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.


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

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


Africa is My Home: A Child of the Amistad

Africa is My HomeAfrica is My Home: A Child of the Amistad. Written by Monica Edinger. Illustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick Press, 2013. 64 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 10 and older. ISBN:  9780763650384.

The character who tells this story has three names. She was named Magulu by her parents in Mendeland (modern day Sierra Leone). At nine years old she was sold into slavery, taken to Cuba where she boarded the Amistad. The Africans on the Amistad ended up in New Haven, Connecticut.  In New Haven she was renamed Margru because the Americans misunderstood her pronunciation of her name. After two years of legal battles, the Africans on the Amistad were freed from jail. Before returning home to Africa, Margru was renamed Sarah Kinson, a name she chose, in a church ceremony.

The voice telling the story seems to be the voice of Sarah Kinson. It’s the voice of an adult or young adult but she tells the story through the eyes of her childhood self. There are times when the voice is poetic. The events she experienced had both legal and political implications, however her focus is not on these implications but on what she was aware of as a child.

Margru was very aware of abolitionists in Connecticut, particularly Lewis Tappan. He arranged for Margru and her friends to be taught to read, a skill she loved. The abolitionists helped free the Africans. They also introduced the Africans to Christianity. Margru found Christianity helped her through the rough times. Once the Africans were freed the abolitionists helped them earn money to pay for their trip home to Africa. Sarah returned to the United States when she was 16 and Lewis Tappan arranged for her to attend Oberlin College in Ohio. After Oberlin, she went home to Africa.

It’s amazing to me that Edinger was able to provide such a solid historical underpinning to the story. Researching the life of one African child on the Amistad cannot have been an easy task. The book is essentially nonfiction. The only fiction is the imagining of Margru’s feelings as a child and imaginings of some of the dialogue.

The illustrations are detailed and colorful. I have never seen such effective illustrations of dreams. Circles intertwine with other circles and inside each is a different image of Africa. It’s as if one image moves into another image the way images move in dreams.

The book never bogs down. It’s very well paced.

I graduated from Oberlin in 1980. Tappan Square is central to the town and the school, yet I never knew who the square was named for until I read this book. Lewis Tappan and his brother were instrumental in founding the school in the 1830s. In the late 1970s Oberlin was still true to the social justice emphasis present at its founding.  I’ve just learned something new about Oberlin and thus something new about an institution that’s been profoundly influential in my life.  I thank Monica Edinger for that knowledge!

Blog Reviews:

For Those About to Mock
A Fuse #8 Production
Killin’ Time Reading
LS 5385 Blog
Ms. Yingling Reads
The Pirate Tree
Randomly Reading
Waking Brain Cells

Professional Reviews:

The New York Times
Publisher’s Weekly
School Library Journal

Book Trailer:

My Grandma’s the Mayor

My Grandmas the MayorMy Grandma’s the Mayor. Written by Marjorie White Pellegrino. Illustrated by John Lund. Magination Press (part of the American Psychological Association), 2000. 32 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 6-12. ISBN: 9781557986085.

My Grandma’s the Mayor is a nice introduction to what it means to be a Mayor. Annie’s grandmother must first run for mayor. Annie helps by handing out flyers and putting up signs. Once Annie’s grandmother is elected, she becomes responsible for the problems of every person who is unhappy with the town. She needs to listen to those problems and try to find solutions.

My Grandma’s the Mayor is also a wonderful picture of how hard it is for Annie to share her grandmother with the town. Her grandmother no longer has the time she used to have to spend with Annie. Annie misses her grandmother and is jealous of the time the townspeople demand of her grandmother.

Finally, My Grandma’s the Mayor is a great testimonial to helping people. When tragedy strikes right across the street from Annie’s grandmother’s house, Annie notices how her grandmother cares for those who have been traumatized. After watching her grandmother, Annie thinks of a way that she can help. By helping she comes to understand why her grandmother enjoys being Mayor. She understands that helping people makes the helper feel better. She still wishes for more alone time with her grandmother, but she’s also proud of her grandmother.

The text is very straightforward and the illustrations are, according to the back cover of the book, in the “classic American storybook style.”

As I watch volunteers from Habitat for Humanity build a house in back of my house, I realize how this book resonates even with adults. Helping people brings with it a powerful reward.

Hidden Roots

Hidden Roots by Joseph Bruchac. Bowman Books, 2010 (originally published by Scholastic in 2004). 152 pages. Kirkus recommends for ages 9-12. ISBN: 9780557711680.

Hidden Roots is the story of theHidden Roots the coming of identity of Howard Camp, called Sonny by his parents and his uncle. Howard is 11 years old, living in New York State near the Hudson River and the Vermont border in the mid-1950s. Howard knows he is white, just like his parents and his uncle. He knows that Indians live in teepees and fight with bows and arrows.

Howard’s father is physically abusive to his mother and to him. He works at the local mill, which dumps beautifully colored toxic waste into the Hudson. Howard knows he doesn’t want to be like his father. He doesn’t want to be as angry as his father and he doesn’t want to work at the mill.

A more positive influence comes from Uncle Louis. Louis takes Howard and his mother to see a herd of deer on the side of a mountain in Vermont. He shows Howard how to walk among the deer. He takes him to a mountain just before sunrise and they welcome the sun. Howard’s father doesn’t like Louis and doesn’t like Howard spending time with him. After Howard’s father loses a couple of fingers in an accident at the mill, he accepts Louis’s presence and assistance more willingly.

One day, when Howard’s parents are both out, Louis tells Howard the truth about his identity. Louis is an Abenaki Indian from Vermont. His wife was forcibly sterilized as part of a eugenics project in Vermont. She died of sadness and illness not long after she was sterilized. Louis ran away with his daughter, Howard’s mother, to live in New York. He never told anyone he was an Indian. Howard’s mother never told anyone she was an Indian, and Howard’s father never told anyone he was an Indian. They felt it was safer to hide their identities.

The details of the eugenics project in Vermont are chilling. Joseph Bruchac goes into some detail about the program in an author’s note at the end of the book. In a way, it’s presenting all Americans with new knowledge about our identity. We live in a country in which a state could try to wipe out an entire Indian tribe by preventing them from reproducing.

Bruchac has a calm style of writing that makes reading this book a pleasure even though the facts it exposes are so difficult.


Blog Reviews:

American Indians in Children’s Literature
McBook Words
No Vampires Allowed
Yun-A’s blog

Professional Reviews:

Publisher’s Weekly

Joseph Bruchac’s Author Website