New Favorite Books for Your TBR (To Be Read) List

On this cold, but sunny winter day (yea for the sun!!), I want to share some books I’ve read during the the past month. Happily, I’ve been able to curl up with my new Christmas throw, my dog and my coffee and have found a lot of new favorites! Two are set in Cuba, which was a new and eye opening experience for me. Others offered window and mirror experiences for me as I’m sure they will for you and your kids. Through the stories of these brave characters, who bravely provide us with a window into their lives, we can develop a better understanding of some difficult topics, or they might mirror something you are experiencing, which will bring comfort to all of you. So that I don’t overwhelm you, this is the first of multiple posts with my new favorite books for your TBR list. Look for part two next week!

new favorite booksMy Brigadista year

by Katherine Paterson

#partner @kidlitexchange

Thanks to the @kidlitexchange network for the review copy of this book – all opinions are my own. I can barely remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and I’m quite sure most of you weren’t even dreamed about at that time! My vague memory is of my parents (who rarely watched television) and my aunt and uncle being glued to the set, while my cousins and I were allowed to play with very little supervision. I remember the murmurs and the fear on their faces. It was something I had never experienced before or since. So as you can imagine, both my memories and opinion of Castro and the Cuban government were not happy ones. Therefore, when I read My Brigadista Year my eyes were opened to a part of Cuban history I wasn’t aware of and was very different than I knew.

When Castro became premier of Cuba, he called for an army of young people to go out into the jungles and mountains to bring literacy to the citizens who had never had the opportunity to learn to read and write. This historical fiction book is the memoir of a member of that army, who at the age of thirteen leaves the safety and the comforts of her life in Havana, much to her parents’ dismay, and goes off to tackle the huge job of teaching citizens to become literate. She does this with no electricity, no running water and with the constant fear that she will be discovered by the rebels. But her parents have raised her to share what she has and to help others who are lacking, so this is exactly what she does.

I liked this book so much. In fact, I read it in one sitting! I just couldn’t stop reading Lora’s story. I admired her courage, her kindness, her empathy and her determination to do the right thing. Thanks to the brigadistas, many, many people became literate while the army of volunteers learned compassion and self reliance. In Lora’s words “I taught the campesinos how to read and write, and they taught me how to be a person.” (page 177)

Middle Grade; Historical Fiction; courage; kindness; empathy; Cuba

new favorite booksinsignificant events in the life of a cactus

by Dusti Bowling

Aven is a spunky thirteen year old with a great sense of humor who just happens to have no arms. She loves to tell stories about the reason why, but the truth is she was simply born way. Thanks to her parents, though, and her personality, she has the confidence to do just about anything. She can even put up with those “looks” she gets, at least most of the time. However, Aven has just moved to Arizona with her parents, because they become the managers of an old theme park and is starting a new middle school. This means lots of “those looks” and no friends.

I loved this amazing “windows and mirrors” story! Not only did we get to know what it means to be Aven, but we were also given an opportunity to view the world through the eyes of a child with Tourette Syndrome, as well as an overweight child, who are both feeling very much alone and ostracized in middle school. We learn about the friendship that develops among these three kids and what this means to each of them. We learn how friendships and the support of those friendships can lead to growth, self confidence and self acceptance.

This would be a wonderful read aloud for grade 5 and up and will prompt many meaningful class discussions about the acceptance of differences and friendship.  It’s the perfect book for those kids who have read Wonder and ask what they can read next! This book (and lots of copies) needs to be in every upper elementary and middle school library.

Grades 5 and up realistic fiction; friendship; Tourette Syndrome; overcoming obstacles; love and family support; acceptance of differences

new favorite booksall the way to havana

Written by Mararita Engle; Illustrated by Mike Curato

This book tells the story of a young Cuban boy, his family, some neighbors and their 30 mile journey to Havana to welcome the boy’s new cousin to the world. The seven happily squeeze into the family sedan, Cara Cara, which had originally belonged to the boy’s grandpa. It’s a conglomeration of parts pieced together to keep the fifty year old car running, with a little ingenuity from the boy and his father. We see the pride and joy on their faces as they arrive in Havana with their gift and their cake for the new cousin. The little boy sees so many cars of all shapes and colors as they drive through Havana, but proudly know his Cara Cara is the best! This story allows us to see and to gain an understanding of the strong family ties and pride in a Cuban family, as well as the determination of the Cuban people to make the best of what they have.

The illustrations are by one of my favorite illustrator’s, Mike Curato. He traveled to Cuba and took the same 30 mile hot and dusty ride in a 1954 Chevy that the young boy and his family experience in the story. From this, he created the illustrations using the textures from photographs he took along the way, along with pencil drawings and paintings. You’ll be transported to this beautiful island country as you imagine the warmth and love in a day in the life of a Cuban family. I highly recommend All the Way to Havana.

Family pride: ingenuity; Cuba


new favorite booksA Different Pond

Written by Bao Phi ; Illustrated by Thi Bui

I had seen this book on so many end of the year “best” lists, and after reading it, I certainly understand why that is! I remember reading about, and being aware of, the many Vietnam refugees in the 70s, but I never had any first hand experience in my small Midwestern hometown. This beautiful book helps me understand exactly what so many Vietnam refugees were feeling and experiencing as they struggled to live in the United States. The story tells of a little boy who accompanies his father on a fishing trip in the predawn hours. There’s much love and patience between the boy and his father, as the dad casts his line into the river and the little boy shivers from the cold. The dad shares stories about his childhood in Vietnam and about his brother who never returned from the fighting. Once they have a few fish, they return home knowing their family will be able to eat dinner that night when Dad comes home from one of his two jobs, Mom is home from her job and his brothers and sisters are home after school. This is a story about family, love and the struggles that a refugee family face as they work to survive in their new country. It enables us to have a small understanding of what the Vietnamese refugees experienced when they had to leave everything they knew in order to have a better life for their families, which is not unlike what refugees experience today. Sharing A Different Pond provides a perfect introduction to discussing the current world refugee situation. This book will help our children develop understanding of, and empathy for, the plight of refugees in our country and around the world.

Immigration; refugees; family love and support; Vietnam refugees

I have so many more books I want you to know about, but I’ll save them for another post – or maybe even two! Be sure and let me know what your new favorites are in the comments!