Hero

Leo Biggs often imagines himself as a gladiator, fighting in the Roman amphitheater and trying to win the favor of Jupiter. In real life, though, Leo is a bit of an outcast. He only has one real friend–at least, just one human friend–but Leo longs to be seen as brave, popular, and extraordinary. And one day, he thinks he has his chance…

After a rather interesting episode at school, Leo gains the notice of Warren Miller, probably the coolest guy at school. Warren invites Leo to hang out after school…but Leo has to prove himself worthy of being in Warren’s crowd. Even though Leo is hesitant about what is asked of him, he’s willing to do just about anything to be popular. Leo couldn’t know, though, that his actions would lead to more trouble than even his powerful imagination could conjure.

One day, Warren and his crew try to convince Leo to have a little “fun” with Jack Pepper, his neighbor’s dog. Leo knows what’s going on is wrong, and he doesn’t really want to participate. What happens next changes everything Leo feels about himself and what the people in town think of him. Leo takes credit for saving Jack Pepper’s life (even though it was really the other way around), and now everyone thinks he’s some kind of hero. Only Leo, Warren and friends, and little Jack Pepper know the truth…but none of them are talking.

Leo is enjoying his new status as a town hero, but part of him knows that he’s living a lie. One day, however, something happens that puts Leo’s vision of himself as a hero to the test. A catastrophic event hits the town, and Jack Pepper is put in real danger. Leo knows it’s up to him to save this little dog, but what can one boy do in a truly perilous situation?

Will Leo finally step up and be the hero that Jack Pepper needs? Will Leo–or anyone else–ever reveal what actually happened when he “saved” Jack Pepper to begin with? And will Leo ever discover what it really means to be a hero? Answer these questions and many more when you read Hero by Sarah Lean.

Hero is a good book for illustrating the importance of being true to oneself and standing up for what’s right…even when it’s not easy. This book also emphasizes the value of all types of friendships–those with kids, adults, and even animals. As the story progresses, Leo begins to realize that real friends are loyal, even when he doesn’t deserve it, and he needs to do whatever is necessary to prove his loyalty as well. Sometimes, that simply means being upfront and honest about his mistakes and doing whatever he can to make things right.

I think Hero is a good fit for most elementary and middle grade readers. It deals with issues like bullying, honesty, popularity, imagination, bravery, friendship, and, of course, caring for animals. I’m sure this book will be a big hit in my own school library.

Buddy

Tyrone “Li’l T” Roberts has wanted a dog forever, but he never quite expected to get one the way he did.

On the way to church one Sunday morning, Li’l T’s dad hits a scraggly, old dog with the car. Even though the family doesn’t have the money to take care of this injured dog, Li’l T is convinced that this dog, who he names Buddy, is meant to be his. With the help of some folks at church, Buddy gets the help he needs, and even though the dog loses a leg, he gains a home with Li’l T.

Li’l T sacrifices a lot to make Buddy a part of his family. He sells his GameBoy so that he has money to buy food for Buddy. He starts mowing lawns so that he can keep caring for his dog. He spends hours talking to Buddy and trying to convince this dog to make the most of his second chance at life. Buddy may only have three legs, but Li’l T knows his dog can do just as much as any four-legged dog around.

Li’l T and Buddy are the best of friends, but something is about to happen that could tear them apart forever. A hurricane named Katrina is bearing down on New Orleans, and the family has to leave everything behind…including Buddy. There’s just no room for him in the family car. Li’l T wants to stay behind with Buddy, but his parents won’t hear of it, so they leave Buddy in an upstairs bathroom with enough food and water for the next couple of days. Surely the storm won’t keep them away more than two days, right?

No one is prepared for Katrina’s path of destruction. This monster of a storm even hits the family’s refuge in Mississippi, and Li’l T soon learns that there isn’t much left of his home in New Orleans. Flood waters have destroyed much of the city, and there may not even be a home to return to.

Immediately, Li’l T thinks of Buddy. Is his dog still locked up in the bathroom? Is he wondering why Li’l T hasn’t come back for him? Has Buddy been rescued, or did Katrina claim one more victim? Li’l T isn’t sure what’s going on, but he’s determined to find out what happened to the dog that became his best friend.

It’s not always easy to keep moving when so much has been taken away from you. Li’l T and his family have lost so much because of Katrina, but they’ve still got each other, and Li’l T has the hope that he will be reunited with Buddy one day. But will their reunion be everything that Li’l T expects, or will he realize that sometimes the only thing you can do is move on?

Read Buddy by M.H. Herlong to see how tragedy brought two friends together, tore them apart, and taught one young boy what true courage and sacrifice really mean.

Finding Zasha

The year is 1941, and twelve-year-old Ivan Savichev lives with his mother in an apartment in Leningrad, Russia. The entire world is at war, and the German forces are bent on destroying Ivan’s home city. Bombs drop from the sky, food and water are scarce, and no one knows if this day will be their last.

Ivan’s mother decides there’s only one course of action. She will join the other factory workers in the Ural Mountains, and Ivan will cross the frozen Lake Ladoga and go to live with his Uncle Boris (a man Ivan has not seen since he was five). Ivan makes this treacherous journey with Auntie Vera, who is going to stay with her sister-in-law in the village of Vilnov. Ivan cannot fathom leaving Auntie, so he stays with her…and it is here that his life will change forever.

Almost immediately upon arriving in Vilnov, Ivan joins a group of partisans, or an underground movement charged with disrupting the work of the German army. He’s surprised to learn that many of those around him are also partisans, and all of them are eager to do their part for the good of Russia.

After the Germans destroyed his beloved home city, Ivan is looking for a way to help his country win this horrible war, and he’s about to get his chance. The Germans have arrived in Vilnov, and Ivan has caught the interest of their leader, the terrifying Major Axel Recht, a cruel Nazi commander. Major Recht is charmed by Ivan’s musical talent, and he needs someone to help care for and train his precious German shepherd puppies, Thor and Zasha. Ivan steps in and seizes an opportunity to feed information to his fellow partisans.

Ivan soon realizes, though, that his mission is not an easy one. Major Recht is suspicious of everyone and quick to anger. He doesn’t fully trust Ivan, and he seems to resent Ivan’s connection with Thor and Zasha, dogs who are being trained to hunt Russians. Ivan knows he must get away from Recht soon, but he cannot fathom leaving Thor and Zasha behind to face Recht’s wrath alone. Ivan plots to escape with the two puppies, an action that is sure to enrage Major Recht. One night, Ivan makes his move, takes the dogs with him, and leaves Recht behind. He can’t know, though, just how far Recht will go to seek revenge…

In the midst of war, Ivan eventually finds a measure of peace as he finally makes his way to his Uncle Boris’ cabin. He trains Thor and Zasha to be faithful companions, he learns about farming, he visits with friends…and he grows perhaps too comfortable. When his worst enemy returns, Ivan must flee once again, but this latest escape puts Zasha in danger. The dog has gone missing, and Ivan must make some difficult decisions that could impact the safety of his friends and his own future.

What will Ivan do? Will the evil Major Axel Recht catch up with him? What will become of Thor and Zasha? Read Finding Zasha by Randi Barrow to find out!

How to Steal a Dog

Georgina Hayes needs to find a way to make some quick money. Her dad left Georgina, her mom, and her little brother with almost nothing, and they’ve been living in their car for way too long. They need a home, but Georgina’s mom is working two jobs and still struggling to make the money needed to make a deposit on a house or apartment. Georgina knows there’s got to be a way to help her mom, but what is this young girl supposed to do?

Well, after seeing a reward poster for a missing dog, Georgina gets the bright idea to steal a dog. But it can’t be just any dog. It has to be a quiet, friendly dog. A dog that is loved by its owner. A dog that someone would pay a lot of money to get back.

Georgina writes down her dog-theft plan in her notebook, and, with the help of her little brother Toby, she puts her plan into action. She finds the perfect dog, nabs him, and waits for the reward posters to go up. But nothing really happens the way Georgina wants it to. She feels guilty about what she’s done, and the dog’s owner may not have enough money for a big reward. This sticky situation is quickly spiraling out of control, and Georgina doesn’t know which way to turn.

Can Georgina turn things around and get the money she and her family need? Will she do the right thing, or will she see her dognapping through to the bitter end? What will happen to make Georgina face all the wrongs in her life and do what she must to make things right? Read How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor to find out!

Almost Home

It takes a lot to bring Sugar Mae Cole down. This twelve-year-old tries to always look on the bright side of life, even when things are looking rather dim. And things are about to get pretty dark for Sugar and her mom, Reba. Sugar’s absent dad has gambled away all of their money, and Sugar and her mom are being forced out of their home. Sugar doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but she’s determined to keep her spirits up and be strong for both herself and her mother.

Sugar has a little help along the way. Even when Sugar has to move to Chicago, she keeps in touch with Mr. Bennett, a teacher who encourages Sugar to express herself through writing and to be her best self. Sugar also has Shush, a rescue dog with trust issues of his own. It’s not easy living on the streets or moving from shelter to shelter with a dog in tow, but Sugar is determined to be there for little Shush…the way she wishes someone would be there for her.

When Sugar’s mom shuts down from the stress of everything that has happened, Sugar knows she has to be stronger than ever. Luckily, she’s got Shush…and a chance at a real home when she’s placed with a loving foster family. She’s doing well in her new environment, but the worry about her mother–and her mother’s dependence on Sugar’s no-good father–continues to eat at Sugar’s happiness. Sugar wishes she could do something to open her mother’s eyes, but she knows that Reba must confront the reality of her situation herself.

Through everything that Sugar encounters, she holds onto the dream of home. A home where she, her mother, and Shush can be safe, happy, and together. A home where she doesn’t have to worry that she’ll be kicked out one day. A home where she can shine, thrive, and help others who are going through hard times. A home where she can simply be a kid without so many adult worries. She’s almost there. Sugar Mae Cole is almost home.

Almost Home by Joan Bauer is a nominee for the 2014-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg

Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg, written by Lori Mortenson and illustrated by Michael Allen Austin, is a nominee for the 2014-15 South Carolina Picture Book Award.

Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg is a perfect picture book for anyone who’s ever tried to give a dog a bath…or anyone who has ever dreaded bathtime!

This colorfully illustrated rhyming book will charm young readers with its tale of a cowboy who finally gets his house clean when he realizes his dog is still dirty. But Dawg doesn’t want to take a bath, and hilarity ensues when he escapes Cowpoke Clyde’s attempts to get him clean! All the other farm animals get involved in the chaos before Clyde finally has enough.

Will Cowpoke Clyde finally find a way to get Dawg to take a bath? Readers will surely laugh at this story’s conclusion, and it could just convince them to make bathtime for their pets a little more fun!

Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg is an excellent book for read-alouds with younger students. The rhymes are entertaining, and the illustrations definitely keep kids engaged. I may have to mention, though, that they shouldn’t take baths with their pets unless their parents say it’s okay!

Rrralph

Rrralph by Lois Ehlert was a nominee for the 2013-2014 South Carolina Picture Book Award.

Rrralph is a very easy-to-read book about a dog who seems to be able to talk. He even told his owners that his name was Ralph! Ralph tells his owners when he’s on the roof, that there’s bark on the tree, that the path is rough, that a wolf is nearby, that he wants to come in the house when he’s scared, and he makes it clear when it’s time to sleep. Can Ralph really talk to his owners? The fun will be in having young readers decide!

Like many books by Lois Ehlert, the best part of this book, in my opinion, is the illustrations. These collages were made from zippers, wood, buttons, twine, metal, tree bark, screws, hand-painted and handmade papers, and textile fragments. Readers will enjoy seeing how these objects come together to make lively pictures, and they may even be inspired to use everyday materials to create their own pictures.

Rrralph is an excellent book to share with art teachers and students who are interested in visual arts. This book may also generate discussion on different ways we can use or recycle materials.

Wiener Wolf

Wiener Wolf by Jeff Crosby, a nominee for the 13-14 South Carolina Picture Book Award, is a charming book that will resonate with both kids and adults.

Wiener Dog is bored with his hoe-hum life with Granny…until he sees some wolves on the TV. He decides to then become a Wiener Wolf! He ditches his sweater, his toys, and his cushy life with Granny and roams the woods with his wolfie pals, drinking from a stream and playing with wolf pups. It doesn’t take long, though, for Wiener Wolf to decide that maybe his old life wasn’t so bad after all. (Chasing “dinner” through the forest will do that to you!) So, Wiener Wolf once again becomes Wiener Dog, but there may just be a way for this dog to enjoy his life with Granny and still find a place among friends. Learn how he does it when you read Wiener Wolf by Jeff Crosby!

The illustrations in this book are simply adorable, and I know my students will be captivated by them. The story is short and lends itself well to read-alouds with young students. Wiener Wolf could also lead to discussions on how domesticated animals behave as opposed to their wilder counterparts.

Little Dog Lost

Little Dog Lost: The True Story of a Brave Dog Named Baltic by Monica Carnesi is nominated for the 2013-2014 South Carolina Picture Book Award.

Little Dog Lost is a true story about a dog who was lost on a sheet of ice. In a short time, he traveled over 70 miles down the Vistula River in Poland and into the Baltic Sea. Early rescue attempts failed, and the little dog drifted further away. Eventually, however, the crew of a research vessel, The Baltica, spotted the dog and, after several tries, finally rescued him!

Following the dog’s rescue, he was renamed Baltic (after the ship that saved him), and he became a member of the research team’s crew. No one really knows how Baltic came to be in the predicament that garnered international attention, but it is clear that Baltic found a home after being lost for so long.

This true story provides young readers with just enough details to keep them invested in the story. Those who want to learn more can read the afterword or dive into more research on this infamous pup.

City Dog, Country Frog

My Mo Willems fans (mainly kindergarteners and 1st graders) may be in for a bit of a surprise when they read City Dog, Country Frog–a 2012-13 South Carolina Picture Book Award nominee. The text is very easy to read, but the story might just cause a few readers (like myself) to tear up a bit.

City Dog, Country Frog tells the story of an unlikely friendship and how that friendship progresses through one year. The text and illustrations present a simple, happy relationship that will change throughout the seasons. Even the ending, which I though was a little heart-breaking, offered readers a chance to remember old friends and make new ones.