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!


Gingersnap by Patricia Reilly Giff is a nominee for the 15-16 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

The year is 1944, and war continues to hold the world in its grips. Jayna knows it’s just a matter of days before her big brother Rob, the only family she has, will be deployed on a ship headed for the fighting in the Pacific. Jayna tries to put on a brave face, but she’s not happy about being separated from her brother once again, and she doesn’t want to live with Celine, their grumpy landlady, while Rob is away.

After Rob leaves for duty, Jayna is comforted by her turtle Theresa, cooking soup, and by an odd presence that seems vaguely familiar. Is this a ghost? If so, who is it, and what does it want with Jayna?

When Jayna receives the devastating news that her brother is missing in action, this “ghost” leads the girl back to their house and to an old box in a closet. There Jayna finds an old blue cookbook and the address of a Brooklyn bakery called Gingersnap (which happens to be Jayna’s nickname).

Jayna, though scared and unsure, sees the bakery’s name as a sign, and she packs up her turtle, the blue cookbook, and most of her belongings and sets off for an uncertain future and a grandmother she’s never known. Jayna is accompanied by the voice of her ghostly companion, and she eventually arrives in Brooklyn. What she finds there, however, may not be exactly what she expected.

Jayna is very confused about her current circumstances and what will happen to her should her brother never return. She likes being in Brooklyn and the friends she’s made, but what if Rob never comes back to her? What if he’s gone forever? Jayna seeks out her ghostly friend to give her some measure of help, but she doesn’t know if that will be enough to keep her brother safe or to preserve the little family she’s made for herself in Brooklyn.

What will become of young Jayna in this time of turmoil? Read Gingersnap by Patricia Reilly Giff to find out!

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!

Barbed Wire Baseball

Barbed Wire Baseball, written by Marissa Moss and illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, is nominated for the 2014-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

Barbed Wire Baseball is a welcome addition in public, school, and classroom libraries, and it highlights a shameful, often overlooked period in American history–the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Kenichi “Zeni” Zenimura loved baseball. He played professionally in the U.S., and he went a long way to making the sport popular in his native Japan. He even played with baseball legends like Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, however, Zeni’s baseball dreams would take a turn.

Zeni, his family, and over 100,000 Japanese Americans were sent to live in internment camps. These loyal Americans had done nothing wrong. They were rounded up solely because of their ancestry. The internment camps were little more than prisons, often surrounded by barbed wire.

Zeni was sent to the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona, and, though he was far from home and in a horrible situation, he did not let that keep him from the sport he loved so much. Along with his sons and friends at the camp, Zeni built a baseball field. This field not only allowed them to play baseball, but it also provided some measure of hope that their dreams could still come true. Even in the toughest of circumstances, happiness can be found.

Barbed Wire Baseball could be a great jumping off point for further research about World War II and the despicable way the U.S. treated loyal Americans. (Many readers will likely make connections between internment camps and concentration camps.) An afterword and bibliography provide more information about the life of Zeni Zenimura and the internment of Japanese Americans.

Franklin and Winston: A Christmas That Changed the World

Franklin and Winston: A Christmas That Changed the World by Douglas Wood and Barry Moser is a nominee for the 2013-2014 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

Franklin and Winston: A Christmas That Changed the World tells of the Christmas of 1941 and Winston Churchill’s visit to the White House. During his stay, Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt both cemented their friendship and developed a framework that would take the Allied Powers through the war they were determined to win.

This book is a welcome addition to any library, whether its patrons are children or adults. Young readers will be able to use this book to fill in some gaps in what is present in their history textbooks, and older readers, like myself, may find that they never knew just how close Churchill and Roosevelt grew to be. Franklin and Winston is a perfect fit for many states’ social studies standards (in a number of grade levels), so it is also a good fit for classroom libraries. (I would even say that it would make an excellent Christmas gift for the history buff in your life.)

The artwork in this book, done in watercolors by Barry Moser, is wonderful, and much of it is based on actual photographs of Churchill’s visit to the White House during the Christmas of 1941. Readers may find it interesting to compare the illustrators renderings with the actual photos. (This may serve as a way to collaborate between art and social studies teachers.)

The Romeo and Juliet Code

The Romeo and Juliet Code introduces readers to Felicity Bathburn Budwig, a young  British girl who is moving to Maine to stay with relatives for the duration of World War II.  Her parents leave her with family members she’s never met, and Felicity doesn’t really know where her parents are going or when–or if–they will return for her.  They don’t even write to her…but they do send letters to her Uncle Gideon.  Felicity is barely allowed to touch these letters.  That, of course, makes her want to know what the letters are hiding.

With the help of Derek, a boy who lives with the Bathburn family, Felicity learns that these mysterious letters are codes being sent from her parents.  But what do they say?  What is the code’s connection to Romeo and Juliet?  Do the codes have anything to do with the war that is sure to involve America at any moment?  Just what are her parents involved in?  And can Felicity and Derek figure everything out–including the mystery surrounding the turmoil in the Bathburn family–before they lose their minds?  Discover the truth when you read The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone.

While this book is a decent historical mystery with a dash of young love, it wasn’t exactly a quick read, and that–along with the misleading cover–will make this one a hard sell.  I know some of my female students will pick up the book because of the current cover, but the “bait and switch” here might turn them off once they start reading.  Most of my male students won’t pick up this book at all because the cover makes it look like a “girl book.”

If you’d like more information about The Romeo and Juliet Code and other books by author Phoebe Stone, visit http://www.phoebestone.com/.

Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story

Four Perfect Pebbles:  A Holocaust Story by Lila Perl and Marion Blumenthal Lazan is a memoir of the Lazan family’s experiences during the Holocaust.  It seemed as though every attempt the family made to leave Germany was met with failure.  Even when they fled to Holland, they were sent back to Germany soon after Hitler’s troops took over the Netherlands.  The family lived in refugee, transit, and prison camps in both Holland and Germany.  Marion believed that if she could find four perfect pebbles in the yard of the prison camp at Bergen-Belsen then her family would remain whole and even survive the Nazi occupation in Europe.

This memoir is a very powerful look at what can happen when evil is allowed to flourish and how people can have faith that things will get better even in times of darkness.  I read this book in about two hours, but the message remained with me long after.

If you’d like more information on Four Perfect Pebbles and Mrs. Lazan, I urge you to visit http://www.fourperfectpebbles.com/indexS&TR3.4.10.html.

I was privileged to meet Marion Blumenthal Lazan a couple of years ago, and I was astounded by how humble and courageous she was.  She is the very epitome of a true survivor.