The War that Saved My Life

the war that saved my life

Title: The War that Saved My Life
Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Publisher: Dial Books
Year of Publication: 2015
Genre: historical fiction

Ten-year-old Ada and her little brother, Jamie, were born to a cruel, unloving mother. “Mam” is ashamed of Ada’s clubfoot, and refuses to let her leave their tiny London flat. Mam flies off the handle regularly and hurls verbal insults, and her fists, at the children. Ada takes the brunt of the abuse, and is often locked into a tiny, roach-infested cupboard. As Hitler’s troops and the threat of bombing become imminent, English parents are ordered to send their children to the countryside. Mam refuses to let Ada evacuate with Jamie, but the young heroine finds a way to outwit her. The siblings end up in a small coastal village, under the care of Susan, who immediately declares that she is “not nice”. Though she is in the midst of deep grief over the recent death of her partner, Becky, Susan warms to the children. Under her care, and with fresh air, regular meals, and a newfound passion (and talent) for horseback riding, Ada blossoms. Her joy and hope are marred by a sense of dread. When will she and Jamie have to return to Mam? What will happen to them then?

Strong characters and a believable description of World War II events make this book a wonderful read. The topics for discussion are plentiful: clubfoot, abuse, neglect, Operation Pied Piper, grief, spies, ponies, hope, friendship, bomb shelters, family, resilience, and the list goes on. A subtlety I appreciate about the novel is that one can infer that the relationship between Susan and Becky was deeper than friendship. The fact that the author doesn’t come out directly and say this is so gives their relationship a sense of (much deserved) normalcy.

Ivan the Gorilla

ivan the gorilla

Dian Fossey said, “The more you learn about the dignity of the gorilla, the more you want to avoid people.” There is something truly majestic about these human ancestors. I find their hands and facial expressions to be particularly awe-inspiring. Both of these books are about a silverback gorilla named Ivan, torn from his home as an infant and put on display in a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington. Ivan spent twenty seven years of his life in a cage. Katherine Applegate’s books are a moving tribute to a gorilla who won the hearts of many. Let’s start with the novel, which was released a couple of years before the nonfiction picture book.

one and only ivan

Title: The One and Only Ivan
Author: Katherine Applegate
Illustrator: Patricia Castelao
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of Publication: 2012
Literary Awards: Newbery Medal (2013), Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Books (2012), School Library Journal Best Books of the Year (2012), and others!

“I am Ivan. I am a gorilla. It’s not as easy as it looks.” With these words, Ivan begins to narrate the story of his life. I love the voices of the animal characters in this book: wise Stella, the elderly elephant; a surly dog named Bob; little Ruby, a young elephant who becomes the catalyst for change; and of course Ivan, who enjoys finger-painting and is a good friend to all. It is a heartbreaking story, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

the one and only ivan

The One and Only Ivan has been popular as a read aloud at my school, and it is also a book that students regularly check out. The combination of widely spaced text and small but sweet illustrations make this novel accessible to young readers. It’s pretty heavy, so I’d recommend reading it first so you’re ready to process with your kiddos if necessary. Be sure to pair it with the following picture book.

ivan the gorilla

Title: Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of The Shopping Mall Gorilla
Author: Katherine Applegate
Illustrator: G. Brian Karas
Publisher: Clarion Books
Year of Publication: 2014

Like the novel, this book is terribly sad yet ultimately uplifting. Beautiful illustrations and carefully selected words recount Ivan’s journey from central Africa to captivity in a shopping mall. Thanks to the protests and letters of concerned humans, Ivan ended up spending the last part of his life at Zoo Atlanta, under the loving and watchful eyes of scientists and his many fans.

ivan with flowers

Ivan at Zoo Atlanta, photo from Tacoma News Tribune

Ivan was fifty years old when he died in 2012. Don’t miss Jodi Carrigan’s note on the very last page of the book. She was Ivan’s main keeper during the last years of his life, and counted him as her best friend. “His life has been a symbol of the way animals shape our lives . . . and the power we have to shape theirs.”


The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus

the right word, roget

Title: The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus
Author: Jen Bryant
Illustrator: Melissa Sweet
Publisher: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
Year of Publication: 2014
Genre: Biography
Literary Awards: Caldecott Honor (2015), Sibert Medal (2015), Kirkus Prize Nominee for Young Readers’ Literature (2014)

It is difficult to find a word for the illustrations: beautiful (handsome, gorgeous, pretty, lovely, graceful, elegant, attractive). It is equally challenging to describe the text: great (august, grand, dignified, sublime, majestic). Peter Mark Roget was a quiet child, often lonely, who spent a great deal of time creating lists of words. He wanted to be able to find just the right word for any given situation. This lovely biography tells the story of how he compiled these lists for years, and eventually published them as Roget’s Thesaurus. This “treasure house” of a book has been in print continuously since 1852!


Peter Mark Roget by Thomas Pettigrew, 1843 print of portrait, Medical Portrait Gallery

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus is the perfect book choice for lovers of words and art. Melissa Sweet’s collage-style illustrations are infused with words and gorgeous details that enhance Jen Bryant’s engaging text. There is much to be enjoyed on each page of this delightful book, so if you plan to share it with a large group I’d recommend projecting it. Don’t miss the author’s and illustrator’s notes at the end of the book!

Rain Reign

rain reign

Title: Rain Reign
Author: Ann M. Martin
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Year of Publication: 2014
Genre: realistic fiction
Literary Awards: Schneider Family Book Award for Middle School (2015), Charlotte Huck Book Award (2015)

As a child, I spent a lot of time reading Ann M. Martin’s series, The Babysitters Club, so it was with a bit of nostalgia that I picked up Rain Reign. I’m so glad I did! Rose (rows) Howard has Asperger syndrome. She lives with her single father, who has a hard time understanding her obsession with homonyms, prime numbers, and rules. Rose’s teachers and classmates also struggle to understand the things that make her different. Thankfully, she has her Uncle Weldon, who completely gets her, and her adopted dog Rain (reign, rein). Rain goes missing when a storm hits their rural town, and Rose is thrust into a life-changing adventure, both heartbreaking and heartwarming. With wordplay and plenty of opportunities to discuss empathy, this book would be great as a read aloud for grades four and up.


Wolfie the Bunny

wolfie the bunny, siblings in picture books

Title: Wolfie the Bunny
Author: Ame Dyckman
Illustrator: Zachariah OHora
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Year of Publication: 2015

Oh, how I love this book! Dot the bunny is not amused when her parents decide to adopt the baby wolf left in a basket on their doorstep. She tries in vain to convince her parents that Wolfie is a wolf, and is sure to gobble them all up.

wolfie the bunny

Dot may be wary of her new sibling, but Mama and Papa Bunny absolutely adore him. Like any younger sibling, Wolfie enjoys following his older sister around. When he accompanies her to the local Carrot Patch Co-op (home of local, organic, lucky bamboo!), a hungry bear shows up and Dot’s true feelings for her “little” brother emerge.

wolfie the bunny, hugs

When I read this book to my kids, Caden (my oldest) nudged me and glanced sideways at his little sister. Likewise, when I shared this with students in the library there were cries of “My brother does that, too!” and “My sister always follows me around!”. In addition to sibling related conversations, Wolfie the Bunny provides an opportunity to compare and contrast a wolf’s typical role in a picture book: the bad guy. Truth be told, the reason I adore this book has less to do with the sweet story and more to do with the illustrations. The illustrations! The vibrant, vintage look of Zachariah OHora’s art brings this humorous story to life. Head on over to your local library and check it out!


Dog Heaven

“I think dogs are the most amazing creatures; they give unconditional love. For me they are the role model for being alive.” -Gilda Radner

chocolate lab, beach, death of a pet

happy boy at the Oregon coast

It has been nearly five years since I said goodbye to one of my best friends: my chocolate lab, Santiago. Santi came into my life about six months after I moved to Colorado. He was a dark brown, roly poly bundle of joy. I have fond memories of exploring my adopted home state with him. I remember one of our first adventures: snowshoeing at St. Mary’s Glacier with him nestled in a blanket in my backpack, a precursor to the baby carrier I would one day wear. It was because of Santi that I met my husband. My canine BFF and I had just arrived at the parking lot of a popular trailhead one warm June day. Santi loped up to a sweet golden retriever named Charlie, accompanied by her human, Chris. Two years later, Santi and Charlie barreled down the aisle as ring bearers during our wedding ceremony. We affectionately referred to them as “the kids” and they ruled the roost until our first human baby came along.

snoozing in the backpack

snoozing in the backpack

Santi was a character. He was extremely affectionate and adored licking people’s feet as he loped by. He enjoyed having the small white patch on his chest rubbed, and would regularly clean himself like a cat with his front paws, earning him the nickname “Mittens”. Occasionally, he would wake us in the middle of the night with a haunting, call-of-the-wild-like howl. One of his most humorous quirks was his obsession with rocks. On any given hike, he would find a rock and claw at it while whining and emitting a high-pitched bark, much to the amusement of other hikers.

When Santi died, my son had just turned four. It was his first real experience with death, his first experience with grief. He had many questions and, as I often do, I turned to children’s literature for the answers.

dog heaven

We read Cynthia Rylant’s Dog Heaven numerous times. The book is just beautiful; lovely illustrations and a sweet, simple story about where dogs go when they die. Think fluffy clouds as dog beds, unlimited treats, and ponds full of ducks to bark at and chase. There are several other picture books out there that deal with the death of a dog, but this 20 year old classic is by far my favorite. Thank you, Ms. Rylant, for such a comforting depiction of where our dear canine friends go when they leave this life.


blizzard, snow, winter, adventure, problem solvingTitle: Blizzard
Author: John Rocco
Illustrator: John Rocco
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Year of Publication: 2014
Genre: memoir

My kids love this book. I’m not sure if it’s the lovely illustrations, or the fact that it is based on the real life tale of a boy (the author/illustrator) who took things into his own hands and solved a problem for his family and neighbors. Whatever the reason, Carmen has asked her brother to read this to her multiple times and he always obliges. With my students, this book sparked some conversation about the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. Try pairing this great winter picture book with a mug of hot cocoa and a snowflake craft!