Slay by Brittney Morris (9781534445420)
Kiera spends her days at high school as one of the only black kids other than her boyfriend and her sister. She is regularly asked by the white kids about what is discriminatory and asked to speak for her entire race. Her sister and boyfriend are both activists and speak loudly and clearly about what is oppressive. But Kiera has her own opinions and they come out in the video game, SLAY, she designed that is specifically focused on giving black gamers their own safe space online. Hundreds of thousands of people now play SLAY, but no one in her life knows that Kiera plays it at all, much less that it is actually her game. When a boy gets killed over game money though, everyone is looking for the elusive game developer. The game gets labeled anti-white by some people and soon Kiera finds herself in the battle of a lifetime to defend her game and keep it from collapsing.
Writing about video games can be nearly impossible. The problem is capturing the action and abilities on screen while still keeping the game believable and understandable. Morris does this extremely well. She marries a battle card game with an MMORPG, which works particularly well. It’s a game that readers will want to play themselves, which is a tribute to how well Morris describes the game, gameplay and the world she has created.
Morris has also created great human characters in this novel. Kiera is smart and capable, channeling her energy and anger at the casual racism of other games into building one of her own. I love that we get to enter Kiera’s story after the development of the game and once it is already popular. The novel also wrestles very directly with racism, with stereotypes, and with being yourself in a world that excludes you and your voice.
A brilliant video game book that celebrates being black and the many dimensions that brings. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.
A Place to Land by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (9780823443314)
This book focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech but in a fresh and unique way. It looks at the difficulty of writing such an important speech to be delivered before such a huge crowd. It offers glimpses of King working with a group of advisors and speech writers to come up with the right approach. Then King heads off with only one other person and works all night on his speech. He stands in front of America and gives the speech of his life, the entire thing not coming together and offering him a place to land until he is encouraged to talk about the dream and he leaves his carefully written speech behind and flies.
Written almost as a poem, this picture book offers a look at how the historic speech came to be. It shows the night before the speech in 1963, the early morning hours of writing, and finally the afternoon before of still sculpting the words, the rhythms and the rhymes. And then, powerfully, it shows leaving that carefully written script behind and following the pastors of his family into glory.
Pinkney’s illustrations are so personal and filled with strength. Readers can look into the weary eyes of King as he continues to draft the speech despite not sleeping the night before. They can see the diverse crowd gathered in Washington, D.C. and almost hear the noise of it. They can certainly hear the echoes of King’s voice emerge from the images on the page as his voice soars.
Superb both in writing and illustration, this is one for every library. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
Some Places More Than Others by Renee Watson (9781681191089)
When a project about family is assigned at school, Amara realizes that there is a lot she doesn’t know about her own family. Her mothers’ parents are both dead and she had no siblings, but her father’s side lives across the country in Harlem. Amara asks if she could travel to Harlem to see her grandfather whom she only knows from phone calls and cards, since her father often goes there on business. Her parents refuse for some time, then agree to allow her to go. It will be the first time in twelve years that her father sees his own father. Now it is Amara’s job to complete her school assignment by interviewing family members, explore New York City and also bring her family back together, all in a single week!
Newbery Honor winner, Watson brings her considerable writing skill to a fractured family. She captures how forgiveness is difficult even though love is still there and allows the connection between father and son to organically rebuild. All of this is seen through Amara’s eyes as she discovers that her family is different than she realized and that her father has a surprising history she knew nothing about.
Setting is so important in this novel with Harlem and New York City becoming characters in Amara’s story. Many important places in African-American history are explored including the Apollo Theater and the Schomburg Center. Murals and sculptures that feature African-American figures in history are also featured in the story. Readers will want to explore these streets themselves.
A warm and rich exploration of complicated family relationships and love. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (9780525647072)
Jam lives in Lucille, a place cleansed of monsters by the angels who still live among them. There are no monsters in Lucille any more. But just as Jam is learning about the original angels, who looked more like monsters than humans, she accidentally releases a creature from her mother’s painting. The creature is Pet, who has crossed dimensions to hunt a monster. Pet reveals that the monster is living in Jam’s best friend, Redemption’s house. Now Jam must figure out how to enlist Redemption’s help without accusing his family of doing something terrible and harboring a monster. Or perhaps Pet is the real monster as he hunts without remorse? Jam must learn the truth and then get others to believe her.
Wow. What a book! The voice here is what hits you first, unique and strong, it speaks in a Nigerian-laced rhythm that creates its own magic immediately. Add in the power of Jam herself, a black, trans girl who often chooses not to speak aloud but with sign language. Then you have the amazement of Pet, the nightmare creature who hunts for monsters but also explains the importance of not hiding from the truth. Surround it all with families who love and care and are wonderfully different from one another.
Emezi leads readers through this wonder of a book, filled with LGBTQIA+ moments that are so normal they become something very special. They insist that you understand what is meant by a monster and by an angel, that one can be disguised as another, that monsters are normal people, but must not be tolerated. It’s a book about abuse, about standing up, about angels and demons, and about humans.
An incredible middle-grade fantasy full of power, monsters and beauty. Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Make Me a World.
Thurgood by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Bryan Collier (9781524765347)
From the time he was a small boy, Thurgood Marshall was destined to be a lawyer. He even convinced his parents to have his name legally changed from Thoroughgood to Thurgood at age six. Thurgood faced racism growing up in Baltimore in the 1920’s. He had to attend the overcrowded Colored High School which had no library, gym or cafeteria. His father worked at jobs where he served wealthy white customers, including at a country club that did not allow black people to be members. His father also taught him to debate and argue ideas. When he attended Lincoln University, Thurgood was loud, funny and a great arguer. He went to law school at Howard University where he learned to fight for civil rights in court. His first major legal fight was to force his top pick law school to accept black students. Again and again, Thurgood fought to create laws that focused on equality for all.
A picture book biography that tells the story of the youth and upbringing and early legal cases of the first African American on the Supreme Court, this book really celebrates how he became a weapon for civil rights. Winter makes sure to keep the inherent racism in the society at the forefront, pointing out moments in Thurgood’s life when he was targeted and almost killed. The resilience and determination on display throughout his life is inspiring.
Collier’s art is done in a mix of watercolor and collage. Using patterns and textures, Collier builds entire worlds from paper, from a ruined movie theater to haunting segregated schools. The illustrations are powerful and add much to this story of racism and fighting back.
Strong and compelling, this biography belongs in every library. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Schwartz & Wade Books.
For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington (9780374308049)
Keda sometimes feels like an outsider in her own family. She is adopted and the only member of her family who is African American. Moving to a new city across the country and to a new school, Keda has to leave behind her best friend who completely understands her. Keda’s parents are both classical musicians, though her mother hasn’t been even practicing her violin lately. She tends to have spells where she can’t get out of bed mixed with other times filled with lots of energy and projects. Keda feels a lot of pressure to take care of her mother, often not sharing the microaggressions she suffers at school or the racist names that others are calling her. When Keda’s mother finds out about the name calling, she pulls Keda and her older sister out of school entirely to be homeschooled. But her mother doesn’t consistently teach them, placing Keda into a girl scout troop for the summer where more racial incidents happen. As her mother’s condition worsens, Keda finds herself often alone with her mother at home trying to figure out how to help and not make things worse.
Lockington vividly tells the story of a tween who struggles to make her personal needs known to a family who doesn’t experience the world in the same way due primarily to race. The book is told from Keda’s perspective which gives it a strong voice and makes the aggression she receives feel very personal to the reader. Just telling the story of an adoptive child who is pre-teen, African-American, and in a loving but struggling home is important. The subjects of microaggressions and racism are told in a straight-forward and unflinching way that will allow readers of all races to understand the impact and pain they cause.
Keda’s character is resilient and smart. She is often struggling with huge issues from racism to mental illness. Yet she doesn’t ever give up. She stands up to bullies and racists, tries to protect her fragile mother from knowing about the hardships happening to her, and then works to care for her mother and protect her father. She is immensely alone in the book and yet always looking for a way forward.
An important and very personal story of adoption, race and strength. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (9781524740740)
So many picture books about starting kindergarten focus on the stress and worries of the child. Here is a picture book that looks at a confident child who manages to start his time at school without stressing out. The little boy at the center of this book thinks of himself as a king and using at confidence to face his first day at school. He gets dressed himself, eats a big breakfast, and takes his royal carriage (the bus) to school. Once he is there, he holds his head high and smiles at everyone, just like his Mommy told him. He introduces himself to his new teacher and to the other children at his table. He likes his teacher, plays with the other kids, and has a great time. At the end of the day, he can’t wait to tell his parents about what happened and looks forward to the next day of school too.
This book is entirely refreshing in its approach to the first day of school. Barnes doesn’t just feature a confident young man but he also shows that the parents have been instrumental is getting this child to feel empowered. There is a focus too on joining a community of learners and being a good friend. The book is written in second person, which clearly invites readers to feel this confident themselves.
The illustrations are colorful with deep and bright backgrounds that show the different scenes. The class is made up of diverse children and exudes a wonderful inclusive warmth on the page. There is a sense of discovery about the wonders of school as the book continues.
One of the most positive books about kindergarten I’ve ever read. This one is a must buy! Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Nancy Paulsen Books.
Rocket Says Look Up! by Nathan Bryon, illustrated by Dapo Adeola (9781984894427)
Rocket is a little girl who is really interested in astronomy and science. There’s a meteor shower happening tonight, and Rocket wants everyone to know about it and watch it with her. So when her big brother heads to the store with her, Rocket grabs the announcement microphone and tells everyone about the meteor shower. But when she laughs at her brother for not looking up from his phone and getting splashed by a car, he tells her that he won’t take her to the park that night. Luckily, her mother intervenes and they head out to the park. There’s a group of people who want to see it with them, but as time goes by and nothing appears in the sky except for stars, they all wander off. Only Rocket and her brother are left and Rocket is so sad that she dragged them out for nothing. But when her brother finally looks up from his phone, it’s show time!
Bryon has written a very dynamic picture book about a girl scientist with a love for science that she just has to share. The older brother is a great character too with his head down looking at his phone all the time, but also someone who patiently leads his little sister around all day and even into the night. Their interplay with one another is written with honesty and a modern look at technology.
The illustrations show a busy African-American family and a young girl who is dressed to head into the stars immediately. The pictures are filled with humor and the characters show real emotions on the page. Using beams of light in the final pages filled with darkness works nicely to highlight the action both on earth and in the sky.
A diverse and dynamic STEM picture book. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
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.