Elem – The Welcome Chair

Wells, Rosemary. The Welcome Chair. Simon & Schuster, 2021.  Unpaged. 978-1-5344-2977-2. $17.99.  Grades 1-4.

Drawing on her own family history, Wells has created a heartwarming story about immigration to the United States. The first half of the book recounts the experiences of her relatives, beginning with her great-great-grandfather, who emigrated from Germany in 1807. Seeking freedom in his choice of livelihood and religious practice, the young man became a carpenter’s apprentice in New York. He made a wooden rocking chair for the shop owner with whom he lived and carved the German word for welcome on it-“Willkommen.” This chair becomes the vehicle that Wells uses to continue the narrative of other settlers, such as the Irish maid escaping famine, two nuns from the Dominican Republic escaping persecution and Syrian refugees fleeing from war. Over time, as the chair passes to a new owner-immigrant, the word “welcome” is carved on the chair in the family’s native language. In what is likely one of his last works, Jerry Pinkey uses his favorite medium, watercolors, to create soft, Impressionistic drawings. The Caldecott winner describes his art in the back matter and includes a thumbnail sketch from his storyboard. In fact, the endpapers show a number of them, some of which are not found in the final copy. Wells provides additional information about her family complete with her ancestor’s photo. The author’s message is that America should continue its tradition of welcoming immigrants.

THOUGHTS: This is a must-have for elementary collections. It works well as a read aloud and will promote discussion about immigration both in the past and today.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Elem./MG – Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna

Dobbs, Alda P. Barefoot Creams of Petra Luna. Sourcebooks Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-728-23465-6. $17.99. 288 p. Grades 4-7.

Set in 1913 during the time of the Mexican Revolution, twelve-year-old Petra’s father is captured by soldiers. She promises him that she will help take care of her grandmother and two younger siblings. When it is no longer safe for them to stay in their village, they decide to flee north through the Mexican desert to safety, and America. Petra’s dreams of finding a safe haven for her family and learning to read burn within her. Her dreams persist through her abuelita’s negative talk of Petra’s “barefoot dreams” of freedom and education. Petra’s persistence keeps her family going and leads them to safety and realized dreams in America. This is based on a true story and includes a timeline of the Mexican Revolution.

THOUGHTS: I read this story after reading the “grown up” book American Dirt. Even though that story is set in present day, Barefoot Dreams would be an excellent companion read for upper elementary students who are looking for a story about immigration and the reasons behind why people leave their war torn countries.  

Historical Fiction          Krista Fitzpatrick, Wissahickon Charter School

Elem./MG – A Glasshouse of Stars

Marr, Shirley. A Glasshouse of Stars. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-48883-0. 246 p.  $17.99. Grades 4-6.

Meixing has just arrived in a New Land to live in a New House with her parents. She and her mother and father have traveled from the Old Land to live with First Uncle, but he passed away only weeks before their arrival and now they are adrift in a strange place, not quite speaking the right language and not quite understanding the right customs. When tragedy strikes Meixing’s family, she retreats into the backyard of her new home and discovers a magical world hidden away in a broken down greenhouse where the ghost of First Uncle helps her discover her inner strength. Meixing displays incredible courage in the face of xenophobia in her new school as she tries to learn her place in this New Land, but new friends and an understanding new teacher also help her overcome her family’s difficulties as they begin to build a life in the New Land.

THOUGHTS: This story offers a unique glimpse into the struggles of immigrant children who deal with poverty, discrimination, and cultural miscommunication. The magical realism in this book provides Meixing with a symbolic escape from her troubles and a way to process her feelings with the help of her family, and adds a beautiful, lyrical layer to the storytelling. This story would be an excellent addition to studies about the immigrant experience, and should be added to collections with a focus on immigrant experiences and diverse voices.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

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. – 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. – The Color Collector

Solis, Nicholas. The Color Collector. Sleeping Bear Press, 2021. 978-1-534-11105-9 32 p. $14.99. Grades K-3. 

Violet is quiet and keeps to herself; yet, there is a bit of mystery that surrounds the new girl at school. A young boy notices that the new girl collects colorful pieces of debris and trash and places them in her backpack on her walk home from school. A red candy wrapper, bright blue cookie wrappers, yellow pieces of paper, green bottle caps, and red leaves disappear into her backpack every day. Full of curiosity, the young boy gently asks the new girl what she does with her collection of trash. Violet takes her new friend home and proudly shows him the mural in her bedroom. Each piece of trash and each colorful piece of debris has found a home in her artwork displayed on the wall. The mural shines bright and depicts the home that Violet misses so dearly. A friendship ensues as the children talk and confide in each other about the stories and the people that mean so much to them. Renia Metallinou’s beautiful art tells the story as much as the author’s words. As the friendship between the two children develops throughout the story, the artwork changes from gray tones to vibrant and bright colors. The beautiful illustrations compliment the author’s gentle and endearing text.

THOUGHTS: The Color Collector would make for a great read aloud for any grade level in the elementary school setting and would encourage conversations about friendship, empathy, and kindness. The story of Violet and her new friend is relatable to anyone that may have moved a short distance, immigrated from a far away county, or even simply longed to belong. It may also hold a special place in the hearts of elementary art teachers, as the book pays homage to self expression and identity.

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

YA – Illegal

Stork, Francisco X. Illegal. Scholastic, 2020. 978-1-338-31055-9. 291 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12. (Book 2 in Disappeared series)

Brother and sister Emiliano and Sara Zapata must flee from Mexico and the nefarious unnamed boss pursuing them. They cross the border into the United States, then split up.  Sara requests asylum, and Emiliano nearly dies in the desert before being picked up by an American rancher, then reunited with his father in Chicago. Emiliano carries the cell phone of a member–perhaps the leader–of a human trafficking organization that Sara has worked so hard to bring to justice. Neither Emiliano or Sara is safe, and conditions only worsen as Sara is separated and threatened in the detention facility, and Emiliano is tracked down in Chicago. Neither Emiliano or Sara is able to trust anyone immediately, and each must trust that the other will do “the right thing”–but the right thing for the victims of the human trafficking organization could be exactly the wrong thing for Sara and Emiliano. Both realize repeatedly that their lives are expendable and meaningless to others. Sara and Emiliano share one phone call in which Sara (in code) urges him to remember what he learned from Brother Patricio. Through his work for a neighbor of his father’s, Emiliano learns of a retired policeman who may help him. But Sara is to be moved to another facility–code for ‘lost’ or ‘terminated’–and both realize that time is running out.

THOUGHTS: Stork continues Sara and Emiliano’s stories (from Book 1, Disappeared), this time in the US. The various characters show human strength and frailty, stereotypes, hopes, and hatred. A must-purchase where the first novel was popular, though this novel can stand on its own.

Realistic Fiction          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

MG – When Stars are Scattered

Jamieson, Victoria, and Omar Mohamed. When Stars are Scattered. Dial, 2020. 978-0-525-55391-5. 257 p. + notes. $20.99. Grades 3-8.

Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have been living in a Kenyan refugee camp since fleeing Somalia at the age of 4. Omar’s life consists of taking care of Hassan, with the assistance of Fatuma, an elderly woman who has been appointed the boys’ guardian. UN supplied food rations are meager and entertainment is what can be manufactured, such as playing soccer with a ball created from plastic bags. Omar has not gone to school, feeling responsible for Hassan. But a camp community leader encourages Omar to begin attending school, and a new world  opens to Omar. But it can be a painful world, of crushed dreams and disappointments. Brilliant student Maryam who dreams of going to university in Canada, is forced to quit school and get married. The system of choosing people for possible relocation to the United States seems random, and when Omar and Hassan are finally chosen for an emigration interview, nothing comes of it. But Omar continues to study and dream. When Omar is 18 the brothers are finally selected for resettlement. This stunning autobiography portrays, in beautiful color palettes, the reality of life in a refugee camp. Living conditions are horrific, but there are also close bonds of people who care for and support each other. Omar’s horrific backstory is revealed during his first resettlement interview, explaining how he and Hassan came to be in the  camp alone at such a young age. Author notes at the end of the story update the reader on the brothers’ story after reaching the United States, including the delightful surprise that Omar is currently living in Lancaster, PA.

THOUGHTS: This important story is a must purchase for most libraries. It carries the gravitas of Jarrett Krosocka’s Hey Kiddo, but appropriate for a younger audience.

Autobiography          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

As Omar so succinctly states in the word bubble on the back cover: “Refugee Camps are supposed to be a temporary place to stay until it’s safe to go back home. I guess no one expected the war to last so long, though, because Hassan and I have been here for 7 years.” With gorgeous colors and interesting characters, Jamieson and Mohamed take us through childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya. The monotony of daily essential routines for survival are mixed with increasing odds against finding their mother or going back home to Somalia. What remains is the effort to take care of one another, the opportunity to get schooling and seek a future, and the slightest chance to immigrate to another country for a new beginning. All of these seem unlikely for Omar, who faces tragic memories, current realities, and future possibilities with truth and sincerity that will bring young readers into his world and into their hearts. When the Stars Are Scattered is a remarkable light in the night sky which guides hope home.

THOUGHTS: Both Pennsylvania residents do an excellent job bringing the refugee experience to children. The sibling relationship with Hassan, who is nonverbal except for one word, is truly touching and real. The afterword and authors’ notes bring the story up to date, and help realize the many other refugee stories that need to be heard. Highly recommended.

Graphic Novel          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

This beautifully drawn graphic novel tells the story of Omar Mohamed, a young Somalian boy who was forced out of his country and into a refugee camp in Kenya with his young brother at the age of 4.  Omar’s younger brother, Hassan, is special needs and only says one word, Hooyo, the Somalian word for Mama. Omar and Hassan saw their father killed and were separated from their mother as the Civil War in Somalia started. With the kindness of a new foster mother, Omar and Hassan survive and grow up in the Dadaab refugee camp. Omar’s life changes when he starts school and excels, earning the right to continue to attend school as he grows up. Omar and Hassan never give up looking for their real mother, and in the Afterword we see real photos of Omar and Hassan, and learn that, years later, they are reunited with her.

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

Graphic Novel          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

MG – The Magic Fish

Nguyen, Trung Le. The Magic Fish. Random House Graphic, 2020. 978-0-593-12529-8. 256 p. $23.99. Grades 7-9.

In The Magic Fish, author/illustrator Trung Le Nguyen braids together a family’s immigration story, a son’s desire to reveal a part of his identity to his parents, and retellings of classic fairy tales such as Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Eighth-grader Tien reads these fairy tales to his mother, whose first language is Vietnamese, to help her improve her English. Mother and son (and father, when he isn’t at work) are close as can be, but still Tien struggles with how to share his secret with them: he is attracted to boys. The problem is part language barrier, part apprehension for how they will react. Tien’s mother, meanwhile, is struggling with the declining health of her own mother in Vietnam, and memories of fleeing her home country many years ago. Nguyen’s truly exquisite artwork is color-coded to orient the reader both in time and within the story; the present is ruby red, the past is mustard yellow, and the fairy tales are various jewel tones. It sounds complicated, but it works beautifully. The fairy tales foreground themes of new beginnings, identity, isolation, and connection, while also casting light on the experiences of our main characters. The gentle twist at the end satisfyingly reminds Tien (and readers!) that true happy endings are the ones we write for ourselves.

THOUGHTS: Readers of The Magic Fish will find themselves equally captivated by each storyline within this many-layered tale.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

The Magic Fish introduces readers to Tien who enjoys reading his favorite books from the library, specifically fairy tales.  Tien has a hard time communicating with his parents for multiple reasons, one of which is a language barrier, however he also is finding it hard to put into words what he’s feeling and thinking. Tien finds it especially difficult because he is grappling with his sexual identity and whether or not he might be gay. Trung uses fairy tales in such a beautiful way to deal with hard things for kids, and parents, to talk about, that the book never feels too heavy or weighed down by these big topics. The illustrations are absolutely beautiful and add so much to the story.

THOUGHTS: I’d highly recommend this book for any high school library graphic novel collection. The story feels so relatable, even if you have never had to deal with any of the topics that are woven throughout the book.

Graphic Novel          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Academy Charter School