Bingham, Winsome. Soul Food Sunday. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-419-74771-7. 48 p. $17.99. Grades K-2.
It can’t be soul food Sunday without the macaroni and cheese, greens, and chicken, ribs, and sausage! The narrator is a young boy but old enough to join in the fun (and hard work!) in his grandmother’s kitchen. His grandmother guides him through grating cheese, rinsing greens, skinning the chicken, skinning the sausage, and even a special surprise. The hard work that goes into this meal makes the food taste that much more delicious! The beautiful story of mouthwatering family time showcases tradition and culture that goes far beyond the actual recipes–but a recipe for mac and cheese is included! An author’s note includes the importance of soul food to the author and a story of how the illustrator learned to cook from her family members.
THOUGHTS: A great addition to any elementary library to showcase culture that emphasizes the importance of food and family and how they come together.
Benedict, Marie, and Christopher Murray, Victoria. The Personal Librarian. Berkeley Books, 2021. 978-0-593-10153-7. 341 p. $27.00. Grades 11-12+.
The broad genre of historical fiction needs to specify all the long, lost stories of yore that focus on little known historical figures. The fictionalized retelling of J. P. Morgan’s personal collection of books, artwork, and other materials that eventually became the Pierpont Morgan Library through the curation of his personal librarian, Belle de Costa Greene was sensational. Belle worked as a librarian at Princetown before returning to New York City to live with her family and work for Morgan as a curator of his magnificent collection. Her position took her to foreign cities, elite parties, and other exclusive events that Black women often were not at liberty to experience during that time. Some scenes include romantic descriptions. Belle also has an abortion without her consent, which can be triggering for some readers.
THOUGHTS: Some of the character building took longer than typical YA books might. But for the student who has a love of history, arts, women’s rights, and Black rights, this is the perfect story to get lost in before doing their own research on the Pierpont Morgan Library and who Belle de Costa Greene was and how her work at the turn of the 20th century still has ripple effects today.
Rodgers, Sugar. They Better Call Me Sugar: My Journey from the Hood to the Hardwood. Black Sheep, 2021. 978-1-617-75929-1. 176 p. $14.95. Grades 7-10.
Sugar Rodgers’ journey to the WNBA was not an easy road, to say the least. Rodgers starts her tale with a desire to motivate others and share her story of the struggle to succeed by discussing her childhood in Virginia. Growing up in an over-policed neighborhood, Rodgers’ mother supported her involvement in golf and eventually basketball. The loss of her mother, brother, and father, not to mention siblings in jail, and a lot of moving from home to home, didn’t cultivate an environment for Rodgers to thrive, but through support and determination and a lot of natural skill, she found her way to the court. Although the writing style is not cohesive, it is easy to read, and many readers will find the vernacular relatable. Despite some confusing timelines, Rodgers’ story doesn’t start with a basketball in her hand at age two or a family member who helped her break into the sport, and it ends with advice that provides hope to readers who might not see a clear path to their dream. Her childhood and conflicts are ones many readers will be able to identify with and find hope in her motivation. Sugar Rodgers’ motivation model is based on being able to take constructive criticism, “someone thinks you are good enough to correct.”
THOUGHTS: This book does contain some swearing, including derogatory terms, and potentially triggering life events such as death, jail, and physical abuse. Although this book would best suit middle school readers, some caution should be taken for sensitive readers.
Williams-Garcia, Rita. She Persisted: Florence Griffith Joyner. Philomel. 978-0-593-11596-1. 59 p. $5.99. Grades 2-4.
This chapter book biography shares the life story of Florence Griffith Joyner who is considered one of the fastest women of all time. In 1988, Flo Jo set two world records that still stand today. Her journey to becoming a five-time Olympic medalist was not an easy one, though. This biography chronicles her childhood growing up as one of eleven children in the low-income neighborhood of Watts, California, racing at UCLA, and training hard in pursuit of her Olympic goals. It also includes details about her unique personal style on and off the track, including nontraditional racing suits and long, colorful fingernails. Through short, fast-paced chapters, readers will get a sense of Flo Jo’s dedication, competitive spirit, and commitment to self-expression. Backmatter includes references as well as a section titled “How You Can Persist” which lists ideas such as making healthy choices, engaging in physical activity, expressing your thoughts through journaling or drawing, setting goals, and trying new things. This series was inspired by “She Persisted,” written by Chelsea Clinton and Alexandra Boiger. More than a dozen additional chapter book biographies in this series include the stories of women like Harriet Tubman, Claudette Colvin, Maria Tallchief, Oprah Winfrey, Nellie Bly, and others.
THOUGHTS: This biography will hook young readers and inspire them to work hard in pursuit of their own dreams. The narrative nonfiction writing style also makes this a good choice for classroom read-alouds. Share this title with fans of the “Who Was?” biography series.
Morris, Brittney. The Cost of Knowing. Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-44545-1. 336 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.
Despite trying his best to hold things together, sixteen year old Alex Rufus is struggling. Since the death of their parents, he and his little brother Isaiah have grown apart, barely interacting with each other in their Aunt Mackie’s house. Alex has his girlfriend Talia but constantly worries that he’ll do something wrong to ruin their relationship. At work Alex would prefer to remain in the back washing dishes while wearing rubber gloves than be out front scooping ice cream and interacting with customers. At the same time, Alex and Isaiah’s neighbor Mrs. Zaccari makes initially subtle and increasingly frustrating comments about neighborhood crime and what the Shiv concert coming to the area will mean for their safety. Alex is one touch from losing his carefully constructed exterior. Since the death of his parents, Alex gets a glimpse of the future when he touches anything. Usually something simple and easily dismissed, things become complicated when Alex visualizes an unreadable expression on Talia’s face – the sign of a breakup – and unbearable when he has a vision of his brother’s death. Burdened with the knowledge that he he can’t stop the inevitable, but determined to fix his relationship with Isaiah, Alex races to reconnect with his brother and learns that the two may not be as different as he thought.
THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Alex from the beginning as he works against “his curse.” Many readers will be able to suspend reality enough to believe this mostly realistic fantasy. Recommended for high school collections where compelling, character driven titles are in demand.
Fantasy (Paranormal) Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD
Clark-Robinson, Monica. Standing on Her Shoulders: A Celebration of Women. Illustrated by Laura Freeman. Orchard Press, 2021. 978-1-338-35800-1. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades 2-5.
“Standing on the shoulders of giants” is an oft used term for referencing those who came before us in a given area. In this nod to female path-makers, Monica Clark-Robinson guides a young black girl and shows her some of the great leaders and trailblazers through history who helped bridge her current opportunities. As she walks through a portrait gallery, she sees some expected women figures such as Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Sacajawea, as well as modern heroes like Megan Rapinoe and Serena Williams, and less familiar names including Harriet Chalmers Adams and Nellie Bly. Through the poetic couplets, the young learner hears how important it is to recognize those giants before us in many fields and fighting for equal rights, but also to leave our mark for the next generation. Featuring mostly black and people of color through the illustrations by Laura Freeman, there are a few short notes about each historical figure at the endnotes. The message is clear to walk among the heroines and lead the way for others to stand on your shoulders next.
THOUGHTS: An inspirational, though not always obvious, celebration of female trailblazers. Those readers most familiar with the illustrated people will appreciate the themes for each path, but those wanting to know more about the heroines will need to research further. Nevertheless, the picture book is a beautiful touchpoint introduction or kick-off for Women’s History Month.
Picture Book Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD
Moulite, Maika, and Maritza Moulite. One of the Good Ones. Inkyard Press, 2021. 978-1-335-14580-2. 384 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.
Teen YouTube activist and influencer Kezi Smith dies under police custody following her arrest at a social justice rally on her eighteenth birthday. Instantly immortalized as a martyr in the fight against police brutality, Kezi’s family is devastated by loss. While her pastor parents want to preserve and protect Kezi’s memory, sisters Happi and Genny look for a unique way to honor her. Embarking on the trip Kezi planned to take following an heirloom copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book, the sisters and friends Ximena (Kezi’s girlfriend) and Derek go on a journey to reconnect with the Smith’s African American family history and remember Kezi. Tormented by her broken relationship with Kezi, the trip is an opportunity for Happi to understand her older sister, who she feels like she didn’t truly know. Together they will learn more about Kezi, each other, and their family’s history. A surprising twist won’t shock careful readers, but the alternate time periods may challenge struggling readers.
THOUGHTS: This title examines what it means to be remembered and who gets to be called “one of the good ones.” Recommended for high school collections where social justice and social issue titles are popular.
Realistic Fiction Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD
Weatherford, Carole Boston. Dreams for a Daughter. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021. Unpaged. 978-1-5344-5198-8. $17.99. Grades PreK-2.
In this lovely picture book, a Black mother voices her hopes and dreams for her newborn daughter. Speaking in first person, the unnamed narrator thinks about her child’s future and tells her how she will care for her in every stage of her life. As a parent, she will not only support her with physical challenges, like taking her first steps or riding a bicycle, but will also provide guidance on dealing with adversity, speaking up for herself, and choosing her own future. On the final pages, the mother reminds her daughter that she will always watch out for her, even from afar when she grows into an adult, “trusting God to keep Her eyes on you.” Weatherford has created a very moving tale of a mother’s love for her child. Brian Pinkney’s expressionist illustrations help convey the emotions this woman feels as she embraces her infant, anticipating her future and promising to “show her all that she can.” Pinkney draws a swirl around the pair on each bold and colorful drawing, which perfectly depicts the mother’s all-encompassing love.
THOUGHTS: This touching story is perfect for mothers with young daughters and would be a wonderful gift for a new mother. It could also be read aloud to a group of young children to encourage them to face challenges and go forward confidently into their futures.
Johnson, Varian. Playing the Cards You’re Dealt. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-34858-3 320 p. $16.99. Grades 4-7.
Anthony “Ant” Joplin and his older brother Aaron have been schooled in the card game Spades by their father. In the Joplin family, Spades is serious business. There is a tradition of Joplin men winning their South Carolina town Spades tournament. Aaron has followed through, winning the teen tournament last year, but Ant, in his first year competing in the junior division, choked big-time. His father claims he just needs to “toughen up” and he’ll win this year. Ant and his best friend, and Spades partner, Jamal, have been practicing nonstop, but when Jamal gets suspended for fighting, Ant needs to find a new partner. Luckily there’s a new girl in Ant’s fifth grade class, and Shirley is as much of a card shark as Ant. But Ant is finding it tough to concentrate on cards when things are tense between his mom and dad, and Aaron, who attends boarding school, tasks Ant with keeping an eye on their father to see if he’s starting drinking again. But how does a 10-year-old even know what drinking looks like? Fortunately for Ant, Shirley turns out to be as good a friend as she is a card player, and helps him navigate through this challenging hand he’s holding. While the plot deftly explores the pressures put on young children by troubled adults, the narrative style keeps the tone light and comfortable. The book feels like a story being told by an older relative, sitting on a porch swing on a summer evening, including personal asides by the narrator. Johnson vividly portrays the damage toxic masculinity can wreak on families, particularly the younger men and boys who must pick up the pieces. Ant is a young man who discovers what it means to be tough, in the most difficult situation imaginable, and readers will be cheering for him to win the hand he’s dealt. All main characters are Black.
THOUGHTS: A well-developed story that hooks you from the very beginning. This should fly off the shelf.
Goffney, Joya. Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-006-302479-3. 352 p. 17.99. Grades 9-12.
Quinn, a high school senior, keeps lists. Of EVERYTHING. Boys she’d like to kiss, movies with intense rewatchability, things people assume about her. It’s how she copes with life. The notebook in which she keeps her lists is her most treasured possession, and when it goes missing, she panics. Then it gets even worse. Someone posts one of the lists on Instagram, for the whole school to see, and blackmails Quinn into completing her list of fears, or the whole journal will be released. Hot guy Carter, who has decided he doesn’t like Quinn because she’s an oreo – Black on the outside but white on the inside, was the last person to have the journal; he offers to work with Quinn to complete her list and deduct who is holding the journal hostage. While the romance that ensues between the pair may be predictable, the book is about so much more. Quinn and Carter are two of a handful of Black students at a predominately white private school. Although they share some experiences, Carter is quick to point out that wealthy Quinn has a very different life than he does. The plot examines racial issues and stereotypes from a variety of perspectives, and focuses on the value of true friends, who just might be the people you would least expect. Besides facing her fears, Quinn also has to accept that her beloved grandmother has Alzheimer’s disease, and worries that her parents are headed for divorce. All the characters are well developed, and each story arc is satisfyingly wrapped up. This is a superbly well crafted book that is a delight to read.
THOUGHTS: This will be a huge hit with romance fans, but hand to fans of realistic fiction as well.