The Great Greene Heist

The Great Greene HeistThe Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson. Arthur A. Levine (an imprint of Scholastic), 2014. 240 pages. Publisher recommends for middle grade students. ISBN: 9780545525527.

Maplewood Middle School is in the midst of an election for student council officers. Gabriella de la Cruz is running for student council president. The student council president has a great deal of control over which school-sponsored clubs get funding. Keith Sinclair, an excellent villain, wants to be president so he can fund the clubs he likes and de-fund the others. He and his father, another excellent villain, arrange to buy the election. They buy it from Dr. Kelsey, the school principal and the third excellent villain. Enter Jackson Greene. Jackson finds out about the Sinclair’s attempt to buy the election and decides to put together a team to secure the election for his one-time girlfriend Gaby.

Jackson is super cool. He is in complete control of every detail of the heist. He chooses his team members very carefully and he knows how to get the best out of each of them. Each of the team members is a believable character.

There’s also a love story between Jackson and Gaby. They’d been very close, but Jackson was indiscreet with another girl and Gaby broke off their relationship. It’s been four months. Jackson misses Gaby and she misses Jackson. They miss their burgeoning romance, but most of all they miss their friendship. There is also a romance developing between two other members of Jackson’s team.

Jackson’s team is drawn from various ethnic backgrounds. Johnson creates this diversity in a way that seems effortless. As a reader, it never occurred to me that the racial diversity was unusual.

I loved the political angle of the book. Tampering with voting machines brings up memories of the 2000 election in Florida. It also reminds me of the rumors of tampering with voting machines in the 2004 election. How can the democratic process be honored in the face of machines that can be altered to produce a particular outcome? As I read the book I kept thinking “anyone who writes for The Pirate Tree blog (as Johnson does) couldn’t tell a story about machine tampering in which the tampering is successful and the success is positive.” Was I right?

Beyond tampering with voting machines, there’s the whole issue of buying elections. In a completely non–didactic way, Johnson is preparing kids to be voters in a post-Citizens United country.

Johnson draws such an accurate picture of Middle School that after reading the book I’m now trying to forget middle school all over again.



RevolutionRevolution (The Sixties Trilogy Book #2) by Deborah Wiles. Scholastic Press, 2014. 544 pages. Publisher recommends for grades 3-7. ISBN: 978-0545106078.

Revolution is a literary tour de force. Through the voice of Sunny, a 12-year-old white girl, and the voice of Ray, a 16-year-old black boy, both living in Greenwood, Mississippi in the summer of 1964, Wiles presents an exquisitely crafted multidimensional picture of a Mississippi town during Freedom Summer.

Most of the story is told by Sunny. She’s having trouble embracing or even tolerating change at home. She loves the Beatles and summertime and her friends. From the time of their first encounter she’s curious about Ray. She’s also curious about the civil rights workers who have come to Mississippi to register black voters. One in particular interests her: Jo Ellen, who is Franny’s sister from Wiles book “Countdown”. People, such as her grandmother, tell Sunny how she ought to think about the civil rights workers and about blacks.  But Sunny isn’t one to let other people tell her much of anything. As her life intersects with Jo Ellen’s and with Ray’s, she becomes more and more aware of how unjustly blacks are treated in her town. She also sees the violence towards blacks and towards “the invaders,“ the civil rights workers, on the part of the police force and others in the community.

In his part of the story, Ray chafes at the lack of equality in the Jim Crow South. For him, the civil rights workers are moving too slowly. He pushes to see if the Civil Rights Act of 1964 will be enforced in Mississippi almost as soon as it has been signed.

The last episode in the book is not surprising. It should be. It should be inconceivable. But the picture of Mississippi in 1964 is so well drawn that when the episode happens it almost seems inevitable.

In addition to Sunny’s voice and Ray’s voice there is a narrator’s voice that tells us some things about Sunny’s stepbrother and about Sunny’s father that we wouldn’t otherwise know. And there are pages of nonfiction background about the mid-sixties, including a biography of Lyndon Johnson. As in “Countdown,” there are pages of pictures and song lyrics from the time. I’ve wondered if this switching between four different voices would be difficult for the target age group. My current thought is that this is an excellent choice for a middle grade kid who wants a reading challenge. It’s a great example of what literature can do.

Pinterest playlist for Revolution

Copyright © Elizabeth Parrott, 2014.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights

The Port Chicago 50The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin. Roaring Brook Press (an imprint of Macmillan Publishers), 2014. 208 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 10-14. ISBN: 9781596437968.

Steve Sheinkin is a master of narrative nonfiction. He tells real stories with a fine novelist’s or a poet’s sense of what to include to make the story matter to the reader. And his stories are so fast-paced they are hard to put down. All of that is true for The Port Chicago 50. In this book Sheinkin tells the story of a group of black Navy men during World War II. The men were stationed at Port Chicago, east of San Francisco. They loaded ammunition onto ships. They had no training in handling ammunition. Only black Navy men loaded ammunition, not white Navy men. An explosion killed roughly 300 men, injured many others, and sunk two ships. The surviving members of the Port Chicago divisions were moved to Mare Island Naval Base, closer to San Francisco than they had been at Port Chicago. When the divisions were ordered to resume loading ammunition onto ships the 50 refused. They were tried for mutiny.  A young Thurgood Marshall was outraged by the racism he saw in the mutiny trial. He pressed the Secretary of the Navy to conduct an investigation. Eleanor Roosevelt also let the Secretary of the Navy know that she was concerned about the outcome of the trial.

Sheinkin sets the story of these black enlisted men at Port Chicago within the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Before World War II the US military was segregated. Even the blood supply kept on hand for wounded soldiers was divided into white blood and black blood. At the beginning of the war, the decision was made to continue segregation. Besides that, blacks were only considered capable of jobs in the mess hall or other menial tasks. Loading ammunition was considered a menial task. In 1946, as a direct result of the actions of the Port Chicago 50 and the unfairness of their mutiny trial, the secretary of the Navy ordered the Navy to be desegregated. In 1948 President Truman desegregated all branches of the military.

The Port Chicago 50 are not often mentioned when the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement are listed. This book makes it clear that they should be mentioned and they should be honored.

The book is full of quotes from the Port Chicago 50 themselves and from the trial transcripts. It’s also full of photos. In the back there are source notes, as well as an extensive bibliography.


CountdownCountdown by Deborah Wiles. Scholastic Press 2010. 400 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 9-12. ISBN: 9780545106054.

Once I ordered a nonfiction book for a school library because it included “primary sources”. I was disappointed to find that “primary sources” meant two or three one sentence quotes. Countdown really does include primary sources. It’s a documentary novel. The documentary portion of the novel captures the national politics and international politics of the early 60s, as well as the social climate. This part of the novel is woven in between the story of Franny’s day-to-day life as an 11-year-old during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

On the international scene, Kennedy and Khrushchev are engaged in a staring match over the missiles in Cuba. On the national scene, blacks are protesting their treatment in the segregated South. There is a buildup of military advisors in Vietnam. Manned space exploration captures the country’s imagination. The documentary portion includes short biographies of Pete Seeger, JFK and civil rights activist Mary Lou Hamer, as well as many, many quotes from news and government agencies and from speeches. It also includes a remarkable number of photographs.

In Franny’s life, things are changing. Her older sister has become involved with a group of people trying to change the world. Her best friend is acting like her worst enemy. Her father’s uncle responds to the threat of nuclear attack in a way that makes no sense to Franny. And on top of all of this, the missile crisis makes her afraid she may not live long enough to grow up.

On the day after Kennedy’s speech to the nation about the Cuban missile crisis, Franny feels that everything has changed. The “duck and cover” instructions become more intrusive in Franny’s story. Her thoughts seem to be returning more and more frequently to the fear that she’ll die tomorrow. She’s been composing a letter to Khrushchev for some time, but the crisis makes it even more important that she try to tell him that the citizens of the US aren’t so different from the citizens of the Soviet Union. It’s as if by communicating to Khrushchev, she can act in a political way to make the situation better.

I was four years old during the Cuban missile crisis. I’d been going to Pete’s Seeger concerts for four years by that time. A year later my parents went to the March on Washington.  As I grew I became terrified of nuclear war, just as Franny was. Wiles has rendered my experience of the 60s very accurately.

Blog Reviews

100 Scope Notes
Abby the Librarian
The Brain Lair
A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy
Educating Alice
Eva’s Book Addiction
A Fuse #8 Production
Kate Messner
Literate Lives
Reading Chick
Shelf Elf
Stuff for the Teen Age
A Year of Reading

Professional Reviews

Publisher’s Weekly

Book Trailer
Countdown resources on Pinterest

King George: What Was His Problem? The Whole Hilarious Story of the American Revolution

King GeorgeKing George: What Was His Problem? The Whole Hilarious Story of the American Revolution. Written by Steve Sheinkin. Illustrated by Tim Robinson. Square Fish (an imprint of MacMillan Publishers), 2009. 208 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 10 and older. ISBN: 9781596435186.

Sheinkin tells the story of the American Revolution in a fun and funny way. He uses anecdotes and stories that don’t make it into history textbooks, for example he writes about the night Benjamin Franklin and John Adams shared a bed. That night Adams wanted to close the window in the room because he was afraid of catching a cold. Franklin told him to leave the window open or they would suffocate and launched into a lecture about what causes colds, a lecture that soon put Adams to sleep. In that story, Franklin and Adams become real people, not just names to memorize.

The book is made up of short chapters that cut back and forth between battles in the North and battles in the South. The chapters also cut between the political actions of the American Congress and the war. And we see Benjamin Franklin beseeching the French government to enter the war on behalf of the Americans. We also find out that when Franklin arrived in France the British were afraid he would stretch a chain from Calais to Dover and administer an electric shock to Britain that would be strong enough to overturn the island (this anecdote had me laughing out loud).

In the very beginning of the war, at the battle in Lexington, the reader sees both the British commander and the American commander telling their troops not to fire. Yet someone fired. Both sides said it was the other side. “So no one takes credit for ‘the shot heard round the world’ — the first shot of the American Revolution.”  Throughout the book Sheinkin includes both the American and the British perspective in this way.

The irony of the Declaration of Independence declaring all men are free and endowed with unalienable rights, while many of the signers owned slaves, is addressed in a short chapter.

Many, many quotes are used and it’s fun to see who said what.

At the back of the book there is extensive reference material.

The details keep the narrative moving, but by the end of the book I was impressed by my increased understanding of the timeline of the Revolution. Sheinkin is paying attention to the big picture as well as the details.

I had a great time reading this book. I also learned (or maybe re-learned) a great deal about the American Revolution.

Blog Reviews:

Becky’s Book Blog
A Fuse #8 Production
The Literate Mother
Red Hot Eyebrows

Professional Reviews:


Nonfiction Monday


It’s Nonfiction Monday!


My health is not what it should be. I’m sure it’s obvious that I’ve been on a hiatus from this blog. Unfortunately, the hiatus will continue a bit longer. I’ll be back and reviewing kid lit about politics ASAP!

Operation Redwood

Operation RedwoodOperation Redwood by S. Terrell French. Amulet Books (an imprit of Abrams), 2009. 368 pages. Recommended for ages 8-12. ISBN: 9780810983540.

2010 Green Earth Book Award for Children’s Fiction
2010 John and Patricia Beatty Award

Operation Redwood nurtures the idea that kids can make a difference in the political process. This particular political process involves an old growth redwood forest scheduled to be clear-cut by a company called IPX. Robin Elder, starts the protest off with an angry e-mail to the CEO of IPX, Sibley Carter. Julian Carter-Li, Sibley Carter’s nephew reads Robin’s e-mail as he sits alone in his uncle’s office with a fever too high to allow him to be in school. He forwards the e-mail to his best friend Danny Lopez, then deletes it so his uncle won’t see it. Danny and Julian, in San Francisco, reply to Robin, who turns out to live four hours north of San Francisco in the Redwoods, and thus begins operation redwood.

As I reached the end of the novel three thoughts occurred to me. First, this is the perfect middle grade novel. It’s well paced and nothing too horrible or traumatic happens.  The kids figure out their way through each problem they encounter and are able to carry out the protest they intended. Second, if I were teaching a class in literature and wanted to give an example of “deus ex machine”, this book would be an excellent choice. Third, this is a very Dickensian story. Julian’s aunt and uncle could change places with David Copperfield’s stepfather. Robin’s parents could be David Copperfield’s Aunt Betsy. The person who comes in as the deus ex machina could be Oliver Twist’s grandfather.  The end of the book could be the end of a Dickens novel: in spite of reality, everything works out. The story also seems Dickensian because Dickens wrote so much about injustice and this is a story about environmental injustice.

Julian, Robin and Danny try different methods to save the Big Tree Grove. Ariel, Robin’s best friend, also becomes involved in the fight. Julian and Danny and the reader learn a great deal about redwoods, especially from Robin and Ariel. Robin tells Julian that the national forests do not protect the old growth redwoods from logging. Julian believes it should be illegal to log such beautiful and ancient forests.

Throughout the prose there are breaks for e-mail between the kids. These e-mail messages help to flesh out the characters of Julian and Robin and Danny.

I left Northern California two years ago for the New Mexico desert. Operation Redwood makes me homesick for those beautiful trees.


Blog Reviews:

Cynsations (an interview with S. Terrell French)
A Fuse #8 Production
Jump Into A Book
Killin’ Time Reading
Literate Lives
LitPick Student Book Reviews Blog
Mother Daughter Book Club
A Patchwork of Books
Shelf Elf: read, write, rave
Steph Su Reads: Books Build Friendships and Lifelines

Professional Reviews:


Other Links:

Operation Redwood Website
Book Trailer