Elem. – When Things Aren’t Going Right, Go Left

Colagiovanni, Marc. When Things Aren’t Going Right, Go Left. Illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. Orchard Books, 2023. 978-1-338-83118-4. 40 p. $18.99. Grades PreK-3.

In the beginning of this book, nothing is going right for our main character, no matter what they do. So they decide to go left. As the book goes on, the reader can see all the things the main character left behind and how that affects each decision they make moving forward. When they finally get to the end, they discover that their fears, worries, and concerns are smaller and they just need to make sure that they keep an eye on them so they don’t get out of control again. Throughout the book, there is a little bird that follows the main character, which is a nice addition in an otherwise minimalistic style of illustrations.

THOUGHTS: This is a great addition to any elementary school collection, and would be a great read aloud to discuss what to do if things aren’t going right. This would also be great to use with any art lessons about more minimal illustrations, or if you were doing an illustrator study on Peter H. Reynolds.

Picture Book

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. – Dress-Up Day

Gomez, Blanca. Dress-Up Day. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2022. Unpaged. $17.99 978-1-4197-4410-5. Grades PK-2.

A little girl is excited about the upcoming costume day at school. She plans to wear a rabbit costume that she helped her mother make. But on the day of the costume party, she wakes up sick and must miss school. When her mother suggests she wear the costume the next day, the girl embraces the idea–until she arrives to see inquisitive, staring, possibly mocking faces of other children. The arrival of another student–in costume–“Hugo…had been sick the day before…and he was dressed up as a carrot”–entices the girl out to play. Soon, the other children ask to join, and by the end of the day, “Hugo had become my best friend.” And when, on the next day of school, Hugo and the little girl arrive to find everyone but them wearing hats, another student offers hers, and the fun continues. Gomez’s illustrations convey an innocence and hopefulness of the children, who are of varying skin tones and fashion styles, and who are open to changes. 

THOUGHTS: Share this book as an encouragement to readers to try something new and accept something new as well.  

Picture Book          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Elem. – When You Take a Step

Murguia, Bethanie Deeney. When You Take a Step. Beach Lane Books, 2022. Unpaged. $18.99 978-1-534-47367-6. Grades K-2.

This book opens with a question, “What happens when you take a step?” then offers a variety of answers, each illustrated appropriately with various children stepping in different ways.  The words give a sense of optimism and openness to the steps one might take. “You share a path. You share a rhythm. You gather courage and try again.”  The black and white illustrations are a clever backdrop for the bright red shoes of the characters. There are links to the past and to the future, “and you make the world better/ when you take a step” and on the last page spread, the color pink infuses the black and white parade scene. 

THOUGHTS: A quiet book to encourage readers that the next step is worth taking, and good things will come as you keep trying.    

Picture Book          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Elem. – Out On a Limb

Morris, Jordan. Out On a Limb. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2022. Unpaged. 978-1-419-75365-7. $18.99. Grades K-2.

Lulu has a broken leg and is enjoying the gifts and attention she has received. She is learning how to do some things in a new way, like taking a bath, walking with crutches and putting on clothes over her bright yellow cast. At school, friends want to hear all the details and happily sign her cast. After a while, wearing a cast does not seem so exciting, but soon it is time for Lulu and her toy bear to have theirs removed. Instead of feeling happy, the girl worries that she will hurt her leg again and stays inside to keep it safe. Still tentative, she allows her grandfather to take her outside, but only in a wagon. A parallel story about a missing letter that begins on the front endpapers meshes with the main story and leads to a satisfying solution to Lulu’s predicament. The pictures by Charlie Mylie are rendered in graphite on hot press paper, and the black and yellow color scheme focuses attention on the main character. The artist cleverly illustrates Lulu’s need to protect her leg when he draws her wearing a yellow rain boot where the cast once was.

THOUGHTS: Although the parallel story is a bit far fetched, this book’s message about having the courage to face your fears rings true. Suitable for elementary collections.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

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. – Black Boy, Black Boy: Celebrate the Power of You

Kamanda, Ali, and Jorge Redmond. Black Boy, Black Boy: Celebrate the Power of You. Sourcebooks, 2022. 978-1-728-25064-9. 32 p. $17.99. Grades K-2. 

Black Boy, Black Boy is a picture book that showcases many famous inspirational men in Black history. Some of them are ones the reader might be familiar with and some are a little lesser known. This book encourages black boys to dream big and become whoever they want to be. At the end of the book, there are short paragraph biographies about each person who is featured in the book. The illustrations are gorgeously done by Ken Daley who has done many other pictures.

THOUGHTS: This book is a must purchase for any elementary or public library collection. This book introduces the reader to famous people they might not be familiar with which makes this book a great starting off point for doing some further reading.

Picture Book            Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

MG – Dear Student

Swartz, Elly. Dear Student. Delacorte Press, 2022. 978-0-593-37412-2. $16.99. 293 p. Grades 6-8.

Starting middle school is difficult for most students, but for sixth-grader Autumn Blake, it’s a lonely, anxious time not only because her friend Prisha has moved to California but also because her father has decided to “seize the day” and grant his lifelong wish to help others by joining the Peace Corps in Ecuador. Now, Autumn, her mom, and her little sister, Pickles, have to move to the apartment above her mother’s veterinary practice, and Autumn has more responsibilities to help with her sister, their home, and the practice. Though she feels like a misfit at school, she responds to her father’s daily advice to challenge herself and applies for the position as the advice columnist for the school newspaper, The Daily Express. As she awaits the decision on the newspaper slot, Autumn is surprised by the attention from popular, confident classmate, Logan. Selected as the anonymous advice columnist, Autumn reveals that under her awkward and self-conscious exterior lies an insightful and wise counselor. She even winds up giving advice to Logan and learning about her new friend’s hidden insecurities and needs. Autumn also balances this friendship with Cooper, a newcomer to her small community, whom Logan says is weird. When she responds to a disturbing accusation about Beautiful You, a cosmetic business in her community that has provided jobs for many, including Cooper’s mother, her reply sparks controversy around suspected animal testing; and when word leaks out that Autumn is the one dispensing advice, both Logan and Cooper turn against her. To make matters worse, her fantasy about her dad returning home for her birthday fizzles. Ultimately, Autumn realizes she is strong enough to grab hold of her Fearless Fred –a nod to a family story–and summon the courage to do what is hard to make things right. The premise of the friendly advice columnist being the introverted character has been done in Lifetime movies, but Elly Schwarz’s middle school take on it is refreshing and unique. Hard to tell what race the characters are, but both Logan and Autumn are white; Autumn refers several times to her Jewish religion.

THOUGHTS: Give this book to the shy student, the one who travels under the radar whom you suspect has something valuable to say. This book may be a good springboard for Social Emotional Learning–after all, Autumn is providing advice and the situations in which she finds herself can be good What if? examples. What if a parent chooses to go away for a long time? What if you need to move because your family’s financial situation changes? What if you are given more responsibilities? What if you make presumptions about how you impress people and how other people appear to you? What if you need to take a stand about something you really believe in and a friend disagrees? What if a situation arises where you need to speak up? Autumn Blake, with her complicated feelings and struggle for confidence, is a character middle school students would like to meet.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Elem. – Why Not You?

Wilson, Ciara and Russell. Why Not You? Random House, 2022. 978-0-593-37440-5. Unpaged. $18.99. Grades K-2.

Why Not You? is a picture book that focuses on boosting a child’s confidence and self esteem by encouraging them to go for their dreams, no matter how big they may seem. This book is told through illustrations and words, showing children how they can achieve their dreams because, as the book says, “why not you?” The illustrations show a diverse range of students, as well as showing a wide range of dreams that each student has. The illustrations show the students encouraging each other’s dreams which is a wonderful addition to the story.

THOUGHTS: Overall, this was a lovely picture book with a really great message! This would be a great addition to any elementary classroom, or a great read aloud for guidance lessons. 

Picture Book          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

YA – You’d Be Home Now

Glasgow, Kathleen. You’d Be Home Now. Delacorte Press, 2021. 978-0-525-70804-9. 400 p. $18.99. Grades 8-12.

For her whole life Emory’s family has been well-known in the town of Mill Haven. Her great great grandfather founded the mill that employed many of the town’s families for generations. But the mill has been abandoned for some time, and people have very different opinions about what should become of the space. Emory also is the little sister of Joey who overdosed and passed out while his best friend Leonard caused a life altering car accident, one that devastated their small town and Emory’s family. Now Emory is known as someone who was in the car when Candy died. Joey is on his way back from rehab, and their older sister Maddie is away at college. With workaholic parents who aren’t always around, Emory is tasked with keeping an eye on Joey who has been given some pretty serious restrictions to keep him “on the right path.” Always feeling invisible in the shadow of her perfect sister and self-destructive brother, Emory has been a good girl, a rule follower. But Emory needs someone to see her. Next door neighbor Gage, who Emory has had a crush on, shows her attention, though secretly, and it feels good for someone finally to notice her even if not out in the open. Despite some questionable choices, Emory is managing and keeping an eye on Joey. Until she isn’t. Secrets are brought to light, Joey disappears, and Emory loses herself. Will she pick up the pieces and figure out who she wants to be before it’s too late?

THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Emory and Joey while cringing at some obvious warning signs. Glasgow writes a compelling, character driven novel that shines light on addiction’s impact on family, friends, and community. Teens will appreciate the authentic portrayal of serious issues.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, SD