When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed (9780525553908)
This graphic novel memoir takes readers directly into the heart of a huge Kenyan refugee camp and the life of one boy who lived there. Omar and his brother Hassan lost their parents in Somalia when their village was attacked. Omar still hopes to find his mother, who was separated from them in the chaos. The brothers live together in their own hut in the camp and are watched over by their guardian who lives next door. When Omar has a chance to go to school, he must make the gut-wrenching decision of whether to leave Hassan, who doesn’t speak, behind. Their time in the camp is spent waiting, waiting for a UN interview, waiting to see if they can finally be moved to another country, waiting for water, waiting for food. It is also a time filled with doubts and hope, requiring true resilience for Omar to see a way forward.
It’s always a delight to see a new graphic novel by Jamieson, author of the Newbery Honor book Roller Girl. It’s all the more impressive to see her take on the challenge of a more serious topic and to do it as a biographical piece, telling the true story of Omar Mohamed and his time in the refugee camp. Jameison crafts the story in a way that truly reveals the plight of those in the camp, the horrors of what they experienced in the past, and the dullness of the routine days. She fills the pages with Omar’s deep caring and worry for his brother, his only remaining family member, and the reality of his sole responsibility to not only keep him safe but offer him a future.
As always with Jamieson, the art is wonderful. In particular, she offers glimpses of the beauty of the night sky in the camp and the warmth of the community of people who have been thrown together by tragedy. It is marvelous that Mohamed worked with her to tell a true story of the camps, that truth resonates on the page, lifting this new work to a different level.
Human, tragic and empowering, this book gives a human face to the many refugees in our world. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from purchased copy.
Nya’s Long Walk by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (9781328781338)
This is a companion picture book to the author’s novel A Long Walk to Water. It shows the plight of people in the South Sudan as they search for clean and safe water sources within walking distance of their homes. The book focuses on Nya and her little sister Akeer. The two head out on a two-hour walk to get water for their family. But today, Akeer is not merry and active along the way. She drags behind and eventually is revealed to be sick and unable to walk any farther. It is a two-hour walk back home, and Nya has to dump much of the precious water back out to be able to also carry Akeer on her back. She finds that even when she thinks she can’t make it all the way back to the village, she can take one more step.
Park’s writing is captivating in picture book format, a lovely combination of pared down writing with dramatic content. Readers will believe that Akeer is simply going slowly at first, until her waterborne illness is revealed. The difficult decision to leave just enough water behind to make the walk possible is gut wrenching. The long and difficult walk is a gripping series of pages that show human resilience and strength vividly.
Pinkney’s art is full of movement and lines. They twirl around the characters who stand out on the page that has bright sunlight and brown dirt. The lines form halos around both of the girls, dancing on to mark their path and show the way.
A look at the impact of unclean water and the health crisis happening in South Sudan, this book also offers solutions. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
A Visit to Grandad: An African ABC by Sade Fadipe, illustrated by Shedrach Ayalomeh (9781911115816)
On an alphabet adventure, Adanah heads out to visit her grandfather in Modakeke, Nigeria. The book starts in school with Adanah heading on break. She packs her bags and camera. Her Dad drives her to her grandad’s house out in the country with lots of animals around. The two of them spend time together, having lunch that is invaded by insects, drinking juice, and cleaning the kitchen. At night, Adanah sleeps under a mosquito net. Water is fetched in kegs, more work and cooking is done, and stories are told in the evening. Finally, Mom is there to take Adanah back home to share her adventures with her little sister, Zainab.
This alphabet book works really well as it shows life in modern Nigeria. It is that exploration of Nigeria that really shines in this book, allowing readers to see a fascinating mix of modern and traditional parts. The strong structure of the alphabet helps keep the book focused and while X will always be for something like xylophone almost none of the other letters are a stretch at all. The text feels free and unforced, which is impressive in this sort of book.
The art is bright and fresh, filling the pages with color and glimpses of home life and the landscape. On each page, there are other items that start with that same letter of the alphabet. The art is structured so well though, that it is easy to miss that these elements are even there until you are encouraged to look for them at the end of the book.
An alphabet picture book focused on family and Africa. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Cassava Republic Press.
Grandpa Cacao by Elizabeth Zunon (9781681196404)
A little girl and her Daddy are making her birthday cake, a chocolate one. As they bake the cake, her father tells her about Grandpa Cacao who lives in the Ivory Coast and has a cacao farm. The book looks at the importance of the right soil and weather to grow cacao as well as the skill to know when precisely to harvest the crop. The process of harvest and then scooping out the white beans, curing them in the ground, and then drying them is shown in detail. All the while, the girl and her father are baking together, the smell and taste of the chocolate bridging the two story lines. In the end, as the cake is finished, the little girl gets a special birthday treat.
Zunon’s picture book tells the important tale of where chocolate comes from and the fascinating process of going from farm to product that is not at all what one might expect. The framing of the chocolate farming process by a girl about to celebrate her birthday with a chocolate cake is lovely. It is strengthened even more by her family connection to the Ivory Coast and her grandfather’s farm. The treat at the end makes that even more firmly and tangible for readers.
The illustrations by the author are cleverly done. The little girl’s world is done in full color collages filled with rich touches of patterns and textures. The African farm is done in a more flat format with the people simply white outlines against the landscape. When the two worlds come together, they both become full color and lush.
Everyone loves chocolate and this book explains how it comes to our tables. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy provided by Bloomsbury Children’s Books.
B Is for Baby by Atinuke, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank (9781536201666)
Told in a series of “B” words, this book tells the story of a baby who climbs into a basket of bananas. Unnoticed by her busy brother who has headphones on, the basket is loaded onto the back of his bicycle and he heads off across the African landscape. They pass baobab trees, see a baboon, bird and butterfly. The road is bumpy and carries them across a bridge until they reach Baba’s bungalow where Baby is discovered amid the bananas much to her brother’s surprise. The three enjoy a snack together and then the two children journey back together to their mother.
Once again, Atinuke shows the beauty of Africa through a small child’s eyes. With only the simplest of words, she delights in the naughtiness of the baby climbing into the basket and then gives a merry journey for her to experience. Ending with a cookie, what could be sweeter! The illustrations are bright and large, perfect for sharing aloud with a group of toddlers. Filled with animals, people and sweeping landscapes, the illustrations capture the beauty of Africa and its people.
Another big beautiful book by Atinuke, this one is just right for the littlest ones. Appropriate for ages 1-3.
Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.
I Am Farmer: Growing an Environmental Movement in Cameroon by Miranda Paul and Baptiste Paul, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (9781512449143)
When Tantoh was young, he visited his grandmother’s farm and tried to plant onions on his own. They shriveled and never grew, but it inspired him to learn more about all sorts of things. As a teen, his father got him his how shovel and gardening supplies even though his father was ill. Tantoh is called Farmer by his classmates and takes pride in it, even writing it on his school uniform. His brother encourages him not to be a farmer, wanting him to get a good job in an office with high scores on his exam. But Tantoh is drawn to be a farmer and deliberately fails his exams. He starts working on the land and someone pays for him to go to college and study agriculture. At college, Tantoh contracts typhoid and it takes seven years for him to fully recover. This shows him the value of clean water. He goes to the United States to study, returning to Cameroon to build gardens that will hold water in the soil and a catchment to capture spring water for a village. One project leads to another and now Farmer Tantoh has many young farmers wanting to learn from him.
This nonfiction picture book offers a close and personal look at an environmental hero who changed the face of Cameroon and brought water conservation and clean drinking water to his country. Farmer was clearly pressured as a young man not to follow his dreams of being a farmer, so this book looks at following one’s dreams and having the ability to live the life you wish to lead. The book also looks at barriers to his success such as his battle with typhoid, which also serves to speak to his strength, courage and resilience.
The illustrations in the book are done in mixed media with paper collage, paint, pen and pencil. The images range from the hills of Cameroon to images of Tantoh as a child, student and adult. The pictures are filled with bright colors, strong shapes and vibrant design.
A look at a man who changed his country by following his dream. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Millbrook Press.
Days with Dad by Nari Hong (9781592702336)
Narrated by a little girl, this picture book looks at growing up with a father in a wheelchair. The girl’s father often apologizes for activities he can’t participate in. But the little girl always responds by saying that she prefers other similar activities that they can do together. Her father can’t go ice skating, but they can fish together through the ice. He can’t swim in the sea, but he can build sandcastles with her. He can’t ride bikes, but they can look at the flowers in the park together. Throughout the book, the tone is positive and joyful, showing that life is about what people can do together and the time spent with those you love. Described on the jacket as semi-autobiographical, this book has been listed on IBBY’s 2017 Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities. This book’s illustrations add to the lightness of the story with their playful feel. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Review copy provided by Enchanted Lion.)
Mama Africa by Kathryn Erskine, illustrated by Charly Palmer (9780374303013)
A picture book about the incredible South African singer, Miriam Makeba, who became the voice of fighting against apartheid. Called Mama Africa, she sang to expose the injustice happening around her at a time when it was dangerous to do so. Eventually, she lived in exile in the United States yet never stopped speaking and singing about her home. She spoke before the United Nations to appeal for help. Finally able to return home after apartheid ended, she continued to fight for justice the rest of her life. Erskine lived in South Africa during apartheid and draws from that knowledge in her book. Throughout, there is a celebration of the impact of song and the importance of giving voice to those living under injustice. The art by Palmer is rich and vivid. He offers portraits of people as well as landscapes that capture the fight for freedom. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (Review copy provided by Farrar Straus & Giroux.)
That Is My Dream! By Langston Hughes, illustrated by Daniel Miyares (9780399550171)
Miyares turns the poem “Dream Variation” by Langston Hughes into a picture book that shows a segregated town in the 1950s. There are separate drinking fountains for white and black people and the races are separate when they relax as well. Then the book changes with a feeling of whirling and release into a book that shows equality, shared time together and the hope of a day spent in harmony. The book is infused with hope, showing how possibilities of freedom and equality can be realized eventually. The book doesn’t move to the present, instead staying in the 1950s and showing what no segregation would have looked like back then. The illustrations by Miyares are beautiful, filled with deep colors and diversity. A very special book that pairs important poetry with a renewed vision. Appropriate for ages 4-7. (Review copy provided by Schwartz & Wade.)
Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor (9780670785612)
This is the second book in the Akata Witch series, a book that I’ve been looking forward to for some time. It does not disappoint! The second book continues the story of Sunny, a girl who has become part of the secret Leopard Society. Leopard People like Sunny can work magic, do juju, and cross boundaries into the wilderness, a space that is different from the physical world. As Sunny grows into her powers and learns more skills, she is being haunted by dreams of a burning city that seem to indicate a coming apocalypse. As she works towards her destiny, Sunny realizes that she is once again being hunted by the masquerade Ekwensu. She must journey to the city in her dreams, but the journey is harrowing and the skills she needs hard to come by.
Okorafor combines modern Nigeria with fantasy once again in this second novel. So often second books in series can be disappointing, serving only as a bridge between two stronger novels. This is not the case here. Instead, Okorafor takes readers deeper into Leopard Society, enlarges our understanding of juju and other powers, and shows how real the rules of the society are. The author dances the line between horror and fantasy very effectively, all the while incorporating elements of Nigerian society into the story for a very rich and varied experience.
In this second book, readers will see a more experienced and older Sunny. She still has a lot to learn, not only about her powers but about her family and about the society she has joined. Sunny is a determined and thoughtful heroine whose powers are vital to the story but whose bravery and independence make her the person she needs to be to battle evil. There is no way not to adore her as a protagonist, even as she makes mistakes.
Start with the first in the series, because you don’t want to miss a moment of this intoxicating blend of fantasy, horror and Nigeria. Appropriate for ages 13-16.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Viking Books for Young Readers.
Solo by Kwame Alexander (9780310761839, Amazon)
Blade has grown up with all sorts of privileges as the son of a rock star, but the big house and huge parties come at a cost. His father is always humiliating him, like when he crashes (literally) Blade’s graduation ceremony where Blade is meant to give a speech. His father tries to clean up his act regularly, but it never seems to stick and he returns to drugs and alcohol. Blade also misses his mother terribly after her death. When Blade finally confronts his father about his behavior, a family secret is revealed that changes Blade’s perspective permanently. He sets off to discover his own history, a journey that takes him to Ghana, a place entirely different than the one he has been living in.
Newbery-Medal winner Alexander has crafted another amazing verse novel here. He moves firmly into teen territory here, with a 17-year-old protagonist who is truly on a journey to discover himself. Alexander starts the novel with the excess of a rock legend’s life and then beautifully changes the novel mid-course to Ghana and people who live as a strong community with few luxuries. The two settings could not be more different nor could what Blade feels while he is in each. Ghana is vividly depicted as is Blade’s reaction to it, rich with people and place.
Alexander’s poetry writing is superb in both settings. Yet it truly comes alive in Ghana, particularly with Joy, Blade’s guide and inspiration while there. Just as Blade cannot look away from Joy, neither can the novel nor the reader since she is so captivating. Throughout the book, there are questions asked that are deep, about wealth and poverty, about privilege and race, about addiction and recovery, about parenting and failure. This is a rich book filled with lots to discover and discuss.
A great read that will be enjoyed by even those teens who may not think they’d like a verse novel. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from ARC received from HarperCollins.