Elem./MG – Flight of the Puffin

Braden, Ann. Flight of the Puffin.  Penguin Random House, 2021. 978-1-984-81606-1  $17.99. 229 p. Grades 4-6.

This story follows 4 young lives as they struggle to find belonging and acceptance in each of their unique situations. Libby comes from a family that sees love as providing essentials. But all Libby wants to do is be accepted and understood for who she is and make a difference in the world. Living nearby is Jack, a boy who wants his rural school to stay just the way it is, as he struggles with the death of his younger brother. Across the country lives Vincent, a boy who loves triangles and wants to live by the beat of his own drum. If only his mother, and the kids at school, could understand this. Nearby is T, a runaway who left home and just wants to be accepted for who they are. The lives of these four young teens intersect in a way that makes each one realize that they matter.

THOUGHTS: This book is timely and so important in the quest to let all kids know that they matter, for who they are! It shows how little acts of kindness and understanding can make a huge difference.

Realistic Fiction         Krista Fitzpatrick, Abington SD

Elem. – Becoming Vanessa

Brantley-Newton, Vanessa. Becoming Vanessa. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-525-58212-0 p. 40. $17.95. Grades K-3. 

The first day of school still gives most of us butterflies in our stomachs. We most likely remember the anticipation, the excitement, and the desire to put our best face forward in making a good impression. Vanessa, the main character in Becoming Vanessa, written by Vanessa Brantley-Hewton, feels all of these emotions on her first day of school as well. Vanessa puts on her fanciest outfit and her best smile for her first day of meeting her new classmates; however, she receives the attention she wasn’t expecting. Vanessa definitely stands out and begins to feel that her clothes are too bright, her boa has too many feathers, and her shoes are too shiny. Her classmates don’t seem to appreciate her bold outfit choice as much as she was hoping. Vanessa’s self-confidence begins to dwindle, and she begins to believe that she should blend in with her classmates and not stand out. 

After a tough day at school, Vanessa has a conversation with her mother that helps rebuild her confidence and gives her a new perspective on how to be herself AND share her fabulous self with others. Becoming Vanesa is inspired by the author’s real childhood and is full of self-love. 

THOUGHTS: Vanessa Brantley- Newton has become a favorite author (and illustrator too!) of mine! She is the author and illustrator of Grandma’s Purse and Just Like Me, two other fabulous picture books for young readers. Her stories burst with positivity by lifting up young girls around the world with her stories and placing girls of color at the center of the story. I cannot wait for more beautiful work from her! 

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

Elem. – We Laugh Alike/Juntos Nos Reimos

Bernier-Grand, Carmen. We Laugh Alike/Juntos Nos Reimos. Illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez. Charlesbridge, 2021. 978-1-623-54096-8 p. 32. $17.99. Grades K-3. 

Three kids are playing at the park when three new kids arrive to play too. These new friends are unable to communicate in English, but they sure know how to have fun! We Laugh Alike/ Juntos no reimos by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand is a bilingual picture book that solidifies human connection through the eyes of young children. Even though one group of students speak English and the other speaks Spanish, the children can express their feelings and communicate through play. By watching each other, both groups learn that they are more alike than different. The children discover new words, adventure, and make new friends. The story is clever with English and Spanish dialogue, and the illustrations by Alyssa Bermudez are colorful and vibrant. 

THOUGHTS: Carmen T. Bernier-Grand is a three-time Pura Belpre Honor award winner and an author of numerous children’s books. The story is interesting because the English and Spanish dialogue do not precisely match word for word. Instead, the children express their thoughts in each of their native languages within their context. The attractive illustrations draw the readers into the story, and I believe ELL (English Language Learners) students would enjoy this picture book about friendship and acceptance very much. 

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

Elem. – You Might Be Special

Kokias, Kerri. You Might Be Special. Illustrated by Marcus Cutler. Kids Can Press, 2021. 978-1-525-30333-3. $17.99. Unpaged.  K-3. 

In this playful and silly story, a quiz is given to determine whether or not the reader or listener is special. A young girl ponders these questions along with her diverse cast of classmates. The answer of course is that everyone is special. Positive message about self acceptance for young students.

THOUGHTS: This would make an excellent choice for a lively and interactive read aloud.

Picture Book          Nancy Summers, Abington SD

Elem. – Free to Be Elephant Me

Andreae, Giles. Free to Be Elephant Me. Orchard Books, 2021. 978-1-338-734270. Unpaged. $16.91. Grades PreK-2.

Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees, the duo behind Giraffes Can’t Dance, teamed up to create the story of elephant Num-Num, a little elephant searching for his special gifts. It’s tradition for all young elephants to perform in front of king Elephant Mighty to showcase their talents and be given an elephant name like Elephant Noisy to the little one who can trumpet loudest or Elephant Strong to the little one who can rip a tree right from the ground. Num-Num doesn’t believe that he has any special talents and after a dismal performance and an unkind mocking by the king, he leaves and travels far away where he makes a new home by a watering hole. Over time, Num-Num makes many friends who assure him that he is perfect the way he is and that his talents involve being kind and simply being himself. Num-Num, supported by many animal friends, returns to the elephants and tells Elephant Mighty that he’d like to be called Elephant Me because “…the hardest thing sometimes is just to be you and to know being you is enough.” Elephant Mighty seems to truly understand and even reveals that he often feels stifled by his name and role, and the tale ends happily with a dance-filled celebration.

THOUGHTS: A simple, attractive rhyming story that may help convey ideas of self-acceptance to little readers. 

Picture Book          Lindsey Long, Lower Dauphin SD

MG – The Year I Flew Away

Arnold, Marie. The Year I Flew Away. Versify, 2021. 978-0-358-27275-5. 285 p. $16.99. Grades 5-8.

Marie Arnold establishes herself as a gifted storyteller, weaving realistic setting with a magical tale involving a talking rat, wishes, and witches. Ten-year-old Gabrielle Jean’s Haitian family sends her to live with her uncle and aunt in Flatbush, a busy neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, until they can save enough funds to join her. She looks forward to the American Dream, but it doesn’t take long before it is shattered. Classmates make fun of her accent; she feels strange and left out. Though Carmen, a Mexican-American girl, is anxious to be her friend, Gabrielle still feels incredibly lonely and unmoored from her friends and immediate family in Haiti. These bleak feelings motivate her to make a deal with the witch, Lady Lydia, in Prospect Park. Lady Lydia gives Gabrielle three magic mango slices. Each one represents a wish; each wish granted brings Gabrielle closer to Lady Lydia capturing her essence. With the first mango slice, Gabrielle loses her accent, making her better understood and accepted by the other students. The second mango slice is even more powerful. After eating it, Gabrielle not only erases her memories of Haiti but also entails the added consequence of losing her entire Flatbush family. Seemingly, Gabrielle’s wishes have been fulfilled. Her classmates believe they have known Gabrielle forever and believe she was born in America, but, of course, she cannot be happy without her aunt, uncle, the toddler twins, and teen-age cousin. It troubles her that she can no longer communicate in Haitian Creole. Rocky, a rat Gabrielle encounters on the street, nicely translates for her and helps Gabrielle problem solve how she will outwit Lady Lydia (though Rocky has its own unfulfilled wish to be a rabbit). As the school looks forward to Culture Day, Gabrielle tries to resist the last mango and still save her family. She knows she needs the help of a good witch to counteract this bad witch who desires a homogenous Brooklyn where perfection is everyone is the same. Arnold whips up a twenty-first century fairy tale to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion that blends American patriotism, pride in and acceptance of differences, and appreciation of one’s heritage.

THOUGHTS: If Kate DiCamillo is an author who demonstrates the beauty of language, then Marie Arnold is an author who demonstrates the beauty of storytelling. Accessible, genuine, and creative, Ms. Arnold weaves an unusual tale (sometimes I had to stretch my believability especially when Gabrielle cozies up to vermin who wishes to be a rabbit) that builds to a crescendo of patriotism, pride in one’s culture and heritage. Realistically, most sixth grade students may not have the ability to wax eloquently about their backgrounds, yet Arnold has Gabrielle come to the realization that a person can be an immigrant loyal to the country of one’s birth and equally be an American, loyal to a new country. An added bonus is the character of Mrs. Bartell, the solicitous school librarian who happens to be Haitian-American and helps Gabrielle every step of the way.

Fantasy          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia
Magic Realism

MG/YA – Huda F Are You?

Fahmy, Huda. Huda F Are You? Dial Books, 2021. 978-0-593-32430-1. 192 p. $22.99. Grades 6-9.

Huda F (a self-described “extension” of author-illustrator Huda Fahmy) is “just your friendly neighborhood Arab-Muslim hijab-wearing American whatever” entering the ninth grade in Dearborn, Michigan. Despite these labels, Huda isn’t sure who she really is or even who she wants to be. She tries to form a friend group while establishing her true personality, but discrimination and microaggressions take a toll on her well-being (and her transcript). Despite the seriousness of these issues, Fahmy brings a light touch and plenty of self-deprecating humor to Huda’s predicament. For example, she depicts Huda’s inner monologues through two mini-Hudas on her shoulders, one in a leather jacket, bickering over her decisions and delivering brutal honesty. Huda’s journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance is portrayed through simple drawings, uncluttered backgrounds, and a limited color palette. Narration boxes and Huda’s delightful facial expressions move the action along to a satisfying conclusion.

THOUGHTS: Huda F Are You is funny, unexpectedly universal, and an excellent choice for fans of Almost American Girl by Robin Ha.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Fat Chance, Charlie Vega

Maldonado, Crystal. Fat Chance, Charlie Vega. Holiday House, 2021. 978-0-823-44717-6. 343 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Fat Chance, Charlie Vega is an homage to every brown girl who has experienced fat shaming. The main character of Crystal Maldonado’s debut novel, sixteen-almost-seventeen Charlotte “Charlie” Vega struggles with self-acceptance. An unabashed nerd, the Connecticut teen excels at her studies, likes her after school job, and has a kind and loyal best friend, Amelia. On the down side, she still grieves for beloved Puerto Rican father, butts heads with her recently slimmed-down mother, and feels diminished next to the perfect Amelia. A striving idealist and aspiring writer, Charlie longs for the ever-allusive storybook romance. When popular, athletic Cal invites her to the homecoming dance, Charlie is on Cloud 9 and is humiliated when she discovers Cal expected her to deliver Amelia as his date. She finds a ready ear to share her troubles in her kind and understanding class and job mate, Brian Park, who is Korean-American. As her relationship with Brian develops and deepens, Charlie’s self esteem increases. She and Brian are sympatico; he is a thoughtful boyfriend and even his two moms like her. Bolstered with this newfound confidence, Charlie is able to feel secure about her appearance, despite her mother’s insistence on protein shakes and popularity. Talking (and making out) with Brian feels so good, Charlie neglects her bff who is also in a new relationship with a girl from the soccer team. In a rare argument, African American Amelia reveals Brian asked her out in the past. Charlie once again feels second best and takes steps to guarantee a miserable life and fulfill her belief that she just isn’t good enough. Through listening to the positive feedback from her supportive network of co-workers, family, and friends, Charlie comes to believe that she is deserving of love, no matter what her physical appearance. The casual, almost chummy, tone of the language, the inclusion of references to current celebrities and trends, and the relatable theme will make this novel a winner.

THOUGHTS: No matter what gender one identifies with, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega picks up the despair of rejection and invisibility and the thrill of feeling chosen and desired. Though skirting any graphic description of sex, Maldonado woos the teen reader with the building up of her feelings in the make out sessions with Brian. Charlie’s volatile relationship with her well-meaning but issue-ridden mother can be the script for many students dealing with a parent who mixes up wanting the best for one’s child and creating a safe, accepting space. In addition, Charlie’s devotion to writing and Brian’s interest in art make for interesting reading while the humor-infused narrative makes the serious theme smoother going down. Author Maldonado blends diverse gender roles and races seamlessly in an accessible book.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – It’s Okay to Smell Good

Tharp, Jason. It’s Okay to Smell Good. Imprint, 2021. 978-1-250-31133-7. 32 p. $18.99. Grades K-3. 

Panda Cat (a skunk) lives in Smellsville, one of the stinkiest places imaginable. He begins each day by making himself as smelly as possible thanks to his garlic and onion toothpaste and rotten egg hair gel. He also smears moldy mayonnaise into his armpits, guzzles spoiled milk with his breakfast, and eats toast with toejam and rotten apples. When he arrives at school, his friends share the news that celebrity stink-scientist Smellbert Einstink will be judging their science fair. Later that afternoon, Panda Cat practices his experiment: making the stinkiest soap ever. But, something goes terribly wrong. Even though he adds the smelliest ingredients he can find, the soap somehow comes out bright pink, smelling like cotton candy and sugar cookies. And, to Panda Cat’s horror, he finds that he actually kind of loves the smell. He wonders if he secretly likes smell-good stuff, but he’s too worried about being different from everyone else and sadly flushes the soap down the toilet. The next day at the science fair, Panda Cat repeats his experiment, and this time, his concoction smells even better: like caramel apples, sugar cookies, cotton candy, and strawberries! Panda Cat is worried about looking like a failure in front of everyone, but Smellbert Einstink confides one of his biggest regrets is that his work has created a world where stinky smells replaced nice scents. He asks Panda Cat to consider how we can ever truly appreciate really stinky things without nice smells to compare them to. He also reassures Panda Cat that it’s okay to like whatever you like, even if it makes you feel different than everyone else.

THOUGHTS: This title celebrates the idea that it’s okay to have your own preferences and like what you like, even if those tastes make you stand out from the crowd. It will be a good conversation-starter during morning meetings and will also be a crowd pleaser thanks to multiple references to farts, ear-wax, and other gross-out humor.

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County 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