MG – A Soft Place to Land

Marks, Janae. A Soft Place to Land. Harper Collins, 2021. 978-0-062-87587-7. $16.99. 288 p. Grades 4-7.

The Taylor family is going through a rough patch. Twelve-year old Joy’s father was laid off, they had to sell their beloved house and move to a small apartment, cut out all non-essential expenses like Joy’s piano lessons, and change Joy’s middle school. Bad enough her dream to be a film composer has to be put on hold and her old friends are not reaching out to her, but her parents are arguing now, and Joy feels she has to keep her feelings hidden to shield her little sister, Malia. The silver lining is the friendliness and kindness of the residents of her apartment building, from next-door neighbor, elderly Mae Willoughby and her French bulldog, Ziggy, to aspiring film-maker Nora, Joy finds a warm welcome and a ready ear that softens the edge of her disappointment and anxiety over losing her house and fearing her parents will get a divorce. Other perks of apartment living are the secret hideout where Joy and her new-found friends can get away to draw, listen to music, read, or play board games, and the dog walking business Joy starts with Nora to earn money to purchase a piano. When Joy’s parents tell the girls that her father is moving in with Uncle Spencer for a bit, though, a distraught Joy runs away to the Hideout and falls asleep, leading to the breaking of the one Hideout rule: don’t tell the adults. Though the other kids are angry that their Hideout is now off limits, Nora remains a loyal friend until Joy’s curiosity about a poignant poem and messages on the Hideout’s walls leads to a rift between them. When Nora ditches the dog walking session, Joy finds out too late she cannot handle the task solo and loses Ziggy. Despite her loneliness and sense of failure, Joy works to come up with a way to find Ziggy, mend her friendship with Nora, and remedy the loss of the special Hideout. Janae Marks’s new novel abounds with positivity while recognizing life does not go perfectly. Joy and her family are African American; most of the other characters are people of color also.

THOUGHTS: A comforting, relatable middle school read. No high drama here, just an enjoyable story showing people bonding together and helping each other, and middle school students being kind and friendly to newcomers. Although there are some difficult issues at play here, all the adults are experts at problem solving and dealing with hard things respectfully. The children follow suit. Joy and Nora show a lot of responsibility and initiative, and the other characters display other positive traits.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – All Because You Matter

Charles, Tami. All Because You Matter. Scholastic, 2020. 978-1-338-57485-2. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PreK-2.

Charles and illustrator Bryan Collier create a loving ode to children of color, gently reassuring them that they matter. Collier’s rich, exuberant pages give life and emphasis to Charles’ text, showing young parents dreaming of their child to come. Their hopes and expectations spiral through a dreamy, quilt-inspired landscape. While the story espouses hopes and confidences applicable for all children, the intent is clearly to address current events, to bolster young black and brown children against a world that may be unwelcoming. Charles’ writing is gentle and powerful, but Collier and his stunning visuals should have been on the Caldecott shortlist.

THOUGHTS: A necessary purchase for all libraries serving young patrons.

Picture Book          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem. – R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Weatherford, Carole Boston. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Atheneum, 2020. 978-1-534-45228-2. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-3. 

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, is introduced to a new generation in this vibrant picture book. While this biography is brief, it succeeds in conveying the essence of Franklin’s life. The oil paint illustrations by Frank Morrison draw readers into the story, their richness implying the importance of her family, faith, community and music. The rhyming couplets on each two-page spread succinctly summarize aspects of Franklin’s history, the rhyme scheme unifying the book. Understandably, the abbreviated format does not allow for deeper exploration of her life, and no mention is made of darker events such as her parents’ separation, her mother’s death before Aretha was 10 years old, or the children she bore at age 12 and 14. (The information about her parents is mentioned in the Author’s Note following the story text.) The book accomplishes its intended purpose beautifully, celebrating the life of a revered talent. Hopefully a nearby adult will pair a reading of the book with an introduction to Franklin’s glorious music.

THOUGHTS: A lush, inspiring introduction to a musical icon and activist. With a motion picture biography slated for release in August 2021, this could be a timely purchase.

Picture Book          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Say Her Name

Elliott, Zetta. Say Her Name. Little, 2020. 978-1-368-04524-7. 96 p. $18.99. Grades 8+.

A beautiful collection of poetry that celebrates the voices of Black women and girls throughout the ages. The colorful pages call the reader to reflect and act in the world in which we live. Four poems are tributes to and inspired by strong Black women’s voices of the past including Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, and Phillis Wheatley. The collection is clearly meant for Black women and girls, but can be enjoyed by all readers, regardless of their identity. Each page is empowering and can be a solid springboard for discussion.

THOUGHTS: Although stunning, this remarkable collection is recommended for high school libraries who need to revitalize their print poetry material or who have readers interested in reflection, self-care, and individual insight.

811 Poetry          Samantha Hull, Ephrata

YA – Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019

Kendi, Ibram X. and Blain, Keisha N. Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019. One World, 2021. 978-0-593-13404-7. 528 p. $32.00. Gr. 11-12+.

Despite being a hefty tome, this book belongs on all high school shelves to start to fill the gap of curriculum on race and inclusive historical views of America. Ninety writers and two editors provide different perspectives throughout the four-hundred year span. Each writer takes on a five year period with a different approach and technique to tell the story of Africans in America. The purpose of including so many voices was start to release the stereotype of African American monoliths that is still present in many minds today. The diversity and unique assemblance of this book provides so many teachable moments in all classrooms. Although a large book on its own, it can easily be broken down into bite sized pieces for classroom content or slow reading.

THOUGHTS: If you are responsible for book acquisition and work in a high school library, this needs to be at the top of your list. Once in the library, the value of the book should be highlighted with teachers and students alike.

973 United States History          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

MG – Tristan Strong Destroys the World

Mbalia, Kwame. Tristan Strong Destroys the World. Disney, 2020. 978-1-368-04238-3. 390 p. $17.99. Grades 3-7.

There’s no rest for the weary. Tristan Strong may be the hero of the Battle of the Bay, having saved the mythical land of Alke, home to the West African gods and the legends of African-American folktales, but a battle means winners and losers, and it appears someone is not happy with Tristan. Barely a month has passed since Tristan returned from Alke when he’s alerted that a shadowy figure called the Shamble Man is coming after Tristan. When he comes, he destroys Tristan’s grandparents’ farm and kidnaps his grandmother. It’s time to return to Alke. Luckily Tristan has his SBP (Story Box Phone), inhabited by Anansi the spider, who is doing a little magical app development while cooped up in the SBP. Soon they are on their way to the mythical lands to try and discover the identity of the Shamble Man, rescue Nana and set Alke right again. As Tristan attempts to uncover the identity of the Shamble Man, friends old and new come to his assistance, but it looks like time might be running out on Tristan. Mbalia’s conversational narration (the audio book, read by Amir Abdullah, is sensational) grabs readers from the first words. Tristan is eminently likeable, as he struggles with fears and self doubt, but the surrounding cast of characters really brings the book to life. Once again, Tristan’s tiny, gooey sidekick, Gum Baby, steals the show, offering a steady stream of tongue-twisted patter and comic relief. Fortunately for readers, the ending leaves plenty of room for further sequels, because we all need more Gum Baby.

THOUGHTS: There is no sophomore slump for Mbalia. This second entry in the series is easily as good as the first, if not better. The characters from African American folk tales and West African gods may not be familiar to young readers, but they will have a very good time meeting them. Hand this series to readers who enjoy mythology based books, but also those who like to laugh.

Fantasy          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Elem. – Become a Leader Like Michelle Obama

Moss, Caroline. Become a Leader Like Michelle Obama (Work It, Girl). Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2020. $15.99. 978-0-711-24518-1. 56 p. Grades 3-6.

A beautiful, appealing biography on Michelle Obama. The text details Michelle Obama’s life from her early years living with extended family in a tiny Chicago house to her role as First Lady and beyond. Moss’s narrative writing is easy to read and really brings Michelle to life but does, of course, take some liberties as readers follow Michelle through her days that include imagined thoughts and conversations. Interesting back matter includes a section called “Become a leader like Michelle! 10 Key Lessons from Michelle Obama’s Life” that highlight points like, “Not everyone needs to believe in you if you believe in yourself,” and “New friends can help you grow!” along with examples of these points from Michelle’s life. There are also questions to check for understanding and resources for further reading. Sinem Erkas’s illustrations, done in paper, add color and fun to the book.

THOUGHTS: Young readers will enjoy the narrative writing style and enjoy learning about Michelle Obama.

Biography          Lindsey Long, Lower Dauphin SD

Elem. – Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre

Weatherford, Carole Boston, and Floyd Cooper. Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre. Carolrhoda Books, 2021. 978-1-541-58120-3. unpaged. $17.99. Grades 3-6.

In 1921, the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a thriving Black community. A stretch of businesses known as “Black Wall Street” included restaurants, shops, salons, libraries, schools, and a hospital. But many white Tulsans resented these symbols of Black prosperity and wealth. When a nineteen-year old old shoeshine man was arrested for assaulting a white, female elevator operator, the simmering anger boiled over. Fearing that the young man would be lynched, thirty Black men clashed with two thousand white men outside the jail on May 31, 1921. The white mob then stormed Greenwood, looting and burning homes and businesses alike. Hundreds of Black people were killed and the neighborhood was completely destroyed. With spare, straightforward text, Carole Boston Weatherford presents the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre to a young audience. Floyd Cooper’s oil and erasure illustrations vividly portray the prosperity, hostility, devastation, and hope in turn. A combination of landscapes, bustling storefronts, fashions, and expressive body language indelibly portray a place in time. The Author’s and Illustrator’s Notes contain valuable insights into the events, including some information about the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in Tulsa.

THOUGHTS: Particularly with the one hundred year mark approaching in May, Unspeakable is an essential read about a too-little-known moment in U.S. history. For older readers who want to know more, Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham and The Tulsa Race Riot by Duchess Harris and A.R. Carser are recommended.

The John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Center in Tulsa has Curriculum Resources at https://www.jhfcenter.org/.

Picture Book          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Elem. – Lubaya’s Quiet Roar

Nelson, Marilyn. Lubaya’s Quiet Roar. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-0-525-55555-1. Unpaged. $17.99. PreK-Grade 2.

Lubaya is a young, African American introvert. She sits quietly at school, rarely ever raising her hand, and she spends most of her time at home drawing pictures behind the couch while her family watches television. She does listen to the TV, however, and writes down words and pictures that express her understanding of the news. Therefore, when it comes time to march against injustice, it is her pictures that the protestors hold. In this way, Lubaya makes her voice heard without ever having to raise it. An inspirational story about the power of quiet action, this book will encourage bashful students to use their strengths and talents for the greater good.

THOUGHTS: This is a very relevant story for this extraordinary time in our nation’s history. With protests and upheavals becoming so commonplace in our society, I think it is important to remind children and adults alike that perhaps there are ways to achieve our goals by means other than noise and violence. Additionally, it is important that we encourage our shy, introverted students to get involved in whatever capacity best suits them. Overall, this is a solid title that deserves a place on every elementary shelf.

Picture Book          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member

Elem. – I Am Every Good Thing

Barnes, Derrick. I Am Every Good Thing. Nancy Paulson Books, 2020. 978-0-525-51877-8. 32p. $17.99. Grades K-3.

I Am Every Good Thing is a poem that talks about the resilience, challenge, and beauty of being a child. It demonstrates children doing different activities such as making snowballs, riding a skateboard, swimming, and many other activities that children might do throughout their life. The narrator of this book adds to the feeling of “I can do anything I set my mind to” which is carried over with the illustrations. The illustrations done by Gordon James showcase the poetry beautifully and contribute to the feeling the narrator gives throughout the poem.

THOUGHTS: This is a beautiful book that is a vital addition to every school library collection.

Picture Book          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy