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

YA – In the Name of Emmett Till: How the Children of the Mississippi Freedom Struggle Showed Us Tomorrow

Mayer, Robert H. In the Name of Emmett Till: How the Children of the Mississippi Freedom Struggle Showed Us Tomorrow. NewSouth Books, 2021. 978-1-588-38437-9. 201 pp. $19.95. Grades 9-12.

Robert H. Mayer opens this collective history of the “Children of the Mississippi Freedom Struggle” with the event that impacted their lives and motivated their activism: The brutal 1955 murder of Emmett Till. Many young people in Mississippi identified with Emmett. They also were Black, close to his age, and knew that a system that allowed such a terrible crime to go unpunished would likely also fail to protect them if they were ever assaulted or imprisoned (whether justly or unjustly). Spurred to action, they rejected the world of Jim Crow laws, organized youth chapters of the NAACP, planned sit-ins and vigils, and spearheaded marches. Profiled members of the “Emmett Till generation” include the Tougaloo Nine, the Freedom Riders, the North Jackson Youth Council, and many more. Brief chapters on the “Elders” of the Mississippi freedom struggle – Medgar Evers, Bob Moses, and Fannie Lou Hamer – appear at intervals, chronicling the contributions of the movement’s architects, especially their impact on younger people. The final chapter poses a question to readers: “Are you encouraged to examine your world and consider ways you and your peers might act to make the world better?” (177). 

THOUGHTS: There’s always room on the shelf for well-written nonfiction with a different perspective on the Civil Rights era, and here Robert H. Mayer focuses on many spirited young activists and the events that shaped their commitment to the struggle. Readers without a strong interest in the topic may find In the Name of Emmett Till slow going, but excerpts would also work well for classroom discussion and research purposes. Note that in a prefatory comment, Mayer discusses his choice to include hateful racial slurs within quotes in order to illustrate “how often people used this word and how comfortable they were saying it” (xii).

323 Civil Rights Movement          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

MG – Planet Ocean: Why We All Need a Healthy Ocean

Newman, Patricia. Planet Ocean: Why We All Need a Healthy Ocean. Photographs by Annie Crawley. Millbrook Press, 2021. 64 p. 978-1-541-58121-0. $31.99. Grades 5-8.

Writer Newman and diver Crawley team up for a second book, after the success of their first collaboration Plastic Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (2014). Their excitement over the beauty of the ocean is evident and contagious as they visit three distinct areas of ocean: the Coral Triangle near Indonesia, the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest, and the Arctic Ocean at the top of the world. Since Earth is about 70% ocean and 30% land, they contend that a better name for it would be Planet Ocean. The facts they share about the importance and wonder of the ocean and its creatures make it seem amazing that much of the ocean is yet unexplored because of its size and depth. In each location they highlight young people who are working to improve the health of the oceans. Examples include a group of children who regularly meet to clean their Indonesian beach of plastic and garbage that washes ashore daily, and Inupiat teen Eben Hopson, who started his own film company and has traveled the world to show his films and educate about the changing climate in his own town. Crawley states, “I know how important the ocean is to our daily lives, how fragile it is, and how much we’re changing it. I want kids and teens to speak up for our oceans” (7).

THOUGHTS: This is an engaging look at why our oceans matter, and it encourages young people to take action. Free teaching resources are available via Titlewave.

551.56 Oceans          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Elem. – Greta Thunberg (Little People, Big Dreams)

Vegara, Maria Isabel Sanchez. Greta Thunberg. Illustrated by Anke Weckmann. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books 2020. 978-0-711-25645-3. $15.99. Grades 3-6.

Like many environmentally conscious families, Greta Thunberg’s family took care of Earth as best they could. But when Greta learned even more about climate change in a class video, she can’t forget about the destruction and develops selective mutism. Doctors also diagnosed her with Asperger’s syndrome. While to some these diagnoses may have been seen as a curse, they allowed Greta to focus on matters of importance to her like climate change. Greta started at home by convincing her family to make small changes, but she felt that she could do more. By taking a stand publicly with her “School Strike for Climate,” other children learned more about climate change from Greta, and the world soon recognized the name Greta Thunberg.

THOUGHTS: This picture book biography should be included in all elementary (and maybe middle school) collections. Children will be inspired to learn more about those featured throughout the Little People, Big Dreams series.

Biography          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD
Picture Book

YA – Six Angry Girls

Kisner, Adrienne. Six Angry Girls. Feiwel and Friends. 2020. 978-1-250-25342-2. $17.99. 262 p. Grades 9-12.

Raina Petree got dumped by big crush boyfriend, Brandon. Emilia Goodwin got dumped by the pompous all-male Mock Trial Team. They join forces to salvage their senior year by forming an all-female Mock Trial Team in their Pittsburgh suburban high school of Steelton drawing on Raina’s drama skills and Millie’s knowledge of the law and research. Adapting the title of the 1950’s movie, Twelve Angry Men, these six angry girls (all but one Caucasian)–overcome heartbreak and self-esteem issues to create a strong challenge to their male counterparts and a serious threat to other Mock Trial Teams as they compete for Nationals. Told in alternating chapters narrated by either Raina or Millie, the book develops a girl power story with the message that people need to stand up for what is right and, especially, stand up for oneself. Author Adrienne Kisner also manages to weave in a subplot involving knitting. Raina searches for an outlet for her grief and joins the knitting group at The Dropped Stitch, a local yarn store. Not only does she learn to cast on and purl, she finds herself involved with activists trying to stop the election of a local magistrate because of his history letting off misogynists and blocking legislation for reproductive rights. Their rebellion manifests itself in yarn-bombing the courthouse with knitted female genitalia. In a twist, the targeted judge turns up volunteering in Mock Trial. At the knitting shop, Raina meets new student Grace who is happy to join an extracurricular activity. Millie falls for Grace and begins to value herself and her time, separating her needs from her helpless father who expects Millie to be chief cook and bottlewasher after her mother moves to Ohio. Though told in a light-hearted manner, the book addresses serious topics, contains a full-range of LBGTQ+ characters, and models the strengths and weaknesses of adults in young people’s lives. What begins as a revenge against the boys story builds with each club meeting, practice, and competition to a triumph of self-identity and self-worth.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: The cover illustration depicts a diverse group of girls, but the two main characters are white. Author Adrienne Kisner is emphasizing gender identity: Millie and Grace form a romantic relationship; Izzy, a minor character, is transgender; the Mock Trial court case for the win centers on gender discrimination. Some parts to be aware of: The Dropped Stitch crew are not shy about using anatomically correct terms, and a smattering of curses appear throughout the dialogue, making it more a high school choice than middle grade. This book has the same feminist fight tone of Moxie by Jennifer Matthieu; and if this suburban, western Pennsylvanian high school resembles yours, Six Angry Girls is an attractive purchase.

YA – 10 Things I Hate About Pinky

Menon, Sandhya. 10 Things I Hate About Pinky. Simon Pulse, 2020. 978-1-534-41681-9. 354 p. $18.99. Grades 6-12. 

Pinky Kumar is a whirlwind force to be reckoned with, a unique individual in every sense of the word. She cares tremendously about those less fortunate than her (both human and animal) and strikes up causes that most wouldn’t ever think about (hello racoon hospital). Her unconventional and wild ways don’t do much to please her traditional mother, who is as corporate lawyer-ey as can be. Samir Jha is buttoned up tight. Dressed to the nines, Samir is as practical and planned as he is neat. Every minute of his life is carefully scheduled and orderly, just the way he needs it to be to survive. When an unexpected opportunity arises to spend the summer together fake-dating, the two come together for a fiery clash that doesn’t end how either expected.

THOUGHTS: Delightful as always, Sandhya Menon’s latest addition to the When Dimple Met Rishi universe lives up to all expectations.

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

MG – Dress Coded

Firestone, Carrie. Dress Coded. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2020. 978-1-984816-43-6. 303 p. $14.81. Grades 3-6.

Every middle school girl knows what it means when another girl would risk getting pulled over for a dress code violation in order to tie her sweatshirt around the waist of her new white jeans, so when Molly Frost sees her friend, Olivia, crying in the Kindness Garden in front of the principal, it’s the last straw. Why is Dr. Couchman obsessed with the dress code? Why is the identical outfit a violation on Liza but not on Molly? Has any adult at the school ever tried to buy shorts that are longer than fingertip length? Molly starts a podcast so girls in her middle school and even some in high school, can tell their dress code horror stories. Soon the podcast grows into a movement, with Molly and her friends ultimately bringing their fight to the school board. Told in prose, lists, letters, and podcasts, readers will sympathize with the female students of Fisher Middle School and cheer for their determination.

THOUGHTS: A friendship story with a side of activism, Dress Coded is an absolute must for middle school libraries.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD