Early Learning Digital Media Award

HONOR TITLE

Sesame Street Family Play: Caring for Each Other

WINNER

The Imagine Neighborhood

Coretta Scott King Book Awards – Virginia Hamilton Award

Dorothy L. Guthrie

Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel by Jason Reynolds

Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel by Jason Reynolds, art by Danica Novgorodoff (9781534444959)

The original verse novel by Reynolds won many awards, including a Newbery Honor, Printz Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor. I was hesitant to take a look at the graphic novel version of the book, wondering how it could work. While the graphic novel does not improve the book (because how could it), instead it is like a new jazz version of the original, taking the story and transforming it into something similar but altogether different. This new graphic version is incredible, just as moving, tense and personal as the original.

Readers who may hesitate at picking up a verse novel will find this new version more approachable. Beautifully, Reynold’s wring is intact here, so many of his important lines and statements left to speak directly to the reader. Novgorodoff manages to transform the work with her art. She sweeps the pages with watercolor blues, fills violent parts with blood spattering red, highlights Will on his elevator journey through death and hope using color and light.

Amazing, transformative and fully in honor of the original work. Appropriate for ages 12-16.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.

Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston

Cover image

Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston (9780062975164)

Amari still believes her brother is alive, even though everyone else thinks he is dead, including the bullies at her private prep school that she attends through a scholarship. When she gets a strange delivery, sending her to her brother’s closet where she finds a briefcase, she is introduced to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, where her brother works. Offered a spot in their competitive summer program, Amari finds herself learning about the hidden supernatural world that surrounds us all. It also turns out that her brother is part of a very famous two-person team who brought down the evil magicians. He has disappeared, and Amari is determined to find him, even though the Bureau doesn’t want to share any of the information they have. Helped by her roommate, who happens to be part dragon and a classmate connected to a famous family, Amari starts to unravel the mystery of her brother’s disappearance, but not before discovering that she has powers of her own that mark her as evil in everyone’s eyes.

A perfect new title for fans of Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, and Percy Jackson, it is great to see a Black author create a Black protagonist who enters a fantasy world. Brilliantly, Alston layers the prejudice of the real world with that found in the supernatural, showing how profound racism is by combining it with hatred of magicians, who are labeled as illegal. The writing is strong and the pace is fast, quickly bringing readers and the characters into the world of the supernatural.

The world building is delightful, with nods to Harry Potter and classic myths but also staying connected to an urban landscape and modern issues. Amari is a great character, who sees little potential in herself while revealing throughout the book how unusual she actually is in more than her powers. Her loneliness, courage, loyalty and desire to figure out what happened all make for a book that has real depth but also offers a wild and fun ride through the supernatural.

Sure to be a popular read, this book has plenty of substance too. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.

I Will Dance by Nancy Bo Flood

Cover image for I Will Dance

I Will Dance by Nancy Bo Flood, illustrated by Julianna Swaney (9781534430617)

A little girl with cerebral palsy makes a birthday wish that she gets a pink tutu and can dance. When Eva was born, she wasn’t expected to survive more than a short while, but she is now ten years old. She wants to dance but can’t move more than her head and her arms and fingers. Eva can’t use her legs to run and move like other children can. Then her mother discovers a new dance program for people of all ages and all abilities. Still, will they let her join in even though she is in a wheelchair? Yes! When Eva arrives there are children of all sorts of ages, sizes, and who have a variety of assistive devices they use. Soon they are not only dancing but creating a performance where they do more than pretend and imagine. They dance!

At the end of the book, the author explains that a program called Young Dance inspired this picture book. The Executive Director of the Young Dance program also shares information on the program and its opportunities for children of all abilities. This picture book is inspiring on a variety of levels, for children who may think their limitations would prevent them from dancing, certainly. Plus it also shows everyone else not to make assumptions about what is possible and whether a dream can come true. Still, it is based firmly in reality, and as the book points out takes imagination and makes it real.

Swaney’s illustrations are lovely, showing both Eva’s physical limitations and also the beauty and freedom she first sees and then discovers herself in dancing. The use of sparkling energy to show the movement and magic of dance works particularly well.

A book that is inspiring and breaks stereotypes through dance. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.

Birrarung Wilam by Aunty Joy Murphy and Andrew Kelly

Cover image for Birrarung Wilam

Birrarung Wilam by Aunty Joy Murphy and Andrew Kelly, illustrated by Lisa Kennedy (9781536209426)

Take a journey down the Yarra River near Melbourne, Australia in this Aboriginal picture book that celebrates native creatures and plants. Told using many words from the Woirurrung language, the book is a mixture of evocative language and poetic phrasing. Starting with a starry night sky, the picture book shows the path of the Birrarung as it winds along. It goes past trees where possums make their homes in hollow trees. Rain falls and the bright-blue fairy wren chases insects near his mate. Cockatoos fly past looking for pine cones and their seeds. Kangaroos gather where the river slows and platypus burrow with their babies. Ravens, pelicans, eagles, ducks and more fill the pages alongside the trees, water and river that create this unique ecosystem.

Because they use so many Woirurrung words, the book is almost a word game. The writing embraces the Aboriginal words, creating swirling and flowing lines of text that move like the river itself. Reading it aloud really lets the words sing out, evoking a place full of natural wonders. Here is the opening line to give you a taste of the style:

As ngua rises,

turning clouds over the distant city red,

Bunjil soars over mountain ash,

flying higher and higher as the wind warms.

Below, Birrarung begins its long

winding path down to palem warreen.

The illustrations done in acrylic show the various scenes along the river. They also allow readers to piece together what creatures and plants are being described in the text, finding the platypus, eagles and kangaroos. The illustrations are filled with Aboriginal art touches, the dots and patterns creating ripples of water, breezes and layers of earth.

Enchanting and full of wonders, this picture book is a resounding success. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram

Cover for Darius the Great Deserves Better

Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram (9780593108239)

This second book about Darius takes place after he returns home from his family’s visit to Iran. A lot has changed since he made his first real friend in Iran, someone he still talks with often and considers his best friend. Now Darius is on the school soccer team and has a boyfriend. He works at a tea store that his boyfriend’s father owns, immersing himself in something he loves. But his family is struggling with money and with his father taking more jobs where he has to travel, his grandmothers move in to help. Darius can’t help but notice how different his grandmothers are than his mother’s family in Iran. He works to connect with them, but doesn’t make much headway. His relationship may not be as great as he though either, since Landon wants to move a lot faster than Darius is ready for. Plus a boy on his soccer team is becoming a closer friend, though he did used to bully Darius. Nothing is simple or easy in this second book, as Darius continues to learn about himself.

Returning to the world of Darius was amazing. Khorram’s writing is marvelous, exuding a natural warmth in his storytelling. His empathy for Darius is clear, as Darius struggles with what he is ready for, what family means to him, and who he wants to have in his life. Even his relationship with tea becomes problematic, as he may lose something he loves because he fears failure so much. And beware how much you will want to try some of the teas mentioned here, because Darius is passionate about them!

Darius is hero material. Thoughtful and sometimes depressed, he is complex and marvelous. From his best friend in Iran to his boyfriend to his new friendships on the soccer team, Darius is brave and manages to continue coming out through this new novel. He faces fear in ways that preserve what he loves, sets real boundaries to keep true to himself, and manages to be hilariously funny too.

Another great Darius book. Can there please be a third? Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

Dungeon Critters by Natalie Reiss and Sara Goetter

Dungeon Critters by Natalie Reiss and Sara Goetter (9781250195463)

Join a band of brave heroes who adventure through dungeons and then take on more sinister threats above ground. There is Rose, the pun-flinging pink cat mage. June is the quieter dog healer who keeps the entire group alive. Goro is the big green creature who serves as the muscle. Finally, Jeremy is the frog with a sharp sword and a vendetta against The Baron. After finding a strange plant, our heroes must figure out how it is being used by The Baron to potentially take over the world. As they work through the threats and puzzles, the group steadily reveal themselves to the reader. Goro misses his boyfriend Horse Boy and Jeremy seems to be far more royal than he first appeared. Meanwhile, there is some romantic heat between Rose and June that plays out throughout the book.

Perfect for anyone who has spent time with Dungeons and Dragons or crawled through video game dungeons like World of Warcraft, this book is captivating. There is plenty of action for those who love that aspect of gaming, but really where this book shines is in the character development, just like any great D&D campaign. The inclusion of LGBT elements and full-on romance is marvelous. It’s a book sure to make everyone feel included in gaming, dungeons and even fancy dances.

The art is bright and dashing while the writing adds the joy of puns as well as moments that will have you laughing out loud. The two together make for a book that is a fast read because the action gallops along and readers will want to know what happens to these characters that they love.

Full of action, romance and humor, this is a dungeon worth crawling for. Appropriate for ages 10-14.

Reviewed from library copy.

The Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling

Cover image for The Canyon’s Edge

The Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling (9780316494694)

This novel in verse tells a harrowing survival story. After losing her mother in a random shooting at her birthday celebration, Nora has been through lots of therapy trying to just survive the loss. Her father has cocooned them both, keeping Nora from returning to school and remaining isolated from everyone. For her birthday a year after the shooting, he takes Nora to a slot canyon in the Arizona desert. The two rappel down into the canyon together, remembering the many times they made similar journeys with her mother. But once again their lives are shattered by the unexpected as a flash flood rips through the canyon, separating Nora from her father and all of her supplies. Her father is washed away with the flood after shoving Nora high enough up the canyon wall to not be swept away. Now Nora must face her doubts and mental demons while also surviving sunburn, starvation, scorpions and dehydration as she searches for her father.

Bowling’s set up for the story alone would make a great tale, a girl surviving the loss of her mother in a shooting incident. Bowling though takes that first tragedy and builds on it, creating a new dangerous challenge for Nora to survive. The way that she uses what Nora learned in therapy, what Nora’s doubts are and her growing resilience is tremendous. She never becomes didactic, instead allowing Nora to steadily grow stronger mentally and know that she is capable of so much. Along the way, she also admits to herself how she has pushed her best friend away too.

The writing here is stellar, the pacing exactly right. Bowling will shock readers as she moves from the quiet of the canyon to the power of the flood. Then they are thrown directly into a survival story, one where Nora is not spared from a variety of injuries even as her mind and resilience grow. There is so much determination and grit in her, so much strength!

Verse novel meets survival story in this book that will carry you away. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.