Four Teens’ Narratives Intertwine in Caroline Cooney’s The Lost Songs

Written By: Amy - Feb• 07•12

Would I Recommend It? Yes.

Audience: 11 and up

Review: Caroline Cooney’s The Lost Songs is a book newly on the market, just released in October 2011.  Cooney interwines four teens’ narratives into one beautiful story of self-discovery and hope.  This modern-day story’s main protagonist is Lutie Painter, an African-American teen with a precious heirloom, hundreds of songs passed down from her great-grandmother and never written down.  Now,  an expert in music and professor is trying to do anything he can to “get his hands on” these “lost songs.”  On the surface, this appears to be the main conflict in the novel, but as the reader delves deeper into this story, they quickly see that this is a story of living with integrity, of believing in the best in people, of each person’s responsibility to each other, and of the importance of community.

Caroline Cooney begins each chapter with four short sentences that are ambiguous but at the same time give you a preview of what will happen in the chapter.  It almost reminded me of the segments on television which start with the words “Coming up next…”  Each and every time I finished a chapter planning on putting this book down, the next “chapter preview” hooked me in.  This was an excellent and easy to read book which teaches valuable lessons without ever sounding “preachy.”

Book Flap Description: The day Lutie Painter takes the city bus north instead of the school bus west, cutting class for the first time ever, her aunt and uncle have no idea what she is up to. They cannot prevent her from riding into danger.
That same morning, Lutie’s pastor, Miss Veola, whispers as always, “This is the day that the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
A block from Miss Veola and up a hill in Chalk, Train Greene, thin and hungry, burns with anger. He has a decision to make, and he’s running out of time.
A few miles away, among finer houses, Kelvin Hartley yawns and gets ready for another day at school, where he is a friend to all and makes an effort at nothing.
And Doria Bell, who recently moved to the South from Connecticut, walks to the bus stop, hoping the high school kids who live nearby will say hello.
All of these lives intertwine and—in surprising ways—become connected to Lutie’s ancestors, who are buried in the cemetery in Chalk. Who would have dreamed that the long-dead Mabel Painter, who passed down the Laundry List songs to her great-great-granddaughter Lutie, had passed along a piece of American history that speaks to so many who feel lost and need hope. Big changes are in store for all, and things will never be the same.
In this luminous novel, Caroline B. Cooney delves deeply into a Southern community. Cooney reveals the comfort, inspiration, and hope its members draw from the power of faith, the glory of music, and the meaning of family.

To read an excerpt: Go to

The Hunger Games: What’s The Hype?

Written By: Amy - Feb• 05•12

 The book flap summarizes what the Hunger Games are all about: “In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, “The Hunger Games,” a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed.”

Late in August, my younger sister, who is only 16, told me about a new series of books that I “had to read.”  This seemed a little strange to me coming from my sister.  Growing up, I was always an avid reader, but my sister had always been a reluctant reader.  When I realized that my sister, who I had never known to read a book, had plowed through three lengthy novels in less than a week, I knew something was different.  I had to read this series, called the Hunger Games, for myself.

Like most people you ask who have read these books, now that all three books in the Hunger Games trilogy are available, it is difficult to read the first one and just stop.  I read the entire trilogy in about five days.  The story was so interesting and compelling that I had to know what happened next.  I couldn’t go to sleep without reading “one last chapter.”  Katniss is an interesting and imperfect character.  She doesn’t always do what the reader wants, but I still found myself rooting for her.

I absolutely loved this book, but it is not without critics.  Some have claimed that it is too dark and violent for young adult audiences, but although the content does have a dark and violent subject matter, the books did not feel too scary or overly gruesome for 11 and up, in my opinion.  There are moments of light and hope to break up the darkness.  Of course, each parent should judge for his or her own child what is appropriate.

Other critics call the book a “ripoff.”  Apparently, it is markedly similar to a Japanese novel called “Battle Royale.”  With further research, I don’t believe these books are any more similar than they each are to other dystopian stories which tend to have similar plots and themes, and there is no evidence that Suzanne Collins had ever read this rather obscure Japanese book.

Overall, I felt that this was a compelling and suspenseful novel that seems to be great at engaging even reluctant readers.  For most middle school and high school students, it would be very appropriate, and because it is a series, they will keep reading which is a definite plus!

Milkweed: Chapters 44 thru 45

Written By: Amy - Nov• 24•10

I really didn’t like these two chapters.  Too much happened too fast.  We spent 43 chapters going through a few short years of Misha’s life, then in two chapters we go through fifty years?  I understand that the author wants to show that Misha’s life is irreparably damaged, and it is probably realistic.  Still, the way he did it is what bothers me.  I don’t understand how Misha gets from Point A to Point B because there isn’t enough narrative development to make the connection.  It felt like Jerry Spinelli got tired of writing and tried to wrap it up quick.  Maybe if he had added fifty pages to really explain this it would have been a better story.

Milkweed: Chapters 34 thru 43

Written By: Amy - Nov• 23•10

In Chapter 34, Mr. Milgrom includes Misha in Hanukkah.  I think this is significant.  First of all, Misha is becoming more and more a complete part of this family, but as the author suggests by mentioning Mrs. Milgrom’s previous opposition towards Misha participating in Hannukah, he still isn’t a Jew by blood and that cannot change.  I also think that the celebration of Hanukkah confirms my thoughts about the character of Mr. Milgrom.  He continues to do the things he did before the Holocaust as much as possible, including celebrating this important holiday.  He also saves the silver candlestick when he could have sold it for food.  Unfortunately, it is stolen, and he mentions that it upsets him that a Jew would steal from another Jew.  This just again confirms that he is someone who will stay sane, civil, human even when put into animalistic situations like the Jewish Ghetto.

The author chooses to have Janina’s renewal of spirit to occur at the same time the season changes to spring, and I think this is no coincidence.  Still, it is clear that though Janina is a little bit like her old self, she will never really be the same.

I felt really angry with Janina when she would not listen to Misha.  He was trying to save her, but she was too stubborn.  Most likely, she was killed for her own stubbornness, and Misha would have died too if it weren’t for Uri who saved him.

After Janina disappears on the train, the book’s pace increases significantly.  In only a few chapters, months pass, and then, the war is over.  Throughout these chapters, what is happening is pretty confusing.  I think Misha is delusional, and Jerry Spinelli wants me to feel just as confused as Misha’s memory is.  I am getting scared that Misha will never see Janina or any of his old family again.

Milkweed: Chapters 23 thru 33

Written By: Amy - Nov• 22•10

Throughout this section, there is an obvious trend.  Jews are having more and more rights and privileges taken from them.  The conditions are worsening, and winter is coming.  Food shortages are increasing, and smugglers are being punished.  Misha and Janina are sneaking through a wall around the ghetto.  They are smuggling food, but it is becoming increasingly dangerous.

I keep thinking about how helpless I would feel if I was a Jew.  I think I would keep wanting to think, “It is going to get better if I just hold on a little longer.”  The truth is that it is not getting better.  It is only getting worse, and they just keep dying, and there is nowhere to go.  There is no escape to safety.  It makes me really respect the struggles those who suffered through the holocaust went through.  They truly seem unimaginable.

Janina’s mother dies near the end of my reading.  It is really sad, but I wonder if she died because she gave up.  It seems like she gave up a long time ago.  I think the way Mr. Milgram reacts shows that he is set apart among the people. He is of a higher quality because he takes the time to give his wife a dignified burial.  Of course, this was only because he had pills to bribe the guard.  This idea of Mr. Milgram having more integrity than most is also demonstrated by his reaction to another family moving into their home.  He not only does not fight back, but he offers them a mattress of their own.  He does not let his circumstances turn him into an animal.  In every way he can, he maintains his integrity and humanity in the way he lives and treats others.

Milkweed: Chapters 7 thru 22

Written By: Amy - Nov• 19•10

A lot happened in the parts I read today.  I think I do like the book.  I kind of wonder if some parents would be upset if their middle school aged child was asked to read this book; it is indeed pretty graphic in parts.  I was surprised by how much detail there is about the deaths and the violence.

In this part of the book, we meet Greta, a girl who Misha (previously known as Stopthief) has become very fond of.  When Misha steals her birthday cake, I thought it was very ironic.  I was afraid that Greta might be mad at him.  Later, I was really scared that the Jackboots might have killed her and her family because Misha found that Jackboots were living in her house.  I think Jerry Spinelli wanted me to worry, to keep the story suspenseful.  I was SO relieved when Misha found Greta again in the ghetto.

It is really ironic to hear about what Misha thinks about things happening around him.  He is really naive, and he doesn’t realize how bad the Jackboots really are.  He could have been killed so many times by now!  For example, he doesn’t understand that Jews and Gypsies aren’t allowed on the merry go round.  When he climbs on, he is lucky that he is so fast that he can get away.  Also, there is the time earlier in the story when he walks right up to the Jackboots; if he knew how dangerous they were, he would never talk to them.

When I read about all of the Jews having to stand in the snow, I thought about myself.  Would I be able to stand straight and tall?  Would I be weak?  What if my parents were there?  I think for sure that I would cry out if they hit someone near me or one of my family members.  I would try not to, but I think I would lose control still.  Misha is really brave and stubborn, and it is good for him because it keeps him safe–some of the times.

Milkweed: Chapters 1 thru 6

Written By: Amy - Nov• 17•10

As I was reading the first six chapters, I kept thinking, “Do I like this book?  Do I dislike this book?”  and I couldn’t decide through most of the reading.  This book is written in a different style then I am used to.  There isn’t a lot of details.  The story is written in this sort of minimalist, sensory style, mostly filled with dialogue.  Sometimes it was compelling to try to figure out what was going on, but other times, I found it frustrating to put together a picture in my mind from the few words on the page.  I think maybe the author wants me to feel that way though because I think it is the way Stopthief feels, too–confused about what is happening around him.

I think I am just now starting to get an idea about Stopthief–or whatever his name will be eventually.  He is a gypsy with no parents.  I don’t think he has ever been to school because he doesn’t know much about anything.  No one has explained to him what tanks are or what the “jackboots” are or even what Jews are.  I am curious to see how he will learn more about what is happening in his town in the next few chapters.

Uri seems to be a natural caretaker.  He doesn’t have to take care of Stopthief, just as the other boy in their gang points out, but he does anyway.  He shows him how to take a bath, cuts his hair, and finds him a bed.  He tries to explain the “jackboots” to Stopthief, and he tries to explain their situation as Jew and gypsy in a sensitive way.  I wonder if he will be the caretaker for Stopthief through the whole book or just until Stopthief starts to figure out their world.

Well, see you next time after I read the next few chapters!


Written By: Amy - Nov• 17•10

My name is Amy, and I will be reading “Milkweed” from the Barnes and Noble EReader, the Nook.  As I read a few chapters, I will reflect here about my reading.