Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water introduces the reader to two eleven-year-old’s from Sudan, Salva and Nya.  The story is primarily about Salva, a real-life Sudanese Lost Boy and his struggle to survive after the second Sudanese Civil War lands outside of the doors of his school in the 1980s.  Nya’s story comes in smaller bits, explaining what it is like to live in Sudan today, in the aftermath of the civil war. Park was able to accomplish a remarkable feat in this novel, taking a hard to understand, emotionally charged story, and making it relateable and digestible for middle grade readers.

That isn’t to say that this book isn’t emotionally challenging, because it is.  Salva saw most people that he loves die, and understanding war, death, and famine are hard concepts for adults, let alone children.  But Park laces this brief little book with hope and kindness.  Nya’s story gives readers a vision of the hope of the future, showing that a program called Water for South Sudan is helping change the lives of the Sudanese people, providing safe drinking water for entire communities which helps free up time for school and community growth.

As a personal challenge, I have taken on the task of reading all of the Iowa Children’s Choice 2013-14 nominees before voting ends in March 2014.  I am currently seven books down, with 18 books left to read.  I’m really fascinated to see how my reactions to the books compare with the voting of Iowa’s 3rd-6th graders.  I am taking this opportunity to highlight some of the books that stand out from the pack.

belly upTwelve-year-old Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt Fitzroy lives in a zoo.  And not just any zoo, but FunJungle, the largest animal amusement park in the world, where his parents work.  When the FunJungle mascot, Henry the Hippo, turns up dead, Teddy is convinced that it was murder. Written by Stewart Gibbs Belly Up, is a funny, clever first novel.

Stewart Gibbs has a degree in biology, and worked in a zoo while in college (at one point he was the foremost expert on capybaras).  He has also written a number of screenplays.  These two occupations are evident in his writing.  This book is filled with interesting animal and zoo facts, cleverly sprinkled throughout the story. The action in the novel is fast paced, well-timed, exciting. Overall, the book feels a lot like a well-informed animated movie, which seems to be a pretty great selling point for a children’s mystery novel.  I would recommend this book for fans of Swindle by Gordon Korman, Scat by Carl Hiaasen, and M.T. Anderson’s Pals in Peril series.