YA – Light For the World To See: A Thousand Words on Race and Hope

Alexander, Kwame. Light For the World To See: A Thousand Words on Race and Hope. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-53941-4. Unpaged. $14.99. Grades 6-12.

“We Can’t Breathe (from American Bullet Points).” Kwame Alexander needed to say something to shed some light on black lives and share some light of hope for the world. “Take a Stand (from Take a Knee).” Kwame Alexander saw those making a difference in sports and culture and politics, then he wrote about them in a way that reaches all of us in three simple, powerful, repetitive messages. “This is for the Undefeated (from The Undefeated).” Through this stylized reprinting of three recent poems, Kwame Alexander aims to make his words hit home for all ages, races, and people. Each of the three are short, thoughtful, visual, and effective in addressing the issues of race in our society and the need to keep that conversation and action moving – for the world to see a better future.

THOUGHTS: I have many thoughts about this small powerful book. First, read it out loud. Second, go find the videos of Kwame reading each for the Undefeated website. Next, go find someone to share, discuss, reflect on these thousand words. Finally, keep adding to your collections, reading diverse perspectives, and finding voice for those who need to be heard. This conversation and collection could really work for all ages with guidance, but perhaps the content is best for secondary grades. Highly recommended.

811 Poetry          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

Elem. – Mamie on the Mound: A Woman in Baseball’s Negro Leagues

Henderson, Leah. Mamie on the Mound: A Woman in Baseball’s Negro Leagues. Capstone Editions, 2020. $18.95. Unpaged. Grades 3-6.

“‘I was a ballplayer. This is what I was and this is the way I want to be known, a ballplayer,’ Mamie “Peanut” Johnson.” Mamie Johnson grew up playing baseball with her uncle Leo, who was close to her age, starting at the age of 6 on the family’s farm in South Carolina. She moved several times over the years, but love for the game remained a constant in Mamie’s life as she earned spots on several boys’ and mens’ teams over the years. After graduating high school, Mamie attempted to try out for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, but was denied a try-out because she was black. Instead, Mamie went to play professional ball for the Negro Leagues Indianapolis Clowns team and spent three seasons traveling through Canada and the US (including the heavily segregated South) playing baseball. In 1955 she retired to return to her husband and young child, but her love for the game continued. Author Leah Henderson’s Afterword tells readers that Mamie was honored by Presidents Clinton and Obama and helped clear the plate for other female baseball players.

THOUGHTS: Leah Henderson captures Mamie’s spunk and spirit well in this beautiful picture book biography.

796.357 Baseball          Lindsey Long, Lower Dauphin SD

YA – Grown

Jackson, Tiffany D. Grown. Katherine Tegen Books, 2020. 978-0-062-84035-6. $17.99. Grades 9 and up.

Enchanted Jones wants to sing, so when she auditions for a music competition and catches the eye of artist Korey Fields, her dream seems to be within reach as Korey befriends her and begins singing and recording with her. When Korey proposes Enchanted go on tour with him, her parents refuse, but soon Enchanted is on tour with Korey and begins to learn the truth about him. Now in an abusive relationship, Korey controls Enchanted’s every move – how she looks, what she sings, when she can leave a room, who she can speak to.  Korey swears his love for Enchanted and desire to marry her once she turns 18.  Enchanted believes that everything Korey does is because of his love for her, yet she questions his continued control of her. When she learns of charges filed against Korey for a relationship with an underage girl, Enchanted can’t believe it. Yet, she sees herself in the story. Does Korey truly love her, or does he just love controlling her? Can Enchanted escape the abuse alive, or will Korey be the end to her?

THOUGHTS: Tiffany D. Jackson is a genius. She is a master of suspense, and her ability to tell truth through story is uncanny. I cringed through most of Grown (and was physically nauseous at times), but I also couldn’t put it down. The truth of abuse is so real, and yet Enchanted’s lack of recognition is so real. This novel made me uncomfortable, angry, sad, and so many more emotions. To me, it is the most intense of Jackson’s novels. It does include a content warning at the beginning: “mentions of sexual abuse, rape, assault, child abuse, kidnapping, and addiction to opioids.” This is a phenomenal addition to all HS library collections.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD
Mystery

MG – Before the Ever After

Woodson, Jacqueline. Before the Ever After. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2020. 978-0-399-54543-6. 176 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

Known for her powerful verse, Jacqueline Woodson takes on a topic that many fiction pieces haven’t touched: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Admittedly, as a recent discovery in neuroscience, the condition may not be prevalent in large numbers of readers, but the awareness is beginning to spread. Middle readers who pick up this book, especially young athletes, will likely recognize some of ZJ’s dad’s symptoms throughout his story as having to do with his professional football career. Although awareness of CTE is important, the story ZJ tells in this book can be applied to any adolescent dealing with change and identity. It begs the question: What is the value of family traditions and memories?

THOUGHTS: Buy this book immediately, and hand it out to all seventh grade football players. In all seriousness, this short verse-novel can be the hook a lot of reluctant readers need into using literature to help explain trauma in their own lives.

Realistic/Verse Novel          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

YA – Charming as a Verb

Philippe, Ben. Charming as a Verb. Balzar + Bray, 2020. 978-0-062-82414-1. 336 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Ben Philippe has yet to write something that I don’t fall in love with almost immediately. Henri Haltiwanger in Charming as a Verb is no exception to the rule. Henri attends a prestigious private school in New York City, on scholarship, and is surrounded by classmates who have more money and connections than he does. Henri’s positive attitude, charm, and hustle drive him to be a star debater, friendly with just about all the students, and manages and works his own dog walking empire. When it’s time to apply for colleges, his dream school, Columbia, seems just out of reach, despite being blocks away. Along the way Henri makes a friendship he didn’t think he would, and a decision or two that seem out of character, but Philippe maintains a realistic pulse on teenage life.

THOUGHTS: High school libraries looking to enhance their realistic collection with a story told through the lens of someone who fits in from an observer’s perspective but really doesn’t feel a sense of belonging should add this book to their collection. A relatively light read with a happy ending can go a long way after a year like 2020.

Realistic Fiction          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

MG – What Lane?

Maldonado, Torrey. What Lane? Nancy Paulsen Books, 2020. 978-0-525-51843-3. $16.99. 125 p. Grades 3-6.

Biracial Stephen pals around with his white friend Dan in their gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood, but lately, Stephen is noticing he is viewed more negatively by the janitor or passers-by than his paler friend. Dan is sympathetic and though he is oblivious to the harsher treatment Stephen gets as they course around their city streets, he doesn’t deny his friend’s feelings and tries to understand. Dan’s cousin Chad who recently moved nearby and drops over frequently is the opposite. Author Torrey Maldonado depicts Chad’s parents as more into their phones and social lives than the well-being of their son and has them voice micro-aggressive remarks about Stephen. Chad challenges Stephen and his white friends to some dangerous pranks; and Stephen fears, rightfully, that if the group gets caught, he’ll get the blame. His African-American dad counsels him with “the talk” warning him how to behave if stopped by the police, though his white mother thinks eleven-year-old Stephen is too young to lose his innocence. Stephen’s Black friend Will shares the same cautions as Stephen and agrees that Chad is up to no good and questions Stephen’s closeness to his white friends. At a basketball game, Stephen purchases a bracelet that says, “What Lane?” to remind him of a basketball star that could play all the moves. A thoughtful person, Stephen struggles with the different groups and decisions around him. When Chad plays a hurtful trick on Stephen, Dan and his other white friends are allies and call out Chad’s bad behavior; Will and his friends come to Stephen’s rescue. In this coming-of- age novel for young middle school students, a likeable, relatable Stephen trusts he can enjoy the friendship of all different kinds of people and is able to fit into all types of worlds as long as he is true to himself.

THOUGHTS: A teacher himself, Maldonado has a great ear for middle school dialogue and a keen eye for capturing middle school dynamics. This book can be a relevant read aloud for all children but particularly relatable to children of color. It brings up some delicate but real situations that would encourage healthy discussion (for example, when Dan and Stephen are play fighting, an older white lady assumes Stephen is attacking Dan). I think it is a must buy.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – Black Brother, Black Brother

Rhodes, Jewell Parker. Black Brother, Black Brother. Little, Brown and Company, 2020. 978-0-316-49380-2. 239 p. $16.99. Grades 4-8.

Donte Ellison is a biracial 7th grader at the exclusive Middlefield Prep. Treated unjustly because of his skin color, he is suspended from school for something he did not do. His older brother Trey is beloved at the school, and many wish Donte could be more like his lighter skinned brother. Looking for a place to belong, Donte joins a local youth center where he meets a former Olympic fencer, Arden Jones, who runs the programs for the kids. Donte, who has never been an athlete, starts training with Jones, and soon finds his niche as a fencer. But when Donte and his team have to compete against his school’s team, and the racist captain of the team whose family is the school’s largest donor, Donte has to confront his emotions, his bully, and the racism that surrounds his sport.

THOUGHTS: This book addresses many tough issues in a way that is completely appropriate for middle grade readers.  At times I felt the book did not delve into the topics as much as I would have liked, but I think middle grade readers would not feel the same. Parker Rhodes is becoming a must purchase middle grade author!

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

YA – Punching the Air

Zoboi, Ibi and Yusef Salaam. Punching the Air. Balzar + Bray, 2020. 978-0-062-99648-0. 400 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12. 

Punching the Air follows Amal Shahid, a talented art student who is seen as disruptive in a prestigious school based on the color of his skin. Early in the book, you learn that he has been caught up in an altercation with other boys, and he ends up being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to jail. Amal turns to words to convey what he’s feeling, even if he doesn’t understand what he’s feeling. This novel is told through poetry which makes it feel so much more powerful than if it was told in a regular novel format. Readers feel so much empathy for Amal and his situation, and there were many points where readers will want to reach through the book and hug him. The lyrical writing gives insight into how young people feel in our justice system: the hopelessness, the fear, as well as the anger. 

THOUGHTS: This is a must read and a must own for every upper middle and high school library. Just be aware of the themes of racism, as well as the descriptions and discussion of jail.  

Novel in verse          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Charter Academy

The name Amal means hope, and hope is exactly what Amal needs after he is convicted of aggravated assault and battery of a white boy. Although Amal knows the truth, that he might have thrown the first punch but not the last, his hope lies in Jeremy Mathis waking up from his coma and telling the truth. But, Amal is more than just anger or a black boy living up to the path laid out for him – for boys from his neighborhood. Amal is art and poetry; he is creative and spiritual; loving, a son, a cousin, a friend. But in prison, Amal must turn parts of himself off; he must be cold, quiet, and suspicious to survive the beatings and cruelty from guards and other inmates. He must contain his anger, so he can flourish in poetry and art and grow from his experiences to find the window back to the world that was and will be forever changed.

THOUGHTS:  Punching the Air is a phenomenal story about wrongful incarceration and the cruelty of the justice system.  Although Zoboi and Salaam share much hope through Amal, they also present the harsh realities of a broken system, a system that sent Salaam to prison as one of the now Exonerated Five. This novel-in-verse is eloquent and honest; it stabs the reader again and again, but then heals her over and over. Amal is a hero while the justice system is the villain.  He continually is beaten down, and yet he rises. This is a must have for all high school collections. On a final note, many of the poems and lines resonate with readers, but for me, this verse says it all.  “The bookshelves here / are not walls / They’re closed windows / and all I have to do / is pull out one book / to make these windows / wide open” (“Booked II”).

Novel-in-Verse        Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD
Realistic Fiction

MG – Lifting As We Climb: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box

Dionne, Evette. Lifting As We Climb: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box. Viking, 2020. 9780451481542. 176 p. $19.99. Grades 5 and up. 

Evette Dionne’s Lifting As We Climb: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box is a historical account of the struggle for the right to vote. Covering the lesser-learned about but powerful figures in history, the book provides a comprehensive look at the path it took to get where we are today. Activists Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell, Fannie Barrier Williams, and Alice Paul (among many others) played key roles in the fight to vote but are frequently left out from the history books. Their arduous battle to earn the right to vote was fraught with struggles and setbacks from still on-going voter suppression to lynchings and voter intimidation. While suffragettes succeeded and the nineteenth amendment was ultimately ratified, voting rights are still jeopardized by unfair practices making this an extremely timely and relevant look at the way our country has and continues to function.

THOUGHTS: A succinct yet complete account, Lifting As We Climb highlights many lesser known figures in the fight for voting equality making this a key piece for any collection. 

323.34 Women’s History          Samantha Helwig, Dover Area SD

YA – When They Call You a Terrorist : A Story of Black Lives Matter and the Power to Change the World

Khan-Cullors, Patrisse & Asha Bandele. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Story of Black Lives Matter and the Power to Change the World. Wednesday Books, 2020. 978-1-250-19498-5. 272 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.           

Part memoir, part call to action, Khan-Cullors craftily tells her story of growing up during the drug war in LA, her personal experiences with police, untreated mental illness, and cold-hearted racism in the country she calls home. This puts the reader in such a position to question who else possibly could have created a movement as powerful as Black Lives Matter. Broken into two parts, Khan-Cullors’ family story and the reality of her childhood culminate into the first seven chapters, while a focus on the civil rights movement starting with her brother’s experience with the law and lack of access to mental health treatment resources follow during the last seven chapters. Complete with quotes from well known authors, activists, and politicians, photos, and reader questions in each chapter, this is more than the story of how Black Lives Matter came to be the movement of the century and more than Khan-Cullors own journey–this is a call to action and creates space for difficult thoughts and conversations to begin.

THOUGHTS: Buy it now and thank yourself later. This book should be on the shelves of all high school libraries for students to learn more about BLM’s beginnings and the pilgrimage of one individual discovering who she truly is. The reader questions and recommended reading and viewing alone could serve as guideposts for teachers, students, parents, and more to start the work.

323 Memoir          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD