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Karen's Book Reviews
Fiction - Realistic
Evaluating Books
Picture Books and Easy Readers
Traditional Lit and Poetry
Nonfiction and Biography
Fiction - Historical and Fantasy
Fiction - Realistic
Patricia Polacco - Biography
Patricia Polacco - Bibliography
Patricia Polacco - Bio-Critical Analysis

November 15 - December 5, 2004

Holt, Kimberly Willis. When Zachary Beaver Came to Town. Henry Holt and Company, New York. 1999. ISBN 0805061169.

This realistic fiction novel was a Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee for 2001-2002. It is also a National Book Award winner. It tells the story of Toby Wilson, a thirteen year old boy living in the dusty West Texas town of Antler. The story takes place in the summer of 1971; a turbulant time in American history because of the war in Vietnam. Toby's best friend, Cal McKnight has an older brother, Wayne, that is serving in Vietnam. Toby considers Wayne a brother. This is also the summer that his mom finally leaves his Dad and that he and Cal meet a mysterious boy named Zachary Beaver. Zachary is traveling through town as part of a "freak" show, run by his guardian, Paulie Rankin. Zachary is being billed as the fattest boy in the world, weighing in at 643 pounds. He and his guardian are traveling in a trailer that Zachary never leaves. People pay two dollars to walk into the trailer and see the sight for themselves. However, it is what they can't see, a heartbroken fifteen year old that needs a friend or two that is the basis for this story. The author guides the reader through a journey of love, heartache, friendship, and loss. Cheri Quillin for Book Report writes, "Although dealing with weighty subjects of grief, love, and compassion, appropriate touches of humor make this book delightful and memorable".

The author masterfully creates characters that are realistic and believeable. Toby's mother, Opalina Wilson, an aspiring country singer who moves to Nashville, Sherriff Levi Fetterman, a big-hearted lawman, Scarlett Stalling, the object of Toby's unrequited love, Miss Myrtie Mae and her brother, the Judge, and many other interesting residents of Antler, Texas. Library Journal reports, "Holt deftly fleshes out her characters and expands their worldview beyond the borders of their small town".

This novel is written primarily for students in grades sixth through eighth. Readers will enjoy the many interesting characters and experience compassion and understanding for people who are less fourtunate than themselves.

Ellis, Deborah. The Breadwinner. Groundwood Books, Ontario, Canada. 2000. ISBN 0888994192.

This emotional story follows the journey of eleven year old Parvana, a young girl living in Kabul, in the country of Afghanistan. The country has been taken over by the Taliban regime and many restrictions have been placed on its citizens. Parvana and her father, mother, older sister Nooria, five year old sister Maryam and two year old brother Ali are living in a one room home, stuck inside. Over a year ago, Taliban had ordered all girls and women in Afghanistan to stay inside their homes. Parvana and Nooria were forbidden to continue attending school and their mother was 'kicked out of her job as a writer for a Kabul radio station". Both of Parvana's parents attended university, so they believe that everyone should receive an education. Parvana and her sister are very lucky in this respect because most people in Afghanistan are illiterate.

In order to make ends meet, Parvana's father travels to the market everyday and offers translating services in Dari and Pashtu to people in the Kabul market. Parvana, even though she is not allowed out, acoompanies her father so that she can help him to walk; he lost the lower half of his leg in a bombing at the school he used to teach at. She doesn't draw attention to herself and her head and face are covered by a "chador" - a piece of cloth worn by women and girls to cover their hair and shoulders. Her father tells any Talib that asks that Parvan is needed to help him walk. Parvan feels resentment because she has to do al the work - like carting water to their home because the other females of the household are not allowed outside.

After sharing the setting and circumstances of the story, the author introduces the first challlenge. One night while the family is eating dinner, their home is invaded by Taliban soldiers and Parvana's father is arrested and taken to jail. The soldiers do not provide a reason for his arrest or tell the family where they are taking him. The next day, Parvana and her mother travel by foot to the prison. They are unable to find out any information about Parvana's father and return home. Parvana's mother becomes very depressed and distances herself from the rest of the family. How will the family survive with no money?

Now, the author introduces a solution to the problem. It is decided that Parvana will dress as a boy and take over her father's job in the Kabul Market. Her hair is cut short and she is dressed in a boy's clothes. She starts working in the market and meets an old friend from school, Shauzia, who is allows dressing as a boy in order to work and earn money for her family. Working together, the two friends become the breadwinners of their respective families.

After a few months of working in the market, Nooria is engaged to be married to a man from Mazar, where the Taliban are not in control. She and her mother, Maryam, and Ali head off to Mazar while Parvana stays behind with a friend, Mrs. Weera, because it would be too hard to explain her appearance to her relatives.

Then, late one afternoon, Parvana's father returns from prison. He has been beaten badly and is very weak. She and her father hear that the Taliban has taken over Mazar, and they are unsure of the safety of the rest of their family. At the end of the story, the author describes Parvana and her father's preparations for their trip to reunite with their family in Mazar.

The author has written a realistic novel that takes the reader through the hardship of living in a war-torn country. The story is based on her conversations with women in Pakistan refugee camps. Debra Huron of Herizon writes, "The strength of this moving story is in Ellis' ability to create a main character who does the kinds of things many girls her age do: she fights with her older sister and she welcomes the chance to get away from the stifling boredom of being indoors all the time. But living in a totalitarian state is an extraordinary experience and this is where Ellis takes her readers into new territory." All royalties from the book are donated to the Women for Women in Afghanistan organization. This group is dedicated to the education of girls in Pakistan refugee camps. The author takes a very complex story and writes it in simple language that young readers can understand.

Creech, Sharon. Bloomability. Harper Trophy Publishers, New York. 1998. ISBN 0060269936.

Sharon Creech writes a fast paced story about thirteen year old Domenica Santolina Doone, a young girl who lives a nomadic life with her family, frequently moving from one town to the next, her father searching for new "opportunities". Dinnie's new life begins when she is "kidnapped" by her Aunt Sandy and Uncle Max, who are traveling to Switzerland where Max will be the headmaster of an American School. Dinnie parents decide to send her with her Aunt and Uncle to attend school there. During her year at the school in Lugano, Dinniediscovers many new things about herself ,her family, and her new friends - like where her place is in the world and how she has been given a wonderful opportunity to participate in new experiences such as learning Italian, skiing, and learning about different cultures. Publisher's Weekly states, "Creech makes use of 'a light first-person narrative and some insightful dream flashes,' to convey an uprooted 13-year-old's coming of age".

Creech uses these flashbacks and first person narrative to shed light on the problems of growing up in today's world. Many readers can sympathize with Dinnie as she is moved from one town to the next, having to start new in a different place twelve times in the last thirteen years. The character of Dinnie is believable, as she has many of the same feelings that a thirteen year old would experience, such as nervousness at moving to another place and confusion as to whether her parents really miss her at all. The introduction of the many friends that Dinnie makes at boarding school from all parts of the world make the story interesting and give the reader insight into a place they may have never traveled to before and can only imagine. This novel is best suited to middle school aged children, who will be able to identify with the character's feelings and emotions, and be able to appreciate the light humor in the story.

Myers, Walter Dean. Somewhere in the Darkness. Scholastic Inc., New York. 1992. ISBN 0590341863.

Wlater Dean Myers has written a novel that tells the story of fourteen year old Jimmy LIttle. Jimmy lives in Harlem on the fourth floor of a seven story building with "Mama Jean", his grandmother. Jimmy's mother is dead and his father is in jail. Jimmy is struggling throught he tenth grade. He is not really interested in school, and skips class quite often. He dreams about what it would be like to really know his father and have someone that he can look up to and that will teach him about life. Then one day, when he arrives home from school, Jimmy sees a strange man on the doorstep. It is his father. His father has come to get him and take him to Chicago to live. Cephus Little, or "Crab" as he is called by friends, tells Jimmy and Mama Jean that he has been paroled from jail and is taking a new job in Chicago. What really happened is that he escaped from jail and is on the run. He is sick and feels that this is his last chance to explain to his son that he was not guilty of the crime that was committed. There is only one person who can validate his story and that is an old childhood friend, Rydell Depius, but he doesn't want to help Crab. Crab and Jimmy travel to Marion, Arkansas, so that Crab can convince Rydell to tell the truth. But, Rydell instead turns Crab into the police. Crab gets sick in police custody and goes into the hospital. He dies a few days later, leaving Jimmy all alone.

The author uses the ride from New York to Arkansas to explore the relationship between Jimmy and his father. There are tense moments as Jimmy begins to become attached to Crab, only to be disappointed when he exhibits dishonesty and mistrust. Gerry Lawson of the School Library Journal writes, "through terse dialogue and characterization, Myers conveys a powerful message about the need for parent and child to believe in and respect one another". Jimmy wants desperately to be able to trust and love his father. He learns a powerful lesson about forgiveness, even when the things that have gone wrong cannot be fixed.
Larson writes, "whether from urban or rural backgrounds, single or double parent families, readers will find this universal journey of self-discovery gratifying". This book is most suitable for readers in grades seven and up. The book is also the recipient of the Newbery Honor Award and the Coretta Scott King Honor Award.

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