JUST LOVED READING: A Long Way from Chicago

JUST LOVED READING: A Long Way from Chicago

Just Loved Reading:

A Long Way from Chicago

Middle Grade Fiction

Peck, Richard. A Long Way from Chicago. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 1997.

In A Long Way from Chicago, the protagonist reminisces about his annual trips as a child from Chicago to his grandmother’s house in a small town in rural Illinois during the Great Depression. Joey  (9) and Mary Alice’s (7)  mother informs them that they will be spending a week every August with Grandma Dowdel – as it turned out, every year from 1929 to 1935.

The narrative consists of eight short stories with Joey, Mary Alice and Grandma Dowdel at the center of the action. Grandma Dowdel is gruff, practical and has no problem telling people where to go. Her unique outlook on life merely embodies her small town values and her insistence on living in another era. Her adventures run the gamut from newspaper reporters to Civil War veterans.

Joey and Mary Alice share each of those experiences thanks to Grandma Dowdel.


A Long Way from Chicago is an easy read. The characters Peck draws are real and funny and will remind the reader of the odd-ball characters we may all know in our own lives. Peck is a master at infusing humor into his novels, able to make a serious narrative lighthearted and poignant. He is also a master at evoking the era in which A Long Way from Chicago takes place. The last chapter, “The Troop,” will bring a lump to the reader’s throat.

A Long Way from Chicago was  – justifiably – nominated as a National Book Award finalist.







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JUST LOVED READING: A Christmas Memory

JUST LOVED READING: A Christmas Memory

A Christmas Memory


Truman Capote

Middle Grade/Fiction


Capote, Truman. A Christmas Memory. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.

Seven-year old Buddy and his older cousin and best friend live with other cousins of his mother’s in Monroeville, Alabama. He also has a dog named Queenie.

The story begins one cold morning when the cousin declares that it is time to make fruitcakes for Christmas. They have spent a whole year saving their money to buy the ingredients which includes whisky made by a Native American named Haha Jones. They give the cakes to people they have met once or twice or not at all like Franklin Roosevelt, President of the United States.

The effort to make the cakes takes four days including distributing and mailing them.

When that task is completed, they take a walk far into the woods and cut down a pine tree and enough boughs to make several wreaths for the windows. The family is poor so Buddy and his cousin make the decorations for the tree.

Their next effort is to make the Christmas gifts for each other and the other relatives. Every year Buddy and his cousin make kites for each other and this year is no different even though they want their gift to be a surprise.

Christmas morning, they try to eat the flapjacks and other treats made for the holiday but they are too excited. They want to open their gifts.The usual gifts of clothes and hand-me downs disappoint Buddy but he loves his kite. Later, he, his cousin and Queenie go out to the pasture and fly their kites and eat oranges. Queenie buries the bone they bought for him for Christmas.

Ominously, this is the last Christmas the three will spend together.


A Christmas Memory is based on Truman Capote’s childhood memories living with his mother’s relatives in Monroeville, Alabama during the Great Depression. Few people were immune from its effects and the repressive atmosphere of Jim Crow that pervaded the South. But this story is really about two outcasts who loved and supported each other during difficult times.

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JUST LOVED READING: Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale

JUST LOVED READING: Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale

Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale

by G. Neri 

Middle Grade/Fiction


Neri, G. Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2017.

Tru moved away from his mother’s cousins home in Monroeville, Alabama. He thought living in New York with his mother and step-father would be fun but after a stint in a military academy, Tru runs away.

He hops on a train with other hobos and heads back to Monroeville. He becomes friends again with Nelle who lives next door to his cousins. It’s the Christmas season but events happen which dampen everyone’s spirits: the house the cousins live in burns down and they move in with Tru’s aunt and uncle on their farm outside Monroeville.

Nelle’s father takes on a case of two black men accused of robbing a store and killing its owner. Nelle blames herself for arrest. Reminiscent of the case in To KIll A Mockingbird, this case doesn’t end happily, either.  The story does reaffirm the better side of the human spirit when Tru and his family and Nelle and her father celebrate Christmas with the accused in the local jail.


In a surprising twist, Tru’s cousin, Sook, invites a member of the KKK to the celebration. Only his son, the local bully, shows up and demonstrates how beautifully he plays piano.  It doesn’t turn everyone into good friends but the incident highlights how complex race relations were during the Jim Crow era in the South.

Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale is the continuing narrative of the friendship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee which continued into adulthood (until Truman Capote became jealous of Harper Lee’s literary success).

Monroeville, Alabama was founded in 1815 on lands ceded by local Native americans. It was later formally incorporated in 1899 and named after President James Monroe. Monroeville is the seat of  Monroe County, Alabama. In 1997, the Alabama legislature designated Monroeville as the “Literary Capital of Alabama.”




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Tru and Nelle

by G. Neri 

Middle Grade/Fiction

Neri, G. Tru and Nelle. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2016.

Tru and Nelle introduces the reader to the Deep South at the beginning of the Great Depression. The Klu Klux Klan’s influence is at its’ height. Tru  is 7 and Nelle is 6. Tru is living with his mother’s cousins in Monroeville, Alabama, next door to Nelle’s family. Nelle’s father is an editor and a lawyer. She has two sisters and a brother; Tru is an only child largely unloved by his mother and often neglected by his father.

Monroeville is a small town surrounded by forests and farms. Even in prosperous times, there wouldn’t be much for children to do. (There was a movie theatre and a public whites-only swimming hole in the book.) Tru and Nelle play games like pirates and detectives especially detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. When they discover that someone robbed the local drug store, they put their amateur sleuthing skills to the test. Their attempts at solving the crime gets them into some serious trouble.

Why I Loved Reading This Book:Capote

Neri’s characters ring true to life as they play and interact with adults and other children. He used letters, books and other documents to allow the reader a glimpse into the personalities of Truman Capote and Harper Lee as children and recreates some of their real-life experiences. Many of the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird are also found in Tru and Nelle including Boo Radley ( a character based on an eccentric neighbor) and Atticus Finch (based on Harper Lee’s father).

Children of every generation play games of detective and pirates although nowadays children tend to play games on the computer, X-Box,  iphone, or other technological devices.

But children growing up in the Depression, regardless of class, had little to play with. The Depression hit everyone, some more than others. Tru and Nelle had their love of books, a handful of toys and their imaginations. When they made up their detective stories, they wrote them down (one would dictate and the other would type the stories on Mr. Lee’s Underwood typewriter). Tru especially, constantly wrote (and continued to write stories that he imagined long after he left Monroeville) and like Nelle, they went on to become two of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.

Do today’s children create stories out of their imaginations, act them out and write them down?  Can this book inspire them to do so? Perhaps. Or do technological devices get in the way of children’s imaginations?

Tru and Nelle is a fun book to read even for young readers who don’t know about Truman Capote and Harper Lee. Tru and Nelle get into a mess of trouble and children of all ages like stuff that.

Monroeville, Alabama was founded in 1815 on lands ceded by local Native Americans. It was later formally incorporated in 1899 and named after President James Monroe. Monroeville is the seat of  Monroe County, Alabama. In 1997, the Alabama legislature designated Monroeville as the “Literary Capital of Alabama.”




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JUST LOVED READING: Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers

JUST LOVED READING: Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers
  • Image result for free photo of harriet beecher stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers

Middle Grade/Biography

Fritz, Jean. Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers. New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1994.

            Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, eight years before the start of America’s Civil War.  This is America’s first protest novel (according to many scholars) and is often listed as one of the books that had a profound change on society.

            Harriet came from a large family. Her father was Lyman Beecher, a well-known New England preacher. Lyman Beecher wanted his seven sons to become preachers. Lyman’s goals for his daughters was marriage and motherhood but they weren’t wilted flowers. Lyman’s drive and high expectations drove some of them to become educators, lecturers and writers. Harriet struggled to make her voice heard in this large family of strong personalities which consisted of three sets of siblings to three different mothers. She yearned to achieve something other than being a wife, mother and Lyman Beecher’s daughter. Over time, she transformed from a shy often melancholy young woman whose family struggled financially, to a confident writer, speaker and abolitionist.


Harriet (and all of her siblings) was taught to think and believe as her father did. Her brothers were not just expected to become preachers but to teach the Calvinist beliefs their father preached. Harriet had been against slavery but was not impassioned by the issue. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act changed her opinions and propelled her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book’s publication brought her fame and wealth but Harriet never lost sight of the cause.

Harriet was a fighter and a survivor – for herself and for the abolition of slavery.


The period between the War of 1812 and before the Civil War is known as the Antebellum period. The era saw the rise of abolition and of the division between those who supported slavery and those who opposed it. There was an increase in manufacturing in the north. The textile industry grew in New England thanks to development and introduction of the spinning-jenny by British business person Samuel Slater.

Other innovations changed the economy of the north. In 1843, Richard M. Hoes developed the rotary printing press. Soon millions of newspapers could be printed and distributed cheaply as more people learned to read, Newly built canals, railroads and roads improved the way people traveled.

The borders of the United States expanded as fortune seekers and others settled uncharted territory. Between the years 1790 and 1840, the Second Awakening movement grew in influence and popularity especially among Baptists and Methodists and inspired the beginnings of the abolitionist and temperance movements.

Slaves used many passive forms of resistance including damaging equipment and  working slowly but they also rebelled openly. in response to the rebellions, white militias and mobs formed and legislators passed slave codes and other laws. In the north, the slave rebellions, evangelical fervor and the new printing presses galvanized the abolitionist movement.

Against this background, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Harriet Beecher Stowe grew up in New England, moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and returned to New England. To read more about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house visit the following link:



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JUST LOVED READING: Audacity Jones to the Rescue

JUST LOVED READING: Audacity Jones to the Rescue

Just Loved Reading:

Audacity Jones to the Rescue

Middle Grade/Historical Fiction

Larson, Kirby, Audacity Jones to the Rescue. New York: Scholastic Press, 2016.

Set at the turn of the 20th century, Audacity Jones to the Rescue is about a spunky, inquisitive, smart 11 year-old orphan. When her parents died at sea, went to live at Miss Maisie’s School for Wayward Girls in Swayze, Indiana. She was 6. Audacity is the one the other girls depend on for guidance and support. She is also the one who is sent to the Punishment Room daily. She looks forward to the Punishment Room because it is the library and Audacity loves to read. Her favorite books are novels about swashbucklers, pirates and other adventure heroes but she also loves books about science and geography.

When Commodore Critchfield comes to the school to visit and ask for a volunteer for a secret mission, Audacity jumps at the chance. The  Commodore was once well-to-do donor who is (secretly) down on his luck. Audacity slowly comes to learn about the Commodores’ nefarious scheme and with help from her friends, plots to stop him and his accomplices.


Audacity is a lovable character whose positive attitude propels the story. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself and boosts the morale of the other girls in the orphanage. She makes friends easily. Audacity looks at life as an adventure – an attitude that takes her to Washington DC, inside the White House, and almost gets her into trouble. The reader will root for her as she finds a way to thwart the Commodore’s evil plan (based on true events). The author does a good job of invoking the culture, fashion and other customs of the era and throughout the novel, the reader will feel that they are living in the first half of the last century.

Audacity Jones lived during the presidency of William Howard Taft. Click on the link below learn more about him and his presidency:




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JUST LOVED READING: Mr. Benjamin’s Suitcase of Secrets

JUST LOVED READING: Mr. Benjamin’s Suitcase of Secrets

Just Loved Reading:

Mr. Benjamin’s Suitcase of Secrets

Picture Book

Chang. Pei-Yu. Mr. Benjamin’s Suitcase of Secrets. New York: NorthSouth Books, Inc. 2016

Mr. Benjamin is an author and a philosopher of ideas. During World War II, his country begins to punish and jail people with ideas.

Mr. Benjamin realizes he must escape not only to save his live but to save his important ideas. How could he do this? The soldiers blocked  and guarded every street.

He went to see Mrs. Fittko who “knew all the hidden paths to everywhere.” Mrs. Fittko had saved many lives. Other people were there to ask Mrs. Fittko for help, too.

On the day of escape, Mr. Benjamin was late. Mrs. Fittko told everyone to pack lightly but Mr. Benjamin arrived lugging a large heavy suitcase. Mrs. Fittko could not persuade him to leave it behind. It contained all his new ideas. “It’s the most important thing to me – more important than my life.”

The group walked over and through olive groves and past blueberry buses.

Eventually they reached the Swiss border. The border guards let the people through – but not Mr. Benjamin.

Mr. Benjamin lived in a hotel in the mountains until he and his suitcase disappeared.


This is a true story. Mr. Walter Benjamin was a German author and philosopher. His suitcase of ideas may have disappeared but he left many of his writings with his friends or in the public library. Many brave dissidents today escape the countries of their birth because of political instability. Pei-Yu Chang tells Mr. Benjamin’s story so that children of almost any age can understand it. The illustrations are simple, colorful and child-like. Mr. Benjamin’s Suitcase of Secrets tells the story of yesterday’s and today’s refugees.

Switzerland Between the Two Wars:




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Just Loved Reading:

Full of Beans

Middle Grade/Fiction

Holm, Jennifer L. Full of Beans. New York: Random House Children’s Books, 2016.

Depression-era Key West was no tourist destination. Kids like Beans Curry will tell you. Beans is 10 years-old. His kid brother, Kermit and a stray dog he named Termite, follow him everywhere he goes – delivering laundry his mother takes in, collecting used cans for pennies, shooting marbles for the best team in the Keys or seeing the latest Shirley Temple movie.

One day, men from the Roosevelt administration come to the Keys with the aim of turning the Keys into a tourist destination. No one likes these intruders least of all Beans but he doesn’t let them interfere with his chance to make some easy money by helping a local rum smuggler. His dad is in New Jersey looking for work and his family needs the money.

The government men slowly win over the locals and soon tourists descend on the Keys and improve the local economy. But what will happen to Beans and his family?


Beans Curry, the central character in Full of Beans of Beans, propels the plot by the force of his personality. The Florida Keys were economically depressed like the rest of the country and hardly able to welcome visitors. Kids ran barefoot and hungry. Full of Beans is based on the true story of the Roosevelt administration’s attempts to turn the Keys into a tourist mecca. Local slang, customs, and foods, add an extra dimension to the story about one summer in the life of a 10-year old boy.






Image result for free photos key west during the great depression

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Just Loved Reading:

Amina’s Voice

Middle Grade/Fiction

Khan, Hena. Amina’s Voice. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017.

            Amina Khokar is a Pakistani-American immigrant who, with her brother and parents lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her best friend, Soojin, is an immigrant from South Korea and is about to become an American citizen. When Soojin becomes friendly with their once-sworn enemy, Emily, and announces that she is changing her Korean name to something American, Amina feels her life is about to be upended. To make things even more stressful, her parents have signed Amina and her brother to the state-wide Quran competition. Amina freezes in front of audiences, refusing to use her beautiful singing much less her imperfect Arabic.

On top of everything that is happening, her strict great-uncle is coming for a long visit and is all too willing to help her perfect her Arabic for the competition. Only when the Islamic Center is vandalized, does Amina realize she is not alone, but has the support of loving friends and family.


The author weaves the cultural and religious traditions of Amina and her family within the larger American society that the live in. Amina is no different than any other middle school student in her town but all of a sudden, she has to face hatred and destruction of the Islamic center. Her quiet world is no longer. It’s only when her friends support her does she realize where she really belongs.

Amina and her family and friends lived in Minneapolis,Minnesota. To learn more about Minneapolis, click on the following links:



Amina and her family are part of Minneapolis’ large diverse Muslim community:


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Picture Book Month: A Tale of Two Umbrellas II

Picture Book Month: A Tale of Two Umbrellas II
Blue, Green, Chartreuse Umbrella

Blue, Green, Chartreuse                       Umbrella


Read: The Umbrella by Ingrid and Dieter Schubert

A family dog finds a red umbrella on a windy day in the yard. When the dog opens up the umbrella, the wind carries them over the clouds and around the world. They go to Africa where the dog confronts elephants, alligators, hippos, zebras and storks; the oceans and their inhabitants; the tropics; the North Pole and finally, back home.

Project: Decorate an old umbrella and if you want to challenge yourself, give the design a theme: animals, fairies, sports, etc.


An old umbrella






Silk flowers



Paint in squeeze bottles


Additional Reading:

The Umbrella by Jan Brett

The Umbrella Day by Nancy Evans

Umbrella by Taro Yashima

*Copyright Art work by Marion Constantinides 2015

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