YA – Say Her Name

Elliott, Zetta. Say Her Name. Little, 2020. 978-1-368-04524-7. 96 p. $18.99. Grades 8+.

A beautiful collection of poetry that celebrates the voices of Black women and girls throughout the ages. The colorful pages call the reader to reflect and act in the world in which we live. Four poems are tributes to and inspired by strong Black women’s voices of the past including Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, and Phillis Wheatley. The collection is clearly meant for Black women and girls, but can be enjoyed by all readers, regardless of their identity. Each page is empowering and can be a solid springboard for discussion.

THOUGHTS: Although stunning, this remarkable collection is recommended for high school libraries who need to revitalize their print poetry material or who have readers interested in reflection, self-care, and individual insight.

811 Poetry          Samantha Hull, Ephrata

Elem. – On a Snow-Melting Day: Seeking Signs of Spring

Silverman, Buffy. On a Snow-Melting Day: Seeking Signs of Spring. Millbrook Press, 2020. $20.99. 978-1-541-58118-0. 32 p. Grades PK-1.

This nonfiction picture book features stunning full-color photographs that perfectly capture the spectacular changes taking place in nature when snow begins to melt. Poetic rhyming text has a predictable noun-verb pattern. Phrases like “Snowmen droop / Cardinals swoop / Rabbits bounce / Foxes pounce” are captured in crisp images. Playful word combinations like “Plink-plonking / Marsh-mucking / Duck-dabbling day” add joyful humor while allowing the reader to focus on the science of Spring. Fun and fascinating, this in-depth look at nature in Spring will captivate young readers.

THOUGHTS: This book would be a great starting point for a lower elementary lesson about the seasons or a lovely book to read before a nature-walk to spot signs of Spring.

508.2 Seasons                         Jackie Fulton, Mt. Lebanon SD 

Elem. – I Am Every Good Thing

Barnes, Derrick. I Am Every Good Thing. Nancy Paulson Books, 2020. 978-0-525-51877-8. 32p. $17.99. Grades K-3.

I Am Every Good Thing is a poem that talks about the resilience, challenge, and beauty of being a child. It demonstrates children doing different activities such as making snowballs, riding a skateboard, swimming, and many other activities that children might do throughout their life. The narrator of this book adds to the feeling of “I can do anything I set my mind to” which is carried over with the illustrations. The illustrations done by Gordon James showcase the poetry beautifully and contribute to the feeling the narrator gives throughout the poem.

THOUGHTS: This is a beautiful book that is a vital addition to every school library collection.

Picture Book          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

YA – Where We Are

McGhee, Alison. Where We Are. Atheneum/A Caitlyn Dlougy Book, 2020. 978-1-534-44612-0. $18.99. Grades 7-10.

Micah and Sesame had a plan. If Micah and his parents mysteriously disappeared from their home in present-day, downtown Minneapolis, Micah would text Sesame and she would find him. When Deacon comes to escort the Stone family to the South Compound, he confiscates their cell phones so Micah leaves a cryptic note on the wipe-off board on the refrigerator. The Stones have joined a cult that scorns all worldly things—even pencils—and cower and obey the harsh and unreasonable mandates of one man they call the Prophet. Not Micah. He resists and accumulates so many infractions for what the cold and domineering Prophet deems insubordination that the young man barely exists in solitary confinement. Though free, Sesame Gray lives a secret life. After her mother dies (she calls her grandmother because the woman was older when she adopted Sesame), she concocts stories so that neither her friends nor her solicitous neighbors suspect she is living alone in an abandoned garage. Throughout the book, Sesame reflects on both her grandmother’s goodness and also her habit of keeping them isolated and self-sufficient. That behavior serves Sesame well in her current situation, but her experience relying on others to help in the search for Micah brings a new realization that every person needs to depend on someone. High school seniors and sweethearts, Micah and Sesame narrate this curious story in alternating chapters: faithful Sesame on the outside, remains single-mindedly determined to find her lost boyfriend; resilient Micah, imprisoned in a basement laundry and wasting away, continues to leave clues, sure Sesame will find him. In the hands of a different writer, this book about cults and loss would be a toss off. Author Alison McGhee’s writing pulls the reader along this strange tale and makes us care about these two sensitive and insightful characters. Still, the subject manner is very particular and though there is the element of romance, their love is played out through devotion rather than a relationship, leaving the book with limited appeal. It is unclear what ethnicity the characters are (the cult and its members seem white); two neighbor couples are gay; it all is seamless.

THOUGHTS:  I have read other books by Ghee (Maybe a Fox), and admired her unique plot selections. A hide-and-seek love story centered around a cult but not really about the cult is unique, but not so interesting. The fact that present-day Minneapolis is the focal point of so much foment, violence, and pain, and Ghee picks that city to be the setting for a cult/kidnap/romance seems to me an odd-and avoidable-choice. The dust jacket states Ms. McGhee splits her residence between Minneapolis and another place, so perhaps the setting doesn’t matter. Though I couldn’t, I thought these factors promoted this book: subtle but solid theme, good writing, clever idea of creative Sesame to leave poems boxes around town, appealing characters. Like McGhee’s other books, this one fits only a narrow audience. 

Realistic Fiction Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Light For the World To See: A Thousand Words on Race and Hope

Alexander, Kwame. Light For the World To See: A Thousand Words on Race and Hope. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-53941-4. Unpaged. $14.99. Grades 6-12.

“We Can’t Breathe (from American Bullet Points).” Kwame Alexander needed to say something to shed some light on black lives and share some light of hope for the world. “Take a Stand (from Take a Knee).” Kwame Alexander saw those making a difference in sports and culture and politics, then he wrote about them in a way that reaches all of us in three simple, powerful, repetitive messages. “This is for the Undefeated (from The Undefeated).” Through this stylized reprinting of three recent poems, Kwame Alexander aims to make his words hit home for all ages, races, and people. Each of the three are short, thoughtful, visual, and effective in addressing the issues of race in our society and the need to keep that conversation and action moving – for the world to see a better future.

THOUGHTS: I have many thoughts about this small powerful book. First, read it out loud. Second, go find the videos of Kwame reading each for the Undefeated website. Next, go find someone to share, discuss, reflect on these thousand words. Finally, keep adding to your collections, reading diverse perspectives, and finding voice for those who need to be heard. This conversation and collection could really work for all ages with guidance, but perhaps the content is best for secondary grades. Highly recommended.

811 Poetry          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

Elem. – Woodland Dreams

Jameson, Karen. Woodland Dreams. Chronicle Books, 2020. 978-1-452-17063-3. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PreK-2. 

In this cozy story, a young girl takes a walk through the woods on a late autumn evening. Accompanied by her dog and a notebook, the girl says goodnight to the animals she sees and encourages them to settle into their sleeping place. Each two page spread features a different forest animal. The rhyming text is written in an AA-BB sequence and describes the animal’s behavior in just a few words, like “Berry Picker” and “Honey Trickster” for the bear. Before this verse, the author includes a short phrase that begins with “Come Home,” and is followed by a two word description of the animal. For example, Jameson calls the squirrel “Bushy Tail” and the woodpecker “Strong Beak” instead of using their common names. As the night draws in, snow flurries begin to fall and the pair returns home to their cabin, where it is now the girl’s turn to go to bed. Boutavant’s charming illustrations capture the atmosphere of the season, and the reader can almost feel the chilly night wind just like the fox. On the last two pages, the illustrator displays the girl’s own drawings from her notebook, depicting the wildlife that she observed.

THOUGHTS: With its comforting text and cadence, this book makes for a wonderful bedtime story, which will surely help children settle down to sleep. It is also a good choice for fall or early winter storytimes. To make it more interactive, the librarian could ask students to guess the type of animal just by listening to the words and afterwards show the pictures. Highly recommended for all elementary collections.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Elem. – On Wings of Words: The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson

Berne, Jennifer. On Wings of Words: The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson. Chronicle Books, 2020. 978-1-452-14297-5. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades 3-5.

This picture book about the famous poet focuses on how Dickinson’s poetry expressed her vision of the world. Emily began writing poetry as a young girl. Her poetry showed her love of nature and the joy she experienced from reading books and from her friendships. As Emily grew older, she became more contemplative and began to question her faith. After a time, she became reclusive and searched for answers by looking within herself and by writing verses. After her death, Emily’s sister found hundreds of her poems tucked away in boxes, trunks and closets, which were then shared with the world. In the back matter, the author advises young readers how to appreciate poetry and how to begin writing their own. Berne also discusses how readers of Dickinson’s poetry find something new to discover with continued readings. The illustrator explains in her note that her drawings were based on historical images, like the picture of the house where Emily was born. Stadtlander uses gouache and watercolor to create folk art style drawings that showcase the natural world. The book is sprinkled throughout with drawings of flowers, trees, rivers and especially butterflies. The factual text is accompanied by an excerpt of Dickinson’s poetry, which is handwritten and which also appears on the endpapers.

THOUGHTS: This book is a more serious look at the thoughts and emotions of Emily Dickinson. Some of the discussion is rather deep, like her view on sadness and her later solitary life. Yolen’s Emily Writes: Emily Dickinson and Her Poetic Beginnings is a less serious recounting of the poet’s life and more accessible to younger readers. Save this one for thoughtful and sensitive readers.

921, 92 Biography          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member
811 Poetry

Elem. – Snow Birds

Hall, Kirsten. Snow Birds. Abrams, 2020. 978-1-419-74203-3. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-3.

This delightful work of poetry pays tribute to those birds that stay behind and face the harsh winter. Each two page spread focuses on a different bird. The text is written in assorted rhyming patterns and includes the calls that each species makes. The work begins in autumn with a blue jay foraging for nuts and a wren looking for a home. As the snow begins to fall, snow geese and snow buntings are seen flying amidst the snowflakes. As winter deepens and darkens, a great gray owl chases its prey while a ruffed grouse burrows into its snowy home. A woodpecker searching for insects, and blue jays preparing a nest signal the arrival of spring.  The back matter contains more information about each of the seventeen featured birds and how they adapt to a wintry climate. The beautiful full bleed illustrations by Desmond are done in assorted media and deftly add atmosphere to the text.  One can almost feel a chill when reading about the “shaking quaking” chickadee’s struggles to stay warm and the snowy owl’s venture into the black frozen night.

THOUGHTS: This poetic work is a great introduction to winter birds for primary students and is perfect for a winter themed story time. This is a first purchase for elementary collections.

811.54 Poetry          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

YA – Punching the Air

Zoboi, Ibi and Yusef Salaam. Punching the Air. Balzar + Bray, 2020. 978-0-062-99648-0. 400 p. $19.99. Grades 9-12. 

Punching the Air follows Amal Shahid, a talented art student who is seen as disruptive in a prestigious school based on the color of his skin. Early in the book, you learn that he has been caught up in an altercation with other boys, and he ends up being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to jail. Amal turns to words to convey what he’s feeling, even if he doesn’t understand what he’s feeling. This novel is told through poetry which makes it feel so much more powerful than if it was told in a regular novel format. Readers feel so much empathy for Amal and his situation, and there were many points where readers will want to reach through the book and hug him. The lyrical writing gives insight into how young people feel in our justice system: the hopelessness, the fear, as well as the anger. 

THOUGHTS: This is a must read and a must own for every upper middle and high school library. Just be aware of the themes of racism, as well as the descriptions and discussion of jail.  

Novel in verse          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Charter Academy

The name Amal means hope, and hope is exactly what Amal needs after he is convicted of aggravated assault and battery of a white boy. Although Amal knows the truth, that he might have thrown the first punch but not the last, his hope lies in Jeremy Mathis waking up from his coma and telling the truth. But, Amal is more than just anger or a black boy living up to the path laid out for him – for boys from his neighborhood. Amal is art and poetry; he is creative and spiritual; loving, a son, a cousin, a friend. But in prison, Amal must turn parts of himself off; he must be cold, quiet, and suspicious to survive the beatings and cruelty from guards and other inmates. He must contain his anger, so he can flourish in poetry and art and grow from his experiences to find the window back to the world that was and will be forever changed.

THOUGHTS:  Punching the Air is a phenomenal story about wrongful incarceration and the cruelty of the justice system.  Although Zoboi and Salaam share much hope through Amal, they also present the harsh realities of a broken system, a system that sent Salaam to prison as one of the now Exonerated Five. This novel-in-verse is eloquent and honest; it stabs the reader again and again, but then heals her over and over. Amal is a hero while the justice system is the villain.  He continually is beaten down, and yet he rises. This is a must have for all high school collections. On a final note, many of the poems and lines resonate with readers, but for me, this verse says it all.  “The bookshelves here / are not walls / They’re closed windows / and all I have to do / is pull out one book / to make these windows / wide open” (“Booked II”).

Novel-in-Verse        Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD
Realistic Fiction

Elem. – Follow the Recipe: Poems about Imagination, Celebration and Cake

Singer, Marilyn. Follow the Recipe: Poems about Imagination, Celebration and Cake. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2020. $16.99. 978-0-7352-2790-3. 48 p. Grades 2-5. 

An eclectic anthology of poetic recipes on a wide array of subjects. Rather than listing ingredients for a favorite dish, these recipes feature sage advice ranging in topics from success in cooking, to courage, magic, and substitution. A few of the poems stick to foodie themes. “Recipe for Adventure” is a celebration of less common produce such as kohlrabi and rambutan. Others stray far from food as the topic in favor of other concepts. In the “Recipe for Fairy Tales” well-known components of favorite tales are listed as ingredients: “a handful of magical beans\ a gathering of ramps (whatever that means).” Illustrations composed of vibrantly colored goauche, block print, and collage fill each page. 

THOUGHTS: A unique anthology with a wide range of poetic styles to add to any school library’s poetry collection. 

811 Poetry          Jackie Fulton, Mt. Lebanon SD