YA – Love Radio

LaDelle, Ebony. Love Radio. Simon & Schuster, 2022. 978-1-665-90815-3. $19.99. 310 p. Grades 9-12.

Danielle Ford’s romantic mother has a big wish for her only child, to experience a great love story. That wish struggles to come true in Ebony LaDelle’s, Love Radio, a debut novel that is as much a homage to the great city of Detroit as it is to first love. High-achieving senior, Dani has been shut off from her friends and dating after a traumatizing sexual encounter with a college boy the previous summer. Keeping this secret from her besties and devoted parents, she buries herself in writing the perfect college essay to get into her dream school, New York University (NYU). When she has an awkward meeting in the library with classmate, Prince Jones, a popular teen disc jockey and local radio personality (DJLove Jones) who mixes love advice with music, she makes an assumption she regrets and wants to rectify. Told in alternating voices, the romance between Prince and Dani is enchanting. Prince shows a maturity beyond his years, perhaps because he has accepted much of the responsibility of taking care of his seven-year-old brother Mookie and household duties since his single mother received her diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Prince has fallen hard for the guarded Dani and is determined to make her fall in love with him in five dates. After inviting himself over to her comfortable home to take out her braids, he plans two movie-worthy dates to a roller rink and bookstore. Dani starts to open up, reconnect with her friends, and dissolve her writer’s block. When she reciprocates with one equally perfect date to the Motown Museum, though, their intimacy triggers bad memories and she breaks it off with Prince. As Dani faces her trauma, she has the support of loving parents and patient friends as well as the therapy of writing unsent letters to her literary idols, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Prince, too, acknowledges his need to suppress his dreams because of his home obligations and, with help, makes a plan for his future. Both characters come to realize that they are surrounded by a network of loving people who will support and help them achieve their goals. Characters are African-American.

THOUGHTS: Students in the mood for a dreamy romance will eat up this book. The author has an ear for teen dialogue and is from Michigan. Any readers familiar with Detroit will recognize the branding of different places (if I am ever in Detroit, I’m heading for that Dutch Girl Donuts) and the description of the neighborhoods. Dani and Prince are so wise; the thoughtful dates are out of this world; the child to parent relationships are so close. Though the romance doesn’t play out physically much, Dani’s traumatic encounter occurs when she a friend takes her to a frat house where she barely escapes date rape. After several dates, Dani leads Prince to her bedroom and encourages a sexual encounter, but Prince is reluctant to proceed. The portrayal of family is warm and loving, especially the way Prince helps out his sick mother. Though the letters to literary idols seem to be a critical link to Dani’s recovery from trauma, the book names Dani’s idols as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Roxane Gay, Jesmyn Ward in the beginning chapter, but she only focuses on Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. One of Dani’s friends is sick of appropriation and plans a hair fashion show. Lots of references to music. Some bad language. For those who are sticklers, the timeline is a little wonky: would college kids be on campus in the summer? (maybe).

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

MG – The Lucky Ones

Jackson, Linda Williams. The Lucky Ones. Candlewick Press, 2022. 978-1-536-22255-5. 304 p. $18.99. Grades 5-8.

Sixth grader, Ellis Earl Brown, loves school, learning, and his family–all ten of them. Living in rural Wilsonville, Mississippi, in 1960’s, money is tight, work is scarce, and living quarters are crowded and dilapidated for this African American family. Ellis cherishes his time in Mr. Foster’s class where he is nourished with the knowledge of a world outside of his small town and with the teacher’s shared lunches. A dedicated student, Ellis Earl’s greatest fear is that Mama may be forced to make him quit school and relinquish his dream to become a lawyer or teacher or both. In the spring of 1967, Ellis is reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and compares himself to Willy Wonka whose family is also cramped into a small space and hoping for something lucky to happen. Earnest and thoughtful, Ellis Earl sacrifices for his family; worries about his sick brother, Oscar; and frets over his Mama’s exhaustion. Still, he is a real person. He corrects –mentally–his siblings’ grammar errors, whines when the rains flood the roads making going to school impossible, and is jealous of his class rival, Philip, who appears financially comfortable. Mr. Foster tells Ellis about the influence of civil rights lawyer, Marian Wright, on the presidential hopeful, Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy. When Kennedy comes to visit the Delta to witness the devastating poverty himself, Ellis is part of the entourage the teacher brings to the airport in Jackson. The highly-anticipated trip is marred by racism, however, when the group stops to eat at a diner, supposedly integrated by law. The Brown family is also one of the lucky ones who get a visit from Senator Kennedy. In a series of connected events, Ellis’s family has the chance to better their lives through the assistance of Mr. Foster and Ms. Wright. Like Willy, Ellis has been given the “golden ticket,” the opportunity to build a life for him and his family through education and social services. Overall, he learns to appreciate the invaluable gift of having the support and encouragement of loved ones over material objects. In The Lucky Ones, Linda Williams Jackson presents a memorable character in Ellis Earl Brown and a realistic picture of a large family handling well what little life brings them. With not a speck of condescension, Jackson describes the bareness of the Brown’s household furnishings, the lack of food, and the struggle to find work. She conveys the rigor of the school and intelligence of its students, despite the hardships surrounding their education: no electricity, no transportation other than the teacher’s kindness, and no medical benefits. Most importantly, she places the reader in the midst of a big family who holler, goad, tease, and boss each other while also watching out and caring for one another. All the positives that sew up the story’s ending may seem too good to be true, but one thing is certain, the closeness of the Brown family makes them the lucky ones.

THOUGHTS: Linda Williams Jackson writes in a forthright way about a time in history I don’t see covered in children’s literature and fleshes out what it is/was like to grow up poor. In the context of the Brown family, being poor is difficult and unfair but respectable. Jackson emphasizes the important roles of government social welfare organizations and the church in supplying the basic necessities of life to needy people. Ellis Earl’s family are not church goers, not because they are non believers, but because Mama thinks they have no appropriate clothes in which to attend a service. Ellis’s desire to go to church has more to do with the free breakfast than devotion. The portrayal of the teachers at Ellis’s school–particularly Mr. Foster–is one of dedication and humility. He drives the students to school in his lime green station wagon, he brings them drumsticks to eat for lunch, he buys Ellis a suit to wear when he is chosen to give a recitation–and all of this dispatched with the conviction and impression that these children deserve such services and more.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – This Book is Not for You!

Hale, Shannon. This Book is Not for You! Dial Books for Young Readers, 2022. 978-1-984-81685-6. $18.99. 40 p. Grades PreK-3.

Stanley is excited to visit the bookmobile to find a new book. He is disappointed to find that Ms. Christine, the “bookmobile lady,” is on vacation, leaving a substitute librarian (described as a very old man) in charge. Stanley picks a mystery, but when he goes to check the book out, the librarian questions his book choice, claiming Stanley probably doesn’t want to read a book about a girl. Stanley becomes embarrassed and decides to pick a different selection. When his good friend Valeria approaches the bookmobile, she is encouraged to pick a book about a girl. Stanley likes cats, so he attempts to check out a book about cats. The sub librarian refuses to check a book about cats out to a boy, claiming only cats can read books about cats. Luckily a cat is next in line and agrees to take the cat book. Stanley’s request for a book about robots is also discouraged because he is not a robot. Coincidentally a robot happily takes the robot book. Frustrated, Stanley considers leaving without a book and never returning to the bookmobile again, but he notices the cat, robot, and Valeria are all happily reading under a nearby tree. Stanley glumly agrees to check out a book the sub librarian says is perfect for Stanley. Stanley tries to read but finds the story is not holding his interest. Valeria is equally bored with the book she checked out. The two decide to swap books. Stanley becomes immersed in the book Valeria struggled with. He is so mesmerized by the story that he doesn’t notice that the cat and robot have also exchanged books, and Valeria is laughing out loud at her new reading selection. When a confident dinosaur politely but firmly requests a book about ponies, the substitute librarian instantly fulfills the request without question. Bolstered by the dinosaur’s example, Stanley returns to the bookmobile, picks a new selection, and announces his intentions to check out a book he is interested in reading. The substitute librarian looks out at his array of patrons reading about many different subjects and agrees that Stanley should pick a book that fits his own interests. Stanley, Valeria, the cat, robot, and dinosaur all curl up on the grass to read happily. The substitute librarian even joins them. This book is illustrated by Tracy Subisak.

THOUGHTS: A fabulous selection for discussing independent reading selection, this book would make a perfect beginning of the school year read aloud during library class. Even young readers will understand the absurdity of the substitute librarian’s insistence that patrons only read books that mirror their own experience. A delightful and whimsical take on a much larger discussion about book choice, this title also is a good reminder for adults about the potential dangers of book shaming.

Picture Book          Anne McKernan, Council Rock SD

This Book Is Not For You follows a young boy going to the bookmobile to get a book. When he gets there he is told repeatedly that these “books aren’t right for him” which frustrates him. Finally, once he gets a book and he begins to read, he falls in love with the story he is reading. He quietly switches with another reader who got the original book he wanted off the bookmobile, and he finds himself falling into that book as well. The individual who is ‘subbing’ for the bookmobile librarian sees everyone reading books and decides that maybe certain books don’t have to be for certain people.

THOUGHTS: This was a great book to start the conversation that anyone can read anything that they want to, regardless of what the book is about. The illustrations are beautifully done and really add to the story and to the main character’s feeling about not being able to find the book he wants. This book is a must own for any elementary collection.

Picture Book          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Elem. – Mighty Reader: Makes the Grade

Hillenbrand, Will. Mighty Reader: Makes the Grade. Holiday House, 2021. 978-0-823-44499-1. 35 p. $18.99. Grades K-1. 

Lulu is beside herself and oh, so worried about the standardized test that is scheduled to happen in her class at school today. Formatted like a graphic novel, this picture book is full of evil villains like the scary test, pencils, books, and watchful eye but Might Reader comes to save the day with ‘partner power.’ Turns out, Lulu was just having a nightmare, but how was she going to be successful at school without Mighty Reader?

THOUGHTS: The graphic novel formatting may be a bit overwhelming for new readers, but this short story could break the ice for nervous students before big test days. Some of the techniques mentioned could even be tried out in class. Talk about a super power!

Picture Book          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

Elem. – Aaron Slater, Illustrator

Beaty, Andrea. Aaron Slater, Illustrator. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-419-75396-1. $18.99. Grades K-4.

Aaron Slater loves stories! He loves to listen to them and draw his very own pictures. When it is time for him to go to school, he is so excited to be able to read and write his very own stories. The words, however, look like jumbled squiggles to him and don’t really make any sense. Instead of standing out like he used to, he decides to fit in and be like everyone else. When requested by a teacher to write a story, Aaron struggles until inspiration hits him and he is able to create his very own story his way. With the help and support of those around him, Aaron begins to overcome his obstacles and struggles, becoming a reader and a writer, as well as continuing his illustrating.

THOUGHTS: This is another great book by Andrea Beaty! Written in text style Dyslexie to help individuals with dyslexia, we learn of a famous illustrator’s struggles to become a storyteller, and gain inspiration along the way.

Picture Book          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD

Elem. – Negative Cat

Blackall, Sophie. Negative Cat. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2021. 978-0-399-25719-3. 32 p. $17.99. Grades K-3. 

After 427 days of asking, a young boy’s family finally agrees to let him adopt a cat. Part of the deal is that he has to feed it, clean up after it, keep his room neat, write to his grandmother, and read for 20 minutes every day. The boy admits he isn’t such a great reader, but he agrees to the conditions before his parents change their minds. He picks out the perfect cat at the rescue shelter, renaming his new pet Max. He’s excited to show Max his new bed, toys, and treats, but Max seems unimpressed. He also doesn’t show any reaction to being tickled, listening to jokes, or seeing his scratching post. Instead, Max stares at the wall, puts his tail in the butter, and leaves hairballs on the rug. The boy’s sister labels Max a negative cat, and his parents call the shelter to have a conversation. It’s only when the boy begins his dreaded task of reading – sounding out words slowly while reading them aloud – that Max begins to show some affection and form a bond with his new owner. An Author’s Note at the end of the book credits the Animal Rescue League of Berks County, Pennsylvania for inspiring the book’s ending. Blackall describes how she read an article about the Rescue League’s Book Buddies program which encourages children to practice their fluency by reading out loud to cats. 

THOUGHTS: Readers will enjoy Blackall’s spirited digital artwork, particularly the emotions displayed by Max the cat and the rest of the family members. Share this title with animal lovers and reluctant readers who may just need a little feline inspiration to jump-start their own reading. 

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD

Elem./MG – The Beatryce Prophecy

DiCamillo, Kate. The Beatryce Prophecy.Illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Candlewick Press, 2021. 978-1-536-21361-4. $19.99. 247 p. Grades 3-8.

“There will one day come a girl child who will unseat a king and bring about a great change,” reads the fearsome prophecy which the reader soon discovers is The Beatryce Prophecy. This magical story involves a bald, brave girl in monk’s robes; a gentle monk named Brother Edik who hands out maple candies; a slip of a boy, Jack Dory, orphaned by thieves and nurtured by an old woman—now deceased—Granny Bibspeak; a laughing, runaway king, Cannoc; and a wayward, stubborn but loyal goat, Answelica. Brother Edik comes upon a sickly Beatryce with her goat companion and nurses the girl back to health. He well knows the prophecy and when he discovers Beatryce can read and write, thanks to the foresight of her parents, he protects her by shaving her locks and disguising her as a monk. Twelve-year-old Jack Dory gets dispensed to the Brothers of the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing to fetch a monk who can record the last words of a dying soldier and returns with Beatryce and Answelica with the strong directive from the monastery’s abbot not to return. Beatryce, though, cannot stomach the soldier’s confession and abandons the task. She and Jack Dory find themselves in the dangerous dark forest where they meet the jovial Cannoc who eventually tells them he once walked away from the gruesome responsibility of being the king. They seek safety from the king who threatens Beatryce’s life in Cannoc’s cozy tree- trunk home and are soon joined by Brother Edik. When Beatryce is abducted, the remaining four (the goat is included) vow to rescue her. A proverb comes to mind, Pride goes before a fall. The foolish king and his sinister counselor choose murder and lies to soothe their fragile pride: They cannot accept that a girl can read and write at a time when, as Brother Edik tell her, “Only men of God can read, and the king. And tutors and counselors. The people do not know their letters” (140). At its root, The Beatryce Prophecy is a simple good vs. evil story. But simply written it is not. Can any other author repeat a phrase or line with more meaning than Kate DiCamillo? DiCamillo illuminates this unenlightened world with characters who radiate kindness, goodness, and joy. They also turn out to be the strong ones. Perhaps The Beatryce Prophecy is a feminist story, but it is also a story of courage and friendship. In the capable hands of this author, the reader is ever more convinced that what makes the difference in people’s lives is love. . .and stories.

THOUGHTS: As a vehicle for teaching language and imagery, an example of characterization and plot development, The Beatryce Prophecy is a key tool. The story sweeps you up and the words envelope you. A good read aloud.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke  SD Philadelphia

Elem. – Lila Lou’s Little Library

Bergstresser, Nikki. Lila Lou’s Little Library. Cardinal Rule Press, 2021. 978-1-735-34511-6. 25 p. $16.95. Grades K – 2.

Lila Lou loves to read! Her house is overflowing with books, which causes her mother to lose her in the house due to all of Lila Lou’s books. Lila Lou has an idea, to use a stump outside of her house to create a Little Free Library. This allows Lila Lou to share her books with others, as well as for her to get some new ones. At the beginning of the book, there are tips to help the reader for before, during, and after reading. At the end of the book, there are hints on how to make a family library. There is also a glossary for the Spanish words that are found throughout the book.

THOUGHTS: This is an adorable book to read aloud with students!

Picture Book          Mary Hyson, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

Elem. – My Very Favorite Book in the Whole Wide World

Mitchell, Malcolm. My Very Favorite Book in the Whole Wide World. Orchard Books. 2021. 978-1-338-22532-7. $17.99. Grades PreK-3.

Henley was on a journey to discover his very favorite book in the whole wide world. This was an assignment from his teacher. The problem? Henley didn’t have a favorite book in the whole wide world. Reading was hard. It wasn’t that he didn’t like reading… it was sometimes just too complicated, some books were too big, some were too boring, and sometimes Henley would rather be doing something else. When his teacher made this terrible assignment, Henley buckled down to try and find his favorite book in the whole wide world.

THOUGHTS: This is a book that many reluctant readers will be able to relate to. Sometimes finding what you enjoy reading can be very difficult. With a little perseverance, Henley was able to make his discovery, and so can other young (and old!) readers.

Picture Book          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred 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