Never Stop Singing

Published in 2016; author Denise Lewis Patrick; illustrators Michael Dwornik and Julie Kolesova


It's New Year's Eve, 1963; the day before Melody turns 10. She's finally old enough to attend Watch Night at her church, a remembrance of when free and enslaved black people waited for New Year's Day 1863, when President Lincoln would officially announce the Emancipation Proclamation. At the service, the pastor encourages his congregation to use the gifts and talents God has given them to change the world for the better. (Speaking of gifts, one important gift she gets is a pouch of heirloom seeds, from Miss Esther, an older family friend.)

Maybe Melody will have a chance to teach people about her heritage when her teacher announces they'll be celebrating Negro History Week in February (the name and duration for it at the time). Maybe she can do something related to how her cousin's family is facing discrimination in their house search. Maybe the community meeting about businesses that snub minorities will give her ideas. Then inspiration hits: fixing up a nearby playground, so it can be a gathering place for everyone.

Melody's sister Yvonne encourages her and gives her some tips, and Miss Esther helps Melody prepare a speech to give to the Block Club, a group of adults committed to advancing civil rights in their community. She ends up president of the Junior Block Club, but finds leadership more difficult than she anticipated. The opportunity to sing back-up on her big brother's singing group's first recording. And Melody's cousin and her family find a great house they can make an offer on. Things start looking up as spring marches on.

But then Melody gets a letter from the parks department: there's not enough available funds to replace the aging swingset. When Melody expresses her disappointment to Miss Esther and her parents, they discuss the possibility that the funds aren't available for parks in black neighborhoods. They also encourage her to continue making the park a beautiful place, even if she's not able to get everything she wants. After all, there are those heirloom seeds...

Just when Melody's gotten her team excited to beautify the existing playground, the parks department locks the gates. Apparently the swingset is too dangerous. The Junior Block Club composes letters to the department: they can't ignore the club forever. A letter from Melody's oldest sister inspires her to spread the word, to get even more letters sent. Melody even gets a local radio show to mention the letter-writing campaign. After a flurry of letters and phone calls, the parks department removes the broken equipment--and the lock. So summer begins with the project in full swing, Melody's sister Lila completing a year of her private school program (she won a scholarship), her oldest sister Yvonne securing a teaching job in the south during Freedom Summer, and Dwayne finally getting the official album of the song he and Melody recorded.

Melody and her parents take a summer trip with her cousin's family to her grandparents' old farm in Birmingham, for the Fourth of July holiday. Despite the shadow cast by the suspicious disappearance of three civil rights workers, celebrating freedom is extra-special for African-Americans this year, with the signing of the Civil Rights Act (one character points out that the real trick will be getting everyone to follow the law). In the midst of the festivities, the family learns that Yvonne's been arrested, for "disturbing the peace" and has broken her wrist during the arrest. Her parents are able to get her out, and while they're very worried for her safety, they agree that Yvonne's an adult who can make her own choices. Yvonne spends a little time with her family before returning to Freedom Summer.

Back at home, the seeds planted at the playground have sprouted and are mostly doing well. Melody needs to teach her team a bit about gardening (for example, the best time to water), but they've done well in her absence. A summer storm threatens a setback, but the Junior and original Block Clubs spruce it back up.

Soon the park is ready for a grand opening party. The radio show host herself shows up, with a proclamation from the mayor announcing the park reopened and named for the Junior Block Club! She also gives Melody a check to buy some new equipment ($75, almost $575 in 2016). The book ends with Melody and her brother singing the song they recorded earlier, onstage for the crowd.

Inside Melody's World

June, July, and August of 1964 came to be known as Freedom Summer for civil rights activists. Volunteers toured the country to educate about the contributions minorities had made to society and to champion equal rights, especially registering African-Americans to vote. Not everyone was welcoming of their presence. Some were heckled or arrested on false charges. Three young men, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, disappeared in late June. Their bodies were found in August. Despite the high profile of the murders and the widespread belief that the perpetrators were members of a conspiracy rooted in the KKK, only one man was ever convicted of the murders. In 2005. Forty-one years after the fact. The crime was part of a large resistance to the Civil Rights Act, a resistance which continues today.


This book is dedicated "in friendship to Sharon Shavers Gayle and in gratitude to the unforgettable Mr. Horace Julian Bond."

Melody's birthday is January first, same as my best friend. And a very convenient birthday, as I discovered when calculating the ages at date of death for several deceased family members. "19xx-18xx is--wait, had she had her birthday yet?"

So we skip not only the winter holiday story, which is always my favorite to read about, but also the assassination of JFK, a huge historical event.

Funny story related to JFK: when I was about Melody's age, my mom asked my dad where he was when Kennedy was shot. Of course, she was asking because it's one of those moments almost everyone who lived through remembers, just how people can vividly recall how they found about September 11, 2001. But I didn't get that at the time, and thought she was asking because she seeing if my dad had an alibi!

Several prominent African-American figures are name dropped. My favorite of the innovators is Charles Drew, who had a profound influence on blood transfusion. I donate blood, so that one's close to my heart (literally). (His death was not the result of discrimination, contrary to popular belief; his injuries were too severe for that to have been a factor) Jesse Owens, too; as I did track and field. Another athlete, Tommie Smith, would rise to fame for giving the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics--and I have his autograph.

The letter-writing reminds me of Andy Dufresne's strategy in The Shawshank Redemption. He writes a letter a week to secure funds for a prison library, and his persistence is eventually rewarded with some money and letter than ends, "Please stop writing."


No Ordinary Sound

Published in 2016; author Denise Lewis Patrick; illustrator Julie Kolesova


Melody Ellison is a happy nine-year-old growing up in 1965 Detroit. She's the youngest of four, with two older sisters and an older brother (Yvonne, Lila, and Dwayne). She's also close with her cousins--one of her best friend is her cousin Valerie (the other, Sharon, isn't related to her). Every Sunday after church, her parents and siblings meet at her grandmother's house for dinner. This particular Sunday in May, she can hardly wait to tell everyone that she's been picked to sing a solo for Youth Day in October. Big brother Dwayne, already 18, is more excited than she expects (he's normally hard to impress) and says she should write to Yvonne, off at college. Melody doesn't want to be a Motown star like Dwayne (the whole Ellison family is musical), but the spotlight at her church is small enough that singing there is exciting instead of scary.

The next day brings more happy news: once the school year is over, Melody's cousins are going to move from Alabama to Detroit! Yvonne's back from college, too. She's gained a lot of confidence, and a clearer understanding of how unjust segregation is. She's refused a job at a bank simply based on her skin (Melody, in a heartwarming show of solidarity, closes her account at the bank to protest), and instead of chemically straightening her hair or keeping it in tight hairstyles, wears loose and natural. When the cousins arrive on Mother's Day, Melody's hair stylist aunt, Tish, is excited to offer Yvonne's style to her future clients.

The move isn't all happy though. They were prompted to come north because of the worsening racial tension in the South. Yvonne wonders what will happen to the fight for equality if everyone leaves, but Aunt Tish and Uncle Charles argue that they can't risk losing their jobs by protesting--they have a family to support. Furthermore, the protests and counter-protests are becoming more violent. They hope to be able to enjoy less segregation and better jobs in Detroit. Right away, Melody gets to show Valerie how things are better up north: the library is for everyone, and anyone regardless of skin color can enter through the main doors.

Of course, things aren't perfect. Dwayne has a music audition coming up, and when he and Melody go shopping for the perfect suit for him to wear, they're followed by store clerks and accused of shoplifting--that's all "their kind" would be in a fancy store for anyway. Melody wonders if Dwayne would still face this sort of prejudice if he were famous. The siblings also discuss how different people fight for equality in different ways. Melody ponders this while going with Valerie and her parents on their house search--and encounters more prejudice. Some people don't want to tell them, only to whites.

Incidents like this inspire Melody's choice of song for her Youth Day solo: "Lift Every Voice and Sing" originally written by James Weldon Johnson as a poem and now a song called by many the Black American national anthem. Seeing Martin Luther King Jr speak cements the choice in her mind.

As summer continues, Melody's parents find out about Dwayne's music plans, just before his (ultimately successful) audition. They've been dreaming for him to go to college at Tuskegee like Yvonne (he was accepted for the fall term) but instead he's going to be a singer. It's hard for them to watch their son follow a different path that they worry won't open as many doors as college, but to their credit they realize he's an adult who can make his own decisions.

Soon it's almost time for school to resume. Melody's best friend Sharon returns from her summer vacation just in time to celebrate the opening of Aunt Tish's hair salon, and is pleasantly surprised to learn that Diane, the star singer who seemed stuck-up, has been helping Melody learn her song for Youth Day. A lot seems to be changing for the better, from the large-scale marches for equality in the nation's capital to small things like friendships that once seemed impossible.

And then it's September 15, 1963, the day of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. This was a real historical event, and a tragic one. Four KKK members blew up a church with dynamite. Twenty-two people were injured. Four died. They were all children: Addie Mae Collins, 14, Cynthia Wesley, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, and Carol Denise McNair, 11. No one was prosecuted for the murders until 1977, when one of the four conspirators were sentenced to life in prison. Two others were tried, convicted, and sentenced in 2001 and 2002. The fourth never faced charges. In 2013, President Obama posthumously awarded the four girls the Congressional Gold Medal, recognizing their impact in the Civil Rights movement.

Melody and her family are horrified and in shock. How could anyone have so much hatred as to murder children? At church? Melody is so affected by the news that she can't sing. Her mind is a whirl of fear and sadness and confusion. Singing at church, when four girls only a little older than her were murdered while getting ready to sing in the church choir, is just too overwhelming.

Melody's family gives her gentle encouragement though, and she finds her voice again. But she's still afraid to go inside her church, where the Youth Day concert will be. Church is supposed to be a safe and happy place, but four girls were murdered viciously in theirs. Yvonne tells her how a woman was inspired to register to vote despite pressure from racists trying to keep her away from the booths, Dwayne writes to her about being on the road and still facing prejudice but also seeing less in some areas, and the rest of her family rallies around her. Val, Sharon, and Diane help her too, and when it's time for the concert, Melody is able to sing her song--in honor of the four girls who will never sing again.

Inside Melody's World

While Melody had more freedom in 1965 than Addy did a century before, she was still denied many things available to her white contemporaries. Detroit itself was a city where many black people could find good jobs and even own their own businesses, but schools were still segregated and persons of color were denied services for no reason other than their skin. People rallied around public figures like Dr. King and other civil rights leaders. While some were able to make their voices heard on large scales, like Rosa Parks or Malcolm X, others fought the fight on personal levels. But every bit counts toward the larger whole.


This book is dedicated to "everyone who hears the call of justice, and answers."

Just before the first chapter is a note explaining that in 1965, "Negro" and "colored" were acceptable terms to describe people of African descent, but today are considered offensive. They're used in the text for authenticity. In the second chapter, Melody and her family discuss the best way to describe themselves, along with the progress her family has seen since her grandparents and parents were growing up, and how much still needs to happen (the Civil Rights Act of 1964 hasn't happened by that point in the book, and it will be enforced inconsistently).

My great-grandmother used to serve Sunday dinners too, into her nineties. Speaking of family, Melody is almost two years older than my mom.

Melody has two nicknames: Dee-dee and Little Chick.

The Ellison family has a dog named Bo.

I like how Melody's parents deal with her feeling a little put out by another girl's superior music talents. Melody's siblings start to talk about what the other girl (Diane) can't do, but her parents instead focus on what Melody can do. I like that they don't need to disparage Diane at all, but instead shift the focus on making Melody feel good about her own talents. I see this "Oh, sure, X is the popular quarterback now, but in ten years he'll be flipping burgers" a lot and...what if X ends up really successful? You don't want your happiness dependent on someone else's misfortune.

Yvonne is attending Tuskegee University in Alabama. A year after this book is set, it will be designated a national historic landmark. It was founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881.

Melody's father was a Tuskegee Airmen in World War II.

Dwayne is able to attend the Youth Day concert, and offers Melody a chance to sing some back-up vocals for his band.


The Finders-Keepers Rule

Published in 2015; author Jacqueline Debmar Greene; illustrator Julie Kolesova


Maryellen's been practicing for the annual Rock Around the Clock dance party Daytona Beach holds. She's pretty worn out from the dancing, and takes a break to go to the beach. She chats with Joan and Jerry before Jerry has to rush off to do some diving work (he trained as a Navy diver, and is now working for a demanding marine biologist with is friend, Skip). Maryellen also talks with a Mr. Buckley, who's testing out a new metal detector. He's a wealthy man, and is so convinced metal detectors are the next big thing that he bought the company. Oddly, Jerry's employer seems very suspicious of Mr. Buckley, warning Maryellen not to talk to him.

The next day, Maryellen and Davy are back at the beach. Maryellen find an old ring--very old. While they're trying to figure out where it came from, Davy spies a plaque describing a ship wreck in 1565: a whole French fleet was lost. Maybe the ring is from a sunken boat--which, naturally would hold more treasures within. Later, when Maryellen and Davy meet the man organizing the Rock Around the Clock party, he seems very interested in the ring, offering to take it to his jewelry shop to see if it's worth anything. And oddly reticent about Maryellen and Davy taking it themselves. And then the jeweler in the store, after noticing a fleur de lis engraving, seems too eager to keep the ring overnight to inspect it. Davy's able to get it back, accidentally knocking over a bottle of jewelry polish in the process.

Maryellen and Davy are more curious than ever. Why are adults so interested in the ring? And who can they trust? Even when she finds Jerry, he and his boss are talking cryptically about a woman possibly being in danger. Furthermore, when the duo goes to the library to research ship wrecks, they discover that Jerry's boss isn't a marine biologist--he's the underwater archaeologist who wrote the book they're reading!

When Maryellen and Davy talk to Jerry and Joan, things start to fall into place--sort of. Jerry is helping excavate a ship wreck, but looters have been sneaking off with little bits, like the ring. Because of the threat, Jerry and his boss have to bring the artifacts up now instead of carefully investigating it. The jeweler and the store owner are helping keep things safe--and people. Jerry is concerned that if whoever the looter is sees Maryellen with the ring, she'll be in danger, so he urges her to stop wearing it. Maryellen and Davy remember how Mr. Buckley's assistant was spying on the jeweler, and suspect him of being the looter. They investigate the building where the artifacts are being hidden.

As these mysteries tend to do, things get complicated before it's revealed that Skip and the assistant have been hired by Mr. Buckley to steal a large artifact (the "she" Jerry was referencing). Once it's in Mr. Buckley's possession, it'll be impossible to prove it's not his. Maryellen and Davy are able to stop the pair just as Jerry shows up with the police: Maryellen and Davy's families were worried when they didn't show up for dinner, and Jerry realized where they probably were and that they might be in danger.

But now Maryellen and Davy, along with the artifacts, are safe. The artifacts will go in a museum. Jerry's boss promises to add a note to the display saying that she found the ring--Maryellen decided to donate it so its historical importance could be widely enjoyed.

The book closes with the dance, where Maryellen has gotten the steps down thanks to some tips from Davy.

Inside Maryellen's World

Teenagers really got their time in the spotlight during the 1950s. Instead of being kids or adults, they enjoyed a new status as an emerging demographic, which popular culture was happy to cater to. Around the same time, scuba gear debuted, allowing people to explore natural and man-made things in the ocean. Shipwrecks from centuries ago are still being discovered today, some worth millions of dollars.


This book is dedicated to Jennifer Hirsch, "confidence booster, colleague, friend."

The song "Rock Around the Clock" came out in 1955, when this book is set.

Davy talks about memorizing complicated football plays. Reminds me of my dad talking about the thick binders of plays college football players have to memorize (he was the manager of the team in college). He reasoned that if football players can learn the plays, they have the smarts to pass their classes--maybe not straight As, but passing grades.

The advent of the teenager was part of why Back to the Future is set in 1955. Not only was the idea of Marty McFly meeting his parents as teens intriguing, but it was a time made for teenagers.


Taking Off

Published in 2015; author Valerie Tripp; illustrator Julie Kolesova


Maryellen's tenth birthday is approaching, and she wants to plan something really special. Her friends offer several ideas, but the April 12, 1955 announcement of a safe and effective polio vaccine inspires Maryellen to make her party a way to spread the word and encourage people to vaccinate. She first thinks of doing a play, but isn't able to engage her audience, so lets her friends help her with doing a variety show instead. She plans to do a shortened monologue version of her play at the end, and she'll charge ten cents admission, to donate to the March of Dimes.

However, even her short version can't hold anyone's interest. It's frustrating, because Maryellen remembers how scary polio was, and really wants to be sure people know they can avoid it. During dress rehearsal, she's encouraged that finally people seem to be paying attention. Then she realizes they're actually laughing at Wayne, Davy's friend, acting out Maryellen's speech behind her. Upset that she's being upstaged when it's her idea and her birthday, Maryellen cancels the event and storms off.

It doesn't take long for Maryellen to calm down, with her sisters' help. She swallows her pride, calls her friends, including Wayne, and apologizes to everyone. Wayne must have mentioned the call to his mother, because just before the show starts, Maryellen discovers that Wayne's mother has finished the bridesmaid dress Maryellen is to wear at Joan's wedding--that is, finished it and fixed the mistakes Maryellen's mother made. The variety show goes on as planned, except for Maryellen get a terrible case of stage fright during her portion. She ends up basically standing still while Wayne ad-libs the important details. But Maryellen chooses to focus on how they raised $3.20 for vaccine research ($28.34 in 2016). She takes the money to the Post Office, and is happy to explain to the clerk what the money is for. She also gets a phone call from a doctor's office: he just had five patients come in for their polio vaccine because they saw the posters Maryellen made to advertise her show. He commissions another poster from her!

Then a phone call comes in: the mayor wants Maryellen to ride in the Memorial Day parade. She's being honored for raising the money and awareness. The mayor received letters from the postal clerk, the doctor...and Davy. She's on the news briefly, but only giving her name--no worries about stage fright there.

Soon after the parade, school winds down for the summer. Maryellen and Davy, now good friends again, sign up for a science contest. Wayne joins too. When they go to the first meeting during the last week of school, they're discouraged at how the older students dismiss them for being young, and Maryellen for being a girl (there are only two other girls in the club). But there's not much time for Maryellen to worry about that before school starts again, because her father surprises the family with the purchase of an RV. They're going to go on a road trip to Yellowstone, one last family trip before Joan gets married. Maryellen is excited to be able to look for ideas to build a flying machine, and plans to sketch every single thing she spies in the air.

During the trip, Joan is withdrawn. Her sullenness isn't explained until she and Maryellen stay at the RV to watch Scooter during a fireworks show (he's too afraid of the noises). Scooter escapes and while they search for him, Joan trips and sprains her ankle. Maryellen is able to splint the ankle and find a suitable branch to use as a crutch, thanks to the adventure shows she watches on TV. The girls find the dog and get back to the RV, and talk. Joan is excited to be getting married to Jerry, but upset at how much Mrs. Larkin is taking over the wedding. Joan and Jerry would prefer a smaller wedding, just family and close friends in the Larkins' yard. Joan also talks about how she wants to go to college and expand her horizons. Maryellen encourages Joan to talk to her mother and her fiance about her concerns.

Not long after getting back to Florida, Joan and Jerry get their wish of a smaller wedding, and work out a plan to stay in the RV, parked near a college campus. That way they won't need to worry about paying rent, freeing up money for Joan's college tuition (Jerry is going on the G. I. Bill, since he's a veteran), and freeing up space in the Larkins' driveway.

And then it's time to get back to school, and back to the science club. Maryellen, Davy, and Wayne are still ignored, and the club is a disorganized mess. When the older boys (the other girls quit over the summer) ridicule Maryellen and try to make her secretary, despite her having terrible handwriting, and shun her ideas, Maryellen remembers how her mother quit her factory job, and quits the club. In a heartwarming show of support, Davy and Wayne follow suit. When the three explain to Angela, Karen K., and Karen S. what happened, they all form their own club.

They spend some time with the leftover wedding decorations and Maryellen's sketchbook, finally coming up with an idea involving a small kite made of toothpicks and tissue paper, boosted by a series of deflating balloons. When the day of the contest arrives, Maryellen's team doesn't win, but they do beat the original club, still bickering and disorganized. The judges are impressed enough with their design that they award them the just-created creativity prize. A news reporter is on hand for the (multi-school) event, and recognizes Maryellen from the parade. She interviews her, and this time Maryellen is able to be composed and not show even a flicker of nerves. Maryellen talks about the importance of working together and listening to everyone--working together, people can make a difference.

Inside Maryellen's World

A lot was changing in the US during the 1950s. Advances in medicine and technology provided many opportunities people hadn't had in the past. But not everyone could enjoy them fully: segregation still existed (including in Florida). Bit by bit, segregation started to get chipped away. The 1954 Supreme Court decision for Brown vs. the Board of Education overturned school segregation laws, catalyzing the coming Civil Rights movement (I'll be reviewing the first Melody Ellison book in September). While things still aren't perfect, they've come a long way from "separate but equal."


This book is dedicated to Elizabeth Jane.

Jonas Salk was an amazing man. He refused to patent his vaccine to be sure the cost would stay low. After developing the polio vaccine, he found the Salk Institute and worked to create other vaccines. He died in 1995 while researching an AIDS vaccine. The institute is still active, and a great place to think of if you feel like donating to a worthy cause.

There is a good reason not to vaccinate: medical concerns. Being allergic to the vaccine, being too young for it, having a compromised immune system--these sorts of things are good reasons to avoid certain vaccines. For most people vaccines are safe and effective. Vaccinating provides not only yourself with protection against diseases that can cause brain damage, paralysis, amputation, blindness, deafness, sterility, and death; they protect those around you who can't be vaccinated, like infants or people undergoing chemotherapy.

Vaccines do not cause autism. The link was falsified. Autistic traits can be observed in babies before they ever get a vaccine. If vaccines cause autism, then they can also time travel. Even if they did cause autism, autism is better than death.

Vaccines are safe for most people (unless you're allergic to their ingredients). They are tested for years before they reach the public. Yes, vaccines put a weakened or dead virus inside you...like how regular full-strength germs come into contact with you all the time. It's better to first train your immune system with the weak or dead germs before encountering the real deal. Side effects are rare, and usually mild, like pain at the injection site or a short-lived rash. That's even accounting for the fact that things like spraining your ankle walking out of the pharmacy or doctor office after receiving a vaccine counts as an adverse effect.

Vaccines are not a money-making venture for Big Pharma or Big Insurance or Big Medicine. Most insurance plans cover them fully, and there are many low-cost clinics available. It costs far less for an insurance company or hospital to provide a vaccine than to treat a patient for diphtheria, tetanus, or pertussis (DTaP); measles, mumps, or rubella (MMR); or cancer (HPV vaccine).

Go be sure you and your loved ones are as up-to-date as possible on your vaccines.


Maryellen and the Brightest Star

Released on Youtube in 2015. Rated G.


Maryellen is thrilled to hear that a real rocket scientist, Dr. Teller, will be visiting her school. There's an essay contest, and whoever writes the best essay will get to ask him some questions in front of the whole school--and have the event broadcasted on the news!

Inspired by a comic book, Maryellen makes her own titled Astrogirl, detailing a girl's adventure from Earth to space. It's clear that she's illustrated her essay, but when she presents it in class, Mrs. Humphrey lets Wayne interrupt to declare the drawings cheating. Mrs. Humphrey won't even let Maryellen finish her first sentence, and says she'll need to discuss Maryellen's work with the principal. Due to not following directions, Maryellen's comic can't be entered in the contest. A boy from another class wins, prompting Maryellen to lament that boys win everything. Mrs. Humphrey points out how well Maryellen has been doing in science, which bodes well for excelling in physics: the first step to becoming a rocket scientist.

By the time Dr. Teller visits, the contest has changed, and now several students will each ask one question, rather than one student asking several. Naturally, Maryellen and Wayne are among the students chosen. When it's Maryellen's turn, she asks about an especially bright star she saw a few nights before. She hasn't been able to find it on any star maps. Turns out it was Mars.

The story ends on Halloween, with Maryellen going as Astrogirl...but deciding she'll put off her space flight dreams for a bit. She wants to go to space someday, but for now she wants to be near the people she loves.


Written by Maya Rudolph

This is a short film, only sixteen minutes.

Maryellen's supposed to be a good artist--the sketches on her wall aren't up to the level I was expecting.

This takes place in October 1954.

Maryellen's school is integrated; there are students of color in the same room with her.

Wayne, who is more misogynistic than just annoying like in the books, asks derisively, "Have you ever seen a girl astronaut?" No, Wayne. No one has seen an astronaut at all. This is 1954. The first person in space was Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. In 1961. The first astronaut (that is, from the US), Alan Shepard, followed a few weeks later. The first woman in space, cosmonaut Valentina Tershkova, ventured outside our atmosphere in 1963. Twenty years later, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.

I understand that the contest had specific rules so Mrs. Humphrey couldn't let Maryellen enter...but couldn't she have let her finish her presentation in front of the class? You know, instead of humiliating her in public?

There's a scene with Maryellen, dressed as Astrogirl, and Wayne fighting. Mrs. Humphrey comes in out of nowhere and sternly tells the bickering students to come with her. As they leave, another student in the middle of the frame turns and mouths, "What?" I think she speaks for the audience--it's an odd scene.

Looks like Mars could have been visible in October of 1954. But I've seen Mars and even when it's in closer proximity than usual, it does not look like the object Maryellen saw. But at least she didn't see a satellite, because the first satellite to orbit Earth was Sputnik, in October 1957.

Maryellen Larkin-Harlie Galloway
Wayne-Francesco Galante
Mrs. Humphry-Rosa Pasquarella
Principal Carey-Patrick M. J. Finerty
Davy-Jordan Alveran
Dr. Teller-Tyrone van Tatenhove
Carolyn Larkin-Ashton Smiley
Beverly Larkin-Valentina Gordon
Tom Larken-Kaysen Steele
Jimmy-David Lansky
Classmate-Jeannine Briggs
Extras-Kennedy Fuselier, Azalea Carey, Nya-Jolie Walt, Malia Lehua, Camille Briggs, Baylie Hileman, Eduardo Castillo, Lucca Monti, Jo'ell Jackson, Kristian Ramirez, Michael Hill, Karina Monti, Tara Steele, Tancy Hileman, Azia Reed


The One and Only

Published in 2015; author Valerie Tripp; illustrator Julie Kolesova


Maryellen Larkin is a nine-year-old girl, the fourth of six children (older siblings Joan and Carolyn, younger siblings Beverly, Tom, and Mikey). She lives in Daytona Beach, on the Atlantic Coast of Florida. Her mother worked at a line manger in an aircraft factory during World War II, and now manages the household. Her father is an architect. They married during the Great Depression, and now in the booming economic times of the 1950s, want to give their children all they themselves couldn't have when they were younger.

Maryellen likes all the popular TV shows of her time, like The Lone Ranger, and enjoys pretending she's a character in them when she plays with her close friend Davy. But her oldest sister, Joan, warns her that as Maryellen gets older, boys and girls won't play together much--until they get to high school and start dating, like Joan, who's 18 and nearly engaged. Maryellen isn't convinced. She and Davy have lots of fun hanging out, and Davy's always there for her. Maryellen tries to impress her mom's old work friends by painting their front door red so it stands out, and of course the paint spills on the deck. Davy is willing to get up in the early morning and help Maryellen scrub the spilled paint away.

Standing out is important to Maryellen. She wants to be known for being Maryellen, not for being Joan's or Carolyn's sister. This gets difficult when fourth grade starts in the fall: her teacher previously taught both her older sisters, and sometimes calls Maryellen the wrong name.

But soon Maryellen has a bigger concern in fourth grade: she and Davy have a falling out, and she's become good friends with a new student, Angela. Her other friends, Karen K. and Karen S., can't believe Maryellen would befriend Angela. Why? Angela and her family just moved to Florida...from Italy. World War II is still fresh in the nation's memory. Karen S.'s uncle was even killed fighting in Italy. But Maryellen won't let prejudice stand in the way of a new friendship. Angela would have an infant at oldest when the war was ending. After some time, the two Karens realize they're being unfair by judging Angela for what her country's leaders did before any of them were born. Maryellen feels good standing up for what's right.

Soon Christmas is coming. Maryellen is a good artist, very creative. She's always the one to come up with a gift for the kids to give the parents, and often makes presents for her siblings instead of buying them--and she's good enough at handmade things that everyone likes them. But thanks to TV shows, Maryellen finds herself wishing for a different kind of Christmas than she's used to. It never snows in Daytona Beach, it's not cold enough for ice skating...her grandparents live in the mountains outside Atlanta, Georgia, where it snows. Normally they visit for Christmas, but her grandfather's recovering from an illness, so they won't be able to this year. Maryellen has an idea though: for her Christmas present, maybe she can visit them! A trip on her own to a winter wonderland. She secures permission from her parents and grandparents to spend a week at the end of December.

Maryellen takes a train to Atlanta, where her grandfather picks her up. As they drive into the mountains, Maryellen is thrilled to see snow for the first time in her life. She gets to go ice skating, pick out a real live Christmas tree from the forest, and experience an old-fashioned Christmas.

But she starts to miss her parents and siblings. A lot. Her grandparents quickly pick up on this, and, feeling energized by the visit, her grandfather suggests they all drive down to Daytona Beach to surprise Maryellen's family Christmas morning. They'll even bring the tree and some snow in a cooler--it'll keep the sandwiches cold and Maryellen's siblings can see snow.

They drive through the night, arriving shortly after Maryellen's family gets back from church. Everyone's stunned and happy to see them. Soon there's another knock on the door: Joan's boyfriend, Jerry. Earlier, Maryellen had encouraged Jerry to think about how serious he wanted his relationship with Joan to be. He comes in the house, walks over to Joan, and proposes. Before next Christmas, there will be a wedding!

Inside Maryellen's World

The 1950s saw prosperity for much of US, a nice contrast to the Depression of the 1930s and World War II in the 1940s. Many families had several children, and enjoyed giving their kids things and experiences they'd had to do without in the past. Televisions were popular in American households, depicting an idealized lifestyle (some people's version of idealized: nearly all actors were white). This lead to some pressure to "keep up with the Joneses" like Maryellen's wish for a "proper" Christmas. But, while imperfect, the 1950s were an improvement for most people.


This book is dedicated to Ellie.

This is the first time I've read the BeForever version of the main books. Overall I'm neutral on the change--there are two longer books instead of six shorter ones, but the story still follows the same basic format. Obviously that means the books look different, but they're about the height and thickness of the short story collections so that won't annoy me too much when they're on my bookshelf. (They're also a similar size to the historical character and history mysteries, and the girl of the year books, but I don't collect those or girls of many lands; just the central books, best friend books, and short story collections.) But I do miss the family portrait from the beginning of the book. 

The Larkins have an ancient dachshund, Scooter.

Mrs. Larkin was offered a permanent position at the factory after the war ended, but she thought it was unfair that most of the other women were let go, so she quit in protest. She would have had three young children, including an infant (Maryellen was born in May 7, 1945, the day before Victory in Europe Day, or V-E Day). So, three kids, a woman, 1945--she was really good at her job to be offered a permanent one.

When Mrs. Larkin's former coworkers visit, they spend the night. Juggling the rooms inspires Maryellen to suggest all four sisters share a larger room and the two boys take the smaller room--before Joan and Carolyn had that while Maryellen and Beverly roomed with the boys. Mrs. Larkin agrees to experiment for the duration of her friends' visit, and all four girls agree they like rooming together.

Maryellen is left-handed, which makes writing difficult for her. Her hand smears the writing.

Maryellen had polio in 1952, resulting in one leg being weaker than the other and cold-sensitive lungs. These almost never affect her though. One the one hand, it's great that she's determined to overcome her difficulties, on the other...if they really don't impact her, why include them in the story? There's not even a mention of it being a little tricky to balance on ice skates or getting out of breath sooner in the cold when she visits her grandparents for Christmas.

Jerry's a Korean War veteran; a member of the US Navy.

The Larkins use an artificial Christmas tree (pink!). While I prefer live trees, it makes a lot of sense to have an artificial one if you live where the weather doesn't drop below freezing. You don't want to bring in a host of surprise insects or spiders.

Maryellen needs to pay for half of her train ticket to visit her grandparents, eight dollars. That's the equivalent of almost $71 in 2016.

So...Maryellen and her grandparents drive back to Daytona Beach. What about the return train ticket? Can she get a refund?

Maryellen doesn't ask for or get a doll for Christmas, but her parents do give her a jewelry box that, when opened, shows a little figure skating on a pond.


Girl of the Year 2016: Lea and Camila

Author: Lisa Yee and Kellen Hertz
Illustrator: Sarah Davis


Because part of Camila's visit with her cousins in Chicago coincides with Lea's spring break, she's coming to St. Louis for the week. Lea, Camila, and Abby take a photography class together, and also plan to see many sights around the city.

While they're sight-seeing, Lea spots an old photograph of a young girl wearing a compass necklace like her grandmother's. The back reads, "Hallie. June 1956." Lea wants to continue investigating, but Camila's trip is going to be over soon. The urge to find out more about Hallie, who might have a connection to Ama, is hard to ignore even though Lea truly wants to be a good host. The mystery is made more intriguing by an entry in Ama's journal mentioning the necklace and a long-ago promise.

Meanwhile, Abby and Camila are becoming good friends. Lea feels a bit left out, but that's her own doing. She tries to focus on her friends, but their photography class takes a field trip to the Jewel Box, a famous garden--where it just so happens the picture of Hallie was taken. The girls figure out the even was likely her debutante ball. Lea decides to try to find mention of the ball in the city archives during a Cardinals game--Abby called and invited Camila, but not Lea because she only had one extra ticket. Lea tries to be rational, because after all she's not that into sports and Camila is only visiting briefly, but she feels left out again.

The girls sort it out, and the rest of the trip is spent seeing things Camila's interested in. As if to reward Lea's realization that she hasn't been a good host, a trip to search for a stray cat at an historic building they visited earlier reveals another clue about Hallie. While they're there, Abby spies the cat, and in trying to get it, nearly falls through a hole in the decrepit floor. Thinking quickly, Lea's able to get both her friend and the cat out of danger. Lea's parents are happy everyone's okay, but make sure they know the dangers of running around old buildings in the middle of restorations.

As Camila's visit draws to a close, she gathers her courage and goes up the Gateway Arch (yay, I was hoping she would!). She's very relieved to be back on solid ground, but also glad she did it. Camila also wants to help Lea find out more about Hallie, so she asks to visit the Missouri History Museum. With some perseverance, the three girls are able to find out that Hallie was a classmate of Ama's--and that she's still living in St. Louis. They drive over to visit, and after convincing her son to explain that Amanda Silva's granddaughter wants to visit, they meet Hallie. She's very gracious and tells the girls about her kinship with Amanda (they lost touch when Hallie's parents sent her to a boarding school) and how they bonded over a love of and desire to travel.

The weeks is about over, and the photography class ends with an exhibition of the students' work. Hallie and her son accept Lea's invitation to come. It turns out that her son is a real estate developer interested in doing a renovation--just what Lea's mom needs funding for. Hallie and Lea talk, and Hallie gives Lea her compass necklace, the one that matches Ama's.

The book closes with Camila saying her goodbyes and an email from Zac about the worsening poaching situation. He's decided to stay for a while to fight for the animals.


Dedicated to "Mary See. Thank you for always being there for me. -L. H." and "my grandmother Terry, who never let her fears stop her. Thank you for showing me what it means to live life to the fullest.  -K. H."

There's no appendix in this book.

Lea's dad's leg is healing, but not back to 100% yet.

Zac is working at a rehab clinic. Not the same one where Amanda is, though.

St. Louis schools had spring break the last week of March in 2016, not in April. Baseball season starts in April. The Cardinals played home games April 11, 13-20, 29, and 30. All those dates were during state-mandated school proficiency testing for St. Louis schools. They played three games against Milwaukee (winning 2, losing 1), three against Cincinnati (2-1), three against Chicago (1-2), and two against Washington, D.C. (plus one May 1, and lost all three). It would have been interesting if they went to the Chicago game, since Camila's cousins live there.

A good way to get rid of brain freeze is to press your tongue to the roof of your mouth.


Girl of the Year 2016 movie: Lea to the Rescue

Released on DVD in June 2016


The movie takes place a year after Lea's initial trip to Brazil. Zac is in town for a brief visit...with his girlfriend Paula (pronounced like "pow-la"). Is Zac going to stay in South American forever? Suddenly Lea's a third wheel. Even when she tries to get to know Paula, her parents butt in and end up shutting her down. In an effort to help Lea not feel left out, Zac confides in her that he's tracking some poachers. Even Paula doesn't know.

About a week later, Zac and Paula are back in Brazil, and Lea's dad is on a camping trip. Paula calls with the news that she hasn't heard from Zac in four days...and he hasn't shown up to work...and his other friends haven't seen him either...he's not even in any hospitals. Lea starts to tell her mom about the poachers--maybe they've captured Zac (or worse). But her mom is busy booking them on the next flight out to find Zac.

Mrs. Clark gets busy right away talking to different authorities, but since Zac is 20 (i.e.; not a minor) she has difficulty making headway. A sympathetic police officer is helping Mrs. Clark. She finds out some information about the night Zac went missing--a coworker called him late, but only to invite him over.

Lea is left in the care of Paula, who not only barely knows her but treats her as younger and less capable than she is. Desperate to do something, Lea finds a notebook in her brother's room with notes about the poachers. Paula is sure Zac has stopped looking for the poachers, but Lea knows better. They go looking for clues, and inadvertently tip off some people in the poaching ring that they're looking for Zac. They end up following a truck into the rain forest, where Paula's scooter gets a flat tire. Lea insists on following on foot, running off ahead, forcing Paula to follow her. But there's only just in time to see the truck finishing fording a river and driving off into the trees.

Undeterred, Lea makes a raft to float after the boat (I definitely see Paula's point here--they can't hope to catch up to the truck on foot and they're not prepared for a hike through the rain forest). They get scared by a tarantula (which aren't venomous, but could be startling) and end up trapped in a net set by a local tribe. A member of the tribe cuts them loose and they run, worried that they've stumbled across a tribe hostile to outsiders. But the girl who cut them loose, about Lea's age, knows about civilization and speaks broken English learned from some items they've found like radios. The girl, Aki, knows where the poachers are and can show Lea and Paula the way--and how to avoid her tribe's traps.

Aki's mother shows up, and Lea recognizes the symbol on her arm as the same one on her grandmother's journal. When she shows Aki's mother the journal, Lea and Paula are invited back to Aki's village for the night (Paula was able to get cell service briefly, but with all the static all that Mrs. Clark gets is that they're together for the night). And it just so happens that, in the middle of the largest country in South America, they've stumbled across the tribe that Lea's grandmother helped years ago, when many members were ill. They happily agree to help find Zac.

In the morning, Aki's tribe has tracked Zac and discovered where the poachers are taking him. Mrs. Clark and the police officer have made a little progress, and find themselves at a store which is a front for the poachers. But all they know is that Zac shopped there. As they arrive to the store, Lea and her companions have snared a poacher in a trap, and Lea calls her mom on the man's satellite phone. Mrs. Clark is so distraught with all the stress (she discovered Lea and Paula were gone, too) that she orders Lea to come back to the hotel and then hangs up (and Lea doesn't call back?). Mrs. Clark and the police officer soon get suspicious--the store owner gets a call from Zac's office (they can see the number on the cell phone display screen). The owner runs away. At the office, Mrs. Clark and the police officer demand answers, prompting the man who claimed to have invited Zac over to bolt. He's soon arrested.

Lea and Paula are back in the city, too: Aki led them to the edge of her tribe's government protected area, and they caught a ride with a tour bus. But one of the poachers spotted them and chases them through a marketplace. They're able to give him the slip, and tail him to where Zac's being held in a warehouse. Lea is able to sneak in, but soon she and Paula are also caught. They manage to escape and get to the police (same officer as the one helping Mrs. Clark) but the poachers and animals are gone by the time they get back to the warehouse. Lea looks through the pictures on her camera (Paula was smart enough to hide it from the poachers) and finds clues to where the poachers are headed. The police officer radios for backup, and the poachers are caught as they're trying to escape by sea.

Back home in St. Louis, Lea is able to have a photography show with the pictures she took on her trip--not all of them though. Aki's tribe has little contact with the outside world and wants to stay that way (which is why the tribe stays on government-protected land, and why her grandmother didn't tell the family about her adventure). The pictures and other mementos go in a briefcase. Lea can revisit her memories, but she's committed to keeping Aki's secret.


Filmed in Capetown, Western Cape; Durban, KwaZulu-Natal; and Port Edward, South Africa.

It's so hard to type Clark with no E on the end. I have a friend whose last name is Clarke.

I agree with Mr. and Mrs. Clark. If I have a dinner guest who has dietary preferences or needs (e.g.; vegetarian, someone with allergies) I want to know so I can make food the person can eat. 

The sloth Lea found has been rehabilitated and released to the wild.

Aki's bangs are distractingly stylish.

Despite being filmed in Africa, the wildlife looks pretty good. I'm not sure about the plants, though. But nothing jumps out as horribly wrong for South America.

When the police arrest the poachers, several of them have their guns drawn. Look at their index fingers: they're all resting on the side of the gun, not on the trigger. Obviously unrealistic when apprehending dangerous criminals, but a very safe way to hold a gun you don't want to fire.

There's a bit with Zac offering to finish college in St. Louis, but Lea, now fond of Paula, says he has a life in Brazil and she doesn't want to keep him from living it.

If I could pick the 2017 Girl of the Year, I'd go with a girl from somewhere like American Samoa or Guam--there hasn't been a fully Asian Girl of the Year or historical character, and someone from a territory rather than a state would be really interesting and educational (residents of American Samoa aren't even US citizens, just US nationals, which kinda sucks...).


Lea Clark-Maggie Elizabeth Jones
Carol Clark-Hallie Todd
Aki-Storm Reid
Paula Ferreira-Laysla de Oliveira
Zac Clark-Connor Dowds
Ricardo Carvalho-Sean Cameron Michael
Officer Adriano Costa-Rehane Abrahams
Rick Clark-Kevin Otto
Miguel Belo-Joe Vaz
Bruno-Peter Butler
Abby-Mokgethoa Tebeila
Aki's Mother-Aimee Valentine
Zoe-Lee Raviv
Jimmy-Ray Crosswaite
Tribal Leader-Farouk Valley-Omar
Lea's Grandmother-Karin Howard
Reporter-Julie Phillips
Felipe Mourinho-Philip Waley
Luiz-Dylan Edy
Lea's Teacher-Julie Hartley
Policeman-Pisco Maurer