Elem. – Cape

Johnson, Kevin. Cape. Illustrated by Kitt Thomas. Roaring Brook Press, 2023. 978-1-250-84050-9. unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-3.

The story opens with a sad little boy sitting in his room with his new haircut and suit. We know that his new cut and suit are not for a happy occasion. He grabs his red cape, to help him shut out the memories. He wants to fly his memories to outer space and the depths of the ocean, but they keep bubbling up. He remembers smiles, laughing, fun, and love. His cape, a gift from his relative who passed, will help him remember the good times.

THOUGHTS: This debut picture book from Philadelphia based author Kevin James is a terrific addition to any collection. Covers all of the many emotions felt by students after a loss of a loved one.

Picture Book

Elem. – Granny Left Me A Rocket Ship

Smith, Heather. Granny Left Me a Rocket Ship. Ashley Barron. Kids Can Press, 2023. 978-1-5253-0552-8. Unpaged. $19.99. Grades K-2.

After the narrator’s Grandmother dies, they talk about all the different ways they remember their Grandmother. They remember her through stories, through pictures, and through each of the things she left to the members of the family. The narrator shows all the different things she left him including a world of adventure. The reader sees all the different things she left them through the illustrations throughout the book.

THOUGHTS: This is a great book for an elementary school counselor to use for any discussions of grief. This might not be the most checked out book in the collection, but it will have value and use in the right circumstance.

Picture Book 

MG – A First Time For Everything

Santat, Dan. A First Time For Everything. First Second Books, 2023. 978-1-626-72415-0. 308 p. $22.99. Grades 5-8.

Dan is a quiet, obedient boy both in school and at home. His mother is often sick from her struggle with lupus, so Dan helps out when he can. At school, he follows the rules and tries to stay invisible, yet he still finds himself the target of bullying. Dan has never been outside of his small California town, and he sets his expectations low when he attends a class trip to Europe. But despite the fact that the trip gets off to a shaky start, Dan finds his travels to France, Germany, Switzerland, and England are opening his mind to new possibilities. He discovers he loves Fanta, likes French rap, and dislikes getting lost. Dan also discovers he really, really likes Amy, a girl on the trip with him. As he treks through Europe, Dan continues to push himself outside of his comfort zone as he realizes that the world is a big place – and he has a place in it.

THOUGHTS: As a Caldecott-winning illustrator (and author), Dan Santat is a familiar name to librarians. This graphic memoir about his time in Europe is funny, endearing, and relatable. The illustrations are beautifully done, especially his drawings of various European landmarks. Santat even includes back matter: a note from the author and an explanation of how he recreated his old memories in the pages of this book.

Graphic Novel Memoir

Caldecott-award winning author and illustrator (The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend), Dan Santat puts all the cringe-worthy and awkward moments of his middle grade years into the memoir, A First Time for Everything. Docile, obedient, and hard-working, middle-school Dan has a difficult time shrugging off the memory of reciting an A.A. Milne poem in front of the entire student body and being booed. A European tour with other kids his age the summer before high school finally yanks him into living a more typical adolescent life. As the group of mostly white students jaunts from city to city, shy Dan is coaxed to shed his uptight nature, take some risks, make new friends, and welcome the romantic interest of fellow tourist, Amy. When Dan’s camera doesn’t work well, he resorts to keeping a record of his trip in his detailed, realistic sketches. The graphic novel captures the humor of the group, sampling highlights from each country in food or special event. Colored frames represent present day while Dan’s recollections are black and white. Precious memories is the main theme of this lengthy graphic novel (the reader follows the group for 21 days). It sounds cliche, but Dan’s realization that making the most of each moment is genuine. Back matter contains original photographs.

THOUGHTS: The embarrassing moments, the sometimes annoying friends, and the misbehavior of peers will be relatable to most middle school students. There is not much diversity in the book, save for Dan who is Thai-American. His group is from California; the group they travel with is from the Midwest; and they are traveling only through European cities. Dan breaks out of his super rule-consciousness one night and steals a bike, bulking up his courage to sneak into a Wimbledon tennis match where he is center court with John McEnroe. The memoir teaches that each new experience can change us and help us grow, a healthy lesson for those on the brink of high school.

Memoir, Graphic Novel

This coming-of-age story from Caldecott winner Dan Santat shares the true story of his school trip to Europe when he was 14. Having been bullied and feeling invisible in middle school, Dan was not on board with his parent’s idea to travel to Europe with the same classmates who made fun of him. A series of first experiences gradually open Dan up to the world that lies before him. Will these firsts include his first kiss and first girlfriend?

THOUGHTS: A perfect read for the middle school set, this graphic novel will transport you back to all the awkward feelings of middle school and almost make you wish you could go back!

Graphic Novel

Elem. – Out to Sea

Kellock, Helen. Out to Sea. Thames & Hudson, 2021. Unpaged. 978-0-500-65236-7. Grades 1-3.  $17.95.

Kellock has created a beautiful story about grief and loss. Lara’s grandmother has died and she misses her terribly. The young girl thinks about how her grandmother “smelled like strawberries” and how the pair would spend time on the beach. At night, Lara is filled with sadness and begins to cry, as thoughts swirl around in her head, keeping her from sleep. The author ingeniously uses the sea as a metaphor for Lara’s grief for the rest of the story. Tears fill the child’s bedroom and carry her out to sea in a boat. She leaves behind all the things that used to give her joy and continues to drift on the water, forgetting “everything that made her feel happy or safe,” like the smell of strawberries or her grandmother’s warm hands. All she feels is the “cold swirling sea.” Then, in the deep ocean appears a glowing pearl, which gives her comfort. The young girl realizes that there are things in her life that still make her happy, like the memories of her Nana, and she rows the boat home. Through the imagery of the sea, the author has crafted a story that clearly portrays the sentiments of loss, such as feeling “out to sea,” drifting aimlessly and being down in the depths. The progression of Lara’s emotions is creatively shown in the author’s full bleed illustrations. At first, she floats down a narrow stream along her street, but then the boat continues on past the big city, arrives on the beach and heads into the wide open ocean. Initially, the boat moves under its own power, but Lara picks up the oars to steer it home after she finds the pearl. At the end, the author observes that even with the pearl, Lara still has “other sleepless nights and sad goodbyes,” but now understands that she is not alone.

THOUGHTS: This book is a wonderful and fitting story for children experiencing loss.  It is a good one to share with your guidance counselor and is a must-have for elementary collections.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Elem. – Memory Jars

Brosgol, Vera. Memory Jars. Roaring Book Press, 2021. 978-1-250-31487-1 48 p. $18.99. Grades K-3.

Freda is disappointed when she cannot eat all the blueberries that she picked with her grandmother. Blueberry season is over, and she has to wait an entire year to eat them again! Gran reminds her that she saves blueberries in a jar by turning them into delicious jam. What a delightful idea! Freda begins to wonder- if she can preserve blueberries in jars, why not everything else in her life that are her favorite things? Things such as warm cookies, poppies (her favorite flower), her neighbor’s beautiful singing voice, her best friend that is moving away, or the full moon. Only after she bottles everything up in mason jars does Freda realize that saving everything also means she cannot enjoy those very same things. Memory Jars, a picture book written and illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Vera Brosgol, is the perfect story to remind readers that some things are best saved as beautiful memories.

THOUGHTS: Memory Jars is written as a fable, complete with a satisfying lesson and delicious blueberry jam recipe at the end. The story is clever and charming as Freda learns that enjoying the moment is the best way to make memories. This book would be a perfect way to walk down memory lane to remember fun memories from a summer break, remember a loved one, or remember memories from a fun school year.

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

Elem. – Everything Naomi Loved

Yamasaki, Katie, and Ian Lendler. Everything Naomi Loved. Norton Young Readers, 2020. 978-1-324-00491-2. Unpaged. $18.95. Grades K-2.

Naomi loves 11th Street, the place where she calls home. It has everything she and her family needs, including Mister Ray’s Automotive, pizza by the slice, a laundromat, her best friend (Ada), and more. One by one, however, 11th Street begins to change. They build a fancy building where her favorite tree once stood, and Ada moves away when they tear her family’s building down. Mister Ray explains to Naomi that things change, but they can keep the things they love with them by painting them into a mural. Mister Ray paints a beautiful tree, and he helps Naomi paint Ada underneath it. Eventually, Naomi’s family also moves out of their 11th Street home, but thanks to Mister Ray, she is able to take her memories with her. This is a beautifully written story about carrying memories we hold dear with us throughout the changing seasons of life.

THOUGHTS: This would be an excellent book to hand to a young reader whose family plans to move away in the near future. Perhaps readers, after finishing the story, could paint a portrait of all the things they hold dear, which they could take with them wherever they go. The book would pair well with other titles set in the city, such as Sydney Smith’s Small in the City (2019) or Marcie Colleen’s The Bear’s Garden (2020). Together, these titles would provide a comprehensive portrait of life in a constantly moving, ever changing city. Overall, this is a touching story with an important message about embracing positive memories when things change.

Picture Book          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member