YA – The Black Kids

Reed, Christina Hammonds. The Black Kids. Simon & Schuster, 2020. 978-1-534-46272-4. 362. p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Los Angeles is in flames after the police officers who beat Rodney King senseless are acquitted. These events of the early 90s have an intense, life-changing effect on native Angelinos and upper middle-class African Americans, Ashley Bennett and her older sister Jo. As Christina Hammonds Reed’s relatable narrator, the popular, thoughtful Ashley, nears graduation, she starts to view her childhood (white) friends differently, a situation exacerbated by the local disruptions. Her teenage stresses about college acceptances, parental conflicts, and illicit flirting, pale once the riots start and her rebellious sister Jo drops out of school, marries, and protests the verdicts. Ashley has lived a privileged life pampered by the family’s Guatemalan housekeeper, Lucia, and indulged in every material way. Now, her father’s family-owned business–run all these years by his brother– is in ruin, bringing her uncle and her cousin to the Bennetts’ doorstep. When Ashley connects with the kind, charming basketball star, LaShawn Johnson who attends the elite prep school on scholarship, and the off-beat Lana Haskins who is possibly a victim of physical abuse, she questions her friend choices and wonders why she has no Black friends. When Ashley inadvertently starts a rumor at her school that gets LaShawn suspended, she finds it difficult to rectify the situation; but it makes her reflect on the inequity in the lives of people of color. Her sister’s mounting militancy finally gets her arrested and sentenced, though she was just one of the crowd of protestors when someone threw a Molotov cocktail setting a fire. Ashley becomes accepted by the Black kids at school and discovers she can widen her circle of friends. More importantly, the Bennett family grows better at communicating with each other and, in doing that, they realize they care deeply about each other. Christina Hammonds Reed takes a coming-of-age story set in the early nineties against the backdrop of the Rodney King beatings to a new level. The relationships, tension, and plot development as well as the cultural references and dialogue draw in the reader. In particular, Reed’s writing style is fresh and exact, giving a unique take on the typical high school tropes—mothers vs. daughters, siblings, popularity, the future, romance, self-discovery –thus making The Black Kids a compelling read.

THOUGHTS: Recommend this title to high school students who liked Karen English’s middle grade novel, It All Comes Down to This that told of the Watts riots, and lead them to Ana Deavere Smith’s one-woman show featuring the players in the Rodney King beating and its aftermath, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Activism and passivity are shown in the two sisters and students can discuss these divergent characters. The difficulty separating from childhood friends or the desire to be seen in a different light as one matures is a strong theme in this book. Though the elements of the story are not uncommon, Reed’s gifted writing style pulls you into to the book.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Displacement

Hughes, Kiku. Displacement. First Second. 2020. 978-1-250-19353-7. 274 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

Two of the most acclaimed books of 2019 were They Called Us Enemy by George Takei and Internment by Samira Ahmed. Readers seeking an exceptional read-alike will find one in Displacement by Kiku Hughes. In this debut graphic novel, a Seattle teen (also named Kiku) experiences “displacements” to other places in time. The first time, she is on a trip to San Francisco with her mom, who is exploring her own mother’s former neighborhood in Japantown. Ernestina and her parents, immigrants from Japan, lived there until 1942, when they were relocated to incarceration camps along with 120,000 other people of Japanese descent (“nikkei”). After brief displacements to her grandmother’s violin recital and to a line at a transportation center, Kiku experiences a longer displacement to the camp at the Tanforan Racetrack. There, she’s assigned to a stable next to Ernestina and her parents. Kiku’s roommate, Aiko, guides her through the long lines, mess hall, roll call, and day-to-day life in the camp. After a transfer to the more permanent Topaz camp in Utah, Kiku experiences firsthand the traumas, divided loyalties, and resistance that will continue to be felt for generations among the nikkei. When, or even if, Kiku will return home lends suspense to this beautifully rendered story of intergenerational memory.

THOUGHTS: Kiku Hughes writes in her Author’s Note, “History and memory have tremendous power to heal us and give us the tools we need to know ourselves and navigate the world.” This very accomplished story is definitely one of these tools; its readers will learn from and about the experiences of Japanese Americans.

Note: In her Glossary of Terms, Kiku Hughes explains her decision to use “incarceration camp” instead of “internment camp” or “American concentration camp” throughout Displacement.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Elem. – Flooded:  Requiem for Johnstown

Burg, Ann E. Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown. Scholastic Press, 2020. 978-1-338-54069-7. 313 p. $16.53. Grades 3-6.

Gertrude Quinn is a spirited young school girl, looking forward to singing at Decoration Day.  Daniel Fagan is planning a summer spent outdoors, maybe even sneaking a swim in at the private late at the top of King’s Mountain. Monica Fagan is looking forward to traveling the world, especially if it means she’ll leave Daniel and his pranks behind. Joe Dixon is waiting for the perfect moment–the perfect moment to tell his father he isn’t working at the company store but instead bought a newsstand, and the perfect moment to propose to his true love, Maggie. William James has been collecting words for a long time, and he’ll get a chance to use them when he reads an original poem at Decoration Day. George Hoffman wishes his pa would let him quit school so he can go to work to help his family of 10. In Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown, Ann E. Berg tells a tale of the lives that were being lived before the disaster on May 31, 1889, that took the lives of more than 2,200 people, including 99 entire families and 396 children. We follow six main characters as they prepare for the Decoration Day celebration, disappointed by the rain but oblivious to the calamity about to unfold. We see the flood as experienced by these characters, and we also witness the aftermath. The flood is the catalyst, but it is not the main character. Instead, Burg has chosen to tell a tale of lives lived, lost and saved.

THOUGHTS: The character development and storytelling will attract students who may not know about the Johnstown flood, and it will likely encourage students to read more about this catastrophe.

Historical Fiction        Melissa Johnston, North Allegheny SD

YA – We Are Not Free

Chee, Traci. We Are Not Free. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-13143-4. $17.99. 384 p. Grades 9 and up.

Traci Chee’s National Book Award Finalist, We Are Not Free, takes the reader from the close-knit community of Japantown in San Francisco at the start of World War II to the gradual closing of the Japanese imprisonment camps at the end of the war. Told in first-person narrative, each teen—ranging from ages 14 to 19–brings a perspective of life as an American of Japanese descent, from the growing discrimination toward the Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the injustices of the camps to the explicit racism displayed when their families return to their former neighborhood. In a novel where credible character development is critical, author Chee shows a wide range of astute writing ability inhabiting the minds of the varied group of young people inhabiting two camps, Topaz and Tule Lake. Sensitive Aiko Harano who at only 13 realizes not only the unfairness of the American government’s oppression of her family and friends, but also the repugnancy of her own parents’ abusive treatment of her older brother, Tommy. Intellectual Stan Katsumoto surrenders his hard-earned dream of continuing his college education when he sides with his parents in being a “No No” person: refusing to relinquish allegiance to the Japanese emperor when no allegiance had ever been formed. Perhaps the most impressive chapter is David “Twitchy” Hashimoto’s, the happy-go-lucky, ever-moving nineteen-year-old who, like several of his friends, volunteered to serve in the military, to go to war. The battle description Chee develops with Twitchy’s commentary is both action-packed and gut-wrenching. Though there are other selections telling of the imprisonment of the Japanese-Americans (in an afterword, Chee advises to delete the term, Japanese internment, in favor of more accurate terms like incarceration, imprisonment, forced removal), We Are Not Free dives deep into what it was like in the camps and how it affected a non-combative community. Works like Journey to Topaz  by Yoshiko Uchida, Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata, or Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban—to name just a few–give readers a glimpse into this ignominious period of American history, but We Are Not Free covers the full scope and does so through the voices of teens with whom young readers can relate. This book tells a powerful story, one that has not always been fully explored, but has a new resonance in today’s society. Contains further readings, some historical images.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: After reading this book, I feel that all the other historical fiction books on this topic are just a prelude. If I had to choose one book to recommend on the experience in Japanese prison camps to a high school student, We Are Free would be the one. Chee is able to reveal the complications of feeling American and patriotic while also feeling unaccepted by and disheartened by one’s government. In literature lessons, students can examine the character development in a short chapter. In history class, the revelations of injustices and wrongs can be debated and discussed.

MG – Show Me a Sign

LeZotte, Ann Clare. Show Me a Sign. Scholastic Press, 2020. 269 p.  978-1-338-25581-2. $ 18.99. Grades 4-7.

Part Historical Fiction and part Thriller, this story is set in 1805 Martha’s Vineyard and follows 11 year old Mary. Mary is one of the many deaf inhabitants of Martha’s Vineyard who descended from a small town in England. This genetic abnormality passes over some, yet inflicts others. However, life on the island is normal for the deaf and hearing alike. Most inhabitants speak their own form of island sign language as well as English. Life is normal until a young scientist from Boston comes to the island to study this abnormality. In trying to uncover the cause of deafness, Andrew captures Mary as his specimen and absconds with her to mainland Boston. Tortured by her captor, and realizing that she is different for the first time, Mary must find a way to escape and return to her family. Follow Mary as she escapes with the help of some Vineyard friends and finds her way home to her family and friends. The afterword includes a short history of deafness on Martha’s Vineyard, Sign Language, and the Wampanoag Tribe.

THOUGHTS: Such an interesting and unforgettable story that is rooted in history. LeZotte is deaf herself and does a fantastic job of bringing you into the world of Mary.

Historical Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

Tags: Deafness, Kidnapping, Sign Language

YA – The Boy in the Red Dress

Lambert, Kristin. The Boy in the Red Dress. Viking, 2020. 978-0-593-11368-4. $18.99. 362 p. Grades 9 and up. 

It’s New Year’s Eve, 1929 in the French Quarter, and Millie is running her Aunt Cal’s speakeasy, the Cloak and Dagger, while she’s out of town. Running a speakeasy during prohibition is dangerous enough, but the Cloak and Dagger’s entertainment includes drag shows, and the patrons are primarily from the LGBTQ community, making it doubly scandalous by 1929’s standards. The employees and patrons take care of each other though, and Millie, who is bisexual herself, would love nothing more than if her Aunt would let her quit school and help her run the place. This New Year’s Eve, she thinks, might be her chance to prove herself. But then a group of high-society newbies show up to the Cloak and Dagger, and one of them starts looking for a boy from her past she’s showing in a photograph, a boy who looks an awful lot like Millie’s best friend, who now goes by Marion and is the “undisputed queen of the Cloak and Dagger.” After Marion’s big performance at midnight, the girl – Arimentha – is found dead in the alley, apparently pushed off the balcony near Marion’s dressing room, and all the evidence points to Marion as the murderer when details emerge about their past. Millie knows her best friend is not a murderer; she just has to prove it to everyone else. As if solving a murder mystery isn’t complicated enough, Millie’s mostly-absent mother reappears forcing her to deal with some repressed feelings, and throughout her quest to clear Marion’s name, she also finds herself romantically interested in both Bennie – the son of one of their bootlegged alcohol suppliers – and Olive – a waitress at the Cloak and Dagger.

THOUGHTS: This is a fun, different kind of LGBTQ tale given the time period. Though primarily a mystery, the novel has lots of layers including a love triangle that is good but very much a sub-plot that doesn’t take over the primary storyline. Touches on the history of the time period, but at its heart, this murder mystery is just plain entertaining with a likeable cast of outcast characters, even Millie’s flawed mother. Highly recommended for collections where patrons can’t get enough LGBTQ.

Mystery          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

MG – Becoming Muhammad Ali

Patterson, James, and Alexander, Kwame. Becoming Muhammad Ali. Jimmy Patterson Books, 2020. 978-0-316-49816-6. 310 p. $16.99. Grades 4-8.

We all know about the legend that is Muhammad Ali, but few know about the boy called Cassius Clay. This book, written partly in verse and partly in prose is a must read for any sports loving reader. Told in ten rounds, like a boxing match, Clay’s friend Lucky tells part of the story (written by Patterson) while Cassius’ voice is told in verse (written by Alexander). Learn how the events of the day shaped Clay into Ali and how sheer determination and self belief led to Clay’s success. A bibliography is included.

THOUGHTS: A first purchase for any middle grade library collection.

Realistic Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

YA – The Vanishing Half

Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. Riverhead Books. 2020. 978-0-525-53629-1. 343 pp. $27.00. Gr. 10+.

In 1954, the morning after Founders Day, the 16-year old Vignes twins disappeared from their tiny town of Mallard, Louisiana. Desiree and Stella made their way to New Orleans, where their lives took two very different directions and identities. Stella began “passing” as white, and Desiree continued living as a black woman. Now, fourteen years later, Desiree has returned to Mallard with a young daughter in tow. Jude’s dark complexion makes waves in Mallard, a town founded on the principle of prizing each generation’s lighter and lighter skin tones. No one has seen or heard from Stella in almost as many years. The narrative shifts between 1968, when Desiree and Jude arrive in Mallard, and 1978, when Jude herself leaves to attend UCLA. There she falls in love with a trans man named Reese. Brit Bennett expertly depicts each time period and setting, weaving in real-world events such the integration of wealthy suburban neighborhoods, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the early days of the AIDS crisis. She realistically embeds each woman’s story within the timeline, gradually turning up the tension in one plot strand before focusing on another, equally well-crafted, character arc. No jaw-dropping plot twists are required in a historical novel this good, with storylines that converge, draw apart, and come together again with heartbreaking realism.

THOUGHTS: Crisp, unpretentious writing, vivid settings, and characters who genuinely feel real make for one of the best reads of 2020.

Historical Fiction          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

Elem. – Leaving Lymon

Cline-Ransome, Lesa. Leaving Lymon. Holiday House, 2020. 978-0-823-44442-7. 199 p. $17.99. Grades 4-6.

In this companion novel to Finding Langston, Cline-Ransome creates a story about ten year old Lymon, an African-American boy who lives in Vicksburg, Mississippi with his grandparents during the 1940s Jim Crow era. Lymon’s mother abandoned him when he was an infant, and his father is in prison. Despite this, he is happy enough with his life, especially when playing the guitar with his grandfather. Life changes for Lymon after his grandfather dies, and he and his grandmother move to Milwaukee. Lymon has difficulty adjusting to life in the North and struggles in school. When his grandmother becomes ill, he is sent to live with his mother in Chicago. Even though this is what he always wanted, he faces challenges in his new life with his abusive stepfather and emotionally distant mother. After a bad decision, Lymon must come to terms with yet another life adjustment, one which has the potential to change his life forever.

THOUGHTS: Told in first person, this novel allows the reader to understand the difficulties and emotions that Lymon experiences. The author has created a likeable character and readers will be rooting for him and hope for a sequel to learn what happens next. This is a strong purchase for all middle grade libraries.

Historical Fiction          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Elem. – Freedom Bird

Nolen, Jerdine. Freedom Bird. Simon & Schuster, 2020. 978-0-689-87167-2. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades 2-5.

Brother and sister Millicent and John Wheeler are enslaved children whose parents instilled in them the dream of freedom. One day, while the children are working in the fields of a North Carolina plantation, the overseer takes a whip and hits a large mysterious bird, knocking it to the ground. At night, the children rescue the bird and keep it safe. The siblings learn that John would soon be sold to a farm in Georgia, and the pair realize that now is the time to make their escape. As the children run away from the overseer, the bird takes flight into a storm and heads west. The children hide in the woods during the storm and they eventually escape westward across the Missouri River. On the last page, the author reveals this tale was one that was told by storytellers and utilized the common imagery of the bird’s flight to symbolize freedom. James E. Ransome has created vibrant full bleed illustrations that show the characters on a large scale, like the drawing of the bird taking flight. The images masterfully show motion, and the reader can almost feel a breeze from the bird’s wings.

THOUGHTS: This book completes a trilogy of stories that feature African Americans from the same plantation and their journey to freedom from slavery (Big Jabe and Thunder Rose). This book works well as a mentor text for imagery and metaphor and shows the power of storytelling. A wonderful read aloud for anytime.

Easy Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member