MG – The Shape of Thunder

Warga, Jasmine. The Shape of Thunder. Balzar & Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-95667-5. $16.99. 275 p. Grades 5-8.

Cora Hamid and Quinn Macauley are next door neighbors and inseparable friends all their twelve years of life–until they are not. Quinn’s older brother, Parker, takes his father’s hunting guns to his high school one November morning and shoots Cora’s sister, Mabel, a teacher, another student, and himself. The two families’ approach to grief could not be more different. Abandoned as a baby by her mother (the reader never discovers why), Lebanese-American and Muslim Cora has the nurturing support of her biologist dad; thoughtful, maternal Gram; and the professional support of a trained therapist. Quinn’s family buries the issue. Told in alternating voices, the reticent and less academic Quinn has difficulty expressing her thoughts and guilty feelings. Her workaholic father is against any outside help to ease the family’s suffering, and her mother hides in the house cooking and baking. Longing to reconnect with Cora, Quinn delivers a box to her doorstep stuffed with articles about time travel and wormholes on Cora’s birthday. She knows Cora well enough to appeal to her scientific nature. Perhaps the two of them could find a wormhole and travel back in time to stop the tragedy of that fateful day. As the pair work through the logistics of approaching a huge tree in the forest for the site of their wormhole/time traveling, they each experience the pain of regret and the insistence on holding fast to the memory of a loved one. While Cora has made new friends on her Junior Quizbowl Team and excels in her studies, Quinn has felt shunned. She longs to be on the soccer team, but is too ashamed to try out. Her art gives her some pleasure, yet not even drawing can remove the heavy weight of a secret she knows about her brother, the possibility that she could have prevented the circumstances. After she confides in the school librarian her remorse, she resolves to confess this awful secret to Cora. Though the revelation breaks their renewed bond, Cora devotes more time to her plan to make the impossible possible. When she questions her father about time travel, she is encouraged and inspired by his answer. He tells her that her absent mother had a theory comparing the shape of time to the shape of thunder: “impossible to map” (p. 213). When both Cora and Quinn are coaxed by different people to attend the traditional Fall Festival at their middle school, the rumble of thunder pulls the two estranged girls to the woods to prove Cora’s theory. The hopeful resolution of the story, despite the sadness surrounding it, gives the reader relief. Quinn’s and Cora’s relationship see-saws throughout realistically. After all, Quinn reminds Cora of the unspeakable thing Parker did. Quinn’s strained home life with her parents who refuse any kind of self-reflection or examination of the devastating action of their son is painful.  Minor situations like the jealousy of Mia, another friend of Cora’s, toward Quinn; the snide remarks of Quinn’s former teammate and friend; the growing crush Cora has with her classmate, Owen (a Japanese-American character), will resonate genuinely with middle school readers. The Shape of Thunder is a tough read, but one that confirms that happiness can co-exist with grief, and friendships can be mended.

THOUGHTS: This novel is full of emotion and rich in language and characterization, but not so intense that a sensitive middle grade student would be put off. Cora is a thinker and an intellectual. Throughout the novel, students will find themselves entertained by the interesting facts Cora spouts (“…cows kill more people than sharks each year…”). The images Warga uses to describe different feelings are unique but spot on (the “fizziness” Cora feels in her tummy when talking to her crush, Owen, etc.). She also makes dialogue very interesting. Quinn has a hard time speaking; her brain freezes and she can’t say the words. When she finally gets angry enough to spill over her feelings to her buttoned up family, it is heartbreaking. The conversations between Cora and her father and grandmother also are authentic and tell the reader so much about the characters. What the reader must conjecture about are Parker’s reason for the shooting and the absence of Cora’s mother since her father seems to have no obvious vices. Ms. Euclid, the school librarian and art teacher, is a heroine for Quinn. This book should be issued with a box of tissues.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

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

MG – Soul Lanterns

Kuzki, Shaw. Soul Lanterns. Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-593-17434-0. 162 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Each August, Nozomi and her family release lanterns on the river to guide the souls of lost loved ones. The year she turns twelve, an unsettling encounter with a stranger at the ceremony makes Nozomi wonder about her mother’s past, and about the stories of other adults who lived through the Hiroshima bombing of 1945.  Nozomi likes art, and for an upcoming art showcase, she and three school friends ask relatives and community members to relate heartbreaking stories from “the flash” that they lived through before the children were born. This school project prompts the friends to create moving works of art to remember those that were lost. Ultimately, their works of art help the children to better understand the significance of the lantern ceremony. As Nozomi’s art teacher says at the end of the book, releasing the lanterns helps those in the community not only remember lost loved ones from the tragedy of the bomb, but also “remember the question of why such an awful thing happened.”

THOUGHTS: This story is told from the fascinating perspective of Hiroshima children who do not fully grasp the significance of the Hiroshima bombing because it occurred before they were born, and considerable character growth occurs when they find out through stories and family members what really happened on that terrible day. Many cultural references and Japanese words throughout the book make for a rich reading experience. Although there are descriptions of death and suffering which sensitive students may find disturbing, the author does an excellent job of describing the tragedy of the Hiroshima bomb with sensitivity and respect. This book will inspire readers to look more deeply into the history and ethics of nuclear warfare. Translated from Japanese.

Historical Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem. – Our Table

Reynolds, Peter H. Our Table. Orchard Books, 2021. 978-1-338-57232-2. $17.99. 48 p. Grades Pre K-3.

This sweet story is about a young girl who notices that her family is spending less time together, being pulled in various directions and being lured away from each other by technology. The dining room table represents the family being pulled apart by slowly shrinking, and eventually disappearing all together. So the little girl uses technology to bring her family together, by building a new table as a family.

THOUGHTS: Peter H. Reynolds never disappoints. This sweet story is a reminder of what is truly important.

Picture Book         Krista Fitzpatrick, Wissahickon Charter School

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. – 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

Elem. – Eyes that Kiss in the Corners

Ho, Joanna. Eyes that Kiss in the Corners. Harper Collins for Children, 2021. 978-0-062-91562-7 40 p. $17.99. Grades K-3. 

This is a heartfelt and breathtaking portrait of a young Asian girl drawing strength from the women in her family. In the story, a girl notices that her eyes seem different from her friends’. Most of the friends have “big round eyes and long lashes”; where she has eyes that “kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea.” With pride and confidence, the girl shares with the reader that her eyes resemble her mother’s, her amah’s, and her little sister’s! With each turn of the page, the girl (and the reader) learn less about physical appearances and more about the legacy of family, relationships, history, and heritage. Eyes that Kiss in the Corners is a vibrant celebration of self-discovery and love! The brilliant illustrations and poetic words will resonate with readers of any age.

THOUGHTS: Eyes that Kiss in the Corners is a must-have picture book for home, classrooms, and school libraries! I appreciate that there is no bullying, teasing, or conflict with the characters in the story. Instead this title is written as a lyrical celebration with a tender message: to love oneself.

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

Elem. – How to Be a Pirate

Fitzgerald, Isaac. How to Be a Pirate. Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020. 978-1-681-19778-4. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-3.

On the first endpages, freckle-faced and pigtailed Cece is told she can’t be a pirate. Muted colors reflect her mood as she visits her grandfather who she suspects might know a thing or two about pirates. As it turns out, Grandpa’s tattoos show Cece characteristics of a good pirate. She must be brave, be quick, have fun, be independent, and have love. With each character trait, Cece and Grandpa go on and adventure, and the story becomes more lively and colorful. With a new awareness of what it takes to be what she wants, Cece returns to the boys and their pirate treehouse – now full of confidence that she has exactly what it takes to be a pirate.

THOUGHTS: This adventurous story shows children that fitting a role is about more than what one may assume. Breaking down gender stereotypes in an age appropriate way, Fitzgerald’s How to Be a Pirate is sure to be a much loved addition to any elementary library.

Picture Book          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

Elem. – One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey

Cole, Henry. One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey. Scholastic Press, 2020. 978-1-338-35997-8. 48 p. $18.99. Grades K-3. 

This wordless book takes readers on one paper bag’s journey from the forest, through a lifetime of different uses, and ultimately back to the forest. Opening spreads depict woods full of trees, and readers watch as one tree is chopped down, loaded onto a truck, and delivered to a sawmill. The tree is turned into a paper bag, and it’s journey continues when a small boy and his father use the bag to carry a flashlight home from the store. The bag is used over and over again through the years to carry lunches, sheet music, tools, snacks, an engagement ring, flower petals, toy blocks, and seashells. The bag passes through generations until it is ultimately used to plant a tiny evergreen tree. Even though this story doesn’t include any words, there is plenty to discuss and infer. Illustrations were created with an ink pen, and the only spot color is the brown paper bag and the red hearts that accumulate on the bag throughout the story. Thoughtful readers will pore over the illustrations, noting details such as woodland creatures, newspaper headlines, and family portraits. An Author’s Note at the end of the book shares this story’s inspiration and offers perspective about the importance of reusing and recycling.

Thoughts: This is sure to become an Earth Day classic, prompting discussions about what other seemingly disposable items people may creatively use more than once.

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD