The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Shane W. Evans
Amira is an artist who spends her free time drawing with sharp sticks in the dirt. She has just turned twelve and is now old enough to wear a toob. Amira longs to go to school, but her mother doesn’t believe that girls should go to school. So Amira stays on the family farm with her parents and younger sister who was born with misshapen legs. Then the peace is shattered when their farm is attacked and Amira’s beloved father is killed. Now they must leave their farm behind and head to a refugee camp where people are crowded into a small space and hunger is constant. But when Amira is given a red pencil, her mind once again is able to escape into her art and she starts to once again dream of a different future and how to get there.
Set in Sudan, this verse novel is filled with power, wrenching written. The brutality of the attack is captured clearly on the page as is the shock of loss that continues to ripple and tear at the small family remaining. Pinkney captures grief on the page, writing with a clarity and beauty that is stark at times and layered and subtle at others. Her verse speaks to the power of dreams to lift people out of where they are trapped and make a difference.
From waves of wheat on the page to the family together, Evans’ illustrations support the powerful verse. As the tone of the poems shift, so does his art which moves from playful to dramatic along with the text. My favorite images capture small pieces of life, little glimpses of what makes a home and a day.
An impressive novel in verse, this book offers a strong survivor of a protagonist who uses art as a force to lift herself. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.
El Deafo by Cece Bell
Author/illustrator Cece Bell has created a graphic novel memoir of her loss of hearing as a child. At age four, Cece contracts meningitis and the disease takes away her ability to hear. At first Cece attends school with other children who have hearing loss and wear hearing aids, but then she is sent to first grade with a new super-powered hearing aid, the Phonic Ear. Her new teacher has to wear a microphone, one that she sometimes forgets to take off (even when she uses the bathroom) which leads to some rather interesting sounds! But along with these superpowers come some ethical questions and some technical problems. As Cece copes with her hearing loss, she is also living the normal life of a child, attending school, making new friends, all with a big hearing aid on her chest.
Bell writes with a great honesty here, revealing helpful hints about what deaf people need to help them read lips and understand people better, things that other people can help with. There is plenty of humor throughout the novel, making it very appealing. Also adding to the appeal is Bell’s transformation from human to bunny in the illustrations, sending herself as an imaginary superhero flying upwards with her long ears.
While this is a book about a disability, it is much more a book about Bell and how her creativity helped her through times that required a real strength of character. Her sense of humor also helped immensely, and it is her positive take about her hearing loss that makes this such an incredible read.
A top graphic novel for children and libraries, this is a must-read and a must-have. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.
Miss Brooks’ Story Nook by Barbara Bottner, illustrated by Michael Emberley
A sequel to Miss Brooks Loves Books, this picture book celebrates story telling. Missy loves going to Miss Brook’s Story Nook right before school each day. She takes the long way to school, because otherwise she has to go past Billy Toomey’s house and he steals her hat and yells at her. Then one day at Story Nook, the power goes out so they have to tell their own stories. Missy though insists that she’s a reader not a storyteller. But soon she is telling her own story, inspired by Billy Toomey. It is the story of an ogre named Graciela who has a pet snake that escapes. The trick is that Missy needs to figure out a satisfying ending to her story of an ogre and a bully.
Bottner has created another engaging story filled with humor and clever solutions. Miss Brooks is inspiring with her enthusiasm for books and stories and the way she encourages the children to keep making their stories better. It’s a joy to see Missy tell her very creative story, struggle with some of it but persevere and create a satisfying tale for the entire class to enjoy.
Emberley’s illustrations add a lot of zing to the book. He captures moods so clearly in his characters from the jaunty excitement of Miss Brooks to Missy’s ever-changing moods. They are told through expressions and also body language.
Smart and funny, this is a book to inspire young readers to create their own stories just like Missy. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from digital copy received from Edelweiss and Random House.
Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan
Josie attends both college and high school, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. So she has to be able to speak fluent High School and College. There are people in her life who speak her own language, her best friend Stu, her parents, and her older sister Kate. Josie also has to learn the way to talk to Kate about her dismal new boyfriend who doesn’t seem to be going away as quickly as Josie would like. Even worse, it looks like they might be getting married, but not if Josie can stop it. As Josie starts to date, she learns that there are Boyfriend languages that she has to learn as well. But will anyone bother to learn to speak Josie? And how in the world do you stop a crazy bride-to-be from ruining your life along with her own?
McCahan has written a smart female protagonist who is not afraid of being seen as intelligent and often shows off her knowledge in very humorous ways. It’s great to have a super-smart girl in a book who relishes her own brains and also manages to have close friends. Just as lovely is a book with a teen protagonist who enjoys her parents and gets along with her siblings too, most of the time. Josie is entirely herself with her own sense of identity that often does not match the ones that people want to inflict upon her. And that is celebrated in this wonderfully clever read.
McCahan has a knack for comedic timing and witty comments. She doesn’t take it too far or make Josie too very clever. Instead the humor reads naturally and seems like the sort of things that a smart teen would say. The use of foreign languages to look at how people communicate in different ways is a very clever take on it. As Josie stumbles through relationships on different levels, she is acutely aware of when things go awry but also just as confused about how to fix them.
This is an outstanding novel with an unusual protagonist that will have you laughing along with Josie as she navigates the many languages of her world. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
Planet Kindergarten by Sue Ganz-Schmitt, illustrated by Shane Prigmore
Told in the first person by a little boy, this picture book mixes science fiction, space exploration and Kindergarten into one awesome picture book. The boy has been training for this day for some time. He has gotten supplies, been checked by a doctor, and the countdown to lift off has begun. He arrives at the Kindergarten door and his parents leave, returning to their own planet. He joins a classroom filled with aliens from across the galaxies. The commander gives them the day’s flight plan and then they start activities in the capsule, get to explore the planet’s surface for a bit, and even eat space food. By the end of the day, it is Mission Accomplished! And then time to get ready to do it all again.
Ganz-Schmitt nicely ties in science fiction touches throughout the book. The boy’s parents say goodbye with a Vulcan salute! She also focuses on NASA and space flight, pulling these two related but distinct subjects together seamlessly. Children who are fans of either will be right at home here, giggling along with the puns and the idea of school being a space capsule. Her humor is right on, offering just enough to be funny but not too much to lose the concept of it being a Kindergarten book.
Prigmore’s illustrations have a great zany quality that suits the subject matter. I love the other little boy with the hood so that you only see his nose and mouth as well as the other children who look like aliens but you can also see the person in there too. He plays along the line of making it about space but also allowing readers to see the human school underneath too.
Funny and filled with action and adventure, this book will get even the most nervous Kindergarten astronaut giggling about their new mission. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.
Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
The author of A Tangle of Knots returns with a brilliant new protagonist in her new novel. Albie doesn’t get good grades, in fact he was asked to leave his private school and is going to be starting public school instead. Albie isn’t the best artist. He isn’t the best at anything at all. Except maybe at eating doughnuts for breakfast. But when he changes schools, things start to change for Albie. It could be the great new babysitter he gets, since his parents are very busy. Calista is an artist and she thinks it’s OK that Albie reads Captain Underpants books even though he’s in 5th grade and that he sometimes needs a break from school. It could be math club, that starts each day with a joke and sneaks math in when Albie isn’t paying attention. It could be a new best friend, Betsy, someone he can talk to and joke with and who doesn’t get mad when Albie gets confused. But things aren’t all great. Albie’s other best friend is appearing on a reality TV show and suddenly Albie gets popular at school, risking his friendship with Betsy. Albie has a lot to figure out before he knows exactly what he’s good at.
Graff’s writing here is stellar. She writes with an ease that makes for a breezy read, yet it deals with deep issues along the way. Thanks to her light touch, the book reads quickly, never bogging down into the issues for too long before lightening again. Still, it is the presence of those deep issues that make this such a compelling read. The fact that the book deals with so much yet never feels overwhelmed by any of them is a wonder and a feat.
Throughout the entire book the real hero is Albie. He is a character that is ordinary, every-day and yet is still a delight to read about. His perspective is down to earth, often confused, and he walks right into every social trap there is. He is a character you simply have to root for, a regular boy who is also a hero. He shows that simply making it through each day being yourself is heroic, and a win. The world is filled with Albies and this book shows why they should be celebrated. He’s a delight.
A book with at least four starred reviews, this is a standout novel this year. Get your hands on it and share it with kids. It’s a unique and surprising read, just like Albie himself. Appropriate for ages 8-11.
Reviewed from library copy.
Comics Squad: Recess!
Released July 8, 2014.
Join your favorite children’s graphic novel authors as they romp together in a celebration of recess! This graphic novel has been contributed to by authors like Jennifer and Matthew Holm, Jarrett Krosoczka, Dan Santat, Gene Luen Yang, and Raina Telgemeier. Favorite characters like Lunch Lady and Babymouse make an appearance in their own stories as well as appearing throughout the book with a little commentary. In other stories, new characters make their first appearance which will delight young fans.
It’s hard to be too enthusiastic about this title, since young readers are sure to adore it. The release in mid-summer is ideal since this will make great summer reading, though it will also be a great addition to any school library or classroom. Put together cleverly, the book has a nice flow to it and a brisk pace that will have even reluctant readers eagerly turning the pages.
Get multiple copies of this one, since it’s sure to be a hit! Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Random House and Edelweiss.
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh
Explore an early battle for desegregation of the California public schools in this picture book. In a court battle that took place seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez and her family fought the system. Having been placed in a Mexican school rather than a “whites only” one due to her Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage, Sylvia and her family realized that she was being given a second-class education because the facilities and teachers were much better in the white school. After appealing the school placement, the full extent of the racism of the system was revealed as the school proceeded to inform Sylvia who spoke perfect English that the other school would help her learn English better. Sylvia’s parents took the battle to court and also organized the Hispanic community to find other students who were being clearly discriminated against. This is a book where people took on a fight for what was right and managed to get things changed.
Tonatiuh emphasizes the small and poor vs. large government and wealth throughout this book. He makes sure that young readers understand the extent of the racism against Hispanics and the reality of the policies that they were living under. The issue is complex, but he keeps it clear and concise, offering a solid view of the courage that it took for the Mendez family to fight the system and also making it clear why they were able to fight back when others could not.
Tonatiuh’s stylized illustrations pay homage as always to folk art. His characters have glossy hair in different colors that are cut-outs of photographs. The same is true of the fabric of clothes and other objects. This is paired with a flat paint and clear black outlines making a combination that is modern and ageless.
An important addition to the civil rights history of the United States, this nonfiction picture book tells a story of courage and determination. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Abrams.