YA – The Life I’m In

Flake, Sharon G. The Life I’m In. Scholastic Press, 2021. $18.99. 978-1-338-57317-6. Grades 9-12.

In Sharon G. Flake’s best selling novel, The Skin I’m In, Charlese–Char–Jones is the confident bully wreaking havoc on the life of the diffident and vulnerable Maleeka. In The Life I’m In, African-American Char appears as the main character, still inwardly grieving for the loss of her beloved parents, and continuing to make bad decisions. Her older sister and guardian, Juju, has begun to get her life together–stopping the house parties and securing a job in a bank–and needs Char–sixteen and a seventh-grade drop out–to live with their grandparents in Alabama. At the start of this reluctant bus trip, Char is flippant and rude, comical and outspoken. The passengers are alternately annoyed and amused by her unself- conscious antics. When young, white mother, April gets on the bus with her three-month old biracial baby, Char’s maternal instincts urge her to assist April. Bound for a job, April shows the distressed signs of living rough on the streets. To provide for her child, she sells narcotics and sexual favors to truck drivers; she suppresses suspicion about this new employment that requires she pay for the position. When April disembarks the bus with baby Cricket in tow, naive Char decides she will go out on her own and not continue to Alabama. Thinking it is temporary, she volunteers to take care of Cricket when April’s aunt never shows up at the bus station and well-dressed and smooth talking Anthony arrives as April’s ride to Florida. Char enlists all her resources to persuade a hotel proprietor to rent her a suite; she figures out and procures the necessary baby supplies with the money from Juju; she contacts Juju and even the newly reconciled Maleeka to tell them of her actions if not her whereabouts. Char may talk a good game, but she is young, inexperienced, and a virgin. When Char’s funds dwindle and her efforts to find work are hindered by her motherly duties, she runs into Anthony again and, in an attempt to save Cricket, finds herself a victim of sex trafficking. Author Flake describes the depravity of Char’s existence during this time delicately, but does not stint on the truth. Char receives some solace in the community of other girls in Anthony’s pack, who seem to be of different races and backgrounds. When she eventually escapes and is reunited with Juju, Char needs the help of not only her sister, but also Maleeka, her former teacher, Ms. Saunders, and professionals to survive the trauma and feel truly free. The fluid text reflects Char’s actual voice, and her first-person narration gives an intense look into her complex feelings and her maturity as she tries to survive under egregious conditions. Although the stress and suffering Char conveys is painful to read about, readers will find this a compelling book.

THOUGHTS: This is a harsh story to tell, and Sharon Flake tells it well. The book serves as a mirror for those who have suffered sexual abuse or trauma of any kind as well as a window into the lives of people who have experienced homelessness and poverty. The reader leaves feeling not pity but understanding and an admiration for the resilience and effort exerted by trauma victims. It acts as a call for all to refrain from rash judgements and to be kind. Char’s second escape from Anthony seems contrived (would the driver wait for Char as she says good-bye to Maleeka?); however, readers will be rooting for the happy ending.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Say Her Name

Elliott, Zetta. Say Her Name. Little, 2020. 978-1-368-04524-7. 96 p. $18.99. Grades 8+.

A beautiful collection of poetry that celebrates the voices of Black women and girls throughout the ages. The colorful pages call the reader to reflect and act in the world in which we live. Four poems are tributes to and inspired by strong Black women’s voices of the past including Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, and Phillis Wheatley. The collection is clearly meant for Black women and girls, but can be enjoyed by all readers, regardless of their identity. Each page is empowering and can be a solid springboard for discussion.

THOUGHTS: Although stunning, this remarkable collection is recommended for high school libraries who need to revitalize their print poetry material or who have readers interested in reflection, self-care, and individual insight.

811 Poetry          Samantha Hull, Ephrata

Elem. – A Girl Like You

Murphy, Frank. A Girl Like You. Sleeping Bear Press, 2020. $16.99. 32 p. $16.99. 978-1-534-11096-0. Grades K-3.

A Girl Like You is a celebration of all of the things a girl can be: brave, bold, empathetic, radiant,  proud, and more. The story begins with a girl who stands apart from a sea of adults and then moves through all of the ways that she is unique. Mantra-like text such as “radiant girl, stand tall” is supported by diverse portrait style illustrations showing girls in action demonstrating the qualities discussed. The main character shows bravery when standing up for herself and boldness while leading others to speak out. Girls are encouraged to learn, lead and care for others without forgetting to take care of herself. The main protagonist of this story presents as Asian with a lovely dark golden complexion, rosy cheeks, and long straight dark hair past her shoulders which is often worn in a loose braid. The myriad of girls included throughout the book represent nearly every skin, body, and hair type imaginable including permanent and temporary differing abilities. Multiple images of girls with wheelchairs and prosthetic or missing limbs are included throughout. Girls with Vitiligo, Albinism, and freckles appear along with a rainbow of skin tones. Many girls wear khimar, scarfs, or bandannas. A few are bald or have very short hair including one that is presumably due to medical treatment. Children appear to be elementary age. Some scenes include boys working and playing alongside, but the focus remains on encouraging young girls.

THOUGHTS: As inclusive as a children’s book can possibly be, this book is a good one to have on hand when discussing differences with children or introducing women’s history celebrations to younger readers.

Picture Book          Jackie Fulton, Mt. Lebanon SD

Elem. – One Girl

Beatty, Andrea. One Girl. Abrams, 2020. $16.99. 32 p. 978-1-419-71905-9. Grades K-3. 

One dejected looking little girl sits all alone on the steps of a remote porch underneath a starry sky when a glowing book falls to her feet like a comet. Immediately upon opening it, her world changes into a brightly colored  fantasyland where books grow on trees and pencils sprout from the earth. As the young girl travels through this wondrous land, she witnesses diverse women working independently as artists, scientists, and leaders. The next morning she races to school to share her treasure with an eager and diverse group of students. Shortly after, she picks up a pencil and begins writing while astonished classmates watch the magic spill from her hand. Next, boys and girls alike follow her lead and begin to read, write, and share their unique stories while elements of their stories: a tiger, a grand piano, a helicopter, and hot air balloons float overhead. Later, by the light of the moon another girl sits on the front steps and watches as several new glowing books fall from the sky. Lovely, repetitive prose “One girl glowing/shares her song” reinforces the beauty of a young girl finding her voice yet also allows the reader to be fully immersed in the opportunities she has opened with her love of books. The young girl protagonist along with her supportive teacher present as Asian with medium-beige skin and beautiful dark hair. Classmates all wear the same school uniform but represent a variety of ethnicities among skin and hair colors.

THOUGHTS: One Girl is a loving tribute to the power of reading, writing, and storytelling. In addition to being a lovely read aloud, this title would make a great introduction to a writing unit or a classroom conversation about how words and actions can affect others. Short and repetitive text surrounded by stunning art with some graphic elements make this a nice option for sharing with pre-readers or English language learners who may need a little nudge to find their reading groove. This book has a place in any school library collection, classroom libraries, and beyond.

Picture Book          Jackie Fulton, Mt. Lebanon SD

MG – Love Your Body: Your Body Can do Amazing Things

Sanders, Jessica. Love Your Body: Your Body Can do Amazing Things. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. 2020. 978-0-711-25242-4. $17.99. Grades 5-8+.

“Freedom is loving your body with all its “imperfections” and being the perfectly imperfect you!” As stated on the back of the cover, your body is perfectly imperfect and designated for you! What if every young girl thought this way about their body? What if all young girls loved their body? This book shares how all bodies come in different shapes, sizes, and colors and they are ever changing. Self-help tips, strategies to help love your body and build your confidence, and even help to talk to someone when you are feeling down is all found within this book. “My body is strong. My body can do amazing things. My body is my own.”

THOUGHTS: A great read for girls struggling with body image and health self-help and care. Although I would recommend for grades 5-8, I believe this book is equally as important for older readers.

155.43 Body Image          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

Elem. – Bo the Brave

Woollvin, Bethan. Bo the Brave. Peachtree Publishing, . 978-1-682-63182-9. 32 p. $17.99. Grades K-3. 

When Bo’s older brothers set off on a monster hunt, she wants to accompany them, but they refuse, telling her she’s too little. Instead of accepting their words, Bo begins her own quest. Each monster she encounters makes her pause, and she takes time to look past first impressions and gets to know each creature’s true nature. This insightfulness ultimately leads her back to her castle where she pulls off her final, most heroic act. A tight palette of orange, pink, teal, and gray provide the inspiration for this alpine world, dotted with mountains, lakes, forests, and seas. Sharp-eyed readers will notice the foreshadowing of each monster from one spread to the next. 

THOUGHTS: Instead of accepting peoples’ opinions, Bo sets out to prove she’s smart and brave and strong. Her self-confidence is refreshing and will inspire readers, particularly girls, to follow their own dreams and set off on their own adventures instead of remaining on the sidelines. Themes of acceptance and not judging based solely on appearance also shine through in this medieval remix. 

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD