On the Wings of Heroes by Richard Peck

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It’s very possible that I have a Richard Peck obsession happening right now.  I just added A Long Way from Chicago to the curriculum for my fourth grade class, and I picked up copies of one of the sequels at a book sale recently (review to come once I’ve finished it!)  So, I grabbed up a class set of On the Wings of Heroes at the same sale in the hopes that it would be worth it.  Totally worth it!

The story is set in a small town (very Peck) at the start of WWII (also very Peck), but unlike his comical Grandma Dowdel antics of the previously mentioned books, this one strives to be a bit more realistic.  Of course, there are naturally humorous observations in it and Peck’s choice of words when describing people and places continues to make me smile, even when I’m on the verge of tears due to the sentimentality of the plot.

Davy is a young boy growing up in a small town in middle America.  He clearly paints pictures of how relationships in the town were before the war and how things change as our nation waded deeper into battle overseas. Davy idolizes his big brother, Bill, who is entering the fray as part of the Army Air Force.  This entry into the war breaks the heart of their father, Earl, who was injured in WWI.  However, Earl and his wife, Joyce, are proud of their son, even though they fear for his safety.

I really enjoyed the balance of this book.  There was a very clear storyline of how life was for the small towns of rural America during WWII.  There is an endless stream of rationing and scrap drives of everything from metal to rubber to paper.  I think that my students will really be able to relate to everyday sacrifices that people made during that time, since many of them are still too young to fully comprehend what serving in the armed forces would be like.  My brain started buzzing with ideas of how to apply the descriptions of daily life to projects and discussions with my students…that is always a good sign for me when I’m reading a YA novel!  The story is emotional, but not overly sappy and funny, but not overly silly.  As I finished the last page, I already knew that I would be adding this to my fifth grade curriculum for the upcoming year.

Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson

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OK, I admit it.  This one took a loooooooong time to get into.  In fact, I started the novel, then put it down and left it for a few months.  Forge is the sequel to the novel, Chains, with a major shift in perspective.  Isabel is our main companion throughout the first novel, but is replaced by her fellow escaped slave, Curzon, as lead narrator for the second novel.  Perhaps it was because I really wanted to know what happened to Isabel and I really didn’t care about Curzon at the end of the first book that caused me to take a long time to invest in the story…whatever the cause, I’m glad I came back to the book and finished it.

Curzon’s path diverges from Isabel before the start of the novel.  He finds himself taken in by-and eventually accepted by-a rather rag-tag group of soldiers that are suffering through the winter at Valley Forge.  His early trials in the book may put off younger female readers, but it is well worth pushing through to get to the meat of the story.  Isabel does re-enter the novel later, but by then I was fully invested in Curzon’s story.

The majority of story takes place in Valley Forge during a devastating winter for the rebel soldiers.  Every day is a struggle to survive the weather and meager rations.  For Curzon, he also has the added danger of not having any papers to prove he is actually free.  The descriptions of camp life were realistic enough to give the reader a clear picture of the misery without wallowing in sordid details of the pestilence and death that surrounded their every waking moment.

In my opinion, the author’s ability to give the reader a clear picture of how tragic the situation was for these men (just as she did with Isabel’s story in Chains) without overly graphic detail of every negative thing sets it apart from many of the current dystopian offerings.  Don’t get me wrong, some of the details are graphic and will make the reader uncomfortable, BUT I didn’t find the details to be unnecessary.  The information that is provided inspires some real thought about what life must have been like for those men fighting for the independence of our nation-and for those whose independence was not guaranteed by a military victory.

As in the first book, there are some scenes of violence that are realistic considering the time period.  Additionally, in this book there are a few references made to possible sexual abuse that Isabel may have suffered at the hands of those that bought and sold her between the end of Chains and the point where she reappears in Forge.  Those references may be missed by younger readers, but will most likely raise some questions in older or more skilled readers.  The third book in this series, Ashes, is set to debut in March of 2014.  I, for one, cannot wait to read it.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

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Wonder is one of the books you remember.  It is a story to return to time and again.  It is a book that parents and kids can both relate to-and in turn, be able to relate to one another.  I downloaded this book on a Saturday morning and found myself stealing moments all day long to go back to Auggie’s story.  By the end of the day, I was nearing the end of the book and I found myself sad to see it end and invigorated by Auggie’s story.

August is a bright, funny boy with a severe facial deformity.  He has been subjected to countless surgeries, years of pain and ugly stares from strangers on the streets of his home in New York.  Auggie has never attended a real school, but his parents finally realize that they cannot provide the education he needs, and he is enrolled in a local private school at the start of his fifth grade year.

His first taste of “real” school coincides with the start of middle school-a difficult time for any kid.  Palacio does a wonderful job of drawing parallels between Auggie’s experiences with fitting in and the experiences of every kid that is wading through the swamp of middle school.  Each section of the book is written from different points of view-Auggie, his sister, students at his school-and each point of view clearly paints a picture of Auggie’s experience and the narrator’s perspective of Auggie’s life.

I have found that this book appeals to both boys and girls in the upper-elementary and middle school range.  Parents can be comfortable knowing that although this book does delve into the middle school experience of “growing up” that incidents of sex, alcohol and drug use are non-existent.  There is a mention of a party with no grown-ups present, but the character involved chooses to leave.  Negative actions in the book have consequences…there are no free rides.


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