Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles (9780062349217)
When Del’s mother starts going to church, she drags him along with her. The only thing that gets Del through those dull sermons is watching Kiera Westing, a girl he’s had a crush on since kindergarten. Even better, for the first time ever, Kiera is single! Now it’s up to Del to figure out a way to get close to her. When he sees Kiera joining a group of other students up at the front of the church, Del joins them, not realizing that he’s agreed to be part of the Purity Pledge, not to have sex until marriage. But maybe this is the key to get Kiera’s attention. He knows that his reputation makes him an unlikely participant, since everyone’s heard about the orgy that happened Freshman year. Del, with the help of a new friend, decides to play the long game and prove his pure intent. Along the way, he becomes friends with the other kids doing the Pledge and finds himself taking their sex-related questions to the sex-ed teacher at school, a class none of the other Pledge kids are allowed to attend. Del is sure he has Kiera just where he wants her, but he has yet to realize that Kiera has to be just where she wants to be too.
I am so pleased to see a book about toxic masculinity with a male protagonist who wakes up to the flaws in his intricate plans just a bit too late. Del is a marvelous hero of the book, filled with personal flaws, intelligent but also conniving. He sees himself as a good guy, but others don’t see him that way and readers will recognize that he’s not being honest with anyone, not even himself. Readers will root for Del even as he is manipulating Kiera and others around him. That is one of the best twists of the book, as readers nod along with Del, they too will realize the way they are seeing women and girls, and the changes they need to make to not be toxic themselves.
The clear writing and varied characters make this a great choice. It is the nuanced way that Giles writes about the church and being a male African-American teenager that adds a rich depth to the book. He offers readers opportunities to learn, to grow and to realize things about themselves without ever being preachy about it.
A frank look at sex, lies and toxic masculinity with a main character to cheer for, despite it all. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperTeen.
Saturday by Oge Mora (9780316431279)
Saturday is Ava’s favorite day. It’s the day of the week that her mother doesn’t have to work and where they spend special time together. On Saturdays, they go to storytime at the library, have their hair done at the salon, and have a picnic in the park. And this Saturday, they were also planning to go to a puppet show that night. So off they set. But when they got to the library, the storytime was cancelled. Leaving the hair salon, their hair got splashed and ruined. The park was too crowded and loud for their regular picnic. Finally, when they got to the show, Ava’s mother had lost the tickets. Their Saturday was ruined! Wasn’t it?
Mora has written a picture book about the joys of busy families spending time together, even if things don’t quite go as planned. Both Ava and her mother are disappointed with each failure of their plans, but they are also resilient and optimistic about things turning around. When it all goes wrong, it is Ava who lifts up her mother’s spirits, explaining that it’s all about spending time together.
In her bright illustrations of an urban setting, Mora captures the hustle and bustle, the hurry to do something special. As a result, she also shows the love of this African-American mother and daughter as they help one another cope with disappointment. The illustrations are bold, colorful and celebratory.
Another winner from a gifted artist and storyteller. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from library copy.
Double Bass Blues by Andrea J. Loney, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez (9781524718534)
Nic plays cello at school with a zip and a hum, filling the room with his solo. Then he heads home, climbing over fences, rushing past dogs, to get on the bus. It takes him to another part of town where people make fun of his school uniform and wonder what his cello is. As rain falls, the mocking follows him all the way home until he reaches his granddaddy’s apartment that is filled with other musicians all ready to play along with his “bull fiddle.”
Loney celebrates the transforming power of music in this picture book. Her text is very simple, filled with sounds like clapping hands, musical zips and swoops, and noises of rain, buses, and crowds. Then he takes those noises and the stress of the ride home and turns them into music to share. This book also explores the life of a child straddling two communities, demonstrated by one trip home, with music anchoring both parts of his life.
The illustrations are done in acrylic paint. They incorporate strong lines and bright colors. The faces of Nic and other people are done in great detail, contrasting with the world around him which is done in a more stylized feel.
A marvelous musical picture book. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Knopf.
Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds (9781481438285)
In ten separate but linked stories, award-winning author Reynolds creates an entire neighborhood of ten blocks. The book begins, and refers throughout, with a school bus falling from the sky. There is one story per block, different kids on each block living their lives, going to school, facing various things in their futures, pasts and presents. There are best-friend boogers, petty theft for a good cause, complicated but important handshakes, stand-up comedy, body odor and body spray, and fake dogs. It’s a book about what happens after school, whether it is friendship or bullying, loneliness or comfort.
This one deserves a medal. Period. It’s one of those books that reads so easily, since it’s written with such skill. The voices of the characters are varied but all intensely realistic and vibrantly human. Reynolds plays with the reader but invites them into the joy of the joke, showing the layers of what children are and what they feel and do. He demonstrates that ten times here, always deeply exploring each character before moving on to the next and celebrating them.
The stories arc together moving from humor to pain to loss to fear to freedom and everywhere in between. The characters form a community on the page, streets unfold before the reader and they get to journey them with friends they just met opening the book. The final chapters are masterful, the text moving from narrative to spoken word to rap. The rhythm of the book throughout is a dance, here it becomes a heartbeat of life.
Look for this incredible read to win some big awards this spring. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.
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.