Elem. – We Laugh Alike/Juntos Nos Reimos

Bernier-Grand, Carmen. We Laugh Alike/Juntos Nos Reimos. Illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez. Charlesbridge, 2021. 978-1-623-54096-8 p. 32. $17.99. Grades K-3. 

Three kids are playing at the park when three new kids arrive to play too. These new friends are unable to communicate in English, but they sure know how to have fun! We Laugh Alike/ Juntos no reimos by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand is a bilingual picture book that solidifies human connection through the eyes of young children. Even though one group of students speak English and the other speaks Spanish, the children can express their feelings and communicate through play. By watching each other, both groups learn that they are more alike than different. The children discover new words, adventure, and make new friends. The story is clever with English and Spanish dialogue, and the illustrations by Alyssa Bermudez are colorful and vibrant. 

THOUGHTS: Carmen T. Bernier-Grand is a three-time Pura Belpre Honor award winner and an author of numerous children’s books. The story is interesting because the English and Spanish dialogue do not precisely match word for word. Instead, the children express their thoughts in each of their native languages within their context. The attractive illustrations draw the readers into the story, and I believe ELL (English Language Learners) students would enjoy this picture book about friendship and acceptance very much. 

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

MG – The Year I Flew Away

Arnold, Marie. The Year I Flew Away. Versify, 2021. 978-0-358-27275-5. 285 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Marie Arnold establishes herself as a gifted storyteller, weaving realistic setting with a magical tale involving a talking rat, wishes, and witches. Ten-year-old Gabrielle Jean’s Haitian family sends her to live with her uncle and aunt in Flatbush, a busy neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, until they can save enough funds to join her. She looks forward to the American Dream, but it doesn’t take long before it is shattered. Classmates make fun of her accent; she feels strange and left out. Though Carmen, a Mexican-American girl, is anxious to be her friend, Gabrielle still feels incredibly lonely and unmoored from her friends and immediate family in Haiti. These bleak feelings motivate her to make a deal with the witch, Lady Lydia, in Prospect Park. Lady Lydia gives Gabrielle three magic mango slices. Each one represents a wish; each wish granted brings Gabrielle closer to Lady Lydia capturing her essence. With the first mango slice, Gabrielle loses her accent, making her better understood and accepted by the other students. The second mango slice is even more powerful. After eating it, Gabrielle not only erases her memories of Haiti but also entails the added consequence of losing her entire Flatbush family. Seemingly, Gabrielle’s wishes have been fulfilled. Her classmates believe they have known Gabrielle forever and believe she was born in America, but, of course, she cannot be happy without her aunt, uncle, the toddler twins, and teen-age cousin. It troubles her that she can no longer communicate in Haitian Creole. Rocky, a rat Gabrielle encounters on the street, nicely translates for her and helps Gabrielle problem solve how she will outwit Lady Lydia (though Rocky has its own unfulfilled wish to be a rabbit). As the school looks forward to Culture Day, Gabrielle tries to resist the last mango and still save her family. She knows she needs the help of a good witch to counteract this bad witch who desires a homogenous Brooklyn where perfection is everyone is the same. Arnold whips up a twenty-first century fairy tale to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion that blends American patriotism, pride in and acceptance of differences, and appreciation of one’s heritage.

THOUGHTS: If Kate DiCamillo is an author who demonstrates the beauty of language, then Marie Arnold is an author who demonstrates the beauty of storytelling. Accessible, genuine, and creative, Ms. Arnold weaves an unusual tale (sometimes I had to stretch my believability especially when Gabrielle cozies up to vermin who wishes to be a rabbit) that builds to a crescendo of patriotism, pride in one’s culture and heritage. Realistically, most sixth grade students may not have the ability to wax eloquently about their backgrounds, yet Arnold has Gabrielle come to the realization that a person can be an immigrant loyal to the country of one’s birth and equally be an American, loyal to a new country. An added bonus is the character of Mrs. Bartell, the solicitous school librarian who happens to be Haitian-American and helps Gabrielle every step of the way.

Fantasy          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia
Magic Realism

Elem. – The Perfect Fit

Jones, Naomi. The Perfect Fit. 1st American ed., Kane Miller, 2021. 978-1-684-64141-3. Unpaged. $14.99. Grades K-3.

Triangle loved playing with the circles, but sometimes she felt a bit different. She couldn’t roll like the circles and often felt like she was getting in their way. Therefore, she set off in search of friends who were more like her. She played with some squares, but soon realized she couldn’t stack like them. She played with the hexagons, but found that she kept messing up their pattern. Finally, Triangle discovered other triangles who were exactly like her. However, it wasn’t long before Triangle realized that it was a lot more fun for all of the shapes to play together. A cute story with a strong positive message about acceptance and inclusion, this book would be an excellent addition to any elementary collection.

THOUGHTS: I love the many ways in which this book could be used in an elementary setting. It could be used to introduce geometrical shapes and patterns, or it could be used to initiate a discussion about acceptance and inclusion. Pair it with other titles that celebrate diversity and differences, such as Lisa Mantchev’s Strictly No Elephants (2015) and Todd Parr’s It’s Okay to Be Different (2001).

Picture Book          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member

Elem. – A Party to Remember

Tebow, Tim, with A.J. Gregory. A Party to Remember. Illustrated by Jane Chapman. Waterbrook, 2021. Unpaged. 978-0-593-23204-0. $17.99. Grades K-2. 

Bronco is a friendly, loveable puppy who needs glasses to see clearly. He wakes one morning to his friend Squirrel chattering that “the party is tonight! Do you have your puzzle piece?” Every invitee has received a puzzle piece, but though Bronco received an invitation, he figures the party isn’t for someone nearsighted like him. But he really wants to go. He begins to search for his puzzle piece and encounters other friends with puzzle pieces who are excited to attend the party. When he tumbles into Chelsie the rabbit, who has fallen over her extra-long ears, he finds that she, too, feels inadequate to attend the party. Bronco encourages her to go with him, saying, “It’s always better together.” They add to their small group Ethan, the cardinal with a broken wing, and Alexis, the goat who sneezes too loudly and scares everyone away. But as they continue, Alexis’ sneeze reveals the party, Bronco discovers his puzzle piece, and they happily find that they all fit at this party. “Each creature is born unique. Our differences make us special. And someone special, like you, is always able to do great things,” says Colby the panda. The friends joyfully dance and enjoy party food and music. The book closes with a scripture verse, “we are God’s masterpiece” and a reminder, “You are unique. You are special. And you are wonderful.”  This is an often-shared message that kids still need to hear, and it gets expert treatment from illustrator Jane Chapman, who makes these characters feel like friends that the reader would like to join.

THOUGHTS: This is definitely a positive look at differences and feels like an inviting beginning to the series “Bronco and Friends.” This is a definite encouragement for all readers.

Picture Book          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Elem. – LLama Glamarama

Green, Simon James. LLama Glamarama. Orchard Books, 2021. 978-1-338-73618-2. 32 p. $14.99. Grades PreK-1.

Larry the llama has a secret… he loves to dance! He doesn’t tell his llama friends because he doesn’t want them to judge him. However, one night they find a pair of dancing shoes in his room and he decides to take off and find some place where he can dance without being judged (all while being home in time for tea). While Larry finds the Llama Glamarama that accepts him and his love of dancing, he does go back to his friends and admits that he loves to dance. This leads to a great conversation with his friends who admit all of the things they love, with one of them admitting he isn’t even a llama!! The illustrations are wonderfully done! The way the text flows throughout the book causes the reader to engage more with the illustrations as the text sizing changes.

THOUGHTS: WONDERFUL! This book is such a great testament to being true to yourself, and even though this book is geared towards a younger audience, older students will love this book. This would be a great read aloud for any elementary class for teaching understanding and acceptance. The author has a Llama Glamarama party kit on his website, which I would also recommend checking out.

Picture Book          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Elem. – Elsie

Robert, Nadine. Elsie. Abrams, 2020. 978-1-419-74072-5. Unpaged. $16.99. Grades K-2. 

On nice and sunny Sundays, the seven siblings in the Filpot bunny family go fishing. Elsie doesn’t quite fit in with her older siblings–she would rather stay at home than go fishing. She’s a unique personality with her own way of doing things. This can cause conflict with her siblings, who try to convince her to do things the “right” way. Elsie would rather walk along the brook when the rest of the family wants to to walk through the woods. When Elsie wants to bait her hook with a buttercup, her siblings (who prefer traditional bait) exclaim that she shouldn’t do it and it won’t work! When the family eats their lunch, Elsie wants to feed her sandwiches to the ducklings. But when Elsie catches a large fish with her buttercup bait, her siblings realize that Elsie’s ideas, though different from their own, have merit and should be respected and valued. The text is enhanced by the detailed tempera and watercolor illustrations of Maja Kastelic. Each bunny has a unique appearance and the woodland setting is filled with flora and fauna to engage the attention of the reader.

THOUGHTS: This delightful bunny tale would make an ideal read aloud choice and could easily be integrated into lessons on respecting others opinions and viewpoints, acceptance, individuality, and more. Highly recommended.

Picture Book          Elizabeth Henry, Lampeter-Strasburg SD

YA – All Boys Aren’t Blue

Johnson, George M. All Boys Aren’t Blue. Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-0-374-31271-8. 320 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

George Matthew Johnson’s first memory is having his teeth kicked out by a white boy, seemingly for no reason other than his race. His first identity crisis happens in elementary school when he learns that his first name was actually George, not Matthew. From that point on, the author struggles with his identity and how he fits into a world that did not accept Black people or queer people and definitely not a young boy who was both. Johnson realizes at a young age that boys are supposed to be masculine, which means being tough, playing football, and conforming to these ideas without question. But he prefers to jump Double Dutch with the girls and wear cowboy boots to Disneyland. For his own mental and physical survival, he learns to code-switch in elementary school – he can impress the boys with his athletic ability when necessary but also gossip with the girls. While Johnson has a fantastic support system in his family, he knows that not all Black queer teens do – and so he wrote this book to serve as guidance. Each chapter is entwined with the lessons Johnson learned along the way in the hopes that Black queer teens will not have to figure them out the hard way.

THOUGHTS: This memoir manifesto is incredibly timely in light of current events. Johnson’s experiences in his life have made him extremely insightful about society, and his insights should (and do) make the reader think about what behaviors are expected of boys practically from birth. This memoir is a critically essential book to have in a high school library as it can provide two things: a window in which to see how those who are different struggle to find acceptance and a mirror for teenagers who are struggling under the weight of the labels society forces upon them.

306.76 Memoir          Danielle Corrao, Ephrata Area SD