When We Say Black Lives Matter by Maxine Beneba Clark

Cover image for When We Say Black Lives Matter.

When We Say Black Lives Matter by Maxine Beneba Clark (9781536222388)

This picture book looks at the Black Lives Matter movement and explains it to young children in a way they can understand. Using rhythm, repetition and rhyme, the picture book is engaging while explaining larger societal issues. The book focuses on concepts that include respect, fear, remembrance, freedom and being enough. The book directly speaks to the Black child, explaining the vitality and importance of the protests and incorporating the protests into a message of self-worth, joy and music.

Clark’s writing is masterful. She uses rhythm and rhyme so successfully here, moving the words like jazz music or the tempo of drums. She uses rhythm to have her words become protest chants and then transforming anger into sorrow, remembrance and tears into power. She shows how all of the emotions, negative and positive, can be used as a demand for change.

The illustrations are large, colorful and bold. They move from a family with a new baby and the warm reds and yellows of their home to starry nights of protest done in deep blues to the poison green of the trouble that comes. She incorporates stained-glass windows into several of the images, showing the timelessness and importance of the demand for racial justice.

An importance picture book for public library collections. Appropriate for ages 3-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Candlewick.

Be Strong by Pat Zietlow Miller

Cover image for Be Strong.

Be Strong by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Jen Hill (9781250221117)

Being strong doesn’t just mean that you can make it to the top of the climbing wall in gym like Cayla. The young narrator has been told by her family that being strong will get you through life when hard times hit. But some days she can’t even lift her heavy backpack. So she asks her father how she can be strong. He tells her that strength is showing up like when they help people who have lost their homes. Her mother says strength is speaking up, like when her mother worked to get a crossing guard at a busy street. Her grandmother says it means not giving up, like her starting to run. So the girl figures out what the means for her, how she can help those around her, how she can speak up and change the way things work, and how if she keeps on trying she can reach her goals both on her own and with some help.

Miller cleverly plays against the stereotypical definition of strength early in this picture book. She shows that yes, physical strength is definitely strength and then proceeds through the rest of the book to show the other aspects of strength, including resilience, determination, speaking up, setting goals, and asking for help. Miller’s text is simple and reads aloud well. She nicely walks young readers through what strength is, allowing them to see it both in themselves and others.

Hill’s illustrations show a diverse cast of characters in an urban setting. The young narrator is Black and her community of classmates and others are a variety of races and religions. The illustrations are bright and friendly, inviting readers into a world where children can make a difference.

A vibrant look at strength and community. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Roaring Brook Press.

Fast Pitch by Nic Stone

Cover image for Fast Pitch.

Fast Pitch by Nic Stone (9781984893017)

Shenice is the captain of the first girls softball team in the league that is entirely girls of color. There’s a lot of pressure on her to perform and to play the role of captain, inspiring others with her belief that they can not only win that single game, but also win the entire championship. As Shenice and the rest of the team put up with microaggressions and outright racism from other teams and their communities, she finds out the reason that her grandfather left professional baseball. Shenice meets her great-uncle Jack, a man savvy enough to not speak about this in front of her parents, but also elderly enough that getting the full story takes some time and effort. As her grandfather’s history is revealed, Shenice realizes that she might have a chance to clear her grandfather’s name for a crime he didn’t commit, and the reason he was pushed out of baseball entirely. Now she just has to keep focused on both finding the proof and also leading her team to victory. It may be too much for one person to handle!

Stone has created a book that speaks at once to both modern racism and then to systemic racism and its impact on Black people in the past and today. This is done in a personal way, so that readers experience the racism that Shenice and her friends are shown at their games. The clever use of family history will lead readers and the characters to explore the past and how it serves as a lens for what is also happening today.

The characters in this book are particularly well drawn. Shenice herself is determined, passionate and skilled. Uncle Jack is fabulous, funny and sly. Then there is the team, the one that stands by their captain, even getting into some trouble along the way as they all work to solve the mystery together.

Game on! Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Crown Books for Young Readers.

Blackout by Dhonielle Clayon, et al.

Cover image for Blackout.

Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon (9780063088092)

In New York City in the heat of summer, there is a sudden blackout citywide. Caught in the darkness are several groups of Black teens who all find themselves heading to the same party. There are couples who have already broken up and find themselves the only safe way to get back home. There are pairs who are not yet together but find themselves trapped on the stopped subway system. There are people in one relationship and longing for a new one that is right there. Told in loosely-linked short stories, these stories all tell the joyous tale of young Black love in the dark.

Written by six award-winning Black female authors, these stories are a summer delight to read. The authors have their own unique voices that all come together into a single book that really sings. Cleverly, one story bridges across the entire book, following one couple’s long walk across the city together. Each story shows romance in a different light and different stage, showing how even waning romance can be the beginning of something new and amazing.

In all of the stories, the characters are interesting and well written. They have personalities that stand out against the crowd of characters, taking the spotlight for a time and then allowing it to move on. The writing throughout is skilled, creating a book that is romantic, funny and a tribute to New York City herself.

A testament to the talent of the writers, this book is a great summer read. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne

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Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne (9781338642087)

After her mother’s death, Josephine knows that she wants to keep her Daddy’s attention on her. So she manages to chase off any woman looking to be his new girlfriend, using pranks and fish guts. Her father used to love watching cricket matches with her on the weekends, and she is desperate to get him back to doing that again. When one of her pranks goes wrong though, she is forced to use the money she’d been saving to take him to a real match in person to pay for the damages. Josephine also loves to play cricket herself, but at her school only boys play. After being disappointed about the team, Josephine also finds that her father has a new girlfriend. But Mariss isn’t like the other women and doesn’t scare off easily. As strange things start to happen around Mariss, Josephine realizes that she be very different from everyone else and may not even be human!

Full of Caribbean magic, this novel starts out as a story about the loss of a mother and steadily turns into a fantasy about a sea monster who is both kind and vengeful. The author’s own Bajan heritage is reflected throughout the book in the lilt of the dialogue. She also shares Caribbean folktales about a variety of beings and creatures.

Josephine is a grand protagonist. She is hot headed and determined to get what she wants, something that causes both problems and also creates opportunities. She is also willing to reconsider and learn from others, including members of her community and her best friend. Mariss is a complicated villain and monster, which is great to see in a children’s book. She is a mix of kindness and control, a being who wants humans to belong to her and who will destroy them if they don’t obey.

A book of Black girl magic and monsters. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury

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Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury (9781534465282)

Voya’s time to get her Calling has finally arrived. While she isn’t excited about the trial that she must undergo, she is thrilled that she will get her witch’s power. Voya hopes that her power will set the course for the rest of her life, likely keeping her close at home with her multigenerational family who live in a house that was magically moved to Canada. When Voya’s hesitation causes her to have to ask her ancestor for another chance, she is given an impossible task: to destroy her first love. If Voya doesn’t succeed, every witch in her family will lose their magic. It also means that Voya’s young sister will die since magic keeps her alive. As Voya tries to get her cousin a great internship, she also meets a boy who is the perfect genetic match for her. The trouble is, they don’t like each other at all and he has no interest in even meeting her again. As Voya struggles to solve the mystery of her Calling, she learns more about her family’s pure magic, the cost of darker magical power, and what duty to her family means.

This book is full of Black magic that is at once both powerful but also marvelously mundane. Sambury brings us into a family of witches who are coming to the end of their power and tied to being pure, meaning that they won’t kill or torture other people to gain power. The family dynamics are beautifully drawn, from divorced parents who are forced to live together under the same roof to a grandmother who controls them all to a group of cousins who are very different from one another but also watch out and help one another constantly. The dialog is well written, full of small touches that bring each character to life.

Voya is an unusual protagonist. First, she has not only her parents but a huge extended family around her all the time. Second, she has trouble making choices that impact her life to the point of grinding to a halt regularly. When given tasks that force her to make decisions, she falters but doesn’t give up. She finds other ways, other paths and asks for help. This is the opposite of a solo protagonist, as she is surrounded by people who love her even if they don’t trust that she will succeed.

Magical, powerful and unique, this novel is fantastic. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from copy provided by McElderry Books.

Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland

Cover image for Ophie’s Ghosts.

Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland (9780062915894)

When Ophie’s father is killed in a racist attack on their home in Georgia, Ophie discovers that she can see and communicate with ghosts. Her father’s ghost encourages her to flee with her mother. They make their way to Pittsburgh to stay with relatives. Ophie’s mother finds them both jobs with a wealthy family in their old manor that happens to be filled with ghosts and secrets. In post World War I America, work is hard to find and they can’t afford for Ophie to continue to attend school. As Ophie learns the tasks to be a maid for the elderly woman who owns the house, she realizes how dull her future looks, caught in endless domestic work. Ophie must also learn the tricks of dealing with all of the ghosts who surround her both at work and outside. Some are far more demanding than others. One spirit in the house though is friendly to Ophie, teaching her the small elements of being a maid that will make Ophie’s life easier. But even that spirit has secrets, ones that may not stay hidden once she has a voice.

The author of Dread Nation has turned to middle-grade novels with historical fiction that wrestles with racism and prejudice while offering an enticing mystery to unravel. The fantasy elements of the ghosts around Ophie add to the mystery and effectively isolate Ophie from those around her as she figures out how to handle both ghosts and her wealthy employers. Ireland doesn’t shy away from the blatant racism of the time, but also effectively demonstrates how those same racist forces are in our modern world.

Ophie is such a great protagonist. She is dynamic and smart, hurting from the loss of her father and trying to help her mother find a way forward for them both. As she has to stop going to school, she finds ways to keep learning, including romance magazines that she finds around the big manor. Ireland cleverly ties all of the elements of the book together with her reveal at the end, keeping Ophie and her powers fully central.

A marvelous mystery full of fantasy elements and Black history. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

Cover image for This Poison Heart.

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron (9781547603909)

Briseis has a magical gift that she works hard not to reveal. Plants respond to her touch and presence, growing more lush and leaning in towards her, sometimes with destructive force. When Briseis inherits an estate in rural New York, she and her mothers jump at the new opportunity. The home is dirty and needs attention, and it also holds a lot of secrets for Briseis to figure out. There is the apothecary shop that seemed to deal in more normal herbs, but also ones that are extremely poisonous and rare. Then there is a trail of clues that lead Briseis to a neglected garden on the property that has regular herbal plants but also hidden poison gardens that only Briseis can reach thanks to her newly discovered immunity to poisonous plants. As strangers arrive on the property to seek services from Briseis, she finds herself part of another mystery. What is behind the locked door in the garden, and could it have been why so many women in her family have died or disappeared?

There is just so much to love with this novel. It’s a mesmerizingly lovely look at contemporary Black life that is imbued with magic and mystery. Briseis’ talent with plants moves from being problematic to being celebrated, something that really shines at the center of the book as she gains confidence in her own powers. Against the green wonder of her magic is the danger of poison that darkens the entire story very effectively, and is steadily revealed as more characters appear in the story.

Bayron paces the mystery out very cleverly, allowing readers to both enjoy and doubt several characters who are close to Briseis. The inclusion of queer characters is done naturally and woven into the story. Briseis has lesbian mothers and is queer herself. Briseis herself is a great protagonist, richly drawn in both her self doubt, her initial friendlessness, and how that transforms into a dangerous dance of trust and betrayal.

Beautifully written, full of strong Black women and filled with magic, this teen novel is spellbinding. Appropriate for ages 13-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon (9781524718961)

Evie has always been a romantic, hooked on reading spicy romance novels. So when her parents divorce, she is left reeling even though her mother and sister seem to handling it in stride. When Evie donates her stack of romance novels, she meets a woman who gives her the power to witness a couple kissing and then see the beginning, middle and end of their relationship. All of them go to prove to Evie that relationships end with a broken heart. Evie is also directed to a small dance studio where she finds herself asked to join a competition for ballroom dancing. She is paired with X, a young man who has the policy of saying yes to everything in life and taking risks, the exact opposite of Evie. As the two of them dance together and get to know one another, romance sparks between them, but Evie may not be ready to risk heart break thanks to her visions and her parents.

Yoon fills this book with Black joy and with swoony characters straight out of Evie’s romances. At the same time, her characters are deliciously human and struggling with weighty issues that impact them on a variety of levels. It is this grounding of her characters that makes this romance so much more than fluff, instead speaking directly to the risk of falling in love, the depths of loss, and how to continue after being hurt by life.

Yoon also fills her book with marvelous dancing and the gorgeous setting of Los Angeles with all of its diversity, talent and magic. Her writing soars with dialogue between characters, sounding wonderfully human and real. Her touches of magic in everyday life add to the fun.

A winner of a teen romance just right for those looking to be swept off their feet. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from copy provided by Delacorte Press.