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

MG – Muddle School

Whamond, Dave. Muddle School. Kids Can Press, 2021. 978-1-525-30486-6. $15.99. 144 p. Grades 5-8.

This semi-autobiographical graphic novel follows Dave, a self-proclaimed nerd, through an eventful year of his “Muddle School” journey. Dave’s school experiences swing from the lowest lows, including getting pushed into mud by bullies on the first day of school, to the highest highs, as he kisses his crush at the end-of-the-year dance. He and his lab partner Chad even design a time machine for the science fair, which Daniel tries to use to go back and redo his disastrous first few months of typical middle school blunders. Throughout the book, Dave learns that being authentic, standing up for others and taking risks are the best ways to survive Muddle School.

THOUGHTS: The illustrations, jokes and silly situations that appear in this book are a wonderful glimpse into the mind of a middle school boy. Dave shows true fondness for his family, hates bullies but feels helpless against them, and uses his love of drawing to help himself process his feelings; everything feels authentic, if a little sanitized, to the school experiences of teen and tween-agers today. In the brief back-matter pages, it is delightful to find out that many of the things the author includes in the story actually happened! Many middle school students will be able to relate to this book and find humor and comfort in the life of another awkward boy just trying to make his way through Muddle School.

Graphic Novel          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem. – I Will! A Book of Promises

Medina Juana. I Will! A Book of Promises. Versify, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021. 978-0-358-55559-9. Unpaged. $14.99. PreK-1.

In this uplifting, beautifully illustrated book, readers will make promises to make the world a better place through a variety of actions, such as being kind, helping others, and taking care of nature. Bright, bold illustrations feature racially and physically diverse characters, and the short, simple text makes this an incredibly accessible, straightforward guide for young readers who want to build a better world for themselves and others.

THOUGHTS: This would be a great book to share with preschool and Kindergarten students who are just beginning to interact with each other and the world. It would help spark important discussions about how they can show compassion towards themselves and others. It would also make an excellent gift for high school and college graduates, serving as a gentle reminder to be compassionate citizens as they go forward.

Picture Book          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member

YA – you don’t have to be everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves

Whitney, Diana. you don’t have to be everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves. Workman Publishing, 2021. 978-1-523-51099-3. 165 p. $14.95. Grades 9-12. 

I want this book on my coffee table, but I also want it on my nightstand. And I also want it in my office, and maybe in my car. It’s beautiful and consumable and has something for any woman, in any moment. Whitney’s subtitle is “poems for girls becoming themselves,” but I think many women never got the chance to be themselves. The collection is organized by eight themes: seeking, loneliness, attitude, rage, longing, shame, sadness, and belonging. There is something in this small book for everyone, they just have to be willing to let the poetry awaken their heart and the affirmation of who they are and how they feel will be present. 

THOUGHTS: If your high school students are as hungry for poetry as mine are, add this to your collection. The art and design make the work of legends like Angelou and Oliver as accessible as their modern day counterparts like Gorman, Acevedo, and Baer. At the very least, get this book to just have in your office and hand out the poems like candy on Halloween, but every day. 

Poetry         Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area 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. – 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

YA – Muted: A Novel in Verse

Charles, Tami. Muted: A Novel in Verse. Scholastic, 2021. 978-1-338-67352-4. $18.99. 386 p. Grades 9-12.

Author Tami Charles, who once belonged to rhythm and blues girl group, relates a compelling story reminiscent of the R. Kelly scandal. She chooses a real-life small town between the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania and the Catskills in New York. Drawn to each other because they are the few persons of color in their predominantly white high school, three talented girls are overwhelmed and overjoyed to get the notice of a leading recording artist and record producer, Sean “Mercury” Ellis. Denver LaFleur, a curvy, African American with a powerhouse voice, her talented friends Dalisay Gomez and Shakira Brown, sneak behind their parents’ backs to meet with Merc. When Shak drops out because she has suspicions about Merc’s intentions, Merc whisks Denver and Dali to Atlanta where he grooms them to be performers separately in his mansion on Pristine Road. Gradually, Denver takes center stage, while Merc tells Dali she is not ready. Though Denver finds Merc’s methods stringent and mercurial (he limits her calories and takes away her cell phone and internet) and he adapts and takes credit for her original songs, she does get the chance to cut a demo record and make money. Both girls stay with Merc with their parents’ permission (they are only seventeen when he takes them under his wing) because of the possibility of fame and fortune. However, not long into the novel, Denver has difficulty sorting out the rigor becoming a lead singer requires from the torture of being blocked from her family and true love, Dali. Thinking Dali has returned home to Sholola, their hometown, Denver makes clandestine phone call to Shak and discovers Dali is not back in Pennsylvania. Where is she? Using her wiles, Denver explores Merc’s mansion, uncovering a maze of rooms, each one holding captive girls Merc kidnapped. Told in verse, the book is not graphic, but it is brutal. The ending brings some resolution, although not happy ones. The realistic subject matter conveys successful people get away with incorrigible acts is troubling, yet highly readable.

THOUGHTS: Students will draw parallels between this verse novel and R. Kelly, the R & B singer, and similar allegations of captive girls and sexual misconduct. Denver is a sympathetic, authentic character and her involvement in the glittering world of celebrity makes for an interesting, if depressing, read. The setting in Sholola, Pennsylvania, too, is a draw for local readers. The print in the book is extra tiny; hopefully, the published version will be standard size font. Some cursing and descriptions of sexual activity.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Best friends Denver LaFleur, Dalisay (Dali) Gomez, and Shakira (Shak) Brown are the trio that make up Angelic Voices, a singing group with hopes of making it big and getting out of their small town Sholola, Pennsylvania. When Denver sees their opportunity to get noticed in front of Sean “Mercury” Ellis (Merc), she grabs her friends’ hands and presses play on a cell phone to cue up the music. Time stands still as the group beautifully blends harmonies, and they begin to see their dreams within reach. Denver is ready to do whatever it takes to make it. But Shak has doubts about Merc who creeps her out, and she has other obligations with her family, church, and basketball. Shak isn’t ready to sneak around and lie to her family to get her big break, so the trio becomes a duo under Merc’s guidance. Denver and Dali leave their families and move into Merc’s Atlanta mansion. Despite small doubts, Denver is mostly okay as long as Dali is by her side (no one else knows of their secret relationship). Merc has rules, though, to keep his legacy safe and keep the creative juices flowing. The girls hand over their cell phones, have no internet access, sleep in separate parts of the house, and only come out of their rooms when permitted, all in the name of getting into the zone. The next time Denver sees Dali, though, Dali has been on a trip with Merc to have a complete makeover including having work done on her teeth so she no longer needs braces. Denver feels a hint of jealousy with the attention Dali’s been getting while she’s been stuck at home with a personal trainer and very limited food. And there’s Merc’s ever present old school camcorder. Fame isn’t quite what Denver thought it would be, and not being in contact with her family starts to get hard. In a few short months Denver’s life looks entirely different, but is it all worth losing herself and everyone she loves in the process?

THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Denver and cringe at the warning signs she misses. This one would pair well with Tiffany D. Jackson’s Grown and is a must have for high school collections.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton 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. – The Crow and the Peacock

Fernihough, Jo. The Crow and the Peacock. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-0-802-85568-8. Unpaged. $17.99. Grades K-3.

Crow is living a perfectly happy life until he encounters a dove in the forest one day. Her beautiful, bright feathers and soft cooing cause him to question his dark feathers and loud “caw caw.” Suddenly, his self-confidence dwindles. In talking to the dove, however, he discovers that the dove actually envies the nightingale, whose singing is even more magnificent. The nightingale, in turn, envies the rooster, whose call is so famous it is heard across the land. As the crow travels from bird to bird, he discovers that they all want something another bird has. Ultimately, he meets a caged peacock, who only wishes to fly free like a crow. It is then that the crow realizes how good he has it and that the only thing that could possibly make him happier is sharing his joy with others. A thought-provoking tale complete with lively, colorful illustrations, this book would be an excellent read aloud selection.

THOUGHTS: This book would be a great introduction to self-esteem/confidence building activities. After hearing the story, young listeners could reflect on their own special traits and characteristics. Perhaps they could even share with their peers the attributes they like most about each other. The book might also prompt discussions about jealousy and the problem with comparing oneself to others. This is definitely a must-have for those looking to build social and emotional learning collections.

Picture Book          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member

Elem. – Burt the Beetle Doesn’t Bite!

Spires, Ashley. Burt the Beetle Doesn’t Bite! Kids Can Press. 2021. 978-1-525-30146-9. $12.99. Grades K-2.

Burt is a Ten-Lined June Beetle, also known as a Watermelon Beetle! Burt has amazing superhero powers. Well, at least that is what Burt believes! He discovered that he can’t lift something that is fifty times his weight like ant can, he doesn’t have ultrasonic blasts like hawk moths, he does not have a the ability to spray paralyzing venom like some termites can, and he also cannot release a bad smell to repel predators like stink bugs. In fact, Burt can’t climb up walls, fly very well, or even run fast! Is there something that makes Burt special?

THOUGHTS: This is a cute graphic novel-style informational book about insects! A cute story for young readers to learn about the super things specific bugs can do, including June bugs!

Graphic Novel          Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD