, 2008

Goodbye, Vietnam

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Goodbye, Vietnam

Author: Gloria Whelan

Page Length: 135

Reading Level: 4.7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Mai and her family live in Vietnam, where the government has been arresting people caught in illegal acts. Mai’s father was even taken away and detained for an entire year. The government is now threatening to take her father away again and her grandmother too. Mai’s family decides that they have no choice but to flee the only life they have ever known. With only a small pack of belongings each, they steal away under the cover of night. They must avoid being captured or detained. Their only hope is a small boat with a failing engine and their dreams of reaching the shores of Hong Kong. Can they make to the boat undetected? Will the boat be able to make the journey? Is there any hope left for Mai and her family?

REVIEW: This is a very powerful story about life as a refugee. I would recommend this one for use as a whole class instruction book. This story would compliment any discussions in history class of refugees, displacement, tyrannical rule, and even immigration in general. Whelan is masterful at keeping the read on the edge of their seat gripped by the emotion of Mai and her family. Their hope seems simple – freedom, but the reality of accomplishing those dreams is much more difficult than any of them have imagined. Great book!

Another interesting teaching point from this book centers on the role of women in the Vietnamese culture.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: description, imagery, mood, tone, author’s purpose, sequence of events, cause and effect, external conflict, character traits, historical connections

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Death, substandard conditions

RELATED BOOKS: Summer of the War, Listening for Lions, Friend on Freedom River, Chu Ju’s House, Once on this Island, Farewell to the Island




RELATED MOVIES: “Kim’s Story: The Road from Vietnam,” “Rising Above: Women of Vietnam”




REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

August 23, 2008

Just Ella

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Just Ella

Author: Margaret Peterson Haddix      

Page Length: 218

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction        

PLOT SUMMARY: Just Ella resembles the familiar fairy tale, Cinderella, in that, Ella’s mother died when she was born and her father raised her.  When she is 12, he remarries, and after he dies, Ella becomes the house servant for Lucille, her stepmother and her two step sisters.

The Charming’s, the royal family, decide to have a ball and invite all of the single women to attend.  Lucille orders Ella to scrub the basement floor and says she cannot attend the dance.  Ella, however, retrieves her mother’s wedding dance from the attic and alters it so that she will have a gown to wear.  She then talks the neighborhood glassmaker into making some glass slippers.  When she walks in the slippers without them breaking, the glassmaker wins several bets and Ella keeps the slippers for herself.

Ella does make it to the ball, and because she is the most beautiful, the prince chooses to dance every dance with her.  Like the original Cinderella, she must leave the ball at midnight so that she will get a ride home with a generous carriage driver.

The plot continues to parallel the fairytale, until after living in the castle for two weeks, Cinderella realizes she does not love the Prince and does not want to live a controlled life inside the palace walls.  When she tries to get out of the marriage, she is thrown into the dungeon.  Her young ally, Mary, helps her to survive and escape a life, which had been referred to as “happily ever after.”

REVIEW:  This was an entertaining and fun book to read.  I like the way Margaret Haddix used the fairytale to develop a drama in which a young girl realizes that beauty and money cannot provide total happiness.  She does a good job of developing the characters and their roles.  I would suggest this book for any girls to read from sixth grade or older.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Sequence of Events, Character, Compare/Contrast,

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Inferences to Rape- Chapter 22-24, 29, but nothing that would be offensive to the reader.

RELATED BOOKS: Ella Enchanted, Fairest, The Two Princesses of Bamarre

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: The Brothers Grimm: Cinderella, Walt Disney’s Cinderella, “The Duchess” (2008)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

July 1, 2008

The Other Side of Truth

The Other Side of Truth

Author: Beverley Naidoo

Page Length: 252

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Twelve year-old Sade and her brother Femi are living in Nigeria during times of political unrest. Their father writes about freedom from oppression in his at times underground newspaper. One morning their lives take an awful turn when a militant group fires upon their home. Desperate to save the children, they are secretly spirited out of the country to England. Refugees on the run; the children arrive only to discover that their uncle is nowhere to be found. With no one to turn to the children must fend for themselves on the streets of London. Will they ever be reunited with their family?

Placed in foster care, Sade finds that she too must fight battles. She is bullied and threatened. With no one to turn to and the whereabouts of her family unknown, Sade must face these trials alone. Will she find the courage and strength to endure the hardships that will follow? Can she save herself and her father before it is too late?

REVIEW: This novel was really interesting to read. I’ve seen movies about political violence in third world countries but never read about it really. The horrors these children face when their mother is gunned down and their father falsely imprisoned are unthinkable.

I like how Naidoo interwove Sade’s own conflict with oppression so that both father and daughter are fighting for truth and justice. This book is action packed. Many questions are left unanswered until the end which is a great hook for reluctant readers (and works well for making predictions and questioning with students). This book is an interesting read and a look at political issues that are often glossed over in history textbooks. Through it all, the children survive and learn to overcome the atrocities they have witnessed. I would recommend this book for its perspective, eye-opening value, and the lessons that it teaches. 

AREAS FOR TEACHING: author’s purpose, conclusions, generalizations, predictions, compare/contrast, sequence of events, symbolism, summarization, theme, setting, characters

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Beginning of the novel – shooting, death threats, conditions of people in prison

RELATED BOOKS: Purple Hibiscus, Things Fall Apart, Graceland, A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

May 16, 2008

Passage to Freedom The Sugihara Story

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Passage to Freedom The Sugihara Story

Author: Ken Mochizuki

Page Length: 30

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Narrative Non-Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Passage to Freedom is an intriguing story about a Japanese diplomat and his family living in Lithuania in 1940.   World War ll has just begun and refugees are trying to persuade Mr. Sugihara, the diplomat, to help them get Visas to escape the Nazi’s.

Mr. Sugihara lives with his wife, sons and their aunt.  The entire family agrees that it is their duty to help as many of the refugees as they can to get out of Europe, even if it endangers their lives.  The Sugihara’s continue to help the refugees even after the Japanese government has ordered him to stop.

REVIEW:  Although this is a short book, it reveals a story of truth that is not known widely in the United States.  It is a narrative told by Hiroki Sugihara, the son of the diplomat.  I enjoyed it, because I was not aware of the works of this family who came to the aid of over 300 refugees. 

This would be a good book to read for the low level reader if they needed to do a report related to World War ll or the Holocaust.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Main Idea and Supporting Details, Sequence of Events

RELATED BOOKS: The Snow Treasure, Diary of Anne Frank, Hanged At Auschwitz: An Extraordinary Memoire of Survival by Sim Kessel, Stephan’s Journey – A Sojourn into Freedom by Lillian Belinfante Herzberg, Kindness of Strangers by Lillian Belinfante Herzberg

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Schindler’s List, Diary of Anne Frank


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

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