YA – America Redux: Visual Stories from Our Dynamic History

Aberg-Riger, Ariel. America Redux: Visual Stories from Our Dynamic History. Balzer + Bray, 2023. 978-0-063-05753-1. 392 p. $24.99. Grades 9-12.

In her Preface, author Ariel Aberg-Riger notes that her relationship with history developed not through memorizing dates, but through images, and specifically the stories behind the people in pictures. America Redux reflects this sensibility, and the subtitle really says it all: visual stories from our dynamic history. The author and illustrator places “movements and events and people from across time in conversation with one another in a way that […] offers some insight into who we are as a country.” Chapters titles are phrases that might be used in a traditional history textbook, e.g. The Good Old Days, Home of the Brave, and Down on the Farm. Brief and highly visual chapters then subvert expectations by connecting these phrases to the experiences of folks who have too often been marginalized, silenced, or even erased from American history. For example, Spreading Democracy focuses on the efforts of Native American, Black, immigrant, and disabled women (not only the “traditional” suffragists) to secure the right to vote. The Home of the Brave centers people living with AIDS who joined forces to fight for more equitable drug trials and expanded access to treatments. The Old Ballgame explores forced segregation in America’s national pastime. Every page includes handwritten text and collage art (created with public domain images using Photoshop and Procreate); striking images complement and expand upon the text. 

THOUGHTS: Like Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, America Redux is not unbiased and may be considered controversial. However, Aberg-Riger fully succeeds in creating a stunning visual depiction of American history and inviting the reader to engage with a potentially new perspective. 

Graphic Novel
973 American History

MG – The First Rule of Climate Club

Firestone, Carrie. The First Rule of Climate Club. G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books, 2023. 978-1-51604-213-5. 469 p. $22.99. Grades 5-8.

Mary Kate Murphy has always loved nature. Luckily enough she lives next to a beautiful nature sanctuary that becomes a special place for her and Lucy, her best friend, to hang out. She is thrilled that she is chosen to be in the first ever climate change science class along with Lucy. Under the guidance of Mr. Lu, the class decides to do a composting project. They apply for a grant that would give them enough money to start the project, but their application is rejected by the mayor who has troubling racist views. The climate class decides to host a fun fest to raise funds for the project. To raise awareness for the fest (and also expose the mayor’s problematic views), they start a climate change podcast. One of their guests includes Miss Charlotte Lane, their English teacher and the candidate running against the mayor in the upcoming election. Meanwhile, Lucy is battling an unknown illness which weighs on Mary Kate’s mind. Fortunately, she has her friends in the climate club, and with their help, Mary Kate sets out to educate her community about climate change and prove that a group of determined kids can do anything.

THOUGHTS: While this is a stand-alone novel, fans will be delighted to see the return of some beloved characters from Dress Coded. This book is fast-paced, funny, and realistically portrays middle schoolers in a modern world. This is a fantastic read for any middle school students, especially those with an interest in activism.

Realistic Fiction

Elem./MG – Be the Change: Rob Greenfield’s Call to Kids: Making a Difference in a Messed-Up World

Greenfield, Rob, and Antonia Banyard. Be the Change: Rob Greenfield’s Call to Kids: Making a Difference in a Messed-Up World. Greystone Kids, 2022. 978-1-771-64591-1. 87 p. $18.95. Grades 4-6.

This book is a blend of autobiographical information about the author, Rob Greenfield, and environmental activism facts and challenges. Rob Greenfield has a popular Youtube channel where he completes challenges such as growing all his own food for a year, or biking across the country on a bamboo bicycle, in order to raise awareness about environmental and sustainability issues. This book is an extension of his online media work and details the ways in which he has tried to live more sustainability and simply while also helping  kids to understand ideas like minimalism, recycling, food availability, and the global impact of different types of transportation.

THOUGHTS: This is an easy to read guide with a friendly tone and beautifully designed pages. The inspirational actions of Rob Greenfield make the book feel positive, even when delivering messages about world-wide issues like climate change, food shortages, and feeling disconnected from one’s community. The ideas in each chapter will be welcomed by students looking for ways to contribute positively to the world around them. Bright sidebars, bold text features, and short paragraphs with lots of pictures and white space on each page make the text an approachable read for upper elementary and middle school students alike.

333.72 Environmentalism and Conservation          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Haven Jacobs Saves the Planet

Dee, Barbara. Haven Jacobs Saves the Planet. Aladdin, 2022. 978-1-534-48983-7. 286 p. $17.99. Grades 4-8. 

Haven spends a lot of time worrying about the climate crisis. When she begins to suspect that a local factory is polluting the river in her town, she jumps at the chance to organize her friends and family in an effort to expose a potential problem with the water supply and the corporate world that may be perpetuating the problem. What she learns, however, is that the situation is more complicated than it appears on the surface, and that the consequences of investigating environmental pollution may be more far-reaching than she anticipated. Still, the vivid characters and interesting plot help this book to end on a hopeful note, and the story may provide a helpful example for a new generation of climate activists.

THOUGHTS: This is a wonderful book for students who are worried about climate change and pollution but don’t know how they themselves fit into the larger picture of the world’s environmental problems. The factory that Haven fears is polluting her town also employs her father, and her activism sometimes creates additional tension in her friendships that the book explores with a refreshing, realistic voice. Once again, Barbara Dee tells a story in this book that many middle-grade readers will find relatable and thought-provoking.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round: My Story of Making Martin Luther King Day

Kirkwood, Kathlyn J. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round: My Story of Making Martin Luther King Day. Versify, 2022. 978-0-358-38726-8. 114 p. $16.99. Grades 3-7.

When Kathlyn Kirkwood is 17 years old, she realizes that racial discrimination is still very much present, especially in the South. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is fighting for change, and Kathlyn wants to be part of the movement. In 1968, The Negro Memphis sanitation workers go on strike for better working conditions like the white sanitation workers already receive. Dr. King comes to Memphis to support and lead the march – and Kathlyn decides to join in. The peaceful protest turns deadly when they are attacked, and it turns into a riot. The next month, Dr. King returns to march again, and Kathlyn cannot wait. The day before, she heads to the mall with her sister when she hears the breaking news: Dr. King has been killed right in her hometown of Memphis. All of his supporters knew that Dr. King deserved a day to commemorate the sacrifices he made to fight bigotry and hatred. One congressman, John Conyers, agreed, and introduced a bill for a Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday. It did not pass. Years go by and millions of people across the country sign a petition for the holiday, but it still does not pass. Undeterred, Kathlyn and fellow supporters (including singer Stevie Wonder) march, petition, and speak up for Dr. King until they finally accomplish their goal – 15 years later!

THOUGHTS: Kathlyn Kirkwood writes about this historical moment in lyrical verse paired with photographs, newspaper articles, flyers, and her own experiences. This is an important story for middle grade students to read and a must-buy for libraries.

Memoir           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD
Novel in Verse

MG – Omar Rising

Saeed, Aisha. Omar Rising. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2022. 978-0-593-10858-1. 224 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

This book follows Omar, childhood friend of Amal from Aisha Saeed’s Amal Unbound, in a new story about a poor student going away to an expensive boarding school. Amal and the rest of Omar’s community is overjoyed that his hard work has given him the opportunity to receive such an exclusive education, but Omar quickly realizes that many inequities exist for “scholarship” students. Even though Omar is a thoughtful, hardworking student who does everything he is asked to do at his new school, he and the other scholarship students can’t seem to get ahead in a system that is stacked against them. Eventually, the entire student body must come together to support Omar in a system that was never designed to allow people to move beyond their socioeconomic status. With the support of his home family, his school friends, and even the unexpected support of some of his teachers, Omar eventually discovers who he really is and all the things he can do with his opportunities in life. 

THOUGHTS: Omar is easy to root for, and his growth and hard work throughout the book are very inspiring. The way his friends support him at the end of the story was heartwarming, and the power of community is on full display in this book. Glimpses into the life of servants and people who work hard but cannot advance in society are sure to make students think about parallels they see to similar situations in their own life. 

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Omar, the son of a servant in a Pakistani village, is excited to start at the prestigious Ghalib Academy for Boys. The boarding school will provide him with so many educational opportunities, and he cannot wait to be a part of the soccer team and the astronomy club. However, when he arrives, he discovers that, as a scholarship student, he’s not allowed to join any clubs or activities during his first year at school. Instead, he has to work in the kitchens to earn his keep and get even higher grades than the other students. If he doesn’t succeed, he will be sent home. Frustrated, Omar and the other scholarship students set out to fight the injustice and inequity of the system and learn many life lessons along the way.

THOUGHTS: Omar Rising is a companion to Amal Unbound, but you can read each as a stand alone novel. Readers will be rooting for Omar as they feel his frustration toward the unfairness of his status as a scholarship student at Ghalib Academy. Written by a Pakistani author, this book also brings awareness to the inequities that exist for students around the world, and it’s a must have for any middle grade collection. 

Realistic Fiction          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

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