Stella by Starlight

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper is a nominee for the 2016-17 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

Stella by Starlight takes place in the segregated South during the Great Depression, and it doesn’t shy away from the racism, hatred, and fear that was so prevalent at the time. (Anyone who is paying attention would agree that these things are still prevalent.) But this book also emphasizes the power of family, community, faith, and courage in the face of adversity.

The book begins with Stella and her brother, JoJo, witnessing something disturbing in the woods next to their home late one night. They see men and horses in white robes. They see a burning cross. This sight can only mean one thing–the Ku Klux Klan. Stella and JoJo race home to tell their parents what they’ve seen, and the people in the community immediately come together to discuss what it might mean.

With the threat of the Klan looming over everything, the people in Stella’s community wonder what they can do to combat such a seemingly powerful force. They’ve always dealt with racism, but this feels much more sinister. When several men, including Stella’s father, decide to stand up for themselves in the voting booth, the threat becomes even greater.

Through all of this turmoil, Stella examines her own feelings through writing. Stella admits she’s not the best writer, but she practices late at night in the hopes of getting better. She has so many thoughts about what’s going on around her, and she wants to get them down on paper. She writes about her family, school, and community. She writes about the prejudice she experiences and sees around her. She writes about the people, both black and white, who come together and take a stand when times are hard. She writes about her hopes for the future.


Stella by Starlight is an excellent piece of historical fiction, and I hope that many teachers and students will use it to supplement their understanding of racism, both in the segregated South and in the present day.

I also see this book being used to help students with their writing…or whatever else they may be having trouble with. Stella freely admits that she is not a great writer and needs practice. Students need to see that it’s okay to make mistakes. What’s important is to keep trying and working to get better.

Librarians, teachers, and parents who want to explore themes like bravery, integrity, empathy, tolerance, and respect with their students should definitely take a look at Stella by Starlight. It’s an extremely powerful book that will stay with all readers long after they’ve finished it.

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 by John Hendrix is a nominee for the 2016-17 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

Shooting at the Stars is a fictionalized account of one of the most inspiring stories of World War I. On Christmas Day in 1914, British and German troops put aside their weapons and celebrated the Christmas holiday. For one day, there was peace, joy, kindness, and laughter. Though war divided them, a shared belief brought them together for one too-brief day.

As the holiday drew to a close, each side retreated to their respective trenches to await the orders that would once again pit them against each other. For that evening, however, they were simply young men celebrating a holiday and lamenting a war that was taking so much from so many.

Shooting at the Stars is a necessary addition to any elementary and middle grade studies of World War I. It highlights the human element of war. All too often, studies of war focus on alliances, battles, politics, etc. This story and others like it remind readers that war is fought by men and women on the ground: young people who were in school not too long ago, parents, teachers, friends, and others who would no doubt rather be anywhere else but on the front lines.

If you’d like to promote this book in your classroom or library, feel free to use the book trailer below.

Ship of Dolls

Ship of Dolls by Shirley Parenteau is a nominee for the 16-17 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

The year is 1926, and Lexie Lewis would like nothing more than going back to live with her mother, a singer and flapper who is always the life of any party. That party is currently far away in San Francisco. Lexie’s new stepfather doesn’t think this life is a place for a child, so Lexie is living with her grandparents in Portland. She’s not happy about the situation–especially since her grandmother is so strict–and she longs to be reunited with her mother.

At school, Lexie may have an opportunity to see her mother once again. Her class has been collecting money to send a Friendship Doll to Japan. Letters will be sent along with the doll on its long journey, first to San Francisco and then to Japan. The student who writes the best letter will get to accompany the doll on the first leg of the journey. Lexie is determined to win this all-important contest, travel to California, and be reunited with her mother…permanently.

But winning this contest is not as easy as one would hope. Lexie gets into a bit of trouble trying to get inspiration for her letter, and that trouble leads to even more as her little lies turn into big ones. Then there’s the matter of Louise Wilkins, Lexie’s rival at school. Louise is also determined to win this contest, and she’s willing to do anything to get her way.

As Lexie works on her Friendship Doll project, she continues to focus on being with her mom again. Sure, working on this project has brought her closer to her grandparents, especially her grandma, and maybe they’re so strict for a reason, but Lexie belongs with her mom. Right?

Lexie’s potential reunion with her mother is growing closer and closer, and, soon enough, Lexie faces an important decision. Should she go with her mom on whatever adventure is next, or should she stay with her grandparents in Portland? The answer may surprise even Lexie.


Lexie Lewis’ story is fictional, but it is based on an actual event…and one that I had never heard of. In the late 1920s, Dr. Sidney Gulick organized the Friendship Doll Project, which sent over 12,000 dolls from the U.S. to Japan in an effort to foster friendship and peace between the two nations. Japan reciprocated with fifty-eight Dolls of Gratitude sent to the U.S. While the two countries did eventually engage each other in World War II, the dolls of friendship were remembered years later, and some of them have been found, restored, and displayed in museums.

Aside from the interesting historical events in this story, I think Ship of Dolls is a good book for addressing concepts like honesty, friendship, forgiveness, and tolerance. Lexie, her grandmother, and even Louise grow throughout the course of the book, and it’s interesting to see how their interactions change–particularly in regards to the concepts listed above–as the story progresses.

If you’d like to promote Ship of Dolls in your classroom or library, feel free to use the book trailer below.

Anybody Shining

Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell is a nominee for the 16-17 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

Arie Mae Sparks wants just one friend to call her own. She’s hopeful that her cousin Caroline, who lives all the way in Raleigh, will respond to her letters one of these days–and be the friend she’s always wanted–but it’s not looking good at the moment. Still…Arie Mae keeps on writing, telling her cousin about everything happening in Bone Gap, North Carolina.

Though Arie Mae despairs of ever finding one true friend, newcomers in her little town may provide some hope. These new folks–who’ve arrived all the way from Baltimore, Maryland–have come to the mountains to learn about the nearby settlement school. Almost immediately, Arie Mae sees the potential for friendship in Tom, a boy who has a special shine about him.

Even though Tom has a bad leg and can’t do everything the other kids can, he and Arie Mae form a fast friendship. He doesn’t care at all that Arie Mae is not as fancy as his sisters or that her family doesn’t have as much as his. He simply wants to hear her stories and go on adventures with her.

Arie Mae is all for seeking adventure, but she soon learns that Tom has more difficulties than just a bad leg. His mother warns Arie Mae that her new friend has a weak heart and shouldn’t exert himself too much. Arie Mae worries about this, but Tom is determined to do just what he wants. What’s a friend to do?

Through her continuing letters to her cousin, Arie Mae reflects on her friendship with Tom, her feelings about his condition, her family and their life on the mountain, and all sorts of other things. She thinks about what makes her world so odd to some and so special to others. Can people be true friends when they see the world so differently?

Learn more about the power of friendship, reaching out, and overcoming differences when you read Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell.


If you’d like to share this book with your students, here’s a short book trailer I created for Anybody Shining.

Duke

Duke by Kirby Larson was the winner of the 2015-2016 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

It’s 1944, and Hobie Hanson is doing what he can for the war effort at home. With his dad fighting in Europe, Hobie is the man of the house, and he tries to help his country in ways both small and large. Hobie’s feeling the pressure, though, to do something bigger than anything he’s ever considered–donate his beloved dog, Duke, to the war effort.

The Dogs for Defense program asks Americans to donate their well-trained family pets to the armed forces–as guard and patrol dogs and even bomb sniffers. Hobie knows that Duke is an excellent prospect for this program…but he doesn’t want to let go of his dog. Isn’t it enough that his dad is fighting in this war? Does Hobie have to put his dog in danger as well?

Eventually, Hobie gives in and loans Duke to the Marines…and immediately wants to change his mind. In fact, he does everything he can think of to get Duke home. Hobie even betrays a new friend in his quest to be reunited with Duke. None of his efforts work, and Hobie decides to be brave and deal with his situation as best he can…and that decision could have far-reaching consequences.

Soon, Hobie will realize that there are many different kinds of bravery. His father, who is in more danger than ever, is brave for leaving his home and fighting for his country. Duke is brave when he follows orders and keeps others safe. But maybe Hobie is brave, too. Maybe loaning Duke to the Marines–even though he didn’t want to–was brave. Maybe looking after his mom and little sister is brave. And maybe apologizing to his new friend and standing by his side is brave.

Will Hobie’s bravery be enough to hold things together until he’s reunited with those he loves? Will his father come home soon? Will Duke?

Discover just how much bravery and love mean to a boy, his dog, his family, and those around him when you read Duke by Kirby Larson!

Light in the Darkness

Light in the Darkness: A Story about How Slaves Learned in Secret, written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by James E. Ransome, is a nominee for the 2015-16 South Carolina Picture Book Award.

Light in the Darkness is a moving account of how slaves risked their lives to do something that most of us take for granted. They stole away in the dead of night, always looking over their shoulders for patrollers, to meet in pit schools. These schools, often nothing more than holes in the ground covered by branches, were led by older, literate slaves who taught others to read.

This book is an excellent addition to studies of slavery and how people knew that knowledge and reading were essential to being truly free. I think Light in the Darkness would be an ideal selection for Black History Month and American Education Week celebrations.

Light in the Darkness is a wonderful read-aloud for children of all ages, but some younger readers may need a bit more background information on slavery to really appreciate the story.

The Matchbox Diary

The Matchbox Diary, written by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, is a nominee for the 2015-16 South Carolina Picture Book Award.

The Matchbox Diary takes readers on a journey through one man’s life. This man tells his great-granddaughter to choose one item in the room, and he’ll tell her a story about it. The girl chooses an old cigar box full of matchboxes. But there are no matches in these boxes. Each box carries a memory of her great-grandfather’s life, from his earliest days in Italy, through his family’s journey across the sea to Ellis Island, to their lives as Italian immigrants in an often unfriendly new world. Though he couldn’t read or write (at first), these matchboxes allowed this man to keep his memories alive to share with future generations.

The narrative of this book is presented entirely through dialog, which might make it a poor choice for read-alouds, especially with younger readers who have very little background knowledge of immigration. That being said, I think this would be an excellent addition in older grades’ studies of immigration, how families were often split up for a while, the long journey to America, and what immigrants encountered once they arrived.

The true strength of The Matchbox Diary, in my opinion, is in the illustrations. While the narrative seems a bit choppy at times, the gorgeous, detailed illustrations make the grandfather’s stories come alive. I expect no less from Bagram Ibatoulline, and he definitely delivers in this book.