Elem. – Rocket Says Speak Up!

Bryan, Nathan. Rocket Says Speak Up! Illustrated by Dapo Adeola. Random House, 2023. 978-0-593-43126-9. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-3. 

Rocket Says Speak Up! is a book about Rocket who loves to borrow books from her local public library. One day she gets a note from the librarian that the library has to close due to lack of money. Rocket decides that she wants to stage a peaceful protest in order to save the library. Through her hard work and spreading the word, they are able to save the public library and even buy a bookmobile for the library. The moral of this story is one that needs to be shared! The main character sprinkles little facts throughout the book which are fun for the reader as they go through the story.

THOUGHTS: This is a must own and must read aloud for every elementary school library collection. There are other picture books with this same character that would be worth purchasing for elementary school collections.

Picture Book

Elem. – Hooked on Books

Greanias, Margaret Chiu. Hooked on Books. Illustrated by Kristyna Litten. Peachtree, 2023. 978-1-682-63367-0. $18.99. 32 p. Grades K-3.

Pearl is an anglerfish who loves to read. Using the light of her lure, she attempts to settle down to enjoy a good book but is constantly interrupted by her ocean friends. Pearl longs for peace and quiet, so she dives deeper and deeper into the ocean zones, seeking a place to be alone. Whether she hides beneath seaweed or seeks the refuge of a shipwreck, Pearl is continually disturbed by a variety of amusing, illuminated creatures. At last, Pearl finds a dark and cozy nook where she can finally be alone to read her book. When Pearl finishes reading the book, she realizes she is all alone and is in fact lonely. Pearl longs to tell others about the book she enjoyed. Rising through the ocean zones, she finds her friends and offers to start a book club so everyone can share their love of books.

THOUGHTS: This book is absolutely delightful. Filled with information about the ocean that is cleverly woven into the story, the many puns and amusing illustrations will amuse children and adults alike. Deliciously detailed and adorable pencil, ink-texture, and digital illustrations by Kristyna Litten will entice readers.

Picture Book

Elem. – The Story of a Book

McCullough, Joy. The Story of a Book. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2023. 978-1-665-90385-1. $18.99. 40 p. Grades PK-2.

Sitting high atop the “New Books” display at the library, a book waits to be discovered. Sometimes this book is not the right book for every reader. When the right reader comes along, it is absolutely magical. The book can transport a reader, comfort a reader, and be shared with other readers. There is even greater magic when it is a book that was self-selected. As this library book’s journey continues, some readers are confused by it, while others devour it. Some readers take extra good care of the library book, but others spill on it, crease the pages, or let it fall into the hands of babies or pets. The well-loved library book eventually reaches the end of its usefulness as a circulating library book and is sold at the library book sale to a family that recycles the pages to create something new.

THOUGHTS: This simple story depicts the life of a well-circulated library book. The gentle narrative is a guide to the gorgeous and fantastical illustrations by Devon Holzwarth. Each page is filled with rich details in gorgeously bright colors that depict each step of the book’s journey. An absolutely delightful find, this title could lead to a fabulous discussion about book choice, book care, books as windows and mirrors, and what happens to library books that can no longer be circulated.

Picture Book 

MG – The Lost Library

Stead, Rebecca, and Wendy Mass. The Lost Library. Macmillan, 2023. 978-1-250-83881-0. 224 p. $18.99. Grades 4-7.

This well-narrated audiobook centers on Evan, an inquisitive boy who loves to read, as he approaches fifth-grade graduation. He lives in the sleepy town of Martinville, which lacks a library since the fire that burned down the old one twenty-five years ago. Two authors penned this delightful tale, ideal for any bibliophile to peruse. Multiple narrators flesh out the story: Mortimer the gold striped cat; AL, the assistant librarian who lives with the other library ghosts; and Evan. The town has just started a Little Library, and Evan nabbed some of the books from the box–all of them due the same day as the fire. As he gets deeper into one of his selections, How to Write a Mystery, checked out by M.C. Higgins, he tries to figure out who started the fire back in the 1980’s. He wonders if his father’s reticence and lack of communication has anything to do with the tragedy. With his best friend Rafe at his side, Evan follows the possible clues. In alternating chapters, AL reflects on her past, coming from the orphanage to serve as a fledgling librarian under the firm but kind head librarian, Ms. Skoggins, and conducting the book club for the local school children. The wise and attentive Mortimer, dear cat, provides the feline perspective on what it surveys: both the routine at History House where the ghosts reside and the movements of Evan as he puts together the puzzle pieces that point to his own dad. This book is a cozy homage to books, readers, libraries, and librarians.

THOUGHTS: A great read aloud. I hope this book can work its magic to entice listeners that libraries, books, and librarians are important. These two authors are some of the best, and this book will not disappoint. Pair it with the fine picture book about the beginnings of the Little Library or, if there are no Little Libraries in your neck of the woods, start a project to place them around town. If that isn’t possible, connect this book with a book drive for shelters. I just found out about a church food pantry that offers a book room for families. Or build a list of books where animals are key characters. At the very least, reading this book students will learn what a pseudonym is.

Fantasy (Magical Realism)

Elem. – The Whole World Opened Up

Richmond, Laylah, and Sharon Richmond. The Whole World Opened Up. Two Pigeons Press, 2023. 978-0-991-81619-4. $14.99. 64 p. Grades 3-6.

Aspiring author, third-grader, Laylah Richmond, loves to read, write, and draw. At dinner after church, her grandmother tells her about a reading contest sponsored by The Black Star Project in downtown Chicago: Black Girls Read for Cash and Glory. Though Laylah is hesitant–she sometimes gets confused with the different pronunciation of words–she consents to enter if her grandmother accompanies her. Further encouragement comes when her best friend, Ria, says she will enter, too. Unfortunately as the competition draws closer, her grandmother has to attend a funeral on the morning of the contest. Though nervous and disappointed, Laylah and Ria attend the competition located in the historic Chicago neighborhood called Bronzeville. Founder, Philip Jackson, hosts the event and offers the prizes; he recites his motto, “Educate or Die.” Laylah and Ria select writings of African-American women heroines and mount the stage to recite the words of Harriet Tubman and Josephine Baker. Inspired and proud, Laylah returns home after her day and soon learns she is the recipient of a second-place prize. She and her family are invited to the African-American owned radio studio where Laylah and the other winners will be interviewed. Not only does Laylah grow in confidence through this experience, she also learns about the accomplishments of famous African-American people, nationally and locally. The title, The Whole World Opened Up, harkens to a Mary McLeod Bethune quote: “The whole world opened to me when I learned to read.” This beginning chapter book, illustrated with folk-like style art by the authors, acknowledges the importance of reading and language and pays tribute to Philip Jackson (1950-2018), the founder and director of The Black Star Project and The Parent Revolution Radio Program. The cozy narrative of this book will draw in young readers. Like the Ryan Hart series by Renee Watson, the Richmonds’ book offers a story with African American characters in a modern, family setting with the added bonus of finding out about the history of people and places about which they may not yet know.

THOUGHTS: The Whole World Opened Up is a simply written book that manages to interject seamlessly lots of helpful information: difficult English words, famous Chicago places, African-American owned businesses, and African-American people. Laylah and Ria take on the challenge, even though they are nervous. Laylah wins, but Ria doesn’t –and it’s fine. It is obvious that the grandmother/grandchild writing team want to honor Philip Jackson, a local businessman and public servant who dedicated his life to activism, particularly in education. A photograph at the end of the book verifies that Laylah was an actual winner of the contest, but the story is not set up like a memoir. Share this book with young readers and writers as an example of plot or even read it aloud to generate interest in African-American businesses and heroes and heroines in their own towns. (Note: I read an e-book ARC from NetGalley and Lorraine Hansberry’s name was misspelled.)

Realistic Fiction 

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