J Nonfiction

NETTIE AND NELLIE CROOK: ORPHAN TRAIN SISTERS by E.F. Abbott

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Twins Nettie and Nellie spent a lot of time together, just the two of them.  Their father was often away for long periods of time to find work, their older brother worked all day, and sometimes their mother would disappear for weeks–especially after their baby sister died.  But one day a man arrives to take the children away, saying that they are not being cared for properly.  At six years old, Nettie and Nellie find themselves in an orphanage, even though their parents are still alive.  Not long afterward they are put on a train and sent West with a group of other children in search of “forever homes.”  But some homes are not as wonderful as they are cracked up to be.

Based on the true story of the Crook sisters, Abbott’s book gives readers a glimpse into what it might be like to be placed in foster care or adopted in the early twentieth century.  Neither the characterization nor the settings are particularly vivid; the book is plot driven.  But the subject matter is interesting, and may especially appeal to readers now that Simone Biles’ Olympic wins are raising awareness of what foster care and adoption are like today.  I would recommend this book to third and fourth grade readers who are interested in history.

ELEPHANT MAN by Mariangela Di Fiore

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Joseph Merrick was born in 1890 at a time when relatively little was known about genetic diseases. When his skin began to grow wrinkly lumps and his body to become deformed, people thought he was a monster. When he became a teenager, his step mother threw him out of their home, and Joseph had no option but to travel the world being displayed as a circus freak. After being swindled out of all of his money, Joseph finally found an accepting home at a hospital in London where Dr. Frederick Treves treated him with dignity and studied his disease.  There, Joseph finally began to enjoy his life and to express himself by writing poetry. 

This children’s picture book tells Joseph’s story as a narrative, focusing on what Joseph must have felt like being ridiculed and bullied for so many years. Through Joseph’s story, the author makes the point that every person has value and true beauty is internal. The story is simply told, in a way that will be accessible as a read-aloud for younger elementary students or for older elementary-aged students to read themselves.

EL DEAFO by CeCe Bell

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After an illness severely damages her hearing, four year old CeCe must wear hearing aids and learn to read lips.  As she goes through elementary school, she sometimes struggles to fit in with her classmates, some of whom treat her differently because of her disability.  She constantly wonders what people are thinking about her and feels left out in situations where she can’t understand what others are saying or listening to.  But she also knows that her hearing aids let her do some things that the other kids can’t, and someday her classmates will need El Deafo to save the day.

This graphic novel is sure to resonate with all middle grade readers, who will relate to CeCe’s struggles to find true friendship and fit in with her peers.  Reader’s with disabilities may find CeCe’s story particularly easy to relate to, while typically-abled readers will get a glimpse into the frustrations of being treated differently and set apart (for example, when CeCe’s friend refers to her as her “deaf friend” rather than just her friend).  This novel will both introduce readers to what it is really like to be deaf and remove some misconceptions and other barriers that may have made hearing children hesitant to befriend a deaf classmate.  Engaging, educational, and a great story–I highly recommend it!

If you liked El Deafo, you might like Smile by Raina Telgemeier.

BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson

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Jacqueline’s childhood was shaped by the Civil Rights movement, her grandfather’s garden, the kids playing in the streets in Bushwick, and so many other things.  She gathers her memories and turns them into poetry in this National Book Award winning memoir.  Her story is accessible and beautifully told with vivid imagery and a depth of reflection that inspires similar personal reflection from readers of all ages.  A beautiful book.  I highly recommend it!

CHASING FREEDOM: THE LIFE JOURNEYS OF HARRIET TUBMAN AND SUSAN B. ANTHONY by Nikki Grimes

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In a fictional conversation “inspired by historical fact,” Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony discuss their different fights for freedom and how their lives and causes intersected along the way. This book contains interesting facts and helps the reader see how pieces of history which are often described in isolation are really part of a broader fabric of events.  The format of the book as a conversation is unique, although I did not find it as compelling as I had hoped. Since the majority of the book is dialogue, the events are explained more with a statement of facts rather than the vivid narration you find in many historical nonfiction books, as well as historical fiction.  But it is a quick and informative read with supporting illustrations that are likely to engage many young readers.

ODETTE’S SECRETS by Maryann Macdonald

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Odette Meyers was a child when the Nazis invaded France. Her father joined the French Army and was put in a German prisoner of war camp, and her mother became involved with the Resistance.  When the Germans began to round up the Jews in her neighborhood, Odette and the other children of the Jewish resistance fighters escaped by train to the French countryside where they were hidden among Christian families. Odette had always been good at keeping secrets, but in the country she had to learn to keep the biggest secret of all: her identity.

Maryann Macdonald tells the true story of Odette Meyers in first person free verse.  Her story focuses on the changes that the war brought to her daily life as a child. If you liked Odette’s Secrets, you might like Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.

THE ENDLESS STEPPE: GROWING UP IN SIBERIA by Esther Hautzig

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Esther had a beautiful childhood. She shared a large home with her parents and extended family in their Polish town of Vilna. They had beautiful garden that Esther tended with her grandfather, and she attended a wonderful school. But that all ended with the German invasion. As the Polish army fought valiantly against the Germans, the Soviets began to wage war against what they considered to be internal enemies. Labeled as capitalists, Esther, her parents, and her grandparents are shuttled into cattle cars and taken to labor camps in Siberia. From age ten to age fifteen, Esther learns to survive working in the harsh, barren landscape. But as she grows and builds friendships and a life for herself, it becomes difficult to imagine ever leaving.

Esther Hautzig tells her life story in beautiful and evocative prose. Her experiences of joys and hardships are both shocking and accessible; in many ways, childhood in Siberia is no different from childhood anywhere else.  There is sadness in this story, as you can imagine, but ultimately, Esther’s story is hopeful. I highly recommend this book to middle grade readers and teens who enjoy historical novels and memoirs and who are interested in hearing a less-often-told side of the Second World War.