Elem. – Dreams for a Daughter

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.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

MG – Playing the Cards You’re Dealt

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.

Realistic Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry

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.

Romance          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – Kneel

Buford, Candace. Kneel. Inkyard Press, 2021. 978-1-335-40251-6. 320 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Kneel follows Russell who is a talented football player from a small town looking for a full ride scholarship to escape. However, Russell’s teammate and best friend, Marion is unfairly arrested and then benched for the rest of the season, Russell decides to take a stand.  In doing so, Russell sets off a chain of events that he never saw coming and refuses to back down from. In the end, will Russell be able to enact the social change that his community desperately needs, or will he have to pick between social justice and football?

THOUGHTS: This was amazingly written, and felt extremely realistic. I enjoyed that each character felt unique to me, in how they dealt with racism as well as how they interacted with each other. This wasn’t too technical with football, which I appreciated as someone who isn’t familiar with football.  I would highly recommend this for a high school collection, and feel this would also make a great book to teach in a high school literature class.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

When practice runs late, Russell and Marion know that breaking down on the parish line between Monroe (their side of town) and Westmond (the wealthier side of town) is not the best spot to be. A few weeks ago the untimely death of teen Dante Maynard, who was killed by a white police officer for “looking suspicious,” rocked the local black community. The fact that Russell’s car could draw unwanted attention for its condition doesn’t add to his limited options as darkness approaches. Instead of the cops, though, Bradley Simmons, a varsity football player from Westmond, pulls up in a shiny BMW, and he taunts Russell and Marion about last year’s playoff whipping which ended with Marion being seriously injured and jeopardizing his football future. The pent up frustration doesn’t end, and animosity explodes when Monroe meets Westmond at center field for the coin toss. Unfair, one-sided refereeing leaves Russell injured. To make matters even worse, the cop that killed Dante Maynard is on game security, and he takes Marion off the field in cuffs. Though Russell promises Marion he’ll “handle this,” the deck is stacked against the boys, their team, and their community. Due to his pending charges, Marion is benched and barred from the team until his situation is resolved. In an instant, his only way out disappears. Russell realizes the only way to take a stand is to take a knee, and the repercussions of his action are more than he imagined. If the only way out of his situation is through a Division I football scholarship, what lengths will Russell go to in order to earn his spot, and will he have to give up his beliefs to make it happen?

THOUGHTS: Timely and thoughtful, Kneel transports readers right into the racial tensions. Readers will feel for Russell and be angered by the actions and the lack of action from local authorities. A must have for high school collections, this title also would pair well with classics and other contemporary titles dealing with similar topics.

Realistic Fiction         Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem. – Wait! What? Muhammad Ali Was a Chicken?

Gutman, Dan. Wait! What? Muhammad Ali Was a Chicken? Norton Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-324-01706-6. 112 p. $6.99 (paperback). Grades 3-5.

In a fun, new nonfiction series from Dan Gutman, two kids (Paige and Turner) take turns trying to top themselves with the lesser known (yet still fascinating) facts of famous people. In fact, Muhammad Ali was a chicken when it came to flying, but they also discuss his bravery in the ring and standing up against the Vietnam War and social justice issues. With quotes and stats and illustrations along with the two narrators, the text is broken into curious and quick digestible bits of information. After some basic background, readers learn about the boxer Cassius Clay who changed his name to Ali for religious reasons. The stories about childhood are relatable for students, and the decisions from his fighting to his adulthood are explained in understandable terms without too much sugar coating. Ali was the Greatest for his showmanship and personality as much as his muscle and willpower, and Gutman gets into all those skills with interesting detail. Even teachers and adults will stop as they read to say, “Wait! What?” and want to learn more!

THOUGHTS: More titles are coming in this new series, including Amelia Earhart and Albert Einstein. Fans of the Weird School Fact books and the Who Was? biographies naturally will gravitate towards this nonfiction book.

Biography          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

YA – Rise to the Sun

Johnson, Leah. Rise to the Sun. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-66223-8. 336 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Olivia is planning an epic best friend weekend at the Farmland Music and Arts Festival with Imani. Determined to leave a disastrous junior year behind her, self-proclaimed heartbreak expert Olivia has relied on Imani to get her through too many heartbreaks to count. Reluctant about the Festival, Imani – who always supports and goes along with Olivia – thinks Olivia’s mind should be on other things, like an upcoming judicial hearing. But Olivia can’t focus on that right now, even thought the white lie about a youth church retreat she told her mom does make her feel a little guilty. She wins Imani over because her favorite band is headlining the festival, and Olivia promises a hookup free best friend weekend with great music and a ride on the Ferris wheel. Toni is at the festival – like every summer she can remember – with her best friend Peter. Though nothing is the same as last year, Toni is hoping this year’s festival gives her some much needed clarity and life direction before she goes where she’s supposed to next week. When Toni spots a clear festival newbie, donning impractical attire and literally wrapped up by the tent she’s trying to setup, her weekend goes in a completely different direction. Olivia is determined to play matchmaker between Imani and Peter and can’t help but notice her feelings for Toni. She breaks through Toni’s Ice Queen exterior by offering to help Toni enter the Golden Apple in exchange for help with the #FoundAtFarmland contest. Without another option, Toni agrees, and each girl has a weekend like she couldn’t have imagined. Once the magic of the festival wears off, will Olivia be heartbroken, and what about her promises to Imani?

THOUGHTS: With a loveable, Black bisexual protagonist, readers will root for Olivia to find herself, without losing herself. This whirlwind romance is a must have for high school collections to add more romance or LGBTQ+ titles.

Romance          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

YA – Off the Record

Garrett, Camryn. Off the Record. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-984-82999-3. 320 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12. 

Josie, a high school senior, film aficionado, and journalist, has had her heart set on Spelman College since middle school. She has a great resume and is just waiting for her official early decision acceptance notice. She’s also waiting to hear if she won Deep Focus‘s (her favorite major magazine) talent contest. Josie knows winning will help launch her journalism career. In the meantime, she owes Monique, her freelance gig editor from Essence magazine, an op-ed, but Josie’s anxiety is distracting her. Josie’s parents casually mention that they worry she’s putting all of her eggs in one basket. Josie thinks they just don’t get her, especially since her mom always is pushing her to try a new diet. They try to talk about the “hard time” Josie had in middle school after which Josie switched schools, but Josie insists she’s fine. Josie proves just how fine she is when she is selected as the winner of the Deep Focus talent search. The grand prize will send her on a five city tour for a new film with interview access to the cast and crew. Her parents aren’t so sure about this and only agree if Josie’s older sister Alice – home for winter break from Spelman – can be her chaperone. Alice reluctantly agrees, and Josie leaves for an experience unlike any other. Nothing, however, could prepare Josie for the story a young actress asks her to tell or the feelings Josie develops for the film’s teen star. Is Josie the right person to tell this story, and will it do more harm than good?

THOUGHTS: Readers will empathize with Josie as she struggles to overcome her anxiety and focus on the story she was hired to write. A must purchase for high school libraries.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

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