Elem. – My Hands Tell a Story

Lyons, Kelly Starling. My Hands Tell a Story. Reycraft Books, 2022. 978-1-478-87061-6. 36 p. $17.95. Grades K-3. 

When Zoe’s grandmother waves her into the kitchen so they can bake bread together, Zoe is mesmerized by the magic and power in her grandmother’s hands. Grandma’s hands knead, push, and pull the dough until it’s just right. Grandma gently guides Zoe’s hands through the motions as well. While they wait for the dough to rise, the pair sit and talk. Readers learn about Grandma’s past and all the things her hands have done: Raised children, planted gardens, typed and filed. Zoe wonders what she might accomplish with her own hands someday, considering possibilities like drawing, building, writing, making music, and baking. When she and Grandma high-five to celebrate the first bites of their freshly-baked treat, Grandma notes that although Zoe’s hands are similar to her own, they will go places Grandma has never been. This inspiring, intergenerational story is rooted in love and celebrates the strong bond between grandmother and granddaughter. Vibrant, oil-painted illustrations beautifully capture heartfelt moments and the closeness these two share. The endpapers include a recipe for the same cinnamon bread Zoe and her grandma bake together in the book. 

THOUGHTS: Many students will make connections to the idea of cooking or baking a favorite food with a grandparent. This will also be a perfect choice for Grandparents’ Day read-alouds. Additionally, this title can be used as a discussion starter about things students hope to accomplish with their own two hands. 

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD

MG – Freddie vs. the Family Curse

Badua, Tracy. Freddie vs. the Family Curse. Clarion, 2022. 978-0-358-61289-6. $16.99. 256 p. Grades 5-8.

Freddie Ruiz–AKA “Faceplant Freddie”–is plagued by the family curse in Freddie vs. the Family Curse. Unlike his talented, popular cousin next door, Sharlene (Sharkey) Mendoza, Freddie cannot bust a move on the Wylde Beast breakdance team, make friends with the other Robo-Warrior card players, or join any sports team because he risks injury or humiliation. His academic career is not filled with high grades and trophies but a collection of embarrassing moments and pratfalls. Just when it seems his luck cannot get much worse, he discovers an amulet while searching for glue to complete a last-minute school project on family trees. Great grandmother, Apong Rosing, calls the coin on a leather strap/cord an anting- anting and explains in a strange mix of spirituality and Filipino superstition that its magic can be unleashed through a priest and recognizes the coin as the one worn by Domingo Agustin (Ingo), her deceased older brother’s best friend. During Mass at Holy Redeemer Academy, the amulet becomes activated. Great Grand Uncle Ramon materializes, visual only to Freddie, Sharkey, and Apong Rosing.When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, seventeen-year-old Uncle Ramon went off to fight in World War II and died from an infected cut on the Bataan Death March. Through the warm and often humorous relationship Freddie develops with his newly found uncle, the seventh grader discovers the source of the curse was Uncle Ramon’s transgression, and the only way to banish the curse and keep Freddie alive is to return the amulet to its rightful owner–within a 13- day timeline! When Sharkey becomes collateral damage for the Ruiz curse, Freddy’s best solution to deliver the amulet is to master his dance moves and fill in at the breakdance championship in Las Vegas. In his chase against time, Uncle Ramon helps Freddie realize he has the talent and cleverness to make his own luck.

THOUGHTS: Author Tracy Badua involves some Filipino history in a heartfelt story of an underdog struggle to believe in himself. Story includes information about the Rescission Act, the unkept promise the U.S. government made to the Filipino soldiers to make monetary recompense. As Freddie works out how to break the curse, the reader finds a close knit Filipino-American family with their customs and folklore. The relationship between Freddie and his great grandmother and uncle forms an opportunity for an intergenerational perspective. In the beginning of the story, the author seems to include many descriptive details as though she were remembering her own family: grandmother wears a purple shawl when she goes for her dialysis, Freddie’s family observes the Filipino custom of not sweeping the floor at night for fear of “sweeping out the fortune.” Lead students who like this book to Erin Estrada Kelly’s Lalani of the Distant Seas for their next choice.

Fantasy (Magic Realism)          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – A Grandma’s Magic

Offsay, Charlotte. A Grandma’s Magic. Illustrated by Asa Gilland. Doubleday Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-0-593-37600-3. $17.99. Unpaged. Grades K-3.

This large picture book opens with the tender lines, “When a child is born. . .a grandma is born, too.” Bathed in shades of pinks, teals, and apricots, A Grandma’s Magic shows a diverse array of grandmothers and their grandbabies doing what stereotypical grandmas do: baking, gardening, playing, hugging, comforting in both urban and rural settings. Popping in vivid colors from the white background are intergenerational pairs engaging in activities that teach and enchant. With simple strokes, illustrator Asa Gilland conveys the characters’ surprise, delight, sadness, and warmth. These poignant drawings convince the reader of author Charlotte Offsay’s words that grandmothers do indeed conjure magical times that linger long after their visits are over. The book is ideal for a reading aloud on Grandparents’ Day or as a story starter to describe one’s grandmother. However, the story only reflects the families where grandmothers are living independently and can come to visit. Other situations where grandmothers are raising their grandchildren or where grandmothers live with the family are not considered. If reading or shelf-talking this pretty book, know your audience.

THOUGHTS: This feel-good book is so delightful to look at and emanates a real warmth in pictures and words. It lends itself to intergenerational units (perhaps coupled with Mem Fox’s Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge, if you can get your hands on it–it is not out of print), and character description–maybe even people poems. Grandmothers of all shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities show up in this book, but the author still focuses on the healthy grandmother whom the child will visit or be visited by. In some communities, that vision of a grandmother may not be the one the young child actually has. A book early with diversity on a similar theme is the late, great Vera B. Williams’s More, More, More Said the Baby.( I guess I am dating myself with the mention of two old –and perhaps better-books.)

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – Join the Club, Maggie Diaz

Moreno, Nina. Join the Club, Maggie Diaz. Illustrated by Courtney Lovett. Scholastic, 2022. 978-1-338-83281-5. 229 p. $7.99 (pbk.). Grades 3-6.

Reminiscent of Frazzled by Booki Vivat, Join the Club, Maggie Diaz by Nina Moreno has as its protagonist a Cuban-American girl ready to start seventh grade in middle school whose friends seem to have found their niches while she is still searching for hers. As the short, sweetly illustrated novel opens, Maggie’s mother is finishing her accounting degree, the Diaz family has welcomed a new baby brother, and their grandmother has come to live with the family in Miami after their grandfather’s death. Until her tiny house is completed in the family’s backyard, Abuela has become Maggie’s roommate. She is not shy about providing Maggie with unsolicited direction and advice (in Spanish). Maggie’s aim to be independent and grown up is thwarted by her lack of a cell phone, her busy parents’ strict rules, and the overshadowing of her seemingly perfect older sister, Caro. Intertwined seamlessly in the plot is Caro’s LBGTQ+ relationship with her tutoring buddy, Alex, and Mrs. Diaz’s positive acceptance of their relationship. Pressured to appear like she is fitting in, Maggie tells little white lies and tries joining every club she can. The one catch to admission to a club, however, is good grades. Maggie finds herself overextended and in over her head and her grades are slipping. If that happens, her prize of a cell phone and more freedom go out the window. With humor and pathos, Maggie muddles through and finds strength in unexpected people. Young readers will identify with Maggie’s struggles to find her special thing and keep up with her schoolwork in an unfamiliar environment of both a new school and a new stage in life.

THOUGHTS: Fitting in and finding one’s place in middle school is not an easy task. Books that have characters failing and trying at the same thing can be encouraging. It helps that Join the Club, Maggie Diaz is a quick read. Maggie’s up and down relationship with her grandmother is also a connection with real life. A fun and relatable read, especially for reluctant or struggling readers.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – The True Definition of Neva Beane

Kendall, Christine. The True Definition of Neva Beane. Scholastic, 2020. 978-1-338-32489-1. $17.99. Grades 3-7.

While Neva Beane’s parents are on a summer singing tour abroad, she and her sixteen-year-old brother, Clay, are staying with their grandparents in West Philadelphia. The new girl across the street, Michelle Overton, is only a year older than Neva, but Michelle’s full figure and bikini outfits has Neva feeling inexperienced and babyish. In addition, Clay is preoccupied with the community organizing Michelle’s father is spearheading, and Neva’s best friend Jamila is busy preparing for her family vacation in Ghana. It’s a hot time in the city this summer, though. People are protesting unfair practices in housing and wages.  Against his grandparents’ orders, Clay is surreptitiously leading the youth branch of the protests. Although they were activists when they were younger, Nana and Grandpa now believe their duty is to protect their grandchildren which means keeping them away from the protests. Neva feels left out, but so does her grandmother—especially when her grandson forges her signature on the permission slip for a protest. Twelve-years-old and on the cusp of being a teen, Neva grapples with many conflicting feelings: she’s intimidated by Michelle but admires her, too; she values her friendship with Jamila, but they seem out of step; she’s homesick for her parents but doesn’t want her selfishness to stop their success; she’s wants to support the good cause but is anxious about protesting. Christine Kendall has produced a middle grade novel that recreates a Black American neighborhood against the backdrop of a tumultuous summer. Not only is the appealing character of Neva well-developed and identifiable to other readers her age, but the other characters are equally as genuine. Neva’s fascination with words is an added bonus to the book. This page-turning book will be a favorite and also boost the reader’s vocabulary!

Realistic Fiction    Bernadette Cooke  School District of Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: With the mention of familiar street names and places and the extremely relatable main character and timely setting, this book will fly off the shelves at my library. This book is an incentive to learn how to use the dictionary and improve one’s vocabulary and spelling. Food for thought in classroom social/emotional discussions is Neva’s processing of social activism.

MG – Clean Getaway

Stone, Nic. Clean Getaway. Crown Books for Children, 2020. 978-1-984-89297-3. $16.99. 240 p. Grades 6-8.

Nic Stone is typically a popular young adult writer (Dear Martin, Dear Justyce). Her debut in the middle school arena is the realistic, first-person narrative, Clean Getaway. William aka “Scoob” Lamar gets grounded when he shares a computer hack and plans to stay in his entire spring vacation. Until… his G’ma–grandmother–shows up in a RV she purchased with the profit from selling her house and asks him to accompany her on a road trip. Without telling his father, Will becomes G’ma’s wingman on this memorable ride retracing the route G’ma and his deceased grandfather Jimmy took from Georgia through the rest of the South during the segregated sixties. The pair follow the Green Book, a listing of acceptable accommodations for people of color. Will’s grandparents had the added burden of being a mixed race couple, against the law in many states at the time. Will experiences his African-American heritage firsthand, visiting important markers of the struggle for Civil Rights. At first, he is excited for the chance to share this adventure with his beloved grandmother, but then he notices G’ma’s strange behavior: she dines and dashes; switches license plates; steals jewelry. He discovers some things that make him suspect something else is afoot, but can’t quite connect the dots or even reach out to his father because G’ma keeps hiding or ditching their one cell phone. What keeps him going is the revealing conversations he has with his funny and candid G’ma. He realizes how much she loves her long incarcerated husband and suspects that his father may not be fair in his complete rejection of him. The pair’s joy ride comes to a halt when G’ma falls ill, but the experience prompts Will to question the absence of his own mother and the image of his grandfather and rejuvenates his relationship with his sometimes-distant father. Though not a difficult read lexile-wise, Clean Getaway does bring up serious issues of race, inequity, and discrimination. Nic Stone has proven she is a master storyteller for middle school students as well.

THOUGHTS: The intergenerational experience lends itself to history lessons of the Civil Rights era. The discrimination Will’s grandparents encountered in the sixties can be compared with the same displays of implicit bias Will and G’ma feel in their present-day travels. The reason for the grandfather’s imprisonment is also steeped in racial injustice and inequity. Will has little contact with his mother because she abandoned him as a baby–addiction is implied–but Will’s father is reluctant to have her re-enter twelve-year-old Will’s life just like he turned his back on Jimmy, his own father. This situation as well as the racism that necessitated the Green Book lays open talk about forgiving past wrongs, both personal and institutional. 

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Meet 11 year old William Lamar, aka Scoob. Unable to stay out of trouble at school, spring break is looking pretty boring. Until Scoob’s grandmother shows up and convinces Scoob to come along on an impromptu road trip across the American South in her RV. Scoob soon finds out that this trip is a re-creation of one his grandmother, who is white, and his African American grandfather took years ago. The South is changed since then, but G-ma’s crazy maps, her Traveler’s Greenbook (an African American guide to traveling safely in the 1960s), her changing of the license plate on the RV, and her refusal to take Scoob’s dad’s calls is adding up to some uneasy feelings the longer the trip continues. Add in the discovery that his G-ma may be a jewel thief, and Scoob is wishing he stayed home for that boring break!

THOUGHTS: Nic Stone’s first middle grade novel is an excellent read and one that readers will enjoy. There is enough historical fiction to peak the interest of the middle grade readers while satisfying the adventure reader as well.

Realistic Fiction                    Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy