I Can Help by Reem Faruqi, illustrated by Mikela Prevost (9780802855046)
Zahra loves to volunteer to help a boy in her class. Kyle has problems with reading, writing, cutting and gluing. Kyle is great at drawing and other things though. As Zahra helps him, she discovers that he is generous, funny and kind too. Then one day, when Zahra is swinging high on the swings and seeing the new colors of the leaves, she overhears some girls saying mean things about Kyle. She stops swinging and one girl asks her why she volunteers to help Kyle anyway. The next day, the girls stare at Zahra as she is asked to help Kyle cut some paper. Zahra makes a poor choice and stops helping Kyle, telling him to do it himself. Zahra has become a mean girl that she doesn’t even recognize. The next year, at a new school, Zahra has a chance to make different decisions and do better, and that’s just what she does.
The author of Amira’s Picture Day returns with a book based on her own experience as a child. It’s a look at a child who longs to be helpful but allows peer pressure to lead her away from who she sees herself being. The bullying nature is written so accurately, not overblown into something but kept slick and insidious. Zahra’s own response is honest and real, the shame of acting that way and not seeing a way forward. This book could have turned didactic very quickly and nicely shows a child making her own decisions and coming out of it having learned something about herself and who she intends to be.
The illustrations offer a diverse classroom. They use plenty of white space while expanding to larger images at times too. The children’s faces are done very effectively, showing a wide range of emotions.
Sure to create opportunities for discussion, this picture book gives space for children to make mistakes and recover from them. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Cash doesn’t have much in his small Appalachian town, but what he does have, he loves. He loves spending time with his Papaw on the porch even as Papaw struggles to breathe due to his emphysema. He loves time out on the water in his canoe, which is how he helped his best friend, Delaney, make a scientific discovery of a lifetime. Delaney uses that discovery to secure them both full scholarships to an elite prep school in Connecticut. Cash agrees to go with her, knowing that he will struggle to keep up and will feel entirely out of place among the rich students. Cash doesn’t count on the power of words and poetry to keep him afloat as well as new friends. But even they may not be enough when Papaw takes a turn for the worse.
Zentner is an award-winning author and his writing here is truly exceptional. In Cash, he gives us a natural poet who looks at the world through metaphors and connects readers directly to the beauty of Appalachia. Both settings, Appalachia and Connecticut, are captured with such astute clarity and powerful wording that readers feel as if they are there seeing the light, the trees, the weather, and feeling it all in their chests. There is also a direct emotionality to the writing that reveals Cash’s struggles, his self doubts, his loves and allows readers to see his path forward long before Cash allows himself to.
The characters push back against every stereotype. Cash is a deep thinker, connected viscerally to the place where he came from, and a deep feeler who connects directly to those he cares for. It is easy to see why Delaney wants him with her. Delaney herself is a scientific genius, full of sarcastic wit and a directness in her speech that offers just the right amount of offset to Cash’s rich language. The two best friends that they meet offer diversity to the story and also a clarity that prep schools can be full of interesting people worth loving too.
Brilliantly written, full of great characters and insisting that poetry changes lives. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Crown Books for Young Readers.