“Finchosaurus” is a funny, sweet and well-paced middle-grade novel in which author Gail Donovan once again draws on her intimate knowledge of elementary school to create an environment and story kids can relate to.

Our hero is Atticus Finch Martin, a fifth-grader with too much energy and a passion for dinosaur fossils. He is one of those kids teachers can have a hard time with: fidgety, distracted and trouble-prone. Finch would much rather daydream about discovering a new dinosaur fossil than focus on school work. As a result, he spends a lot of time getting help in the “special services” office.

Then one day, he digs up a note with one word on it – “Help” – and develops a new passion: finding out which classmate wrote it, and helping him or her. Determined to do so on his own, he ends up needing to enlist each member of his class. By the time he solves the mystery, he has uncovered, not a fossil, but new insights into his classmates and their struggles, as well as the nature of giving and getting help. His new insights also include, in a somewhat contrived secondary plot line, his grandparents’ efforts to remain independent as they age.

Though I found it slightly predictable and worry that Donovan risks writing to a formula (boys with classroom problems, annoying school personnel who don’t understand them, family drama side plots, heartwarming endings), the author, who works at the Portland Public Library, definitely has a good understanding of the world of the fifth-grader and a deft and humorous way of bringing it to life. The 9-year-old I shared “Finchosaurus” with declared it “funny and fun to read,” and I suspect teachers and elementary-age readers will agree.

In “Orphan Band of Springdale,” Anne Nesbet has taken a few threads of family history and childhood memories of Maine and woven a warm, dense and compelling tale that is far more than the story of a young girl’s struggle to find her voice, her family and her home. It is equally – and chillingly – a powerful reminder of the dangers of nationalism and the kind of patriotic fervor that gripped this country in the years leading up to the Second World War.

Eleven-year-old Gusta Neubronner is sent to live in her grandmother’s home for children in a Maine mill town in the winter of 1941. Her parents – union organizers – can’t take care of her anymore. Because of the Alien Registration Act, her father (a refugee from Nazi Germany) is forced to flee from anti-Communist and anti-German zealots. All Gusta has with her is her precious French horn, a family heirloom that her father has taught her to play.

It’s tough to fit in at school. She’s shy and severely near-sighted, has crooked teeth and a funny last name. She is immediately vilified by Molly, whose family would all be wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and shouting “build the wall” today, judging by their eagerness to say who can and can’t call themselves Americans.

But she’s also warm-hearted and makes friends easily: Josie, an older girl at the home, who organizes Gusta and her cousin Bess into the Orphan Band; the oculist Mr. Bertmann, another German refugee, who makes her some eyeglasses in exchange for helping him with his carrier pigeons; and a disruptive classmate of French-Canadian descent named Thibodeau, whom Molly also considers “not American.”

Her path in this new world is strewn with obstacles: a dark family secret, a sacrifice she feels she must make, a suffering relative who needs her help. As she struggles to handle all this, to find courage to stand up for what is right, at times just to be heard, it seems the poor girl must break.

But all pales in comparison to her climactic confrontation with the powerful mill owner, who has a personal vendetta against Gusta and Josie. He tries to deprive Gusta of her horn, smear her name and keep the Orphan Band from performing. It’s probably not too much of a spoiler to say that the Orphan Band girls refuse to succumb and ultimately triumph.

With the exception of Molly’s mother and the mill owner, who come across as a cardboard villains, the book is full of very real characters who are all on their own journeys, like her strong-willed grandmother, Josie and the other rambunctious orphans, the outspoken Thibodeau boy and Mr. Bertmann, whose poignant back story will make anyone choke up. Even spiteful Molly has her own epiphany.

One failing of many young adult books today is that the art of storytelling often eclipses the art of good writing (think “Harry Potter”). Nesbet proves they needn’t be mutually exclusive. Her story is utterly gripping, but her prose also sings. Her description, for example, of the change in Gusta’s world when she puts on glasses for the first time is not only an apt metaphor but also a masterpiece of fine and convincing detail. Or take this sentence about why she loves the “golden sound” of her French horn:

“She was quiet by nature, but the horn was the bravest part of her – her sweet, large, secret, brassy voice.”

Nesbet’s well researched story beautifully evokes the era and place (a slightly “tweaked” Sanford/Springvale). It then blends this realism with a touch of wistful magic or magical thinking: Gusta’s great-grandfather was a sea captain who brought home a coin – since lost – said to grant wishes. Gusta’s relentless search for this coin ends up helping her make some of her own wishes come true.

Nesbet, who spent childhood summers in southern Maine, says in an author’s note that Gusta is based on her mother, who was poor, played the French horn and died young. Her grandmother also ran a home for children in Maine, which (like Gusta’s grandmother’s) had its own secrets. All of this adds authenticity and poignancy to her writing, and the result is a richly crafted and captivating story.

Amy MacDonald is a children’s author who lives in Falmouth. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

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