Jack is a young boy who stays at his father’s house from time to time. Usually his dad tells jokes and they talk, but lately the house seems quiet. Jack worries that his parent feels lonely, just like him. On his next visit, the boy is surprised to learn that his Dad has taken in a parrot that he found on his doorstep. The bright green bird, known as Jimmy, is very talkative with its favorite phrase being “Hello, Jimmy!” His father enjoys talking to the parrot and telling it jokes, as he used to do with Jack. Now the house is no longer quiet. Neighbors are amazed by the animal and Jack wishes people thought he was amazing and worries that his father likes the bird more than him. One night the young boy dreams that his bedroom is full of birds, and he opens a window to let them out. In the morning, he realizes that Jimmy is gone and goes outside searching for him. When the worried father finds his son, Jack learns that his dad was not looking for the parrot, but for him and realizes that strong bond between them will never be broken. Walker’s charming illustrations are done in gouache and pencil with a lot of white space on the initial pages. As the parent and child grow closer, the pages fill with more color and the bare branches of the trees appear replete with foliage.
THOUGHTS: This is an endearing story of the love between father and son. While children living in two homes can connect to the story, many children can relate to the emotions Jack experiences in their own families. A quiet, comforting story that is appropriate for all elementary collections.
Palacio, R.J. Pony. Alfred A Knopf, 2021. 978-0-553-50811-6. $17.99. 304 p. Grades 4-7.
This historical fiction selection tells the story of Silas, a 12 year old boy living with his father in rural Ohio. Awoken in the middle of night by three strange men, Silas’ father is asked to accompany these men for a nefarious seeming reason. After some back and forth, Silas’ father agrees to leave with the men, to return in one week’s time. Silas is told to stay put and wait. The next day, one of the horses returns to the farm. Silas takes this as a sign that he is to set out to find his father. Silas is joined by Mittenwool, a ghost boy who has been with Silas since he was a tiny boy. Along his journey, Silas runs into people who help him on his quest to find his father. He also realizes that he can see those who have passed on. In his quest to find his father, Silas confronts many fears and mysteries that connect his past and future.
THOUGHTS: I had many questions of how Silas and his pony were able to sustain such a harrowing journey, but the scene where they find his father and his captures is a really exciting and a page turner! There is a lot of death in this story, so it’s definitely for the more mature reader. It’s kind of a cross between The Sixth Sense (I see dead people) and a western.
Historical Fiction Krista Fitzpatrick, Abington SD
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
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.
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