YA – The Black Kids

Reed, Christina Hammonds. The Black Kids. Simon & Schuster, 2020. 978-1-534-46272-4. 362. p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Los Angeles is in flames after the police officers who beat Rodney King senseless are acquitted. These events of the early 90s have an intense, life-changing effect on native Angelinos and upper middle-class African Americans, Ashley Bennett and her older sister Jo. As Christina Hammonds Reed’s relatable narrator, the popular, thoughtful Ashley, nears graduation, she starts to view her childhood (white) friends differently, a situation exacerbated by the local disruptions. Her teenage stresses about college acceptances, parental conflicts, and illicit flirting, pale once the riots start and her rebellious sister Jo drops out of school, marries, and protests the verdicts. Ashley has lived a privileged life pampered by the family’s Guatemalan housekeeper, Lucia, and indulged in every material way. Now, her father’s family-owned business–run all these years by his brother– is in ruin, bringing her uncle and her cousin to the Bennetts’ doorstep. When Ashley connects with the kind, charming basketball star, LaShawn Johnson who attends the elite prep school on scholarship, and the off-beat Lana Haskins who is possibly a victim of physical abuse, she questions her friend choices and wonders why she has no Black friends. When Ashley inadvertently starts a rumor at her school that gets LaShawn suspended, she finds it difficult to rectify the situation; but it makes her reflect on the inequity in the lives of people of color. Her sister’s mounting militancy finally gets her arrested and sentenced, though she was just one of the crowd of protestors when someone threw a Molotov cocktail setting a fire. Ashley becomes accepted by the Black kids at school and discovers she can widen her circle of friends. More importantly, the Bennett family grows better at communicating with each other and, in doing that, they realize they care deeply about each other. Christina Hammonds Reed takes a coming-of-age story set in the early nineties against the backdrop of the Rodney King beatings to a new level. The relationships, tension, and plot development as well as the cultural references and dialogue draw in the reader. In particular, Reed’s writing style is fresh and exact, giving a unique take on the typical high school tropes—mothers vs. daughters, siblings, popularity, the future, romance, self-discovery –thus making The Black Kids a compelling read.

THOUGHTS: Recommend this title to high school students who liked Karen English’s middle grade novel, It All Comes Down to This that told of the Watts riots, and lead them to Ana Deavere Smith’s one-woman show featuring the players in the Rodney King beating and its aftermath, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Activism and passivity are shown in the two sisters and students can discuss these divergent characters. The difficulty separating from childhood friends or the desire to be seen in a different light as one matures is a strong theme in this book. Though the elements of the story are not uncommon, Reed’s gifted writing style pulls you into to the book.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

Step back into the early nineties in LA for a coming of age story that could easily situate itself into the current landscape of America (without social media and cell phones). Main character, Ashley lives a pretty posh life, removed from the hardships her parents faced growing up and even from a lot of the current events. She attends a private school with a lot of white friends and lives in a respected neighborhood. When the Rodney King trial and subsequent riots take over the city, Ashley’s world starts to shake, and she’s forced to reckon with questions of identity. From the shift from child to adult, Ashley’s experience provides the foreground to the city of Los Angeles during a fragile moment in US history.

THOUGHTS: This book should replace some of the dusty “classics” taking up room on high school shelves. Although suitable for high school students, there is mention of drugs, alcohol, and self harm.

Historical Fiction          Samantha Hull, Ephrata Area SD

YA – Six Angry Girls

Kisner, Adrienne. Six Angry Girls. Feiwel and Friends. 2020. 978-1-250-25342-2. $17.99. 262 p. Grades 9-12.

Raina Petree got dumped by big crush boyfriend, Brandon. Emilia Goodwin got dumped by the pompous all-male Mock Trial Team. They join forces to salvage their senior year by forming an all-female Mock Trial Team in their Pittsburgh suburban high school of Steelton drawing on Raina’s drama skills and Millie’s knowledge of the law and research. Adapting the title of the 1950’s movie, Twelve Angry Men, these six angry girls (all but one Caucasian)–overcome heartbreak and self-esteem issues to create a strong challenge to their male counterparts and a serious threat to other Mock Trial Teams as they compete for Nationals. Told in alternating chapters narrated by either Raina or Millie, the book develops a girl power story with the message that people need to stand up for what is right and, especially, stand up for oneself. Author Adrienne Kisner also manages to weave in a subplot involving knitting. Raina searches for an outlet for her grief and joins the knitting group at The Dropped Stitch, a local yarn store. Not only does she learn to cast on and purl, she finds herself involved with activists trying to stop the election of a local magistrate because of his history letting off misogynists and blocking legislation for reproductive rights. Their rebellion manifests itself in yarn-bombing the courthouse with knitted female genitalia. In a twist, the targeted judge turns up volunteering in Mock Trial. At the knitting shop, Raina meets new student Grace who is happy to join an extracurricular activity. Millie falls for Grace and begins to value herself and her time, separating her needs from her helpless father who expects Millie to be chief cook and bottlewasher after her mother moves to Ohio. Though told in a light-hearted manner, the book addresses serious topics, contains a full-range of LBGTQ+ characters, and models the strengths and weaknesses of adults in young people’s lives. What begins as a revenge against the boys story builds with each club meeting, practice, and competition to a triumph of self-identity and self-worth.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: The cover illustration depicts a diverse group of girls, but the two main characters are white. Author Adrienne Kisner is emphasizing gender identity: Millie and Grace form a romantic relationship; Izzy, a minor character, is transgender; the Mock Trial court case for the win centers on gender discrimination. Some parts to be aware of: The Dropped Stitch crew are not shy about using anatomically correct terms, and a smattering of curses appear throughout the dialogue, making it more a high school choice than middle grade. This book has the same feminist fight tone of Moxie by Jennifer Matthieu; and if this suburban, western Pennsylvanian high school resembles yours, Six Angry Girls is an attractive purchase.

YA – We Are Not Free

Chee, Traci. We Are Not Free. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-13143-4. $17.99. 384 p. Grades 9 and up.

Traci Chee’s National Book Award Finalist, We Are Not Free, takes the reader from the close-knit community of Japantown in San Francisco at the start of World War II to the gradual closing of the Japanese imprisonment camps at the end of the war. Told in first-person narrative, each teen—ranging from ages 14 to 19–brings a perspective of life as an American of Japanese descent, from the growing discrimination toward the Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the injustices of the camps to the explicit racism displayed when their families return to their former neighborhood. In a novel where credible character development is critical, author Chee shows a wide range of astute writing ability inhabiting the minds of the varied group of young people inhabiting two camps, Topaz and Tule Lake. Sensitive Aiko Harano who at only 13 realizes not only the unfairness of the American government’s oppression of her family and friends, but also the repugnancy of her own parents’ abusive treatment of her older brother, Tommy. Intellectual Stan Katsumoto surrenders his hard-earned dream of continuing his college education when he sides with his parents in being a “No No” person: refusing to relinquish allegiance to the Japanese emperor when no allegiance had ever been formed. Perhaps the most impressive chapter is David “Twitchy” Hashimoto’s, the happy-go-lucky, ever-moving nineteen-year-old who, like several of his friends, volunteered to serve in the military, to go to war. The battle description Chee develops with Twitchy’s commentary is both action-packed and gut-wrenching. Though there are other selections telling of the imprisonment of the Japanese-Americans (in an afterword, Chee advises to delete the term, Japanese internment, in favor of more accurate terms like incarceration, imprisonment, forced removal), We Are Not Free dives deep into what it was like in the camps and how it affected a non-combative community. Works like Journey to Topaz  by Yoshiko Uchida, Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata, or Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban—to name just a few–give readers a glimpse into this ignominious period of American history, but We Are Not Free covers the full scope and does so through the voices of teens with whom young readers can relate. This book tells a powerful story, one that has not always been fully explored, but has a new resonance in today’s society. Contains further readings, some historical images.

Historical Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

THOUGHTS: After reading this book, I feel that all the other historical fiction books on this topic are just a prelude. If I had to choose one book to recommend on the experience in Japanese prison camps to a high school student, We Are Free would be the one. Chee is able to reveal the complications of feeling American and patriotic while also feeling unaccepted by and disheartened by one’s government. In literature lessons, students can examine the character development in a short chapter. In history class, the revelations of injustices and wrongs can be debated and discussed.

Upper Elem/MS – Adventures of John Blake; Good Story Someday; Orphan Island;

Pullman, Phillip. The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship. Scholastic, 2017. 9781338149128. $19.99. 159p. Gr. 3 to 7.

Philip Pullman’s first foray into graphic novels is The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship. The story involves a time-traveling schooner that many people seem to know about and want to find, including the billionaire, Dahlberg, and, Danielle, a young woman who works for a maritime organization in San Francisco. The boat appears mysteriously after an otherworldly storm followed by a dense fog. The story includes a boy that can mysteriously kill you within a month if you look into his eyes, a 3D object related to time travel, an unsolved murder, and a monitoring device called an apparator, that the billionaire uses to keep tabs on everyone in the world who has one (which is most people.) THOUGHTS: I couldn’t wait to read this graphic novel from Philip Pullman since I’m a big fan of the His Dark Materials books. Although I wasn’t in love with the illustrations, they don’t detract from the story. The story itself kept me interested and the book’s characters are diverse: age, sex, and ethnicity are represented in a natural way. This is a an excellent addition to a school library and even though the publisher rates it for ages 8 to 12, older students and even graphic novel reading adults will enjoy this story.  

Graphic Novel      Bridget Fox, Central Bucks SD

 

Levy, Dana Alison. This Would Make a Good Story Someday. Delacorte Press, 2017. 978-1101938171.  315 pp. $19.99. Gr. 4-8.

Sara is going into Middle School after the summer and has detailed plans to spend time with her friends and improve herself. But surprise, Mimi (one of Sara’s moms) has won a month long train trip! Mimi is going to write about the trip and their family, college age Laurel, her boyfriend Root, Sara, their other mom, and Li, the little sister. Sara does not want any part of it but is dragged along anyway. To make matters worse, the other prize winner and his family are going to be traveling companions with them.  THOUGHTS: I loved the fact that the two moms are not the central theme of this book. It also brings up some difficult and current topics through Laurel (very granola and political) but don’t force the reader to agree with the character’s views.

Realistic Fiction       Emily Woodward, The Baldwin School

 

Snyder, Laurel. Orphan Island.  Walden Pond Press, 2017.  978-0062443410.  288 p.  $16.99  Gr. 4-7.

Each year, a new child mysteriously arrives in a green boat on an island where nine orphans live on their own, with no adults to care for them. Then, the eldest must leave because of a rhyme that has been passed down for as long as anyone can remember: Nine on an island, orphans all/ Any more–the sky might fall.”  When little Ess arrives, and Deen leaves, Jinny becomes the eldest, and she is haunted with the knowledge that her days on her beloved island are now numbered. The island is a safe, almost magical place, with gorgeous sunrises, snakes that don’t bite, and cliffs that are impossible to fall off. Only the water is dangerous, and no one knows where the new orphans come from or where the eldest orphans are headed.  There are not a lot of rules to follow, but when rules are broken, there are consequences.  “Never pick the last of anything” is a rule that was broken once, and as a result, there are no more curlyferns on the island.  Jinny does not want to leave, and so, when a new orphan arrives, she simply refuses to get in the boat.  When terrible things start happening, Jinny fears that her choice to break the most important Island rule is wreaking havoc on the only home she can remember.  THOUGHTS: Orphan Island is an allegory about the transition from childhood to adulthood. The fact that it offers far more questions than answers might be frustrating to some readers. However, it is a beautifully written and thought-provoking book that rewards those who enjoy participating in the creative process of making meaning.  A must-buy for upper elementary and middle school libraries.  This book will stand the test of time.

Fantasy                  Maggie Bokelman, Cumberland Valley SD

Picture Books – Pandamonia; Not Quite Narwhal; Dino-Dancing; Rolling Thunder; Pink Lion

Owen, Chris and Chris Nixon.  Pandamonia.  Kane Miller Publishing, 2017. 9781610676199. 32 pp. $12.99. Gr. PS-3.

This Australian import is an enjoyable romp through the zoo.  The reader sees and hears about the wild reactions of various zoo animals when a panda is awakened.  The author uses rhyming text to explain the ensuing chaos, and readers meet some unfamiliar animals along the way.  Occasionally the rhyme seems forced and the cadence off-balance.  This book was written to be read aloud, but it lacks a refrain for the listeners to join in.  The illustrations are wild and expressive and are better appreciated by a small group. The panda itself is calm and portrayed in a meditation type pose. Readers only see him just awaking with one eye open and don’t find out what he does to create such pandemonium or as the authors put it, “pandamonia.” This work is somewhat reminiscent of Klassen’s texts.  Thoughts:  Children will find this book enjoyable, especially where zoo stories are popular.  It is an additional purchase for elementary collections.

Picture Book                 Denise Medwick, West Allegheny SD

 

Sima, Jessie. Not Quite Narwhal.  Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017. 978-1-48146-909-8. 32 Pages 32. $17.95. Gr. Pre-K and up.

Kelp was born under the sea in a clamshell. He feels he is different from the other narwhals; he can’t swim as quickly (thank goodness for water wings), and he is less than enthusiastic about their squid dinners. One day he gets swept away by a current and sees a figure like himself! Pursuing the phantom, Kelp must swim for hours and learn to walk on land which is no easy feat. He eventually finds the unicorns (or land narwhals as he calls them). Kelp loves learning and tasting new things, but will he go back to his narwhal home?  THOUGHTS: I adored this book. It’s soft, pastel illustrations are inspiring, and the humor of the storyline and characters are fantastic. Not Quite Narwhal is a fantastic book for any age about acceptance, being yourself, and understanding differences can be good.

Picture Book          Emily Woodward, The Baldwin School

 

Wheeler, Lisa. Dino-Dancing. Carolrhoda Books, 2017. 978-1-5124-0316-9. Unpaged. $17.99. Gr. K-2.

In the tradition of Wheeler’s other fun-filled dinosaur sports books comes Dino-Dancing, a fast-paced twirl through the world of competitive dance. Dino dancers show off moves in various styles including ballet, acrobatic dance, jazz, swing, Latin ballroom, and a particular fierce hip-hop showdown. Wheeler smartly combines dance terminology and diverse dino species, making this book a must-read for both dance and dino lovers. Barry Gott’s illustrations are colorful and clever and do a fairly good job of accurately representing different dance moves (those dinos aren’t always very limber but they do their best!). Wheeler always teases her next dino sports book at the end, but this one is a bit different…the dino dancers are practicing the Nutcracker ballet because Christmas is coming! Perhaps the dinos are moving into holiday celebrations and away from sports. THOUGHTS: Another fun addition to the dino sports series to be read and enjoyed by long-time dino sports fans or those new to the action.

Picture book                  Lindsey Long, Lower Dauphin SD

 

Messner, Kate. Rolling Thunder. Scholastic Press, 2017. 978-0-545-47012-4. Unpaged. $17.99. Gr. K-2.

A fresh look at Memorial Day through the eyes of a boy who accompanies his biker grandpa on the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally in Washington DC. Grandpa rides for those he was with in Vietnam, and the youth rides for his Uncle who is currently enlisted and deployed. After camping out, the pair ride to the Lincoln Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Wall Memorial. The concepts of POWs, MIAs, and death is brought up, but not explained in depth. The poetic verse and pastel pictures provide a powerful, yet appropriate message for young and old alike. THOUGHTS: I got goosebumps when I read this book. It is a good introduction to Memorial Day, and as a read-aloud educators can elaborate about POWs or MIAs as needed. One complaint that has been brought up with this book is the lack of cultural diversity in the illustrations.

Picture Book          Emily Woodward, The Baldwin School

 

Porter, Jane. Pink Lion. Kane Miller, a division of EDC Publishing, 2017. 978-1-61067-611-3. Unpaged. $19.99. Gr. PreK-1.

Arnold is a pink lion who happily grows up thinking he’s a flamingo. When a gang of lions comes by they insist that Arnold is a lion and should come with them. The pink lion isn’t a big fan of licking himself clean, hunting, or roaring. But when he tries to go back to his flamingo family a big mean crocodile has moved into the pond. Arnold finds his inner lion and roars to scare the green enemy away. His fellow lions come to join him, and the two species live happily ever after together.  THOUGHTS: A nice book about adoption, acceptance, and families.

Picture Book          Emily Woodward, The Baldwin School

 

Picture Books – Nerdy Birdy Tweets; Where Oliver Fits; Town is by the Sea

Reynolds, Aaron. Nerdy Birdy Tweets. Ill. Matt Davies, Roaring Brook Press, 2017. 978-1-62672-128-9. Unpaged. $17.99. Gr. K-2.

“One real live you is worth a thousand Tweetster friends.” and so is the lesson of Nerdy Birdy Tweets, a humourous look at how society manages friendship and what true friendship truly means.  Nerdy Birdy and Vulture are best friends, but when Nerdy Birdy joins Tweetser he ignores Vulture for his hundreds of “friends”, many of whom Nerdy Birdy has never met.  When Vulture joins Tweetster everything seems okay until Nerdy Birdy shares a picture and comment about Vulture that hurts her feelings.  Now, Nerdy Birdy must figure out what to do, but none of his “friends” on Tweetster are helpful.  It’s up to Nerdy Birdy to find Vulture and make things right again because “One real live you is worth a thousand Tweetster friends.”  Thoughts:  This is a wonderful book about friendship and what true friendship is.  It teaches young children to think about your actions before putting them out there for everyone to see.  Many adults could learn from this picture book.  The illustrations, as always, are fabulous.  They are colorful and fun to interact with through both the spoken text and written text.

Picture Book      Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

 

Atkinson, Cale. Where Oliver Fits. Tundra Books, 2017. 978-1-101-91907-1. Unpaged. $17.99. Gr. K-2.

Oliver doesn’t seem to fit in.  He’s too short or not square enough; his color isn’t right, or he’s too round.  He just doesn’t fit in, but Oliver wants to fit in, so he decides to change himself in order to fit in.  He’s accepted by the purple puzzle, but he wonders, “If I have to hide and pretend I’m someone else, am I really still me?”  Then he questions, “And if I can’t be me, then what fun is it to fit in?”  When Oliver decides to just be himself, he realizes that other puzzle pieces have changed their appearances to try to fit in.  He realizes that being oneself is better than trying to fit in because in time one will find his fit.  THOUGHTS:  This is a beautifully, brightly illustrated text about staying true to one’s own character and self.  This is a lesson that everyone needs throughout life and is especially important for students developing their own personalities and character.  The symbolism of Oliver as a puzzle piece is also a great way of introducing symbolism to elementary students.  This is a great picture book not only for elementary students but for character lessons in middle and high school.

Picture Book    Erin Bechdel, Beaver Area SD

 

Schwartz, Joanne. Town Is By the Sea. Ill.  Sydney Smith. Groundwood Books, 2017.  978-15549-8716. $19.95. 52 pp. Gr. K-2.

This picture book follows one day in the life of a Cape Breton boy in the 1950s as he plays by the sea, visits a friend, runs an errand for his mother, and thinks of his father working in the mines deep beneath the sea.  Beautifully illustrated, this is a well-crafted mix of light and dark, seen in the sunshine on the sea vs. the deep dark of the mines and in the freedom of childhood vs. the dirt and weightiness of adulthood.  The boy loves his family and town, and his family loves him.  There is no sadness over their lives or of the change that will come from growing up.  The book matter-of-factly ends, “One day, it will be my turn. I’m a miner’s son. In my town, that’s the way it goes.” THOUGHTS: This is a frank and respectful look at hard expectations, well-written and well-illustrated.  

Picture Book      Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD