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Author Donna Jo Napoli has a real talent for creating unforgettable settings. In BREATH, readers will be immediately and powerfully drawn into the medieval town of Hamelin, where young Salz struggles with a serious and recurring illness (identified in the postscript as cystic fibrosis) while trying to help his farming family. The family is so poor that his father was forced to sell his sisters after his mother died.

Salz and his grandmother are in a Christian Coven of sorts. It is at a coven gathering that he begins to notice some dark events in his town. This year's crop was huge, but animals and people in Hamelin are becoming sick. Even Salz's father and brothers turn into crazy, violent men every evening.

The bright spot in Salz's life is his grandmother. She is the only one who can help when he is wracked with the coughing from his illness. She in turn tries to make potions to help the townspeople, and even takes in a young girl whose parents die from the illness.

The plot turns suspenseful and surprising quickly in the latter half of the book when further tragedy strikes Salz's family and he has to step up into a caretaker role. He even tries to help his entire village solve the problem of the illnesses. The postscript helps readers understand the dark time Salz lived in and the well-known event that the story is loosely based upon.

There are too few good historical novels for teens. Though this is a dark and mature book, it is also intelligent and powerful. There are too many issues and developments in BREATH for one reader to absorb --- so get a friend or a discussion group to enjoy it as well.

Reviewed by Amy Alessio on November 1, 2003

by Donna Jo Napoli

  • Publication Date: November 1, 2003
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 260 pages
  • Publisher: Atheneum
  • ISBN-10: 0689861745
  • ISBN-13: 9780689861741