Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad

Written by Martin W. Sandler

There was a lot more to building the transcontinental railroad than can be packed into those four words. Certainly a lot more than you’re taught in history class.

Sandler did extensive research for this great new book and includes many sidebars with details of various aspects of the project and biographies of important players, as well as numerous photographs and maps from the Library of Congress and other archives.

The brain child of Asa Whitney, distant relative of Eli Whitney, the plan began in earnest in 1845. After several proposals to Congress, the Central Pacific, starting from the west, and the Union Pacific, starting from the east, finally won the approval to lay rails from Omaha to Sacramento. It wasn’t until 1869 that the last spike was driven at Promontory Summit. Facing labor shortages, company corruption, extremes of weather, shortage of funds, just plain difficult terrain, and other hardships, the construction itself took more than six years.

The real value to sixth graders is as reference material, but Sandler does a great job of relating the true impact on the workers – Irish, Chinese, Mormon, and other – and on the indigenous residents of the American West. The story is compelling, well-told, and riveting.

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  • Iron RailsTitle: Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad
  • Author: Martin W. Sandler
  • Published: Candlewick, 2015
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 224 pages
  • Grade Level: 5 Up
  • Genre: History, Biography
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-6527-2
  • Extras: Table of Contents, Timeline, Source Notes, Bibliography, Photography Credits, and Index

Shadows of Sherwood

Written by Kekla Magoon

Robyn Hoodlum is an unforgettable new heroine trying to right the wrongs of her government. This new series brings to mind the adventures of Percy Jackson, in that Robyn Hoodlum’s story bears many resemblances to the stories of Robin Hood. Even the name of her city harkens back to the other Sherwood.

Fast paced action and unending adventure carries readers swiftly through the pages. Strong character development makes each new personality real and memorable. Well-constructed plot and carefully placed foreshadowing promises more books to come as Robyn tries to find her parents and bring justice back into her world.

Grade five and grade six readers as well as those far beyond will enjoy the realistic dialogue and well-written narrative. Teachers, librarians and parents will fulfill core curriculum standards of literacy by putting this book where middle school and high school readers will happen upon it. English teachers can use it to introduce or follow-up on a reading of the original tales of Robin Hood. This book is highly recommended and the second installment is anticipated with great expectations.

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  • Shadows of SherwoodTitle: Shadows of Sherwood
  • Author: Kekla Magoon
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 355 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-61963-634-7
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Grade level: 5 to 8

The Secrets of Blueberries, Brothers, Moose & Me

Written by Sara Nickerson

Need a summer job? Twelve year old Missy and her older brother Patrick did. They saw an ad in the newspaper for kids to pick blueberries. After talking Mom into it, they got started on the new job.

It was harder than they expected. The days were long and hot. Not all of the other kids were friendly, and then there was the mystery feud between the owner of the blueberry patch and his brother.

Parallel plots including the divorce of Missy’s parents, her father’s new girlfriend, and her Mom’s depression are all factors bringing tension into the story. Then when Missy gets a chance to hang out with her school friends near the end of summer, she gets the feeling they are outgrowing her friendship as middle school looms in front of them.

Exceptionally well written, this book is hard to put down. Librarians and teachers aware of twelve year old girls uncomfortable with a parent’s second marriage or with heading into middle school might recommend this book. It is also funny at all the right places. And the mystery of the blueberry farm? Oh yeah, that gets solved, too. A really good book.

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  • Secrets of BlueberriesTitle: The Secrets of Blueberries, Brothers, Moose & Me
  • Author: Sara Nickerson
  • Publisher: Dutton Children’s Books, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 326 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-525-42654-7
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Grade level: 5 up

When the Earth Shakes

Written by Simon Winchester

The Smithsonian Institution, with its massive research and museum complex supported the work of Simon Winchester, already a well-known and often awarded writer of nonfiction. He knows well the world of geology and writes smooth and engaging account of the excitement he feels when looking at the pictures of the bulge on Mount St. Helen before it erupted. But explaining the “how” of an eruption, as well as, all the other events put in motion by an eruption is a big job.

Grade five, six readers and far beyond will be fascinated by all the photos from worldwide Geological Societies, as well as the maps, diagrams, and sketches from around the world to depict tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Winchester is able to capture the excitement and wonder of such phenomena while still instilling readers with the respect such natural dangers require.

Students can fulfill core curriculum in the areas of science, history, and literacy. After completing this well-written volume, readers can find other books, websites and listening recordings of sounds captured from under the ocean

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  • When the Earth ShakesTitle: When the Earth Shakes
  • Author: Simon Winchester
  • Publisher: Viking/ Penguin, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 72 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-670-78536-0
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Grade level: 5 Up
  • Extras: Index, recommended books, recommended web sites, photographs and photo credits

Smart and Spineless: Exploring Invertebrate Intelligence

Written by Ann Downer

This fascinating book asks the question “What is intelligence?” There are many examples of beings that lack a spinal column being able reason and learn. Each chapter outlines the life of a different beast and how it qualifies for the distinction “intelligent.” Charles Darwin was captivated by worms. Ordinary earthworms will increase activity in response to music. They cover the entrances to burrows with pebbles. They will learn to avoid the areas of mazes where electric shocks are introduced and vibrations similar to those made by predators. Jumping spiders know many different ways to approach their prey and can reason out which approach to use. Octopuses are unbelievable escape artists. Honey bees are great communicators. Paper wasps can recognize a friend’s face. Argentine ants build megacolonies. Mantis shrimps are fast and, more importantly, accurate predators. Box jellyfish can accurately navigate mazes. Slime molds seem to form giant brains. Tarantula hawk wasps will measure their prey before digging a hole to bury it for food for hatching babies.

The best use for this book is as a resource. It is so packed full of information, the student will want to return again and again to pick up the details for further study. Sixth grade literacy skills will be enhanced by the frequent use of scientific terms and by the excellent organization of the text. Throughout, the author highlights recent scientific studies. The numerous photos are wonderful illustrations.

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  • Smart and SpinelessTitle: Smart and Spineless: Exploring Invertebrate Intelligence
  • Author: Ann Downer
  • Published: Twenty First Century Books, August, 2015
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 88 pages
  • Grade Level: 6 up
  • Genre: Nonfiction, animals
  • ISBN: 978-1-4677-3739-5
  • Extras: Table of Contents, Source Notes, Glossary, Selected Bibliography, extensive For Further Information section, Index, About the Author, Author Acknowledgments, Photo Acknowledgments

Mark of the Thief

Written by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Riding on the back of a griffin flying over ancient Rome, Nic escapes only to fight again. Without knowing it, the first time Nic saw, Caela, the griffin, deep in the gold mines, it scratched his back leaving the mark of the Divine Star. It gives Nic the powers of Diana, one being his ability to talk to animals. Magic travels through that mark, but even more magic strengthens Nic through the bulla of Julius Caesar that he found and kept for himself.

This is the first in a new series by the New York Times Bestselling author, Jennifer A. Nielsen.  Ancient Rome comes alive through its treatment of slaves in the mines to its treatment of the animals being put to death for entertainment in the arena.

There are factions of senators trying to overtake the emperor and sometimes it all becomes quite entangled, just as it does in real life. The poorest of the poor hide Nic in underground water tunnels to keep him safe from those chasing him. They want his power, his bulla and the precious jewels hidden within it. But at the end of book one, the last laugh belongs to Nic. Except, of course, that it isn’t really the last laugh as even he realizes his battle has just begun.

Fifth grade readers, sixth grade readers and those beyond will strengthen their literacy skills while also finding out what ancient Roman life and government was like. History standards can be met by discovering and discussing this new knowledge.

It is an exciting new series. Many teachers, librarians and parents will be looking forward to the publication of book #2.

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  • Mark of the ThiefTitle: Mark of the Thief
  • Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 339 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-545-56154-9
  • Genre: Fiction, fantasy, history
  • Grade level: 4 to 7

 

Like a River: A Civil War Novel

Written by Kathy Cannon Wiechman

Have you ever heard of the steamboat, Sultana? No? Well then it might surprise you to find out when it exploded and sank on the Ohio River in 1865, more people died than died on the Titantic.

Kathy Cannon Wiechman has done excellent research into this mostly unknown event of the Civil War. In like manner she has studied the Andersonville prison daily life. Her ability to take the findings of her studies and turn it all into a compelling story is commending.

Her main characters are well developed and face authentic problems of the day. The tension begins early and draws the reader in quickly, keeping them focused and always wanting to continue to read that one more chapter.

Grade five and grade six students will become enthralled with this story and look for others like it. Teachers and librarians can use the text to fulfill core curriculum standards in the areas of literacy, American history, historical fiction, character development, comparison of fiction and nonfiction as well as the effects of war.

The explanation within the Author’s Notes pertaining to what is true and what is fiction is valuable. Photographs from the Library of Congress add a richness to this difficult story. This book would be a superb addition to elementary, middle school, and public libraries

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  • like a riverTitle: Like a River
  • Author: Kathy Cannon Wiechman
  • Publisher: Calkins Creek, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-62979-209-5
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Grade level: 3 to 8
  • Extras: Author’s Note, Selected Bibliography, Photographs, Picture Credits

The Cure for Dreaming

Written by Cat Winters

If I said this is Dracula meets Susan B. Anthony, would it sound weird? Maybe, but Cat Winters makes it work. There is enough of Bram Stoker’s opus to pique the reader’s interest without giving away the entire story or being overly graphic. There is enough of women’s rights without being preachy. All the while, the author weaves in hypnotism and the power of words.

In 1900 Portland, Oregon, Olivia Mead turns seventeen only to have her father panic about her independence and strong mind. She attends a show by a hypnotist, Henri Reverie and becomes his main subject, unwittingly allowing him to turn her into a board that gets walked on. Her father decides Henri can make Olivia a more demure, subservient woman. The result is she sees monsters and can’t fight back, even in the face of real danger. She attributes this in part to her love of Dracula, but maybe there really are monsters. Meanwhile, the father of her suitor writes an editorial about why women don’t need the right to vote. Olivia anonymously submits a letter to the editor refuting all his claims. When the letter gets published, a firestorm results. Her own father thinks a man wrote the letter because it was too well written. Everything goes from bad to worse as Olivia and Henri get to know each other and plot to work things out. In the end, Olivia’s father pushes so hard, she is forced to find her voice (literally) and declare her independence.

Sixth grade readers will learn about Bram Stoker, life in 1900, women’s rights, and mesmerism.

  • Cure for DreamingTitle: The Cure for Dreaming
  • Author: Cat Winters
  • Publisher: Amulet Books/Abrams, 2014
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
  • Grade Level: 6 up
  • Genre: Fiction, women’s suffrage, Dracula, hypnotism
  • ISBN: 978-1-4197-1216-6

 

Capital Days: Michael Shiner’s Journal

Written by Tonya Bolden

Capital Days is a stunning new look at the beginnings of our Capital City, Washington D.C.  This goes beyond a regular history of the Capital building and city because this is a personal view of what was happening day by day on the streets as experienced by one man.

Many of the excerpts come from the diary of a finally freed man named, Michael Shiner. He wrote what he saw, felt, and believed. The primary research undertaken by Tonya Bolden, a highly awarded nonfiction author, is very well done. Everything in the book is backed up with actual photographs and explicit citations. Primary sources are quoted throughout.

Readers are treated to an inside look at daily life from the early to the mid-19th century. In Michael Shiner’s last entry in his book, he noted that he had witnessed eleven Presidents take office.  He witnessed the burning and rebuilding of Washington, the labor disputes, the slave struggles to become free, Lincoln’s inauguration, even the workmen dropping the cornerstone for the Washington monument into the river by accident. The inclusion of real photographs from the time, as well as newspaper clippings, will help readers keep in constant mind this is about things that really happened.

From his work inside the Navy yard Michael sees and hears things that others would not. He witnesses an early labor strike and is affected when workers are not allowed to take their lunch baskets into the yard because of too much theft. Michael is not afraid to write what he sees. It is, after all, just a book for himself, to help him remember what happened. But now, generations later, we can see through his eyes our Capital struggling to be built.

After his retirement from the Navy yard he continues to work within the city as a contractor himself until he is infected with smallpox and dies. It is no small miracle that his personal book is and has been in the Library of Congress since early 1900. We are all fortunate that it was found by Tonya and used to create this marvelous, readable nonfiction narrative.

Throughout the book, a timeline of the Capital is included. While many of the points have to do with the Capital building itself, such as inaugurations and passed bills, it also includes news from around the city like the burning of the theater or the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington monument.

Abrams published this volume with heavy, glossy paper, clear reproductions of lithographs and woodprints from hundreds of years ago.  It is a stunningly beautiful volume worthy of the high level of scholarship that went into its creation.

The end papers contain a marvelous collection of selected source material, glossary, index, author’s note and chapter by chapter notes. This book can be used to meet all the core curriculum standards in history, nonfiction reading and research. It would be very useful to grade five and grade six readers and beginning researchers. Teachers and librarians will be thrilled to add this to their collection of American history books.

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  • Capital DaysTitle: Capital Days: Michael Shiner’s Journal
  • Author:  Tonya Bolden
  • Publisher: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 96 pages
  • ISBN:  978-1-4197-0733-9
  • Genre: Nonfiction, History, Washington D.C.
  • Grade level: 4 to 7
  • Extras: Glossary, Index, Author Notes, Selected Sources, Notes (chapter by chapter)

Fleabrain Loves Franny

Written by Joanne Rocklin

Pittsburgh, 1952. Recovering from polio, Franny Katzenback listens to the sounds of her friends playing outside as she lies in bed and wishes her legs would move. With only books for comfort, she falls in love with the newly published Charlotte’s Web. If only she had a Charlotte in her life, she thinks. Her wish comes true when she receives a mysterious letter written in blood-red ink. The author happens to be a highly intelligent flea named Fleabrain, who lives on her dog’s tail.

The two strike up a correspondence. Fleabrain shares with Franny a love of literature as well as music and languages. Not only can he talk, but his saliva contains superpowers, which allow him to take Franny on all kinds of fantastical adventures based on his extensive reading. He flies her around at night on a magical horseback ride, he miniaturizes her á la Alice in Wonderland, and he zooms her around the globe to tour the Seven Wonders of the World. Their relationship strains, however, when she learns he cannot use his powers to cure her of polio. Issues of social injustice are touched upon when Franny faces discrimination upon her return to school.

Sixth graders will likely find the historical elements of this story interesting as it paints a solid picture of the polio scare during the 1950’s and what it was like to be on the receiving end of that terrible disease. While there certainly is enough advanced vocabulary and thematic elements to enhance one’s comprehension and literacy skills, the overreaching plot and fantastical elements may leave readers scratching their heads just like the poor dog who hosts Fleabrain.

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  • FleabrainTitle: Fleabrain Loves Franny
  • Author: Joanne Rocklin
  • Publisher: Amulet Books / Abrams, 2014
  • Reviewer: Lauren Abbey Greenberg
  • Format: Hardcover, 288 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-4197-1068-0
  • Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

 

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