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

Elem. – Arlo Drans an Octopus

Mortensen, Lori. Arlo Drans an Octopus. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-419-74201-9. $16.99. Grades K-3.

Arlo likes to draw. One day he decided to draw an octopus because he likes them. Arlo begins to draw when he realizes that it does not look quite right. He continues to draw, only to realize that everything he is drawing does not look right. In fact, this is the worst octopus drawing ever! In his frustration, Arlo throws his drawing, only to remember that he should not litter. As he goes to pick up his drawing, he picks up someone else’s drawing and someone else has his! As he stares at the drawing of a boy, he realizes that an octopus has drawn it and it is fantastic! What will the octopus think of Arlo’s drawing?

THOUGHTS: A fun picture book on confidence and realizing that although we are not perfect, we can still create amazing things!

Picture Book                        Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

Elem. – Milo Imagines the World

de la Pena, Matt. Milo Imagines the World. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021. 978-0-399-54908-3. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-3.

While riding the subway with his sister, Milo observes the people around him and imagines their lives outside of the train. Then, he draws pictures of these people going about the lives he has envisioned for them. However, when a well-dressed boy ends up at the same destination as Milo – a correctional facility to visit his mother – Milo begins to reconsider all of the assumptions he made just by looking at people. An eye-opening and thought-provoking story, this book will encourage young readers to look past first impressions and preconceived notions and instead see individuals for who they really are.

THOUGHTS: I love how cleverly and subtly this story conveys the timeless message that one should never judge a book by its cover. Not only is it relatable for children with parents who are incarcerated, but it is an excellent conversation-starter for others who want to understand these children and their families. Art lovers will also love critiquing Milo’s drawings–and may even be inspired to create some drawings of their own to portray their individual views of the world. This should be a definite consideration for purchase! 

Picture Book          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member

Elem. – The Chalk Giraffe

Paxton, Kirsty. The Chalk Giraffe. Capstone Editions, 2020. 978-1-684-46096-0. Unpaged. $17.95. Grades PreK-2.

A little girl draws a giraffe on the pavement in chalk, and then she imagines that he comes to life. Her giraffe, however, is unhappy, and starts asking her to draw other objects to appease him. She eventually grows frustrated and erases the giraffe, only to draw him again the next day. This time, the giraffe draws her into the picture, too, and she is finally able to see that he is simply lonely. After she draws some other animals, including another giraffe, her chalk friend finally begins to smile. A beautiful story about companionship and seeing the world through someone else’s perspective, this imaginative book is sure to convey some important messages to young readers.

THOUGHTS: Rhyming verses make this a delightful read aloud. Pair it with Fiona Roberton’s A Tale of Two Beasts (2015) for a lesson on different points of view, or use it to introduce a chalk art lesson. Have students think about what makes them happy and draw their own picture that includes all of their favorite things.

Picture Book          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member