Elem. – My Words Flew Away Like Birds

Pearson, Debora. My Words Flew Away Like Birds. Kids Can Press, 2021. 978-1-525-30318-0. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PreK-2. 

My Words Flew Away Like Birds follows the unnamed main character as she and her family move from one country to another. She talks about how she knew certain things when she lived in her home and now, going to a new place, she has some new words to learn. She talks about how those new words felt weird to her, and the reader follows her journey as she learns to adjust to living in a new place. The illustrations are beautiful light colors with the dark colors of the characters and buildings make a very interesting illustration to the reader as they are going through the book.

THOUGHTS: This was a very enjoyable book to read, and many readers will empathize with the main character and her journey of moving to a new place. 

Picture Book                Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Elem./MG – Living with Viola

Fung, Rosena. Living with Viola. Annick Press, 2021. 978-1-773-21548-8. 267 p. $22.95. Grades 3-7.

Many people have experienced an occasional internal voice saying: You are weird, bad things happen because of you, no one likes you … for Canadian 6th grader Olivia, this anxiety manifests as a shadowy “twin” named Viola who hovers nearby, pulling Livy out of the moment with reminders that validate her deep self-doubts. Livy worries that her lunch smells strange, that she’s “too Chinese” or not Chinese enough, and that she is a disappointment to her family (her parents are immigrants). As Viola gains strength and volume, the negative dialogue seriously affects Livy’s confidence and friendships. It also undermines her enjoyment of her hobbies, including drawing, reading, and making dumplings with her mom. Fortunately, with a solid support system, Livy learns that “sometimes, the very strongest and bravest thing you can do is to ask for help.” Debut author Rosena Fung depicts Livy’s anxiety, depression, and panic attacks through dusky, bruise-purple panels and flowing rivers of negative thoughts. Happier, lighthearted moments and school scenes occur in a warm, autumnal color scheme.

THOUGHTS: This excellent middle grade graphic novel creatively delivers the most important message of all for young readers: You are not alone! Livy always may have anxiety, but she also can thrive. Fans of Guts by Raina Telgemeier will love it!

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

MG – The Year I Flew Away

Arnold, Marie. The Year I Flew Away. Versify, 2021. 978-0-358-27275-5. 285 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Marie Arnold establishes herself as a gifted storyteller, weaving realistic setting with a magical tale involving a talking rat, wishes, and witches. Ten-year-old Gabrielle Jean’s Haitian family sends her to live with her uncle and aunt in Flatbush, a busy neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, until they can save enough funds to join her. She looks forward to the American Dream, but it doesn’t take long before it is shattered. Classmates make fun of her accent; she feels strange and left out. Though Carmen, a Mexican-American girl, is anxious to be her friend, Gabrielle still feels incredibly lonely and unmoored from her friends and immediate family in Haiti. These bleak feelings motivate her to make a deal with the witch, Lady Lydia, in Prospect Park. Lady Lydia gives Gabrielle three magic mango slices. Each one represents a wish; each wish granted brings Gabrielle closer to Lady Lydia capturing her essence. With the first mango slice, Gabrielle loses her accent, making her better understood and accepted by the other students. The second mango slice is even more powerful. After eating it, Gabrielle not only erases her memories of Haiti but also entails the added consequence of losing her entire Flatbush family. Seemingly, Gabrielle’s wishes have been fulfilled. Her classmates believe they have known Gabrielle forever and believe she was born in America, but, of course, she cannot be happy without her aunt, uncle, the toddler twins, and teen-age cousin. It troubles her that she can no longer communicate in Haitian Creole. Rocky, a rat Gabrielle encounters on the street, nicely translates for her and helps Gabrielle problem solve how she will outwit Lady Lydia (though Rocky has its own unfulfilled wish to be a rabbit). As the school looks forward to Culture Day, Gabrielle tries to resist the last mango and still save her family. She knows she needs the help of a good witch to counteract this bad witch who desires a homogenous Brooklyn where perfection is everyone is the same. Arnold whips up a twenty-first century fairy tale to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion that blends American patriotism, pride in and acceptance of differences, and appreciation of one’s heritage.

THOUGHTS: If Kate DiCamillo is an author who demonstrates the beauty of language, then Marie Arnold is an author who demonstrates the beauty of storytelling. Accessible, genuine, and creative, Ms. Arnold weaves an unusual tale (sometimes I had to stretch my believability especially when Gabrielle cozies up to vermin who wishes to be a rabbit) that builds to a crescendo of patriotism, pride in one’s culture and heritage. Realistically, most sixth grade students may not have the ability to wax eloquently about their backgrounds, yet Arnold has Gabrielle come to the realization that a person can be an immigrant loyal to the country of one’s birth and equally be an American, loyal to a new country. An added bonus is the character of Mrs. Bartell, the solicitous school librarian who happens to be Haitian-American and helps Gabrielle every step of the way.

Fantasy          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia
Magic Realism

Elem. – Starting Over in Sunset Park

Pelaez, Jose & Lynn McGee. Starting Over in Sunset Park. Tilbury House Publishers, 2021. 978-0-884-48844-6 p. 40. $17.95. Grades 1-5. 

Brooklyn, New York, can be a lonely and intimidating place for an eight-year-old girl. Especially a girl that moves to the United States for the first time and speaks very little English. Starting Over in Sunset Park is the story of an immigrant girl finding her place in a vastly different environment than what she had previously known. Jessica and her mother Camila moved from the Dominican Republic into a crowded apartment in Brooklyn to live with cousins. With the apartment feeling a bit crowded, Jessica’s mother finds work making holiday decorations in a factory so that they can afford their own place to live. Jessica also feels isolated in her new school, the playground is challenging to play in, and she cannot understand the English she hears all day long. Throughout the story, the reader feels Jessica’s intense longing for her previous home and the desire to feel accepted and comfortable in this new place. Little by little, Jessica and her mother adapt to their new home, and thanks to an incredible experience, mother and daughter are inspired to make the best of their situation. Starting Over in Sunset Park will resonate with any reader who has experienced change and begun anew.

THOUGHTS: Starting Over in Sunset Park is a lovely picture book that embraces immigration, change, and overcoming obstacles. Jessica and Camilia’s journey is compassionate and full of hope. With the inclusion of the Spanish Language, this picture book would resonate strongly with anyone who has ever made a home in a new country and learned a new language.

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

A Dominican girl shares her experience moving to New York City with her mother. After her first airplane ride, the young girl is homesick and nervous about settling into their new neighborhood. Feeling at home isn’t easy while staying with family but Mama soon gets a job in a factory making seasonal decorations and a new apartment just for the two of them. Once school starts, the girl is frustrated trying to keep up with the lessons in English but makes progress thanks to help from Mama and an understanding teacher. Cat-sitting for neighbors provides the duo with a side income and a steady stream of feline friends who are also adjusting to new surroundings. Before long, she and Mama begin to settle in, make friends and start to feel at home in the city. Mother, daughter, and their immediate family are portrayed as having brown skin and dark hair. The girl wears her hair in beaded braids while mother’s is long and naturally curly. Background scenes featuring diverse individuals are included throughout detailed, brightly colored illustrations of their day-to-day lives. Spanish phrases followed by English translations are sprinkled throughout the first-person narrative text. Graphic style illustrations paired with text bubbles are scattered among immersive full page illustrations teeming with details. Although the timeline appears to be approximately a year, Halloween and Christmas decorations are featured heavily within the illustrations.

THOUGHTS: A relatable read about one family’s experience immigrating from the Dominican Republic to Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Picture Book          Jackie Fulton, Mt. Lebanon SD 

Elem./MG – The Magical Reality of Nadia

Youssef, Bassam. The Magical Reality of Nadia. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-67481-1. 176 p. $14.99. Grades 3-6.

The Magical Reality of Nadia is a realistic fiction that follows Nadia, a 6th grade student who loves facts, and loves sharing them with her friends and classmates. Some fun facts about her: her family moved from Egypt when she was 6 years old, she collects bobbleheads, and she has a hippo amulet she wears that is actually from Ancient Egypt. One day there is a new student that comes to Nadia’s school who teases her about her heritage which causes some issues with her friends and throws Nadia for a loop. The other thing that throws her for a loop? The amulet around Nadia’s neck starts glowing! She finds that her amulet was holding a secret, which is hilarious and helpful at the same time!

THOUGHTS: This is an amazing transition novel, for a student who isn’t ready for longer chapter books. There are black and white illustrations found throughout the novel, which break up the book. This is a great book to have in any upper elementary/middle school collection.

Realistic Fiction          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

YA – From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: the Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement

Yoo, Paula. From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement. Norton Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-324-00287-1. $19.95. Grades 9 and up.

Journalist Paula Yoo employs the device of Jarod Lew’s connection with the brutal murder of Chinese-American Vincent Chin in 1982 Detroit to reveal the timeline and details of the landmark event. Lew discovers his mother was the grief-stricken fiancé of Chin, and Yoo uses his discovery as a way to connect the reader with the present—another time where racism against Asian-American/Pacific Islanders (AAPI) has surfaced. Lew’s narrative appears intermittently while the remainder of the narrative non-fiction work lays out the altercation, aftermath, and legal ramifications between the groom-to-be Chin and Ronald Ebens, an autoworker supervisor and his adult stepson, Michael Nitz. The only son of Chinese immigrants, twenty-seven year old Vincent Chin was a go-getter out for a bachelor party with his pals before his June wedding to Vikki Wong when he encountered Ebens and Nitz at a strip bar. The two groups exchanged heated words and engaged in a brawl that got them ejected from the bar and continued into the night. Ebens retrieved a baseball bat from the trunk of his car, searched with his stepson for the group, and eventually ambushed Chin and beat him to death. Though Ebens and Nitz were arrested and tried for second-degree murder, they received the light sentence of only a $3,000 fine and probation, shocking Chin’s widowed mother, Lily Chin, the Asian American community of Detroit, and many others. Yoo recounts the original hearings, the court proceedings, the arguments of both the defense and the prosecution, and the observations of the young police officers first on the scene. Though Ebens and Nitz could not be tried a second time for the same crime, the mishandling of justice empowered the Asian-American/Pacific Islander community to form the American Citizens for Justice (ACJ) and take a firm stand protesting for their civil rights to be upheld. Their efforts instigated a federal grand jury to indict the pair with interfering with Chin’s civil rights. Told in straight-forward style, Yoo maintains her objective view, balancing the outrage AAPI felt about what they perceived was a hate crime with the protestations of the accused to the contrary. The context of the murder is the fallout from a once prosperous city decaying chiefly because its main, lucrative industry—cars—has been usurped by Japanese companies. The particulars of the initial dispute between Ebens and Nitz and the victim, Chin, may never be known; but Yoo records all the iterations as the years go on and memories shift. Even the perpetrators admit it was a senseless act, fueled by drunkenness and intense anger. The author makes clear the murder and what followed was instrumental in making AAPI stand up for their rights, but whether or not the attack was racially motivated can be sorted out in the readers’ minds. Includes timeline, extensive notes, index, photographs.

THOUGHTS: Written in narrative non-fiction style, From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry. . .reads like a court drama. Yoo provides background on the major players, but is true to the script. She is even-handed giving both profiles of Chin, Ebens and Nitz, and the involved legal teams from both sides. The handling of the case from the beginning smacks of white privilege, but Yoo just lays out the facts and remains unbiased. The facts, too, shift depending on who tells them and what year they are told (the murder happened in 1982 but appeals lasted until 1987). This important book contains plenty of material for discussion; but for personal reading, the heavy topic may make the book more suited for more sophisticated readers.

305.895 Ethnic and National Groups           Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

On June 19, 1982, in Detroit, Michigan, Vincent Chin, an Asian American, was beaten by Ronald Ebens, a white man, with a baseball bat. Chin died from his injuries. This is a fascinating look at the time and place surrounding this event and their impact on the reactions of the people and the community involved. This book takes readers through the event and the trials following. It also describes the impact on the Asian American community and their reaction. The despair, the outrage – and ultimately, the activism that developed as the Asian American and Pacific Islanders Communities found their voice and their purpose. Wrapped around this story is the tale of Jared Lew, his discovery of the event and his connection to Vincent Chin. This is Jared’s tale of how he found out the story of the cataclysmic event that triggered the voice of the Asian American community and how this event connected him to his family and his heritage. The book presents an in-depth look at the people affected by Mr. Chin’s murder and the fallout in the community and across the nation.

THOUGHTS: This is a fascinating look at a time period and a set of events that are not well known to most people but are pivotal for the Asian America and Pacific Islanders Community. Recommended for high school libraries who want to broaden their appeal to minority groups.

305.895 Racism.  Susan Kidron, Lebanon SD

Elem. – Home is in Between

Perkins, Mitali, and Lavanya Naidu. Home is in Between. Farrar, Straus, Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-374-30367-9. unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-3.

Shanti is a sweet girl who says goodbye to her village in Bengal and moves with her parents to America. She keeps a curious and positive attitude through the cultural shifts of home and school and town and activities while trying to help her parents and keep their cultural identities intact. But all of this code switching takes a toll on Shanti, as she finds herself occasionally worn down and exhausted trying to keep up. The resolution of a social gathering to share the space between cultures is perhaps a simplified ending to what is surely an ongoing process for adapting and adopting to a new home, but readers will feel and empathize with Shanti’s dilemma. Mitali Perkins keeps the story relatable and mixed with personal experience and plenty of Hindi words and Indian customs. Lavanya Naidu shines as the illustrator who creates the family dynamics and emotional changes through the story with colorful expressions and emotional details. While the journey to a new home is not easy, this tale will help readers see that the ‘in between’ brings needed value to feeling at home.

THOUGHTS: The idea of code switching for young children from other countries and cultures has rarely been illustrated as well as this book. Perfect for classrooms who are welcoming ELL students or libraries looking for demonstrations of social emotional skills. Highly recommended.

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill    State College Area SD

Elem. – Watercress

Wang, Andrea. Watercress. Holiday House, 2021. 978-0-823-446247 32 p. $18.99. Grades K-3. 

Watercress is a quiet yet profoundly moving picture book by the award-winning duo, Andrea Wang and Jason Chin. A young girl, traveling with her immigrant parents in rural America, is confused when her parents stop abruptly to collect wild watercress growing on the side of the road. Then a pair of rusty scissors and a brown paper bag are found in the depth of their old Pontiac trunk. The young Chinese girl and her brother have no choice but to roll up their jeans and follow their parents into the mud to gather the watercress. Later that evening, the dinner table holds a dish of watercress soaked in garlicky oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds, peppered with unanswered questions and confusion. At first, the little girl is angry and even embarrassed. Why didn’t her family get food from the store? But when her mother shares a story about her family and heritage in China, the girl learns to appreciate the incredible journey her family endured many years before. The beautiful watercolors and poetic text are about the power of memories, even the ones that are so difficult to share.

THOUGHTS: It is common for children to be unaware of their parent’s stories and culture. But it is also imperative to understand how we have arrived at this very moment. Watercress is a beautiful nod towards healthy communication between generations and an exploration into forgiveness and empathy. It is explained in the author’s note that this semi-autobiographical story is both a love letter and an apology letter to her parents- with an emphasis on how essential it is to share our stories.

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

Elem. – Fatima’s Great Outdoors

Tariq, Ambreen. Fatima’s Great Outdoors. Penguin Random House, 2021. 978-1-984-81695-5. 40 p. $17.99. Grades Pre-K-3. 

Fatima Khazi is having a tough week. Her math quiz was challenging, her peers teased her about her accent, her friends wrinkled their noses at her lunch, and a boy pulled her long braid in the hallway. Her mood, however, is lifted while she eagerly awaits with her sister for her parents after school. She is beyond excited about a weekend camping trip to a state park with her family. Ambreen Tariq’s picture book Fatima’s Great Outdoors celebrates an immigrant family’s connection and affection for nature and the outdoors. Fatima, who speaks Urdu and English, slowly builds confidence as she helps her family set up the camping tent, start a campfire, and adventure in a state park. Readers gain insight into Fatima’s family, who has immigrated from India, and will also learn of the family members that still live in India through memories and storytelling. Each memory teaches Fatima a little more about her strength and confidence. At the end of the weekend, Fatima is sad to leave her outdoor space, but her sister reminds her that sharing her experience at school may help keep the memories in her heart until the next adventure.

THOUGHTS: Author Ambreen Tariq is the founder of BrownPeopleCamping, which she launched in August of 2016 to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial. This storytelling initiative, found on Instagram, utilizes personal narratives and digital storytelling to promote diversity in public lands and outdoor communities. Her debut picture book Fatima’s Great Outdoors reads like a love letter to state and national parks that encourage all ethnicities and races to explore and enjoy what nature has to offer.

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

MG – Santiago’s Road Home

Diaz, Alexandra. Santiago’s Road Home. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-534-44623-6. $17.99. 325 p. Grades 5-8.

Once more author Alexandra Diaz raises our consciousness about the plight of Central American immigrants in our country at this critical time. As she did in The Only Road and Crossroads, Diaz gives a fact-based novel of Santiago Garcia Reyes’s escape from domestic abuse in Mexico through the desert to the detention centers of New Mexico. She does not pull any punches describing the sacrifices and suffering Santiago endures as he makes his way to America with newfound “family” Maria Dolores and her five-year-old daughter, Alegria. After being thrown out once again from a relative’s home where he worked as a free babysitter, Santiago refuses to return to his abusive, neglectful grandmother. Instead, he makes the acquaintance of the kind and generous Maria Dolores and her young daughter and convinces her to take him as they migrate to the United States where Maria Dolores’s sister owns a restaurant. For the first time since his Mami died when he was five-years-old, Santiago feels loved and cared for; and he reciprocates by being the protective big brother. By working in the cheap tavern at the crossroads, he discovers Dominquez, the best coyote to help them cross. Unfortunately, rival coyotes kill Dominquez, leaving the refugees abandoned just shy of the border. Diaz describes the arduous and dangerous journey through the desert, dodging border patrol officers and experiencing dehydration and hunger under a blistering sun. Their efforts end in hospitalization and detention. Again, Diaz intertwines facts and realistic representation about the conditions children suffer in the detention centers, yet maintains both the negative and positive aspects. Some of the detention center guards are kind; some are arrogant brutes. Minor characters like an interested teacher and volunteering lawyers give the story balance. The distress and maltreatment of Santiago as he lingers in detention as well as his brave struggle to belong to a loving family is heart wrenching and sure to instill empathy and compassion toward a timely situation. Includes a glossary of Spanish terms and extensive resources.

THOUGHTS: Diaz’s writing has a way of creating a fully developed character and a well-rounded setting that arouses true sympathy in readers. This book can provide a reference point to discussions of undocumented immigrants, refugees, migration to America as well as current events around asylum seekers and their reasons for immigration.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia