MG – A Soft Place to Land

Marks, Janae. A Soft Place to Land. Harper Collins, 2021. 978-0-062-87587-7. $16.99. 288 p. Grades 4-7.

The Taylor family is going through a rough patch. Twelve-year old Joy’s father was laid off, they had to sell their beloved house and move to a small apartment, cut out all non-essential expenses like Joy’s piano lessons, and change Joy’s middle school. Bad enough her dream to be a film composer has to be put on hold and her old friends are not reaching out to her, but her parents are arguing now, and Joy feels she has to keep her feelings hidden to shield her little sister, Malia. The silver lining is the friendliness and kindness of the residents of her apartment building, from next-door neighbor, elderly Mae Willoughby and her French bulldog, Ziggy, to aspiring film-maker Nora, Joy finds a warm welcome and a ready ear that softens the edge of her disappointment and anxiety over losing her house and fearing her parents will get a divorce. Other perks of apartment living are the secret hideout where Joy and her new-found friends can get away to draw, listen to music, read, or play board games, and the dog walking business Joy starts with Nora to earn money to purchase a piano. When Joy’s parents tell the girls that her father is moving in with Uncle Spencer for a bit, though, a distraught Joy runs away to the Hideout and falls asleep, leading to the breaking of the one Hideout rule: don’t tell the adults. Though the other kids are angry that their Hideout is now off limits, Nora remains a loyal friend until Joy’s curiosity about a poignant poem and messages on the Hideout’s walls leads to a rift between them. When Nora ditches the dog walking session, Joy finds out too late she cannot handle the task solo and loses Ziggy. Despite her loneliness and sense of failure, Joy works to come up with a way to find Ziggy, mend her friendship with Nora, and remedy the loss of the special Hideout. Janae Marks’s new novel abounds with positivity while recognizing life does not go perfectly. Joy and her family are African American; most of the other characters are people of color also.

THOUGHTS: A comforting, relatable middle school read. No high drama here, just an enjoyable story showing people bonding together and helping each other, and middle school students being kind and friendly to newcomers. Although there are some difficult issues at play here, all the adults are experts at problem solving and dealing with hard things respectfully. The children follow suit. Joy and Nora show a lot of responsibility and initiative, and the other characters display other positive traits.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – A New Day

Meltzer, Brad, and Dan Santat. A New Day. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-525-55424-0. unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-3.

That’s it! She quit! Just like that, Sunday decided the weekly grind was too much and she needed to leave the rotation. While she was feeling unappreciated and ready to learn new things, the rest of the crew is left to fill her void, and that means a hiring process. In Brad Meltzer’s first fiction foray, we find a hilarious mix of personalities for each day of the week (Monday is so uptight, but Saturday is soooo chill!) as they work together to replace Sunday. Dan Santat offers up his unique humor to complement the text with endless visual gags and side jokes. The tryout process brings up suggestions like FunDay, RunDay, a running gag of DogDay versus Caturday, and many zany no-way kinda days! In the end, a little thanks and appreciation and teamwork really go a long way to making someone’s day. The simple fact is that every day can be a new day with a little more kindness.

THOUGHTS: Fans of the movie Inside Out will appreciate the personification of abstract concepts like emotions and days, while those looking for silly extensions like naming your own days have a natural writing prompt here. It is tricky as a read-aloud with the many voices and gags, but worthwhile for some classroom team building.

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

Elem. – A Small Kindness

McAnulty, Stacy. A Small Kindness. Running Press Kids, 2021. 978-0-762-49522-1. $17.99. unpaged. Grades Pre K-2.

“It was like a game of tag.” That is how this sweet little book starts, with students lined up outside of school on their first day. Students start out sepia toned, and when one of their classmates does something kind for them, they become colorful. Saying hello, holding the door, a smile, a laugh, these are all ways these new classmates are kind to each other. Starting the day as strangers and ending the day as friends and classmates illustrates how a small gesture makes a big difference.

THOUGHTS: I LOVE Stacy McAnulty, and this sweet little book is no exception. This would be a great read for the first day of school and shows kids that even the smallest gesture can make someone feel included.

Picture Book          Krista Fitzpatrick, PSLA Member

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

Elem. – Rou and the Great Race

Fong, Pam. Rou and the Great Race. Reycraft Books, 2020. $17.95. 978-1-478-86952-8. Unpaged. Grades K-2. 

Rou and her grandma walk the streets of their brown and gray city, surrounded by tall buildings, metal trees, and passersby with robot pets. Grandma remembers a time when the city was alive and flowers beautified the gray surroundings but with growth came Power People who collected all the flowers for themselves. Now, children compete for a single flower in the annual Great Race. Rou is determined to win the flower for her grandma, but when she comes in last all she finds is a sad little stem with petals strewn about. Rou collects the stem, takes it home, and nurtures it into an entire garden which she shares annually at the Great Share. Fong uses colors to show the stark contrast between lively Rou, always clad in red like the flowers she grows, and the depressing brown city. Children will take away a story of kindness, both the lack of it from the Power People and the abundance shown by Rou and Grandma as they give away their flowers. Adult readers will see a more cautionary tale about power, city development, and greed mixed with Rou’s kindness.

THOUGHTS: An unusual but likeable story; readers will root for Rou.

Picture book                    Lindsey Long, Lower Dauphin SD

Elem. – The Paper Kingdom

Rhee, Helena Ku. The Paper Kingdom. Random House, 2020. 978-0-525-64461-3. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-3.

Daniel’s parents work as janitors on night shift. One night, his usual babysitter is unable to come over and stay with him, so he must go to work with his parents. In order to keep Daniel entertained, his parents tell him they work for the Paper King, cleaning up after the messy dragons and other inhabitants of the kingdom. Daniel becomes upset that his parents have to clean up messes that were made by others, but they appease him by telling him that some day, when he becomes king, he can sit in his throne and tell the dragons to be nice and neat. They remind him, however, that he will need to be kind to the dragons, for they work hard, too. An uplifting story about hard work, family, imagination, and kindness, this title makes for a great read aloud.

THOUGHTS: Centering on a brown-skinned, black-haired, working-class family, this book is a beautiful celebration of diversity and manual labor. It is definitely relatable for all working-class families and could spark some meaningful discussions about the power of hard work and the importance of remaining humble and kind. Gorgeous illustrations accompany this moving story.

Picture Book          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member

Elem. – Stanley’s Toolbox & Stanley’s Paint Box

Bee, William. Stanley’s Paint Box. Peachtree Publishing, 2020. 978-1-68263-186-7. Unpaged. $6.99. Grades PreK.

—. Stanley’s Toolbox. Peachtree Publishing, 2020. 978-1-68263-187-4. Unpaged. $6.99. Grades PreK.

Stanley is back in two new board books for children birth-PreK. In Stanley’s Paint Box, Stanley helps Sophie, Benjamin, and Little Woo paint a castle.  Beginning with red, yellow, blue, and white paint, Stanley helps his friends use various items for painting: rollers, sponges, and brushes, while also teaching them how to create different colors from the original four colors. As Stanley mixes colors to create orange, green, purple, and pink, readers are introduced to the combination of primary colors to create secondary colors. Color words, along with the items used for painting, are highlighted throughout the book to help children learn their colors and painting terms.

In Stanley’s Toolbox, Little Woo’s tree house is in need of repair, and Stanley is here to help. Using various tools, Stanley helps Little Woo fix the ladder, roof, and floor of his tree house, and then helps Little Woo decorate it. As with previous Stanley titles, words for specific tools used by Stanley and Little Woo are highlighted to help young children learn terms associated with tools.

THOUGHTS: In addition to teaching young children about painting and building, both titles help young children learn kindness and how to lend a helping hand. As with the previous Stanley titles, these board books include bright, colorful illustrations with plenty of white space to focus young children on the connection between illustrations and words, while also learning about colors and tools.

Board Book        Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

YA – Poisoned

Donnelly, Jennifer. Poisoned. Scholastic Press, 2020. 978-1-338-26849-2. 307 p. $17.99. Grades 7-12.

All of her life Sophie, Princess Charlotta-Sidonia Wilhelmina Sophia, has been told that kindness will be her downfall, her heart is to soft to be a good leader. And Sophie believes every word. Fearing her stepmother’s strict ways, Sophie tucks her kind heart away, trying to hide her true self. She agrees to give her heart to a prince who is better suited to lead her kingdom. Sophie “locks away” her heart as she prepares to become Queen, but she doesn’t have the chance to fulfill this destiny. Her stepmother has other plans in mind. When Sophie awakens, following a violent event, she is greeted by seven brothers and their helpers, who have taken in Sophie and nursed her back to health in seemingly impossible ways. Not feeling completely herself, Sophie tentatively accepts her life in The Hollow. But Sophie feels like there’s more to the story, and she won’t have all of the answers until she embarks on a dangerous journey. Sophie’s character and her kind heart are tested repeatedly, as Sophie learns what it takes to be a true leader. But is her faulty heart up to the challenge, and will she survive all the evil that wishes her dead? Sophie’s story is not a romantic fairytale but instead is about one’s journey towards self discovery.

THOUGHTS: Young adult readers need Sophie in their lives. I loved this reimagined Snow White story and appreciate Donnelly’s incorporation of other themes – like how women are told what they are and are not capable of doing or being. Poisoned deserves a place in every middle or high school collection.

Fantasy          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem. – Thanks a Ton!

Moyle, Sabrina. Thanks a Ton! Abrams Appleseed, 2020. 978-1-419-74334-4. Unpaged. $16.99. Grades K-3.

Brightly colored digital illustrations with neon accents bring this book of gratitude to life. A young elephant donning blue overalls celebrates big and small moments for which he (or she) is thankful. Simple gestures like cheering up someone, making someone smile, giving a hug, and saying please will help children recognize that kindness and good manners can make a big difference in one’s day. Gifts big and small show this elephant’s gratitude, but children will laugh out loud when the little elephant presents a pair of super underwear.

THOUGHTS: Teachers will enjoy reading this silly rhyming text aloud with their students. It will be a great addition to any elementary Social Emotional Learning lesson that celebrates kindness, manners, and gratitude.

Picture Book          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD