Mountain Dog

In Mountain Dog, readers are introduced to Tony, a boy who has grown up in a rough environment. His mother is being sent to prison for dog-fighting, and Tony is going to live in the mountains with an uncle he’s never met. Tony doesn’t know what to expect, and he’s plagued by nightmares of yelling, claws, biting…and math. Can life with an unknown uncle be better than what he’s known? Tony dares to hope so.

When Tony moves to his uncle’s home in the mountains, he’s met by Gabe, a happy, lovable dog who helps Tony’s uncle on search-and-rescue missions. Gabe, along with Tony’s uncle and a few other people, help Tony to understand life in this wild new environment, how to survive in the wilderness, and everything that happens during SAR missions.

Tony gradually begins to thrive–and even feel at home–in the mountains. He’s making friends (both human and canine), he’s writing for the school paper and his own blog, and he’s becoming more comfortable with the numbers that used to worry him so much. He can’t imagine life without his uncle and Gabe…and he doesn’t want to. Tony feels truly loved for the first time in his life, and going back to the way things were with his mom is unbearable.

How will Tony handle his uncertain future? Will he find a forever home with his uncle and Gabe, or will he be forced to leave the life he’s come to love? Learn the answers to these questions and many more when you read Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle.


Mountain Dog is told in free verse and is a quick read that will appeal to readers in elementary and middle grades (not to mention many older animal lovers). The story is presented in both Tony’s voice and Gabe’s, and it’s interesting to see how both boy and dog view what’s going on around them. Peppered with illustrations by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov, this moving book highlights the bond between man and nature. Mountain Dog shows readers that families come in many forms…and species.

Summer of the Gypsy Moths

While Stella’s flighty mother is drifting from one town to the next, Stella is sent to live with her Great Aunt Louise on Cape Cod. Even though Louise is kind of grumpy sometimes, Stella likes living with her. Louise keeps things nice, neat, and orderly, something Stella’s mom never did. Stella has high hopes that her mom will eventually settle in Cape Cod with her and Louise, and they’ll be a happy family.

One obstacle to that “happy family” scenario–along with Stella’s mom’s lack of reliability–may be Angel, a foster kid who’s also living with Louise. Angel and Stella are like oil and water, and they seem to work best when they stay far away from each other. Fate, however, seems to have other ideas.

When the girls discover that Louise has suddenly passed away, they must work together to decide what to do. Neither girl wants to go into group homes or anything like that, so they do the only thing they can think of. They keep Louise’s death a secret. They make up plausible excuses for Louise’s absence. They take care of the vacation cottages that Louise was responsible for. Stella takes comfort in cleaning, gardening, and keeping Louise’s prize blueberries alive. Both girls do what they must to survive as long as they can. It’s not easy, but Stella and Angel think they have no other choice. They must learn to rely on each other.

Both Stella and Angel have taken on more than any two kids should, but their predicament is bringing them closer together. They’re communicating, working together, and learning more about each other. They each have their own ways of coping with this horrible situation, and they’re doing the best they can.

But what happens when the secrecy finally becomes too much? When the truth is revealed, what will it mean for Stella, Angel, and their future? Will they find the sense of family and home they so desperately need? Will someone finally take care of them? Find out when you read Summer of the Gypsy Moths, a 14-15 South Carolina Book Award nominee by Sara Pennypacker!

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.

Touch Blue

Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord, a nominee for the 2012-13 South Carolina Children’s Book Award, is one of the fastest reads I’ve had in a while.  I finished this book in just a couple of hours.  Despite its length, however, Touch Blue packed an emotional wallop.  The main character, eleven-year-old Tess, has a perfectly realistic voice, and, even though some readers, especially in South Carolina, will be unable to relate to the setting of this book (an island off the coast of Maine), they will find a relatable character in Tess.

In order to keep their island school from closing–and losing many of the island’s inhabitants to the mainland–some of the residents of Bethsaida Island agree to take in foster children to increase enrollment at the school.  Tess’ family is one of those taking in a new kid.

As Tess and her little sister Libby eagerly await the arrival of thirteen-year-old Aaron, Tess is filled with visions of what it will be like to have an older brother.  She’s sure that it will be great, and she’s excited to have someone close to her age around.  She’s not, however, prepared for the emotional baggage that Aaron brings with him.  He’s justifiably moody and unsure of his new surroundings, and he resists all of Tess’ attempts to get closer to him.

Tess tries everything she can think of to help Aaron feel like he belongs, including a few things thought to bring good luck (like touching something blue to make a wish come true).  Gradually, Aaron feels more comfortable on the island–he plays his trumpet in the July 4th celebration, he helps Tess restore her boat, and he goes lobster-trapping with Tess and her Dad–but Tess knows that he’s holding back.  Aaron misses his mom, and he wants to get back to her.  Tess tries to convince Aaron that he belongs with her family, but it may take something drastic to make him believe he’s important to them.

Will Tess be able to help Aaron accept his new life and family, or will all of her wishing leave her with nothing?  Read Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord to find out.

I really enjoyed this book, and I plan to recommend it to all of my students in 3rd through 5th grades.  Middle grade readers may enjoy it as well.  I’m hoping that my students will be interested in the books that Tess alludes to throughout Touch BlueThe Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, and Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery.  I love how Tess relates her relationship with Aaron to those of the characters in these beloved books.

If you’re looking for a super-fast, moving, and heart-warming summer read, I highly recommend Touch Blue.  At its core, it is a story about what it means to truly belong and how a person creates his or her own luck.  This book is perfect for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider–and who hasn’t?

For more information on this book and others by Cynthia Lord, visit http://www.cynthialord.com/.