YA – Numb to This: Memoir of a Mass Shooting

Neely, Kindra. Numb to This: Memoir of a Mass Shooting. Little, Brown and Company, 2022. 978-0-316-46208-2. 304 p. $24.99. Grades 8-12.

The impact of a mass shooting continues long after the crime scene has been restored and the headlines pivot to a new story. Kindra Neely learned this firsthand after she survived a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, which left ten people dead and as many injured. (Ironically, Kindra’s mother had relocated them to Oregon in part to escape the gun culture/violence in their small Texas town.) After graduating from UCC, Kindra attempted suicide when her feelings of pointlessness and numbness overwhelmed her. She kept this attempt secret for years. Later, after matriculating at Georgia’s Savannah College of Art and Design, she continued to suffer from racing thoughts and panic attacks as a result of the trauma she had experienced. Ongoing news alerts to other mass shootings re-traumatized her time and again. Eventually, she began to heal and found a way to use her artwork to share her story. The end result is this lovely, introspective graphic memoir in which Kindra bravely shares her survivor’s journey. The color palette is generally cued to Kindra’s emotions; in particular, depictions of her panic attacks are visceral and vivid. She includes moments of despair, anger, hope, and gratitude. She also includes resources for gun violence survivors and suicide prevention. 

THOUGHTS: This graphic memoir deserves a spot in every library for teens. As mass shootings continue, sadly the need for survivors to voice their stories will, too.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Elem. – I Cannot Draw a Horse

Harper, Charise Mericle. I Cannot Draw a Horse. Union Square Kids, 2022. 978-1-454-94594-9. 48 p. $17.99. Grades PK-3.

In Charise Mericle Harper’s I Cannot Draw a Horse, a simple shape is turned into a cat, who DESPERATELY wants the author to draw it a horse. But the author cannot draw a horse, so she instead draws a variety of other creatures from the same shape, who then send the cat on a romp through the pages of the book. Fear not!  Charise Mericle Harper is nearby with her pencil to draw helpful features like hills and skateboards, all which develop the story. At the end, cat is delighted when the author realizes she CAN draw it the horse of its dreams.

THOUGHTS: In addition to being a fun read-aloud that will make readers laugh through its pages, the illustrations in I Cannot Draw a Horse will encourage readers to try their hand at creating characters as well. The message is straightforward: Anyone can draw…if they only try! This book will provide young artists the inspiration and confidence they need simply to TRY (and succeed!). Recommended for anyone looking to add humor and art themes to their collection.

Picture Book          Hannah J. Thomas, Central Bucks SD

Elem. – Drawing Outdoors

Buitrago, Jairo. Drawing Outdoors. Greystone Kids. 2022. 978-1-771-64847-9. $18.95. Grades K-3.

In many places, schools may have a gym, library, computers, and a playground. Deep in the mountains, however, is an extraordinary school that is a little bit different. It does not have the items a typical school would have. It does have an amazing teacher who leads the class outside on a drawing adventure. What will they draw? Why dinosaurs of course!

THOUGHTS: A unique book about a drawing adventure! What student would not want to go outdoors to draw dinosaurs? A fun story that young dinosaur lovers will enjoy.

Picture Book            Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

Elem. – Creepy Crayons

Reynolds, Aaron. Creepy Crayons. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-1-668-87995-5. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-3.

Jasper Rabbit is struggling to pass math and spelling in school. He knows he needs to study more, but he has trouble focusing. On the way home from school one day, he finds a purple crayon in the gutter. Intrigued by how happy the crayon seems to see him, Jasper picks it up and brings it home. That night, even though he knows he should be studying for his spelling test, Jasper spends the evening watching TV before falling asleep. The next day, he decides to use the purple crayon on the spelling test. Shockingly, when he gets his test back, he has aced it! At home, his father asks him to complete his math homework. But when he picks up his math textbook, he finds a strange message written on the cover in purple: “Who needs math when you have Bunny Brawl 3?” Truer words were never spoken for Jasper, and he settles in to play the video game. The next day, Jasper uses his purple crayon on his pop quiz in math and  – surprise! – he gets every problem correct. He starts noticing other messages left by the crayon, such as “Jasper + Crayon 4ever! on his backpack and “Don’t ignore me!” on his table. Suddenly, Jasper realizes that even though he loves getting As on his schoolwork, this crayon is too creepy to keep around. Jasper has to find a way to discard the crayon for good before it makes a big mess of his life.

THOUGHTS: Jasper already has survived Creepy Carrots and Creepy Pair of Underwear and in doing so, he has become a favorite character among students in grades K-3. Young readers will love revisiting Jasper and reading about the chaos the crayon causes in his life. The creepy carrots make an appearance in this book as they did in Creepy Pair of Underwear, and illustrator Peter Brown’s signature black and white is punctuated with a powerful purple in this third creepy installment.

Picture Book         Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

Elem. – If You Find a Leaf

Sicuro, Aimée. If You Find a Leaf. Random House Studio, 2022. 978-0-593-30659-8. $17.99. 40 p. Grades PK-2.

This is a delightful, rhyming tribute to the pleasures of autumn. A single leaf sends a young child on a day spent imagining scenes that could be created using colorful fall leaves. Leaves are turned into boats, hammocks, a dog bed, hot air balloons, and so much more. Beautifully illustrated in ink, charcoal, watercolor, photographs, and collage. Detailed instructions on how to preserve leaves to create art based on the illustrations are included. A picture book celebration of autumn and creativity.

THOUGHTS: A wonderful, gentle read aloud that would be a lovely companion to Ehlert’s Leaf Man.

Picture Book          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD

Elem. – One Thursday Afternoon

DiLorenzo, Barbara. One Thursday Afternoon. Flyaway Books, 2022. 978-1-974-88837-1. $18.00. 40 p. Grades K-3.

When Granddad picks Ava up after school on Thursday, she just wants to go home. She is having a bad day and would just like to be alone. Granddad suggests the two go for a picnic and to the woods to paint together. He promises not to talk so that the two can be alone together. Granddad drives to a nature trail, where he and Ava have a quick snack and then set up to paint. Granddad encourages Ava to use all of her senses before she uses her paintbrush. Ava takes time to be aware of the smells, sights, and sounds of the woods, and she finds herself suddenly overcome with emotion. She explains to Granddad that she is upset because her school practiced a lockdown drill today. Granddad listens patiently, gently acknowledges Ava’s feelings, and admits that he too was scared of emergency drills when he was in school. As the two continue to paint and talk, Ava begins to feel better. Talking helped, as did being in nature, concentrating on her senses, and creating art. Throughout, Granddad provides an excellent example of how to be a good listener and how to approach discussing difficult and scary topics with young children. 

THOUGHTS: Simple and straightforward, this is a beautiful picture book that will be an excellent addition for school library Social-Emotional Learning collections. DiLorenzo is careful never to detail the specifics of the lockdown drill or the reasons schools have to practice them. Granddad only promises to listen and be present for Ava. A well-crafted story that models active listening and provides an excellent example of how to handle tough conversations with children who are anxious. 

Picture Book          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD

MG -Moonwalking

Elliott, Zetta, and Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Moonwalking. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2022. 978-0-374-31437-8. $16.99. 216 p. Grades 6-8.

The title of the verse novel, Moonwalking, refers not so much to Michael Jackson’s signature dance move, but to a certain time period–the 1980’s–when punk rock was popular, Ronald Reagan was president, the infamous air traffic controller strike raged, and Brooklyn neighborhoods were largely broken and poor. Two eighth-grade characters inhabit this book: John Joseph (JP) Pandowski whose family has to give up their house on Long Island because his father loses his job as one of those ill-fated air traffic controllers; and they move in with his Polish grandmother in a basement apartment in Greenpoint. Biracial Pie feels acutely the abandonment of his African father and the need to protect his mentally fragile Puerto Rican mother. The pair cannot be more different. JP is shy and has difficulty making friends; Pie knows the ins and outs of his neighborhood and is a creative tagger. Still, they share classes together and JP is drawn to the more confident Pie. One thing they have in common is the arts. JP yearns to learn how to play the guitar his father’s friend gave him. The kindly school art teacher takes Pie under her wing and exposes him to the art of Jean Michel Basquiat and encourages Pie to enter an art contest. Though JP lacks the words to forge a friendship with Pie, the latter shares a night of tagging with him and accepts him. While Pie is parentified and JP is ignored by their respective families, the boys are drawn to each other by their personal troubles and their artistic endeavors. The joint authors spare no words to describe the harsh and unfair rules of Reagan’s actions and include episodes that smack of blatant racism: the unfairness and harsh treatment Pie experiences at school and at the hands of the police. The conclusion of the novel is not tidy, but it is satisfactory giving a realistic view of boyhoods that come up short because of unfortunate family situations. The authors experiment with different types of poetry throughout, alternating between the two boys, making this novel a quick and compelling read for students who may opt for more believable tales.

THOUGHTS: Several threads run throughout this verse novel with some sections scripted almost like prose; some in shapes. First, the home lives of both boys is dismal but realistic and perhaps relatable to some readers. Frustrated and angry, JP’s father is verbally abusive to his son. Pie’s mother is mentally fragile. Second, the explanation of Reagan’s response contrasted with Lech Walesa’s leadership in the Solidarity movement reveals a period in history not known to many students. Last, the strong parallel of Pie’s life with the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat can be discussed and coupled with the picture book, Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe. Two incidentals: JP surprises his sister kissing her friend, Claire, but otherwise there are no other LBGTQ+ elements. The dust jacket states that JP is autistic, but this characterization is not distinct throughout the story.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG/YA – A Forgery of Roses

Olson, Jessica S. A Forgery of Roses. Inkyard Press, 2022. 978-1335418661. $19.99. 384p. Grades 7-12.

Myra Whitlock has a secret: she’s a prodigy. When she paints, she can access her magic, and heal her subjects. Not everyone is accepting of prodigies, especially the governor, but when his wife discovers her secret, she hires Myra to paint her recently deceased son, Will, in the hopes of bringing him back to life. Myra has never resurrected a person before, but the reward is too great to pass up. Money has been tight since her parents’ disappearance, and her sick, younger sister needs to see a doctor, a luxury they no longer can afford. When she arrives at the governor’s house, she befriends the governor’s oldest son, August, and together, they discover that Will’s death was not an accident, and if Myra has any chance of bringing him back, she must first discover the mysterious circumstances of his death and avoid becoming the next victim herself.

THOUGHTS:  A Forgery of Roses is a magical, murder mystery that will keep readers guessing until the very end. Although two of the main characters develop feelings for each other, it goes no further than a few embraces and kisses, making this title a good fit for middle school libraries as well as high school ones. Myra is hired to use her magic to bring a person back to life, and the book does contain descriptions of blood and gore among murder victims and within art work. One of the main characters suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, and that’s not always a trait readers get to see in main characters.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

MG – The Shape of Thunder

Warga, Jasmine. The Shape of Thunder. Balzar & Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-95667-5. $16.99. 275 p. Grades 5-8.

Cora Hamid and Quinn Macauley are next door neighbors and inseparable friends all their twelve years of life–until they are not. Quinn’s older brother, Parker, takes his father’s hunting guns to his high school one November morning and shoots Cora’s sister, Mabel, a teacher, another student, and himself. The two families’ approach to grief could not be more different. Abandoned as a baby by her mother (the reader never discovers why), Lebanese-American and Muslim Cora has the nurturing support of her biologist dad; thoughtful, maternal Gram; and the professional support of a trained therapist. Quinn’s family buries the issue. Told in alternating voices, the reticent and less academic Quinn has difficulty expressing her thoughts and guilty feelings. Her workaholic father is against any outside help to ease the family’s suffering, and her mother hides in the house cooking and baking. Longing to reconnect with Cora, Quinn delivers a box to her doorstep stuffed with articles about time travel and wormholes on Cora’s birthday. She knows Cora well enough to appeal to her scientific nature. Perhaps the two of them could find a wormhole and travel back in time to stop the tragedy of that fateful day. As the pair work through the logistics of approaching a huge tree in the forest for the site of their wormhole/time traveling, they each experience the pain of regret and the insistence on holding fast to the memory of a loved one. While Cora has made new friends on her Junior Quizbowl Team and excels in her studies, Quinn has felt shunned. She longs to be on the soccer team, but is too ashamed to try out. Her art gives her some pleasure, yet not even drawing can remove the heavy weight of a secret she knows about her brother, the possibility that she could have prevented the circumstances. After she confides in the school librarian her remorse, she resolves to confess this awful secret to Cora. Though the revelation breaks their renewed bond, Cora devotes more time to her plan to make the impossible possible. When she questions her father about time travel, she is encouraged and inspired by his answer. He tells her that her absent mother had a theory comparing the shape of time to the shape of thunder: “impossible to map” (p. 213). When both Cora and Quinn are coaxed by different people to attend the traditional Fall Festival at their middle school, the rumble of thunder pulls the two estranged girls to the woods to prove Cora’s theory. The hopeful resolution of the story, despite the sadness surrounding it, gives the reader relief. Quinn’s and Cora’s relationship see-saws throughout realistically. After all, Quinn reminds Cora of the unspeakable thing Parker did. Quinn’s strained home life with her parents who refuse any kind of self-reflection or examination of the devastating action of their son is painful.  Minor situations like the jealousy of Mia, another friend of Cora’s, toward Quinn; the snide remarks of Quinn’s former teammate and friend; the growing crush Cora has with her classmate, Owen (a Japanese-American character), will resonate genuinely with middle school readers. The Shape of Thunder is a tough read, but one that confirms that happiness can co-exist with grief, and friendships can be mended.

THOUGHTS: This novel is full of emotion and rich in language and characterization, but not so intense that a sensitive middle grade student would be put off. Cora is a thinker and an intellectual. Throughout the novel, students will find themselves entertained by the interesting facts Cora spouts (“…cows kill more people than sharks each year…”). The images Warga uses to describe different feelings are unique but spot on (the “fizziness” Cora feels in her tummy when talking to her crush, Owen, etc.). She also makes dialogue very interesting. Quinn has a hard time speaking; her brain freezes and she can’t say the words. When she finally gets angry enough to spill over her feelings to her buttoned up family, it is heartbreaking. The conversations between Cora and her father and grandmother also are authentic and tell the reader so much about the characters. What the reader must conjecture about are Parker’s reason for the shooting and the absence of Cora’s mother since her father seems to have no obvious vices. Ms. Euclid, the school librarian and art teacher, is a heroine for Quinn. This book should be issued with a box of tissues.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Ain’t Burned All the Bright

Reynolds, Jason, and Jason Griffin, illustrator. Ain’t Burned All the Bright. A Caitlin Dlouhy Book, 2022. 978-1-534-43946-7. unpaged. $19.99. Grades 7-12.

In a three-part poem using breath as a metaphor, Jason Reynolds depicts what it’s like to be a young Black person in America, in the present moment. Breath One addresses the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd, as the speaker’s mother watches a repetitive news cycle that “won’t change into something new.” Breath Two relates his father’s struggles to breathe without coughing, a clear reference to COVID-19; the cough is a “blues trumpet in his throat.” Breath Three alludes to climate change, pollution, wildfires, and rising sea levels through a futile search for an oxygen mask. In a pivot, seeing a hint of a smile on his mother’s face, he looks for oxygen not in a box but in his family’s lovable idiosyncrasies, “seeing each other’s mess as a breath of fresh air.” Jason Griffin’s illustrations are as essential to this book as the text. Rendered on moleskine notebook pages with paint markers, sharpies, spray paint, and various kinds of tape, the images are intermittently abstract, suggestive, and realistic. All are thematically linked to Reynolds’ poems, which are cut into lines, words, and letters and incorporated into each page’s collage.

THOUGHTS: Ain’t Burned All the Bright is a work of art that readers will want to pick up again and again to fully engage with its meaning.

Novel in Verse          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD
Graphic Novel

Through three metaphorical breaths, readers are taken on a journey through one of the most difficult times in recent history. In Breath One, readers are introduced to a narrator who wonders “why the story won’t / change into something new” as he describes how his mother won’t change the television channel and his brother won’t look away from a video game. Stunning artwork depicts cities burning as smoke billows out of windows, a NYPD van in flames, and blacked out images. The story transitions to protests over the murder of George Floyd and the back and forth fight to breathe – to have “freedom to walk / and shout / and cry / and scream / and scroll / and post / and pray.” In Breath Two, the speaker still wonders why his mom is glued to the same channel as his father “keeps coughing / from the other room.” Artwork depicts masks and isolation as COVID ravages around the world much like a tornado destroying a town. In Breath Three, the speaker searches relentlessly for an oxygen mask “but couldn’t find / a saving grace.” Clearly painted, taped, drawn, and written on the pages of a moleskine notebook, these two powerhouse creators give readers a lot to digest. The “is anyone still here?” that follows the poem describes their process in an interview style that is not to be missed.

THOUGHTS: Ain’t Burned All the Bright is a beautiful combination of poetry and art that is best enjoyed in one sitting then returned to again and again.

Poetry          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD