Elem. – Leaving Lymon

Cline-Ransome, Lesa. Leaving Lymon. Holiday House, 2020. 978-0-823-44442-7. 199 p. $17.99. Grades 4-6.

In this companion novel to Finding Langston, Cline-Ransome creates a story about ten year old Lymon, an African-American boy who lives in Vicksburg, Mississippi with his grandparents during the 1940s Jim Crow era. Lymon’s mother abandoned him when he was an infant, and his father is in prison. Despite this, he is happy enough with his life, especially when playing the guitar with his grandfather. Life changes for Lymon after his grandfather dies, and he and his grandmother move to Milwaukee. Lymon has difficulty adjusting to life in the North and struggles in school. When his grandmother becomes ill, he is sent to live with his mother in Chicago. Even though this is what he always wanted, he faces challenges in his new life with his abusive stepfather and emotionally distant mother. After a bad decision, Lymon must come to terms with yet another life adjustment, one which has the potential to change his life forever.

THOUGHTS: Told in first person, this novel allows the reader to understand the difficulties and emotions that Lymon experiences. The author has created a likeable character and readers will be rooting for him and hope for a sequel to learn what happens next. This is a strong purchase for all middle grade libraries.

Historical Fiction          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Elem. – Freedom Bird

Nolen, Jerdine. Freedom Bird. Simon & Schuster, 2020. 978-0-689-87167-2. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades 2-5.

Brother and sister Millicent and John Wheeler are enslaved children whose parents instilled in them the dream of freedom. One day, while the children are working in the fields of a North Carolina plantation, the overseer takes a whip and hits a large mysterious bird, knocking it to the ground. At night, the children rescue the bird and keep it safe. The siblings learn that John would soon be sold to a farm in Georgia, and the pair realize that now is the time to make their escape. As the children run away from the overseer, the bird takes flight into a storm and heads west. The children hide in the woods during the storm and they eventually escape westward across the Missouri River. On the last page, the author reveals this tale was one that was told by storytellers and utilized the common imagery of the bird’s flight to symbolize freedom. James E. Ransome has created vibrant full bleed illustrations that show the characters on a large scale, like the drawing of the bird taking flight. The images masterfully show motion, and the reader can almost feel a breeze from the bird’s wings.

THOUGHTS: This book completes a trilogy of stories that feature African Americans from the same plantation and their journey to freedom from slavery (Big Jabe and Thunder Rose). This book works well as a mentor text for imagery and metaphor and shows the power of storytelling. A wonderful read aloud for anytime.

Easy Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

YA – When You Were Everything

Woodfolk, Ashley. When You Were Everything. Delacorte Press, 2019. 978-1-524-71591-5. $17.99. 385 p. Grades 9 and up.

Cleo hasn’t spoken to her best friend, Layla, in 27 days. Everywhere she goes in her hometown of New York City, the ghost of their friendship lurks. Tired of torturing herself, Cleo comes up with a plan to erase all memories and associations of Layla by creating new memories surrounding her triggers like the park where they first met and the diner they frequented. A good plan in theory, all of Cleo’s meticulous plotting is rendered moot when she is not only forced to see Layla at school but also – even worse –  assigned to tutor her in English. Cleo tries desperately to figure out Life-After-Layla, but being forced to see her makes it difficult. It seems like her memory erasure plan might work when she decides to go back to Dolly’s Diner alone and runs into Dom – a cute boy she met at a party a few months ago with Layla – and Sydney – another girl in her class. However, Cleo explains, “My faith in friendship has been shaken, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever get it back.” This novel is written in an alternating timeline from the present to the months leading up to Cleo and Layla’s break-up, revealing that Cleo is not completely innocent in the unraveling of their friendship.

THOUGHTS: Cleo narrates, “Girls wage endless wars with their voices, tearing you apart without touching you at all.” So many YA novels feature these epic female friendships, but for many girls this is not reality. In our culture where the expression “BFF/Best-Friends Forever” is thrown around like an expected fact of life, this book is an extremely important read for all girls. Female friendship break-ups can be just as heartbreaking – if not worse – than a romantic break-up, especially as teenagers when talk of the friendship lasting “forever” occurs much more frequently than in a high school romantic relationship. Woodfolk’s narrator is not perfect, but she is real, and her narration is raw and emotional. There are tons of songs and poems to help with the catharsis of emotions after a romantic break-up; Ashley Woodfolk has written a rare one for the friendship break-up with this novel.

Realistic Fiction          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

Elem. – The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne

Cline-Ransome, Lesa. The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne. Simon and Schuster, 2020. 978-1-481-46289-1. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades 1-4.

The life of Ethel L. Payne, the “First Lady of the Black Press”, is depicted in this picture biography. Born in Chicago in 1911, Ethel loved listening to her grandparents’ stories of the cotton fields in Kentucky and her parents’ own sharecropping tales. Ethel developed a love of writing and after high school fought against racism in her community. After World War II, she left for Japan and collected stories from black American soldiers on the base, noting the unfair treatment they received from the Army. Soon Ethel’s stories from Japan were sent to American newspapers. On her return, Payne took a job as a features editor with the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper.  Her stories progressed from local events to covering the Democratic National Convention. Eventually, Ethel moved to Washington DC and became one of three African American reporters with a White House pass. For the rest of her life, she wrote stories that focused on civil rights and the issues facing African Americans.  There is an author’s note that gives more details on Ethel L. Payne’s life. John Parra has used acrylic paint to create illustrations that feature other well-known African Americans. Readers will enjoy poring over the drawings to search for the small objects found throughout the text, including the clocks that move forward in time by the end of the story.

THOUGHTS: This text is a worthwhile addition to elementary collections. Readers will learn about the life of this famous African American woman and her important contribution to the civil rights movement.

921 Biography          Denise Medwick, Retired, West Allegheny SD
070.92 Journalism and Publishing

YA – Dear Justyce

Stone, Nic. Dear Justyce. Crown Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-984829-67-2. 288 p. $21.99. Grade 8+.

In a sequel to the Morris Award winning Dear Martin, Vernell Laquan Banks Jr., is writing letters to Justyce McAllister from his cell in juvenile detention while he awaits his sentencing for the murder of a police officer. Quan and Justyce, two bright boys from the same rough Atlanta neighborhood and just two years apart in age, have had drastically different trajectories for their lives. Justyce had the life changing benefits of a supportive family that pushed him towards excellence, while Quan’s family was mired in the cycle of poverty, domestic abuse, and incarceration. Reading  through the scenes of Quan’s experiences,  it is clear how crucial a support system is, and lacking that, how Quan made the choices he did which landed him in his current position. Justyce and Quan, who met on a playground as children, reconnect when Justyce hears of Quan’s incarceration and decides to visit his friend in jail. Justyce, who is now a pre-law student at Yale, hears Quan’s story and marshals the help of a lawyer, his girlfriend’s mother, to re-examine the case in the hopes of setting Quan free. This novel looks at the unjust treatment that African Americans deal with daily, shedding light on the harsh realities of life for inner city children and families with no safety net, particularly the educational and legal systems that fail to support or serve the communities they are supposed to.

THOUGHTS: Highly recommended for libraries serving teens, an extremely relevant and topical read.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Summers, Abington SD

Vernell Laquan Banks Jr. (Quan) writes letters from a detention center to Justyce McAllister (Dear Martin) while awaiting his trial for a police officer’s murder. Quan and Justyce both held promise as young students in Atlanta, but Justyce now is off at a fancy college and Quan took quite a different path. While both were good young students, Justyce had support at home while Quan lacked a present male role model (one flashback depicts the arrest of his father while Quan watches). Quan’s path is presented to readers though a series of alternating chapters about his childhood and letters he sends to Justyce, the only person on the outside that he feels will listen to him. To his credit, Justyce reads those letters and is firmly by Quan’s side. On the outside, people will judge Quan for one bad decision after another. Many would say there is no hope for a kid like him. A closer look reveals that Quan’s decisions, however, are made in an effort to support his young siblings and a mother who is stuck in a violent relationship. Is the deck so stacked against Quan that he has no hope?

THOUGHTS: Stone’s novel carefully examines the inequities, especially for minorities, of the education and legal systems that are in place. A must have for secondary libraries and fans of Stone’s other books as well as books by Tiffany Jackson, Jason Reynolds, and Angie Thomas.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD