Nine-year-old Isabelle’s first letter to her Papa in September 1943, a year after his death from an allergic reaction (the war-time setting is largely background), is the beginning of an epistolary journal that spans the rest of her Minnesota childhood. Her letters to Papa, unread by anyone else (except for the first, which Isabelle mails to her namesake aunt), are interspersed with her letters to other, living, characters: Aunt Izzy, Mama, and Isabelle’s siblings and friends. Isabelle, the middle child of five, is determined, practical, and lonely amid the changes her father’s death has wrought. She schemes to reunite her family when she and her older sisters are sent to live with relatives. She is outraged when her mother becomes a live-in housekeeper to, and then marries, a Catholic. But she gradually warms to her stepfather and to her new life. As that takes on stability and happiness, her letters to her Papa taper off and a final letter from Isabelle as a young woman, now earning a living as a writer, closes the story. Ylvisaker’s narrative voice falters a few times in her debut with the challenge of sustaining a truly childlike style for the second-person address. On December 7, observing the second anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Isabelle reminds Papa of his “prayers” upon hearing the news in 1941, and tells him, “I will pray just like you did: Christ Almighty! God, damn them all to hell. Holy Jesus, preserve us.” A nudge and a wink to adult readers steal in along with the earnest assertion. Yet Isabelle’s resolute nature does produce a few flashes of warmth and gentle humor. Ylvisaker gives us a look at life at home during the war years, sketching in the big events, letting Isabelle’s details of daily life show just enough of wartime economies and worries. Uneven, but overall refreshingly free of bathos. (Fiction. 8-11)

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2002

ISBN: 0-7636-1618-4

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Candlewick

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2002


Despite its lackluster execution, this story’s simple premise and basic vocabulary make it suitable for younger readers...

From the author of the Animorphs series comes this earnest novel in verse about an orphaned Sudanese war refugee with a passion for cows, who has resettled in Minnesota with relatives.

Arriving in winter, Kek spots a cow that reminds him of his father’s herd, a familiar sight in an alien world. Later he returns with Hannah, a friendly foster child, and talks the cow’s owner into hiring him to look after it. When the owner plans to sell the cow, Kek becomes despondent. Full of wide-eyed amazement and unalloyed enthusiasm for all things American, Kek is a generic—bordering on insulting—stereotype. His tribe, culture and language are never identified; personal details, such as appearance and age, are vague or omitted. Lacking the quirks and foibles that bring characters to life, Kek seems more a composite of traits designed to instruct readers than an engaging individual in his own right.

Despite its lackluster execution, this story’s simple premise and basic vocabulary make it suitable for younger readers interested in the plight of war refugees. (Fiction. 9-11)

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-312-36765-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2007


From the Lemonade War series , Vol. 3

A fine emotional stretch within reach of the intended audience.

When siblings Jessie and Evan (The Lemonade War, 2007, and The Lemonade Crime, 2011) accompany their mother on the time-honored midwinter holiday visit to their grandmother’s home in the mountains, the changes are alarming.

Fire damage to the house and Grandma’s inability to recognize Evan are as disquieting as the disappearance of the iron bell, hung long ago by their grandmother on Lowell Hill and traditionally rung at the New Year. Davies keeps a tight focus on the children: Points of view switch between Evan, with his empathetic and emotional approach to understanding his world, and Jessie, for whom routine is essential and change a puzzle to be worked out. When Grandma ventures out into the snow just before twilight, it is Evan who realizes the danger and manages to find a way to rescue her. Jessie, determined to solve the mystery of the missing bell, enlists the help of Grandma's young neighbor Maxwell, with his unusual habitual gestures and his surprising ability to solve jigsaw puzzles. She is unprepared, however, for the terror of seeing the neighbor boys preparing a mechanical torture device to tear a live frog to pieces. Each of the siblings brings a personal resilience and heroism to the resolution.

A fine emotional stretch within reach of the intended audience. (Fiction. 8-11)

Pub Date: May 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-547-56737-2

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: March 13, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2012

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