Monday, April 17, 2023

MMGM- A Sky Full of Song and Race Against Death

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Meyer, Susan Lynn. A Sky Full of Song
April 11, 2023 by Union Square Kids
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Shoshanna and her mother and four sisters are in Liubashevka, Ukraine, and her father and older brother Anshel have emigrated to North Dakota because life is becoming increasingly difficult for Jewish citizens in the early 1900s. When life becomes too dangerous in Ukraine, the family is fortunate enough to be able to join the men on their claim in the US. The boat trip is rough, and Shoshanna is angry with her mother that she couldn't take her cat, although she does find one in the port that she manages to smuggle onto the train. The father has a dugout, and while it looks odd to the girls, he assures them that it has advantages in the winter and summer. Shoshanna and her older sister Libke are able to attend a local school, and their teacher is very nice. Some of the other students, however, are not. Some are actively cruel, like Irene and her brother Clive (whose parents run the general store) who give them a hard time for being Jewish, and use a variety of slurs against them. Some, like Evie, speak out of ignorance and repeat what they have heard at church. Evie's mother doesn't quite understand why Shoshanna's mother wouldn't want to attend a church and meet "good Christian people", although she brings food to the family and greets them warmly. There are lots of chores to do on the claim, and moments when the prairie seems to actively want to kill the inhabitants; the school children are caught in a blizzard, and Evie and Shoshanna barely make it to the dugout. As Christmas approaches, the children at school are excited about decorations and the program, but Libke doesn't think she and Shoshanna should take part in singing songs about Jesus. Shoshanna wants to fit in, and doesn't see a problem with it. Clive continues to bedevil the girls until the family helps him save his horse. 
Strengths: My essential fandom is Little House on the Prairie, but in recent years that series has been problematic. This is a good alternative, and has many shout outs to the original, from the father's fiddle playing, to the mean store owner's daughter, to decorating the dugout, but all of these are given a particularly Ukrainian twist. Instead of Ma's china shepherdess, we have a samovar! The reason I loved books about pioneers was the details about another way of life, and we have lots of good ones about the school, the way food was cooked, and fun details like the fact that pickle juice removes ice! The issue of the native Dakota being treated unfairly is addressed, and parallels are drawn between the persecution Shoshanna faced in Ukraine and the way the Native Americans were stripped of their land. 
Weaknesses: I would have enjoyed a little bit more information about what life was like for the family in Liubashevka, so that I could have been as nostalgic for it as Shoshanna was. I'd be down for Little House in the Ukrainian Woods
What I really think: I know that there are many, many problems with pioneer tales when it comes to Native American experience, but this is a great book to showcase the pioneering spirit. Add this to Prairie Lotus as a good alternative to Laura Ingalls Wilder's work, or as an introduction, if you have time to explain the problems in those books to the readers. This should definitely win the Sydney Taylor award! 

Hopkinson, Deborah. Race Against Death: The Greatest POW Rescue of World War II
April 18, 2023 by Scholastic Focus
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Hopkinson has been literally on fire lately, with Deadliest Fires, Deadliest Hurricanes, Deadliest Diseases, and We Must Not Forget, all in the last couple of years! This is another incredibly well researched book; any time the author apologizes for not being able to go to the Philippines because of the Pandemic in order to fully appreciate the topic, you know you have someone who is paying very close attention to details. 

I feel like I have a decent grip on World War II history; I even did a podcast about WWII books years ago. My readers still have a huge interest in the topic and avidly consume books on all aspects of the war, but I... am not really interested. There is so much interesting information in this book, so many stories about courageous people, so much background information and supporting documentation like poems, pictures, and sidebars that I was overwhelmed. The war in the Philippines was horrific, and not talked about as much, although there is another excellent middle grade book on the events surrounding the Bataan Death March, Farrell's Pure Grit: How WWII Nurses in the Pacific Survived Combat and Prison Camp (2014). I especially liked the fact that Hopkinson points out similarities with what is currently going on between Russia and Ukraine. There is even a never-before-seen photograph of the surrender signing on the USS Misouri!

Do all middle school and high school libraries need to put this on the very top of their purchasing lists? Absolutely. Not only is is highly readable, it would be great for research as well. Hopkinson's list of websites, source notes, photo credits, and selected bibliography are impeccable. There have been a number of nonfiction books lately that DON'T cite all the sources used, which I find problematic, so I really appreciated this attention to detail. 

Can I do this book justice? No. The space left in my brain to care about WWII is increasingly limited. This is not a reflection on this fantastic book! 


  1. I just added A Sky Full of Song to my review list last week, so I'm really excited to hear that you liked it so much. I'll check out the other prairie title you mentioned, too. Yay!

  2. Both of these books sound really interesting. Happy MMGM to you and have a lovely week.

  3. Great reviews on two books I'd normally pass over for something else. Not so after reading your excellent critique of both. Thanks for sharing these on MMGM this week.

  4. Deborah Hopkinson lives in Portland. It's impressive what she writes about and the extensiveness of her research.

  5. Both of these sound great. I am particularly interested in Race Against Death. I think kids would find it interesting too. Thanks for the reviews.