Elem. – My Two Border Towns

Bowles, David and Erik Meza. My Two Border Towns. Illustrated by Erika Meza. Kokila, 2021. 978-0-593-11104-8. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-2.

Life along the U.S. – Mexico border can be more similar than different, especially for a small Hispanic boy who makes weekend trips back and forth with his father. “Vamos a la otra lado.” (Let’s go to the other side.) Once they pass through customs into the Mexican town, they run chores, visit family, and eat at their favorite places. The boy is proud of the gifts and supplies that they are collecting along the way. Erik Maza illustrates the town with friendly people, peaceful streets, and colorful tones. David Bowles brings in Spanish terms and phrases with mostly English narrative to tell their routine journey. The trip ends with an important and realistic stop near the border bridge, where a large group of refugees are camped out and waiting. “The US says there’s no room, and Mexico says it can barely look after it’s own gente.” The boy seeks out his friend who is waiting, and hands over the collected toys, comics, medicine and supplies to the grateful family. The dilemma of crossing the border freely as citizens leaves the boy, and perhaps the readers, wishing for a future of compassion and friendship.

THOUGHTS: Making a complex and never ending issue such as immigration and border control work through the eyes of a child is always a lesson in empathy. In this case, the author chooses to show the connections rather than the divisions between the two countries with a stunning effect. Discussions comparing similarities and differences between students’ towns and the story may continue the conversation. Recommended.

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

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

MG – Before the Ever After

Woodson, Jacqueline. Before the Ever After. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2020. 978-0-399-54543-6. 176 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

Known for her powerful verse, Jacqueline Woodson takes on a topic that many fiction pieces haven’t touched: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Admittedly, as a recent discovery in neuroscience, the condition may not be prevalent in large numbers of readers, but the awareness is beginning to spread. Middle readers who pick up this book, especially young athletes, will likely recognize some of ZJ’s dad’s symptoms throughout his story as having to do with his professional football career. Although awareness of CTE is important, the story ZJ tells in this book can be applied to any adolescent dealing with change and identity. It begs the question: What is the value of family traditions and memories?

THOUGHTS: Buy this book immediately, and hand it out to all seventh grade football players. In all seriousness, this short verse-novel can be the hook a lot of reluctant readers need into using literature to help explain trauma in their own lives.

Realistic/Verse Novel          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD