MG – A Work in Progress

Lerner, Jarrett. A Work in Progress. Aladdin, 2023. 978-1-665-90515-2. $17.99. 41 p. Grades 5-8.

Will was once a happy fourth grader with a large group of friends. Friends he could never imagine losing, fourth grade friends who had sleepovers and promised to one day be college roommates. One day a classmate teased Will about his weight, humiliating him in the hallway in front of the entire grade. With this one word, Will began to see himself differently. By middle school Will is a loner who buries his feelings by eating. Will chooses to draw constantly instead of engaging with others. He sits alone at lunch, avoids crowded hallways, and buries his head in his sketchbook when people try to engage with him. Will’s inner voice tells him he is an unworthy monster that no one will ever understand or want to be friends with. Will is sure that if he can just change his physical appearance then everything will go back to the way it was before that horrible moment so long ago. Long lost friends will return to inviting him for sleepovers, and girls will stop being disgusted by him. Will often sneaks outside at lunchtime to hide behind the auditorium. Here he meets a new student, Markus, who also is avoiding the lunchroom so that he can ride his skateboard. Markus has moved all over the country. This is his eighth new middle school. Markus is confident and kind, but Will has forgotten how to make and be friends with kids his age, and he pushes Markus away. Eventually Will’s unhealthy plan to lose weight catches up with him, and he collapses in the hallway at school. As he recovers, Will opens up to his parents, and accepts help from a therapist. Markus sticks with Will, gently encouraging him to be a friend, ride a skateboard, and to stop trying to change himself for others, but to accept himself. Markus explains that we are all “works in progress” capable of change and growth through accepting help from parents, friends, teachers, and mental health specialists. Will begins to realize that working one day at a time, he can improve his self-image.

THOUGHTS: This is an important, emotionally moving novel. Will’s thought process and the characterization of his inner monster are written in verse with illustrations from his sketchbook. The inner-angst of peer pressure, of overhearing unkind comments, the middle school awkwardness of running into an old friend, all are heartbreakingly real. The narrative cleverly changes to prose when Markus reveals his different, but difficult, backstory. Anyone who has ever struggled with food and body image, confidence, isolation, peer pressure, or bullying will relate to this beautifully written book. Equally significant, this novel shows the direct effect of a single unkind word. A fabulous read aloud that will provide an excellent opportunity for class discussions about the many issues raised in this novel. Publication date: May 2, 2023.

Illustrated Novel in Verse, Realistic Fiction

Elem. – The Name Jar

Choi, Yangsook. The Name Jar. Alfred A. Knopf, 2022. Reprint of 2001 copyrighted book. Unpaged. $17.99. 978-0-375-80613-1. Grades K-5. 

Unhei is new to America from Korea, and she’s worried, mostly about kids mispronouncing her name. When her teacher introduces her to the class, she decides to wait and possibly choose a different name. “I haven’t picked one yet, but I’ll let you know by next week.” That night, her mother tells her how they chose her name, and that it means Grace. Unhei tries new names at home, but none of them sound right for her. At school the next day, she finds a jar on her desk with pieces of paper in it. Each piece of paper has a name suggested by her classmates: Daisy, Tamela, etc.  When classmate Joey presses her, “Don’t you have any name?” Unhei decides to show him her name using the wooden block ink stamp given to her by her grandmother. Joey thinks it’s beautiful, and they walk to the school bus together. That night, Unhei receives a letter from her Grandma, and she sees Joey at the Korean grocery. The next day at school, the name jar is missing. Unhei and her classmates search but do not find it. Then Joey approaches her at the end of the day to say he took the name jar because he wanted her to keep her own name. Also, the grocery store owner, Mr. Kim, has given Joey a name stamp like Unhei’s; this stamp spells, “friend,” and Unhei and Joey realize that they are friends.   

THOUGHTS: This is a very kind way to show friendship arising from self-acceptance and acceptance of others. Unhei learns courage in herself and her cultural background.  

Picture Book          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Elem. – Holi Hai!

Soundar, Chitra. Holi Hai! Illustrated by Darshika Varma. Albert Whitman, 2022.  978-0-807-53357-4.  Unpaged. $17.99. Grades PreK-3.

Holi is around the corner and Guari’s family is preparing by making color, or gulal, for their celebration. Guari wants to make yellow…but ends up disappointed when she randomly chooses red instead. Though her mother reminds her that, “all colors are part of spring,” Guari still doesn’t want to make red or help her family members with their color–until her grandfather tell the legend of Holika and Prahlada and reminds her that love is stronger than the anger in her heart. Back matter includes further information on the festival of Holi, a glossary, and recipes for homemade colors.

THOUGHTS: Holi Hai! shares the festival of Holi with readers in a manner that will appeal to those who celebrate the festival themselves and those who want to know more. The author, Chitra Soundar, does an excellent job blending Guari’s storyi with information that helps all readers celebrate and understand the holiday. Darshika Varma’s vibrant illustrations give life to Guari’s story and the legend of Holika and Prahlada that grandfather tells. The contemporary feel of the illustrations reinforces the relevance of the book in today’s world. Highly recommended for any collections seeking books about Holi with broad appeal.  

Picture Book          Hannah J. Thomas, Central Bucks SD

Elem. – Eyes that Speak to the Stars

Ho, Joanna. Eyes that Speak to the Stars. Illustrated by Dung Ho. Harper Collins Childrens, 2022.  978-0-063-05775-3. Unpaged. $18.99.  Grades K-3.

By the same author of Eyes that Kiss in the Corners, Eyes that Speak to the Stars follows a young boy whose friends point out that his eyes are different that theirs, and the family members:  Baba, Agong, and Di-Di who help him embrace this difference and realize that his eyes reflect those he loves. The use of a father, grandfather, and younger brother makes the book multi-generational in words and illustrations and both celebrate the roots and loves shared by the book’s family. Dung Ho’s realistic illustrations are highly accessible to the young audience.  

THOUGHTS: I highly recommend this book. Its illustrations are accessible and beautifully rendered, celebrating a contemporary boy and his family roots. The writing presents strong, positive, and loving male characters to the audience with a rhythm that encourages re-reading and opens discussion between readers.  

Picture Book          Hannah J. Thomas, Central Bucks SD

Realistic Fiction, Diversity, Self-Acceptance, APPI, Imigration, Family, Tradition.

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