Elem. – The Together Tree

Saeed, Aisha. The Together Tree. Illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Salaam Reads, 2023. 978-1-534-46296. $18.99. 40 p. Grades K-3.

On his first day in his new school, Rumi was nervous and sad. He had just moved across the country and was joining his new class midway through the year. Being the new kid is hard, and Rumi had trouble fitting in. At recess he was often seen twirling a stick under a tree at the edge of the playground. Classmates were not kind to Rumi, making fun of his brightly colored shoes. Rumi had colored the shoes with his friends back in San Francisco. Rumi longed to return to his old school and ached with loneliness. One day in music class Asher threw a balled up piece of paper at Rumi as the other students snickered. The next day at recess Asher threw a rock at Rumi, scraping his leg. As blood dripped from his leg, a tear dripped from his eyes. The playground was silent. Han bravely stood up and asked Rumi to play with him. Han discovered that Rumi had not been twirling a stick beneath the tree, but had been drawing a fantastical mural in the dirt. Dragons, castles, mermaids, and ornate birds filled the ground beneath the tree at the edge of the playground. Han joined Rumi under the tree the next day and added to the drawing. Other curious students wandered over and marveled at the pictures in the dirt. One by one the students joined in and collaborated on the work of art. Everyone was enjoying this new activity except Asher, who remained inside playing alone. Rumi gently approached Asher and asked him to join the class under the together tree.

THOUGHTS: This is a very simple but moving picture book with a gentle message. The illustrations by LeUyen Pham are glorious. The author’s note at the end explains this book was created after her son faced bullying in Kindergarten. A wonderful elementary school addition with a powerful message.

Picture Book 

MG – The Labors of Hercules Beal

Schmidt, Gary D. The Labors of Hercules Beal. Clarion Books, 2023. 978-0-358-65963-1. $19.99. 347 p. Grades 5-8.

Hercules Beal is 12 years old and entering seventh grade. Hercules loves his small town of Truro on Cape Cod. Every morning he rises before dawn to walk to the dunes to watch the sun rise. As the first light of day emerges, Hercules whispers his love to his parents who died a year ago in a horrific car crash. Hercules lives with his older brother Achilles, in a home built by his great-grandparents. Achilles had been pursuing a career in journalism when the accident changed the Beal family forever. He returned to Truro to care for Hercules and run the family business. Hercules was the smallest kid in his sixth grade class and is full of all of the trepidation that goes with entering middle school. He is hoping that he will hit the much anticipated Beal growth-spurt soon so that he can avoid bullying in middle school. At the last minute Achilles announces that Hercules will not be attending the local public school, but will begin middle school at The Cape Cod Academy for Environmental Sciences. Disappointed he won’t be attending school with his best friend Elly, Hercules is nervous to meet his new homeroom teacher who introduces himself in a terse and unfriendly welcome letter. Lieutenant Colonel Hupfer is a retired Marine. He is a no-nonsense teacher with exceedingly high expectations. The first assignment he gives is a year-long project based on ancient texts. Each student is challenged with an individual project that would make a college student sweat. Hercules Beal is assigned to examine his namesake’s 12 labors from ancient Greek mythology and to reflect on each labor as it pertains to his own life and the lessons he learns in 7th grade. Hercules (the kid) is somewhat perplexed as he dives into researching Hercules (the myth) and his journey of self-discovery. In the ensuing school year, Hercules (the kid) is met with many challenges of his own. Achilles and Hercules are so busy trying to survive, they have not yet learned to live with their immense grief. As he contemplates his classical namesake, Hercules (the kid) begins a journey of self-discovery that takes him to the very depths of his own version of hell. With the love of his brother, his friends, his teachers, his community, and the Greek mythological stories, Hercules (the kid) finds himself.

THOUGHTS: One of the best books I have read this year. This book is very much in the style of Gary D. Schmidt’s 2008 Newbery Honor, The Wednesday Wars. Fans of that story will be thrilled to delve into another coming of age journey that is not ever simply what it appears to be on the surface. Lieutenant Colonel Hupfer is a complicated character with many demons of his own to overcome. The community of classmates, neighbors, and middle school faculty is wonderfully rendered. A stunning story about moving forward with grief. Many applications for further inquiry into classical mythology.

Realistic Fiction

Twelve-year-old Hercules Beal is entering seventh grade with a lot of baggage. His parents, owners of Beal Brothers Farm and Nursery, have died in a tragic car accident while on a rushed delivery run. Now his twenty-something brother Achilles has put his travels as a writer for National Geographic  on hold to take care of Hercules and run the family business on the coast of Cape Cod. Hercules is not looking forward to starting seventh grade at the Cape Cod Academy for Environmental Science and would prefer to start middle school with his neighbor and lifelong best friend, Elly Rigby. He winds up in the homeroom of retired marine, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Hupfer (Holling Hoodhood’s best buddy from Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars), who distributes a yearlong assignment on the first days of school: to relate Greek mythology to the students’ own lives. Of course, because of his moniker, Hercules receives The Labors of Hercules. Thus begins a coming-of-age tale that integrates mythology into the seemingly mundane goings-on of a close-knit New England community and the silently grieving siblings. Hercules Beal speaks to the reader in a conversational tone, relating his struggles to complete each of the twelve tasks throughout the school year. Circumstances determine how the labors are accomplished: the town is plagued by a pack of feral cats; the Cape Cod Academy for Environmental Science is condemned after a severe nor’easter; Hercules’s dog gets hurt and needs assistance during a blizzard, and so on. After each “labor,” Hercules must write a reflective essay. Each is brief yet meaningful and hopefully cathartic; following each essay is Lieutenant Colonel Hupfer’s professional but sensitive response. As Hercules navigates this critical year coping with his guilt and grief, neighbors, friends, and teachers support him, especially when the unthinkable happens. By story’s end, a more secure Hercules recognizes he is not left to carry his burdens alone. And the reader is left with a host of memorable characters and a renewed conviction in the importance of helping each other. Most characters appear to be white; some have Asian-sounding names.

THOUGHTS: This book can be used well in several ways: character study–the development and arc are easy to trace; for a similar assignment involving myths; comparative stories, classic to modern; writing tips from the essays; minimally, plant identification and environmental impact; relationship building; social and emotional health discussions. I don’t know if this is the best book I read all summer, but it is the one that touched my heart the most. Although set in the present day (cell phones, laptops, etc.), it is not slick or trendy. Typical Gary Schmidt, he alludes to the hard stuff–the pain, the anxiety–with a few phrases and ellipsis rather than a lengthy description, but the meaning is taken. Schmidt brings in Hupfer and his now-wife, Mai Thi, from The Wednesday Wars, and makes a reference to Doug Sweiteck (The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now) and the Joe Pepitone jacket, which may lead students to seek out these titles if they cotton to this book. I say this because The Labors of Hercules Beal may appeal only to readers who are into reading or interested in mythology (though Hercules Beal gives them a very different take on the mythical Hercules) or like books that challenge their thinking or make them feel deeply. Not all middle schoolers are open to the raw but basic feelings this book touches on, but I wish they were. Also, there are some possible glitches. First, the diversity aspect and the lack of differences. The main characters, Hercules, Achilles, Viola (Achilles’s girlfriend), Hupfer, Elly are white, but some of the other characters are not described. The book doesn’t go into gender identity or people with disabilities. Aside from this, the story projects an authentic picture of flawed people–the surprises behind a stern facade, the generous spirit expressed in little kindnesses, the courage that bursts through in time of need, the ability to get mad and get over it. If this sounds too saccharine, it is not. Mean things are said, punches are hurled, students slack off and act goofy. In a review of Okay for Now, Jonathan Hunt who writes the column, “Heavy Medal,” praised Schmidt’s book, but pointed out the parts where the reader had to exercise “suspension of disbelief.” So next, these questions arise: why would anyone leave a twelve-year-old essentially in charge of a business for two weeks? Why aren’t Hercules and his brother in grief therapy? How does one get any seventh grader to work that hard? Maybe I am under the Gary D. Schmidt spell for even with these criticisms, I still think this book is a winner.

Realistic Fiction

Elem. – This Story is Not About a Kitten

De Seve, Randall. This Story is Not About a Kitten. Illustrated by Carson Ellis. Random House Studio, 2022. 978-0-593-37453-5. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades PreK-2.

When a scared kitten is discovered beneath a car, an entire neighborhood comes together to help coax the kitten out, care for it, and find it a home. Readers will discover, however, that the story is not about the cat; rather, a much loftier concept is at play. Young readers will adore this endearing story about the value of compassion and community.

THOUGHTS: The beautiful gouache illustrations in this book depict a wonderfully diverse neighborhood. People of multiple colors, ethnicities, ages, shapes and sizes are included. Repetition and rhyming text make this a delightful read aloud for young children. The importance of the book’s message – that working together is beneficial for all – cannot be overstated either. Overall, this is a solid purchase for libraries servicing young children.

Picture Book          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member

Elem. – Give This Book Away!

Farrell, Darren. Give This Book Away! Illustrated by Maya Tatsukawa. Alfred A. Knopf, 2022. 978-0-593-348051-9. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-5.

Farrell encourages readers to build community through random acts of kindness. Starting with a simple act like giving away a book “(Unless it came from your local library…),” young children will understand the ripple effect their actions can have. Nerves are taken into account as a child considers to whom they want to give the book – a neighbor, the next person on the street, a new face on the playground, etc. Despite feeling butterflies, spreading joy can result in “giggles…hugs (ask first!),” or happy tears. The power of sharing is shown in such a positive way that students will love to brainstorm ways they can spread kindness in their own lives. And maybe one day that gift will make it back to them. In a variety of ways, accessible even to the youngest students, giving is encouraged throughout this title. Endpapers are designed to be written on with the name and city of readers who have received this book, so even with the library warning, be prepared for this (or include a message for students on the inside cover). This title would be the perfect one to read aloud and discuss when learning about kindness or to add to a Free Little Library.

THOUGHTS: An adorable explanation on the power of giving and kindness, Give This Book Away! will enhance any elementary library collection.

Picture Book          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – The Midnight Children

Gemeinhart, Dan. The Midnight Children. Henry Holt & Co., 2022. 978-1-250-19672-9. $16.99. 352 p. Grades 4-8.

Ravini Foster never has had a friend. Growing up in Slaughtersville is difficult. The town is a miserable place filled with miserable people, many of whom make their living at the slaughter house in the center of town. Ravi, an only child, is lonely. He delights in the woods, and birds, and the adult characters in his small town, but his greatest wish is to have a friend. Picked on by the town bullies, unathletic, unable to connect with his exhausted father, Ravi yearns for something to change. Then one night, unable to sleep for loneliness, Ravi sees something he isn’t supposed to see. A family of seven children move into the abandoned house across the street in the dead of night. There are no adults with them. Ravi’s curiosity gets the better of him, and with persistence, patience, and small, but exceedingly kind gestures, Ravi is able to earn the trust of Virginia and her siblings. Discovering the mysterious secret behind Virginia’s family life puts Ravi in a curious position. He is thrilled to finally belong somewhere but now must help his new friends remain a family. Ravi never has been prone to taking risks or accepting leadership, but friendship and belonging help him to see a different side of himself. The Midnight Children is darkly funny in the vein of Lemony Snicket but with an emotional and serious message about the nature of friendship and the meaning of family.

THOUGHTS: A stunning middle grade novel that is an absolute delight to read aloud.

Realistic Fiction          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD

MG – Cress Watercress

Maguire, Gregory. Cress Watercress. Candlewick Press, 2022. 978-1-536-21100-9. $19.99. 227 p. Grades 3-8.

Cressida Watercress and her rabbit family live in a spacious and well kept burrow. Young Cress has never known a moment’s want or worry until the day Papa fails to return from foraging. Unable to care for her young children alone, Mama makes the difficult decision to move her  family to a cramped basement apartment in an animal tenement known as the Broken Arms. Cressida’s brother Kip is often sickly, and Mama must work harder than ever to feed, shelter, and support Cress and Kip. The Broken Arms is filled with animal characters of all shapes, sizes, and temperaments. Mr. Owl, the landlord, is an enigmatic figure who will often comment on the comings and goings and behavior of his tenants from high above though he is never seen by those same tenants. Manny, the building superintendent, is helpful but demanding. The pressure to make timely rent payments is difficult for Mama, especially when Kip is not well. Cress must learn to accept and understand her new neighbors, and must step-up to help Mama. Growing up is not easy, especially when dealing with childhood grief. As Cress matures, her relationship with her mother becomes strained at times, and she grapples with friendships just as many tween human children do. Eventually the Watercress family finds great comfort and companionship in the community at Broken Arms, and Cress finds herself in a position to save the day when her newly adopted community is threatened.

THOUGHTS: Beautiful illustrations by David Litchfield set the tone for this coming of age novel. The struggles Cress encounters in her relationship with her mother and her friends will be easily recognized by middle grade readers and adults alike. The depiction of childhood grief is especially well characterized in this warm and gentle story.

Animal Fiction          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD
Realistic Fiction

Elem. – Up and Adam

Zapata, Debbie. Up and Adam. Illustrated by Yong Ling Kang. Kids Can Press, 2022. Unpaged. $18.99 978-1-5253-0441-5  Grades PK-2.

Zapata uses her son Adam, with Down Syndrome, as inspiration for this uplifting book celebrating all kinds of abilities. After a huge storm rages through his town, Adam hears a news broadcast in which the Mayor asks the community for help, and adds, “Up and at ‘em!” Did the mayor just tell Adam and his dog (named Up) to get to work? Adam says yes, and sets out to help. He picks up fallen branches; helps the school janitor to clean up the playground; gives help to a girl on a ladder; and with a teenager, sweeps the mess outside the pizza shop. Adam goes home…not to rest, but to bake cookies to give to all the helpers and the community. At the boardwalk, Adam finds his recipients, and the people find a boost from the cookies and the friendly, “Hi! Hiiiii!” Adam repeats. Adam learns from the day that “a pair of smiles can make a difference” and is satisfied that “we helped.” The author’s note positively describes her son and how everyone deserves dignity and respect. Resources for readers included. 

THOUGHTS: It’s hard not to smile while reading this book, thanks to Adam’s smile and relentless optimism. This book is a wonderful way to further illustrate the importance of respect for all; community service gets a needed boost as well.  

Picture Book          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Elem. – Marley and the Family Band

Marley, Cedella, with Tracey Baptiste. Marley and the Family Band. Illustrated by Tiffany Rose. Random House Kids, 2022. Unpaged. $17.99  978-0-593-30111-1. Grades PK-2.

Marley and her family are newcomers from Jamaica to their Delaware town. To feel more at home and get to know neighbors, Marley plans a concert (in the park) by her family band. However, the day of the concert dawns wet and stormy. The concert is canceled, most would say, but Marley keeps looking for a way to outshine the rain. She knows rain and how it intrudes on people’s lives–and she also knows that “rain never lasts.” Marley and her siblings think of covering the concert area with umbrellas, which they’ll get from helping their neighbors with rain problems. They retrieve a cat from a roof, bail water from a basement and help with indoor gardening. At the last house, Marley uses all her umbrellas given from grateful neighbors (and intended for the concert) to cover a neighbor’s upset animals who are getting wet. At home, Marley finds her family preparing for the concert, because, “your friends helped.” The final pages show Marley and her musical family performing indoors at the neighbor’s house, letting the rain add its own rhythmic beats. 

THOUGHTS: Marley has written an upbeat and hopeful tale about coming together to help and celebrate communities. The colorful illustrations fit well with the optimistic and hopeful message.  

Picture Book          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – Aviva vs. the Dybbuk

Lowe, Mari. Aviva vs. the Dybbuk. Levine Querido, 2022. 978-1-646-14125-8. $17.99. 176 p. Grades 5-8.

Aviva vs. the Dybbuk takes on an unusual theme in a not frequently used setting. Sixth grader Aviva Jacobs is an orthodox Jewish girl plagued by a dybbuk (“a ghost of a deceased person who returns to complete a certain task”). Aviva’s family unit–she and her mother–is not doing well. The reader knows that Abba has died in an unnamed accident five years prior. Since then, Aviva’s life is off kilter. Through the kindness of their close knit community, her mother manages the mikvah (“pool used for religious immersion”) and lives in the apartment above it. The reader also sees that Ema is depressed, but Aviva just views the disappearance of her vibrant, soft-spoken mother into a scared, nervous agoraphob. Aviva, too, has become an outsider from her classmates and estranged from her best friend, Kayla. Instead, her constant companion is the mischievous dybbuk who only she can see. The dybbuk soaps the floor in the mikvah, unplugs the refrigerator, rips up checks, and generally haunts Aviva. Moreover, the mikvah and the shul are under attack: A swastika is on the sidewalk outside the shul. In the midst of this disruption, Aviva and Kayla–both talented players– get into an altercation at the machanayim, “a ball game played in some Jewish schools and camps.” The consequence of their action is having to plan the annual Bas Mitzvah Bash at the arcade. The planning sessions reignite Aviva’s and Kayla’s friendship in the weeks before the event and seem to have a positive effect on Ema as well. The dybbuk, also, is in high gear with wild shenanigans that Aviva attempts to stop. As Kayla and Aviva grow closer, and the caring community rallies around Ema, anti-semitism rears its ugly head, forcing Aviva to recall her father’s death and recognize the effect of that trauma. Lowe’s fluidity with language makes this compact story a smooth read. The emotions displayed in Aviva vs. the Dybbuk coupled with the engaging story give it universal appeal. Includes glossary (excerpted definitions in quotes above).

THOUGHTS: You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate Aviva’s situation. Lowe presents the story through Aviva’s eyes which may make it more relatable to students: The distant mother, the struggle to be independent and act like everything is fine, the alienation from classmates. Lead readers who like this book to Lilliam Rivera’s young adult novel, Never Look Back. The dybbuk goading Aviva parallels the mysterious creature named Ato who haunts the main character. This well-written, compelling story offers an opportunity for non-Jewish readers to learn about different aspects of the Jewish religion in a non-polemic way. Any way books can open us up to be more tolerant, understanding people is a good thing. 

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem – If You Were a Garbage Truck or Other Big-Wheeled Worker!

Ohanesian, Diane C. If You Were a Garbage Truck or Other Big-Wheeled Worker! Random House Studio, 2022. 978-0-593-37515-0. 32 p. $17.99. Grades K-2. 

Young readers get to imagine life from the perspective of ten different big-wheeled workers in this colorful rhyming story. The upbeat text puts a positive spin on the tough jobs these vehicles do each day, subtly encouraging readers to look on the sunny side too. Rather than focusing on the troubling parts of their jobs – trains traveling the same tracks day in and day out, fire trucks constantly being on-call, garbage trucks filling with smelly trash – this title’s rhyming verses put a positive spin on the important work each of these big-wheeled workers do each day. Trains are reliable transportation for many people, fire trucks always do the best work they can in emergency situations, and garbage trucks keep our towns and our planet clean. Every double-page spread features full-bleed, large-scale illustrations that capture each vehicle’s impressive size and the important work they’re built to do. In one scene, a tough-looking snow plow clears the pavement on a wintry afternoon. Another scene highlights a mail truck delivering all kinds of letters to a neighborhood. Bright colors, anthropomorphized vehicles, and a diverse cast of human characters help this title feel fresh and inclusive. 

THOUGHTS: Share this title with big truck enthusiasts and with teachers who focus on community helpers. It might also be useful for guidance counselors since it highlights themes of resilience, teamwork, and having a positive outlook. 

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD