Kid Lit Book Review
John Bloom and the Victory Garden
by Leigh Shearin
Recommended Grades: 3-8
Author Leigh Shearin’s John Bloom and the Victory Garden, the first of her John Bloom Series, is a sure-fire win for boys in grades 3-8, history buffs, and foodies. The author stirs these incongruent ingredients into a powerful tale that comes together like a perfect three-course meal, and it leaves the reader eager for more.
[John] burst through the kitchen door and was greeted by a wave of warm, steamy air that was scented with onions and apples, bread, and some kind of meat. His mother stood with her back to him, her left arm down on the work surface, her right elbow up in the air, doing battle with a bowl of something on the counter. There was a bowl of pickled beets and a plate of bread on the kitchen table in the center of the room, waiting to be moved to the dining room. Best of all though, was a round platter piled high with fat, golden brown sausages that glistened with fat still bubbling on the surface. They were resting gloriously on a bed of steaming sauerkraut laced with thinly sliced, caramel-colored onions.
Several recipes of meals described in the book are printed at the end of the story, so children can actually make food that the ABCs ate.
On occasion, Shearin uses accented dialogue with some characters. While she is adept at doing so, I find this literary device distracting, so I’m glad she keeps it to a minimum. There is also a chapter that switches from John’s third-person voice to that of an adult character’s perspective. The change is effective, but it could confuse some young readers.
John Bloom and the Victory Garden - Part 1 is a trifecta of food, history, and boyhood. I highly recommend this story for children (especially boys) in grades 3-8. They’ll hunger for Part II of this series, Digging In, and be impatient for its debut in Fall 2015.
The plot charts the transformation of John and his playmates. Before the war, their world revolves around such activities as trading a prized rabbit skull for a freeze-dried earthworm. After December 7, they create the American Boys’ Club (the ABCs) and dedicate their time to helping their beloved Appleside support the war efforts.
Shearin serves up the right mix of energetic, kid-centric dialogue with descriptive narrative, both of which focus on the ABCs and their 1940s coming-of-age era. Readers are immersed in period details that bring history to life. Leafing through photographs in Life Magazine. Shopping at the Five and Ten. Listening to radio broadcasts of President Roosevelt or Prime Minister Churchill deliver stirring wartime messages. Waiting for letters from loved ones fighting overseas. (Imagine that: no email or Skype!)
Yet boys will be boys, and Shearin adds plenty of mischievous plot elements, like pranking the neighbors and devising secret talisman.
I dare anyone to read John Bloom and not develop a food craving. The author injects mouthwatering bites from her culinary background that are rarely encountered in middle-grade books:
The story is a time capsule of life in a small, northeastern U.S. town on the eve of Pearl Harbor and its aftermath during the winter 1942 as seen through the eyes of three fourth-grade boys.
Shearin is inventive in her character descriptions. For example, protagonist John Bloom wants a shiny, blue-and-white Schwinn DX bike for Christmas and can reach his front porch from the sidewalk in just five jumps--unless his shoelace comes untied. He and friend Charles Anderson Slovinsky (Chewie) share a secret knock when visiting each other’s home: three raps on the front door signals an urgent, parent-free visit. The third chum, Joe Riccio, comes from an Italian immigrant family, and they face possible internment due to Mussolini’s part in the war.
John Bloom also introduces readers to a host of secondary characters who add richness and dimension to the story: the town Scrooge with a secret sweet tooth and a hoard of seed packets, a kindly farmer, a wise doctor, and more.
John’s hometown of Appleside, NJ, is another pivotal character in a very real sense. Its rural backdrop underscores how the boys and townsfolk overcome adversity with optimism, humor, and resilience. An Appleside street map by artist Katie Shearin (an author/illustrator dynasty in the making) prefaces the book and provides a strong visual image of the town readers will inhabit alongside John Bloom and his friends.
I was provided with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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