Book Review: Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

When Mama told Beverly that Master Jefferson was his father, she called it a secret everybody knew.


Jefferson's Sons

Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

William Beverly Hemings is seven years old when his mother tells him an important secret. Though he is black and a slave now, when he turns 21, he will be free… and white. He, his two younger brothers, and their sister are treated differently from the other slaves at Monticello, but they must never speak of why. As Beverly, then his little brother Madison, and finally their friend Peter Fossett grow up, they each must find their own answers to one big question: Can a man be great and still participate in evil?


The idea that the men who wrote that “all men are created equal” and staked their lives on the formation of a land of freedom owned slaves is a tough one for grown-ups to reconcile, let alone kids. Bradley gives a nuanced look at the lives of two slave families (the Hemingses and the Fossetts) at Monticello as their children puzzle out what it means for one of the fathers of a free country to also be the father of slaves. Its length and its thought-provoking content make it a book for older kids; my library has it cataloged as YA, though I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to an interested fifth-grader. Bradley gets a tiny bit didactic sometimes, but never so strongly that it really distracts from the story. An afterword shares the known facts about the lives of the Hemings family and offers suggestions for further reading.


Final Word:
Solid historical fiction offering a clear window into a murky time.


Checked out from my public library.


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Book Review: Second Fiddle by Roseanne Parry

If we had known it would eventually involve the KGB, the French National Police, and the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, we would have left that body in the river and called the Polizei like any normal German citizen; but we were Americans and addicted to solving other people’s problems, so naturally, we got involved.

Second Fiddle
Second Fiddle by Rosanne Parry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Berlin in 1990: a city in transition. The Wall has just come down, people have fled from East Berlin in search of better lives, and the Soviet Army is facing some serious problems of its own. For American Army-brat Jody and her best friends, Giselle and Vivian, Berlin is also home. For a while, at least. Jody’s three-year stay is about to come to an end with her family’s upcoming move to Texas, while Giselle’s family is headed to California. The girls are in the final days of preparing for one last competition as a string trio – in Paris! – when their teacher tells them he cannot take them after all. On their way home from receiving that disappointing news, the girls save a drowning Estonian soldier, beaten and thrown off a bridge by officers of his own Soviet Army. He needs to escape Berlin before the Russians find him. The girls need a chaperon to Paris before their parents find out their teacher canceled. What could possibly go wrong?


In Parry’s second book for young readers, she takes us back to a time that seems too recent to really be called historical fiction, but it is. She sketches the reality of teens of the time – no cell phones, no e-mail – with specific details without waxing overly nostalgic (an easy trap when writing historical fiction set in your own lifetime). For today’s tweens, the days of the Soviet Union are ancient history! The story is told through Jody’s eyes, but all three girls are strong characters. Their bond, and the way it sustains them through thick and thin, forms the core of the novel. Parry keeps their madcap antics in Paris just this side of unbelievable, giving both a thrilling adventure tale and a sweet story of friendship, loyalty, and discovering one’s own strength.


Final Word:
Set in the waning days of the Cold War, this is a fine adventure story with a warm heart.


Checked out from my public library.


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Book Review: May B. by Caroline Starr Rose

I watch a bird balance
on a blade of grass
bent low toward earth
to find a meal.
All creatures must work for their keep.

May B.
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Life on the Kansas prairie frontier is tough, and 12-year-old Mavis Betterly – May B. – knows it. A learning disability makes school especially challenging, but she is determined to do well, hoping to become a teacher herself one day. Instead of going to school this winter, though, May is headed to a stranger’s homestead 15 miles away. She will help his wife, newly arrived from the East, with the chores, earning a little money to help her own parents as well. “Just until Christmas,” they tell her. Just as May begins to settle in at the Oblingers’ sod house, both adults head into town, and they don’t come back. Trapped by a blizzard, May faces the brutal winter outside while confronting her own haunting memories inside. It will take all her toughness to make it home again


Novels in verse are a tricky thing. As a reader, I always ask what the verse form adds to the story that the author couldn’t have accomplished with prose. In May B., the short, spare poems work. They let the reader straight into May’s thoughts, creating vivid images of life on the frontier. May is a frontier girl, plain-spoken and hard-working, but she is also just twelve years old. One of my favorite passages captures her petulant voice as the gravity of her situation becomes apparent:

I am going to stay here,
wrapped in these quilts,
let the fire die,
and freeze to death
or maybe starve,
whichever comes first.
Then Pa will be sorry
for sending me here.
Was it worth
those few dollars
to find
you daughter dead?

She knows she has to get down to the business of saving herself, but what adolescent (or grown-up, for that matter) could resist having a good wallow in self-pity first?

May is a sharp observer, and the details she notices about the other characters bring them to life while keeping the focus squarely on her. Rose evokes May’s physical and emotional struggles with simple language and poetic rhythm that keep the reader in her world until the very end. A striking debut.

On shelves January 10, 2012.


Final Word
Sharp writing, engaging characters, and a thrilling survival story – what’s not to love?

e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request.

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Book Review: Taking Off by Jenny Moss

On January 28th, 1986, the day after my 10th birthday, I was just one of millions of kids waiting to see the very first “Teacher in Space” broadcast from the shuttle Challenger. Some of the classrooms (though not mine) had televisions at the ready. The launch had been repeatedly delayed, and we didn’t know when it would finally happen.

That morning, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker: teachers in the classrooms with TVs should not turn them on. What was not announced, left to our families to explain at home, was that the launch had ended disastrously due to, in the words of public affairs officer Steve Nesbitt, “a major malfunction.”

Jenny Moss was a NASA engineer at the time, involved in the training of Challenger crew members Judith Resnick and Ellison Onizuka. In Taking Off, she evokes the atmosphere of late-1985 Houston, as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl, an aspiring poet in a town full of Science Geeks.

Taking OffTaking Off by Jenny Moss

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

No one labels me as an eccentric, but that’s because they don’t know what’s in my heart.

In the late Fall of 1985, Annie is a high school senior in suburban Houston, and her comfortable life is on the verge of being completely upended. Her best friend wants her to go to college in Austin with her. Her boyfriend of two years wants her to stay in town with him. Her mother wants her to be friendlier to Donald, her mother’s boyfriend. Annie isn’t sure what she wants, except that she wants to be a poet, an idea she keeps secret from the engineers and space program geeks who populate most of her town. Then, she meets Christa McAuliffe at a dinner party. She can’t help but feel inspired by the famous “Teachernaut”, so inspired that she decides to take a road trip to Florida to see the Challenger launch. And maybe, while she’s at it, figure out where she wants to go.

This is a quiet novel, with a lot of introspection. As it opens, Annie is caught between conflicting impulses and would really rather hole up at home than deal with making decisions about her future. While it is a situation many teens will recognize, the story lacks action, making it less than compelling. Even the romantic subplot, with its potential for angst and drama, ends up feeling underwhelming. The book might find its audience with adults who remember the Challenger disaster and will appreciate former NASA engineer Moss’s attention to detail.

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Book Review: The Secret of the Sealed Room by Bailey MacDonald


The Secret of the Sealed Room: A Mystery of Young Ben FranklinThe Secret of the Sealed Room: A Mystery of Young Ben Franklin by Bailey Macdonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In church of a Sunday when the parson preaches about the sins and failings of women, I would swear he gazes straight at me with a stern, disapproving look.

Patience Martin knows she is hardly the model of good behavior. But what incentive does she have? After her mother’s death three years ago, her father bound her as a servant to the wealthy Mrs. Worth. Then her father died in the same shipwreck that left Mrs. Worth a widow in the middle of a difficult pregnancy. She has four long years to serve a woman who never has a kind word to say to her. Of course, things are about to get much, much worse. Mrs. Worth is found dead, and her brother-in-law plans to sell Patience off with no concern for her well-being. Patience takes her chance to run away, but soon learns that she is suspected of stealing Mrs. Worth’s money, and there is a reward on her head. With the help of a smart young printer’s apprentice, she just might save herself and bring the murderer to justice.

As in Wicked Will, MacDonald sets the scene with period details.

Patience is a winning heroine – quick-witted and determined, clearly a girl ahead of her time. The young Ben Franklin is charming, depicted with just enough human faults to remind the reader that even such an American legend was once a teenage boy. Filled with humor and nods to historical events, this is a classic locked-room mystery for the younger set.

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