Elem./MG – Hands

Maldonado, Torrey. Hands. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2023. 978-0-593-32379-3.135 p. $16.99. Grades 3-7.

Trevor’s mother calls him a “gentle giant” because he’s tall and sweet and would rather use his hands to draw than punch someone. When his stepfather goes to jail for using his hands to strike Trev’s mother, the twelve-year-old believes he needs to learn how to fight to protect his two older sisters and his mother when his stepfather’s incarceration ends. Both his teachers, friends, and relatives constantly tell Trev he has promise and can educate himself, move away from their sometimes dangerous neighborhood, and provide for his family. Haunted by the thought of his stepdad’s re-entry into their lives, Trev and his new pal, P, visit the gym to find someone who will teach them to box. Trev meets a dead-end, though, when the trainer he approaches turns out to be one of his many “uncles” who pledged to his deceased blood Uncle Lou that they would keep Trev on the straight and narrow. Faithful to his family and its private information, Trev holds back on telling P the real reason he wants to box. When his sister’s sleazy boyfriend gets rough for her, Trev shows his strength by punching his fist through a window. This action brings out the negative consequences of violent actions, and makes his life choices even more confusing. As the time of his stepfather’s release grows closer and Trev grows more troubled, he does seek out the advice of his other “uncles” like Uncle Larry, who is a librarian and has a Harry Potter-esque apartment filled with books, and his kind teacher, Ms. Clarke. Like Torrey Maldonado’s other books, Hands is written as Trev would speak and touches on real-life, ethical dilemmas facing kids who live in marginalized areas that can be equally warm and caring and edgy and menacing. This slim book is only slightly didactic, which can be overlooked when the characters and situation ring true, and the ending does not offer a pat solution.

THOUGHTS: Hands deals with domestic abuse but in a way that even younger readers can handle. The stepdad uses verbal abuse because he feels Trev is too “soft,” and Trev witnesses him hitting his mother. The rest of the stepfather’s behavior is told in dialogue with his older sisters. Like other characters in Maldonado’s books, Trev is a good kid with a sensitive conscience and supportive family. He grapples with his conviction that violence is not the answer and his obligation to protect his family. Lessons on decision making can be discussed using Hands. The narration is as Trev would actually speak, yet Maldonado does keep grammar and syntax intact. Mentorship, kindness, and art as self-expression are all important pieces of this book. The author uses many contemporary references that will appeal to the readers. A good read aloud.

Realistic Fiction

YA – Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman

Lee, Kristen R. Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman. Crown, 2022. 978-0-593-30915-5. $18.99. 326 p. Grades 9-12.

Savannah Howard is the golden girl of her poor Memphis neighborhood. Through hard work and focus, she earned a full scholarship to Wooddale, a prestigious Ivy League college. As one of the few Black students on campus, she makes friends quickly with upperclass students Natasha (Tasha) Carmichael, a light-skinned, well to do fashionista and aspiring lawyer; and Benjamin (Benji) Harrington, a local wealthy “high yellow” young man. Benji is a childhood friend of fellow student, Lucas Cunningham, a walking epitome of white privilege. One of the first incidents on campus Savannah witnesses is the vandalism of a statue of the only African American past presidents of the college. The non reaction of the university leaders to the blatant act of racism motivates Savannah to put in motion a campaign on social media, the school newspaper, and student forums to bring down the instigator and perpetrator of this racist behavior, Lucas Cunningham. Though she enlists the support of one of her African American professors as well as Tasha and Benji, the daily grind of uncovering the truth, being harassed – and even assaulted – by Lucas and his crew, and being snubbed by other classmates is exhausting. She grapples with Benji’s romantic attentions and his sometimes ambivalent actions toward her nemesis and, perhaps more importantly, with her decision to go to a predominantly white institution. The novel by Kristen R. Lee spans Savannah’s freshman year recounted with her own authentic voice. After she gives an interview on her professor’s podcast relating the injustices prevalent on campus and accusing the Cunninghams of manipulating the college admission process, she moves off campus to a toney neighborhood to board with the elderly widow, Mrs. Flowers, a self made entrepreneur. Lured back by students from a historically Black college to lead a peaceful protest, Savannah comes full circle, confident that she has stood for what is important and acknowledged by the university’s African American woman president. Her goal being reached, Savannah makes a critical decision for her future.

THOUGHTS: This novel takes on white privilege, racism, and microaggressions with which students of color can identify and white students can gain perspective. Author Kristen R. Lee has created a strong, female character who speaks her mind because she sees no alternative. She is ambitious and savvy, yet vulnerable and often scared. Her friends and the people who support her are all African American, but it is a small circle. The white students she forms acquaintances with turn out to be druggies, self-serving, deceitful, or racist (or any combination of those negative qualities). Save for Dr. Santos (the African American professor), the college’s administrators are weak, not enough, or oblivious. At the end of the book, Savannah gets called to Wooddale College president’s Architectural Digest-worthy home. The president is a Black woman; she informs Savannah she will be honored, and all the racist and unjust acts that happened during the year will be properly addressed. Savannah asks why the president didn’t come out earlier and confides her desire to leave Wooddale to attend a historically Black college. The president tells her that she has had to make some concessions to achieve what she has. That answer falls flat with the idealistic Savannah. Reading this book as a white person is uncomfortable–not a bad thing. To quote an old phrase, Lee “tells it like it is,” a truth to be embraced by every reader.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – My Feelings, My Choices

Arrow, Emily. My Feelings, My Choices. Cantata Learning, 2020. $25.49 each. $101.96 set of 4. 24 p. Grades K-2.

Trying Again. 978-1-684-10407-9.
Checking In. 978-1-684-10404-8.
Making It Happen. 978-1-684-10405-5.
Taking A Spin. 978-1-684-10406-2. 

This reviewer read Trying Again in the My Feelings, My Choices series. This series from Cantata Learning is as much a book as a song. Each book is meant to be sung, with music accessible on the Cantata website as well in the back of the book. Trying Again is about a young girl learning to take care of her plant. While she makes many mistakes in caring for her plant, instead of giving up, she adopts the Growth Mindset thinking of not being able to care for her plant yet.

THOUGHTS: This is a cute series for those interested in Growth Mindset and teaching kids not to give up after a mistake. Also would be excellent for those who teach by singing.

155.4 Childhood                  Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy