Elem. – Nina: A Story of Nina Simone

Todd, Traci N. Nina: A Story of Nina Simone. Christian Robinson, illustrator. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021. 978-1-524-73728-3 p. 56 p. $18.99. Grades 2-5. 

The world knew her as Nina Simone, but she was born Eunice Katherine Waymon. Born in North Carolina to a family that surrounded themselves with music, Eunice learned to play the piano very early. She was a musical child that would find rhythm in all aspects of her life, playing piano at the church where her Mama preached or playing Jazz music with her Papa at home. Author Traci N. Todd and illustrator Christian Robinson have created a gorgeous picture book biography about the life of Nina Simone. With a supportive family and community and an influential piano teacher, Nina started playing and singing in bars and concert halls. Audiences were enthralled with her sweet and soulful voice. But as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, Nina’s voice took on a powerful tone, almost booming, and her music became a powerful protest against racial inequities. She was known not only as a brilliant musician but an influential activist. Amplifying Nina’s humanity with direct and straightforward text and bold and brilliant artwork, Todd and Robinson created a compelling and masterful piece of art. The ending is powerful, perfect, and hopeful. 

THOUGHTS: This picture book is so attractive, and it pulls the reader into each page with the story and the illustrations. Learning about Nina and her life from childhood to adulthood was a joy! From the dedication at the beginning of the book to the author’s note in the back of the book, there is much to absorb! I was sad to see it end! This book is recognized as a 2022 ALA Notable Children’s Book and has received several other accolades and praises. Nina should not be missed! 

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

Elem. – Room for Everyone

Khan, Naaz. Room for Everyone. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-43139-3. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-3.

Musa and Dada are off to Nungwi Beach in Zanzibar when, along the way, Dada stops the bus to pick up an old man with a broken bike. Musa argues that there’s no room for the man and his bike, but Dada insists there is plenty of space. They make room, and before long, Dada stops again to pick up a herder with two goats. Again, Musa argues there is no room, and again, they shuffle around and make space. This pattern continues throughout the book until, by the end, it’s Musa insisting that there is room for everyone. Ultimately, they reach the beach, where they all pile out to enjoy a day under the sun. Rhyming text and detailed, colorful, mixed-media illustrations make this a very lively, engaging read.

THOUGHTS: I love everything about this book! Not only does it convey the subtle message that there is always room for new friends and experiences, but it also provides readers with a glimpse of African culture. A glossary in the back explains unfamiliar words like daladala (a shared minibus), baghala (a boat used by people living near the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean), and more. This is a solid purchase for social studies classrooms and/or elementary library collections.

Picture Book           Julie Ritter, PSLA Member

Elem./MG – Perfectly Imperfect Stories : Meet 28 Inspiring People And Discover Their Mental Health Stories

Potion, Leo. Perfectly Imperfect Stories : Meet 28 Inspiring People And Discover Their Mental Health Stories. Lawrence King Publishing, 2021. 978-1-786-27920-0. $17.99. 58 p. Grades 3-7. 

28 famous people, both historical figures of note and pop culture icons of the last few years, are highlighted in this book as a way to normalize the conversation around mental health issues. Each brief biography covers the background, struggle, and hopeful outcome of a person who has grappled in the past with conditions like eating disorders, panic attacks, PTSD, and depression. Quirky, colorful illustrations decorate almost every page, drawing in the reader and helping to lighten the overall mood of this important book. A brief but heartwarming forward, helpful back matter, and a detailed bibliography offer opportunities for students to explore further information about mental health, suicide prevention, and the stories of famous lives that may look perfect from the outside, but contain untold struggles on the inside.

THOUGHTS: This book delivers the powerful message that no one is too rich, popular, smart, or successful to be immune from mental health struggles, and does it in an appealing package that should draw in elementary and middle school level students. Pop culture figures do come in and out of style, but there are notable people from the past mentioned as well, giving this book more potential longevity. This could be a great leaping-off book for biography studies as well.

616.89 Mental Health Stories          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem. – My Two Border Towns

Bowles, David and Erik Meza. My Two Border Towns. Illustrated by Erika Meza. Kokila, 2021. 978-0-593-11104-8. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-2.

Life along the U.S. – Mexico border can be more similar than different, especially for a small Hispanic boy who makes weekend trips back and forth with his father. “Vamos a la otra lado.” (Let’s go to the other side.) Once they pass through customs into the Mexican town, they run chores, visit family, and eat at their favorite places. The boy is proud of the gifts and supplies that they are collecting along the way. Erik Maza illustrates the town with friendly people, peaceful streets, and colorful tones. David Bowles brings in Spanish terms and phrases with mostly English narrative to tell their routine journey. The trip ends with an important and realistic stop near the border bridge, where a large group of refugees are camped out and waiting. “The US says there’s no room, and Mexico says it can barely look after it’s own gente.” The boy seeks out his friend who is waiting, and hands over the collected toys, comics, medicine and supplies to the grateful family. The dilemma of crossing the border freely as citizens leaves the boy, and perhaps the readers, wishing for a future of compassion and friendship.

THOUGHTS: Making a complex and never ending issue such as immigration and border control work through the eyes of a child is always a lesson in empathy. In this case, the author chooses to show the connections rather than the divisions between the two countries with a stunning effect. Discussions comparing similarities and differences between students’ towns and the story may continue the conversation. Recommended.

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

Elem. – Dumplings for Lili

Iwai, Melissa. Dumplings for Lili. Norton Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-324-00342-7. Unpaged. $17.95. Grades K-3.

Lili is excited to help her grandmother make baos, her favorite type of dumplings. When they discover they are out of cabbage, however, Lili goes to see if an upstairs neighbor has any cabbage they can use. The neighbor gives her cabbage, but in return, asks for some potatoes for her pierogies. This leads Lili to another neighbor’s apartment, and so the process continues. Finally, everyone has what they need to make all of their favorite kinds of dumplings. This culminates in a big dumpling party, during which Lili’s parents return with a sweet surprise. A charming celebration of food, family, and multiculturalism, this is an excellent addition to any elementary collection.

THOUGHTS: I just love how all of the grandmothers in this book represent different cultures, as they are all making dumplings from different regions. There are pierogies, tamales, raviolis, fatayers, and more. I could see this book being used in a world cultures class, and it would be especially fun to assign students or groups of students each a different culture from the book to study. Perhaps they could even make the dumplings from their respective cultures, and then the class could try them all. The recipe and instructions for Lili’s grandmother’s baos is already included in the back matter. There definitely are plenty of opportunities for extension activities with this book!

Picture Book          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member

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. – 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

MG – All You Knead is Love

Guerrero, Tanya. All You Knead is Love. Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-374-31423-1 375 p. $16.99. Grades 4-6. 

Twelve-year-old Alba does not want to leave New York City and move to Barcelona to live with a grandmother she barely knows or remembers. But her mother, a native from Spain herself, is not moving with her, nor is her alcoholic, abusive father. Alba is leaving behind a school she does not like, very few friends, and a home full of secrets and trauma. All You Knead is Love by Tanya Guerrero is a heartfelt story about finding one’s chosen family and discovering the passions stirring inside us. After arriving in a new country, Alba is surprised to find that she not only loves Barcelona but feels her most authentic self in this foreign land. She forms a close relationship with her grandmother, finds her first proper group of friends, and even experiences her first crush. Alba befriends a neighborhood baker who opens his kitchen as a haven to her; she begins to not only heal but thrive as his apprentice. Just as Alba discovers that she has a real passion and talent for baking bread, her beloved bakery faces an unexpected closure. Even more heartbreaking, her mother arrives in Barcelona after finally leaving her abusive relationship with Alba’s father. Alba becomes determined to save the bakery- and mend and heal the strained relationship with her mother.

THOUGHTS: All You Knead is Love seamlessly blends the right amount of culture, music, cooking, and the Spanish language into a vibrant setting that charms and delights. This story transported me to the streets of Barcelona and made me laugh and cheer for Alba and her chosen family. Tanya Guerrero writes with such sensitivity, and her authentic tone created a story with characters that will stick with me for a long time. This story was a gem!

Realistic Fiction          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

YA – The Gilded Ones

Forna, Namina. The Gilded Ones. Delacorte Press, 2021. 978-1-474-95957-5. 432 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Deka is awaiting her blood ceremony that will determine if she can become a member of her village; her blood needs to run red, and Deka is afraid her’s won’t. The day of the ceremony comes the worst case happens, and she is now faced with making a choice. Should she stay in the village and face her fate or follow this stranger to fight for the emperor with an army of girls just like her? Deka decides to leave the only life and home she’s ever known and journey to the city to learn more about herself and the empire. The Gilded Ones is the first in a young adult fantasy trilogy (Deathless) and starts off extremely fast paced. The magic system is interesting, and there definitely is room for that to grow as the series goes on.

THOUGHTS: Overall, this is an amazing introduction to a new, dark YA fantasy trilogy. In the version I read, there was a warning for violence and that would be the only thing to know going into this book.

Fantasy          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

In Deka’s village, the color of your blood determines your fate. Before becoming an official member of the community, the females must attend a blood ceremony. Any female with gold blood is considered to be impure, and when Deka’s runs gold, she is given a choice. She can stay in the village where she continues to be tortured, or she can join a group of warriors made up of other girls like herself. Not only is Deka’s blood gold, she also cannot die. This unique ability, shared by the other girls with golden blood, makes them valuable fighters. As Deka and the others train and prepare for battles, she discovers the truth about her new life and makes difficult decisions in order to survive and earn acceptance in her future.

THOUGHTS: The Gilded Ones is a new fantasy series with a large cast of female characters trying to survive in a patriarchal society. Each one has been deemed unworthy to live in their village and suffers at the hands of people that were supposed to love them. Although this is a fantasy, readers may still find connections with the many issues and topics present in both the novel and our society today including racism, misogyny, inequality, abuse, feminism, and empowerment. This would be a great recommendation for fans of Tomi Adeyemi’s Orisha Trilogy. 

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD