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.

Nubia: Real One by L. L. McKinney

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Nubia: Real One by L. L. McKinney, illustrated by Robyn Smith (9781401296407)

When Nubia heads into a store to talk to Oscar, a boy she likes, everything goes wrong. The store is robbed, and Nubia finds herself using her Amazonian strength to stop the robbers and protect everyone in the store. The problem is, that Oscar witnessed what she did. Nubia and her mothers have had to move multiple times when people have seen her feats of strength just to protect her and let her have a normal life. Her mothers get advice from D, who helps relocate them and assess the dangers. As one of her best friends is targeted by a predatory classmate, Nubia learns that she can’t just sit by and let things happen to those she loves. But as a Black woman, the world sees her as a threat already, it’s not as simple as Wonder Woman has it.

McKinney, author of A Blade So Black, has created the voice of this graphic novel, focusing on modern issues like Black Lives Matter and the problem of being a super hero in a world that sees Black people as the problem, not the solution. McKinney centers the problems that Nubia faces into these larger societal problems, giving them a serious weight. Her text is lively and her dialogue is natural and deeply explores what Nubia is experiencing as a Black woman.

The illustrations by Smith are marvelous. I love the height and strength of Nubia. I adore the messy look of Wonder Woman, as if she has run her hands through her hair in frustration several times on her way into the room. The images of Nubia’s mothers are great, from their determination to their deep caring to the celebration of Nubia despite what the world might say.

A graphic novel for our times and for our future. Appropriate for ages 11-15.

Reviewed from library copy.

My Day with the Panye by Tami Charles

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My Day with the Panye by Tami Charles, illustrated by Sara Palacios (9780763697495)

Fallon is invited by her mother to head to the market together. Her mother wraps her hair in a mouchwa and then sets the panye on her head. Her mother lets Fallon try to carry the panye on her head, but it quickly falls off and crashes to the floor. So they set off together with the panye on her mother’s head. She encourages her daughter to take learning the skill slowly and not rush it. She explains that one must move gracefully under the weight of the panye, one must be strong. After they visit the market, the panye is full of food. Fallon knows that to carry the panye is to care for her family. Now she is ready to try once more. But the panye falls again. Her mother encourages her to build her nest and try again. This time Fallon stands tall and takes her time, walking like her mother all the way home.

Set in Haiti, this picture book celebrates the ancient act of carrying a basket on one’s head to handle a heavy load. It’s a skill taught at a young age, just as Fallon is learning it in the book. Fallon’s mother shows patience with her daughter and encourages her to take her time, filling their walk to the market with lessons on what carrying the panye means to the family and also to Fallon herself. It’s an empowering lesson, one that speaks to the strength and resilience of the Haitian people.

Palacios fills the pages with bright and deep colors that show the bustling market and beauty of the hills outside of Port-au-Prince. The grace of carrying the panye is conveyed in the images too, the women tall and upright, full of strength and balance.

A picture book that speaks to tradition and patience when you’re learning a new skill. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.

Northbound by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein

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Northbound by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein, illustrated by James E. Ransome (9780763696504)

Michael has always stopped work to watch the trains go by the farm he lives on with his grandparents in Alabama. Then one day he gets his dream and takes a train trip north with his grandmother to Ohio to visit cousins. Though Michael has caught sight of a boy his age on the train, he isn’t allowed to go into the car where the boy is riding, because it’s closed to Black people. As the train leaves Atlanta, the “Whites Only” sign on the door is taken down and now Michael is allowed to enter the car. The two boys quickly start to play together and explore the train. They discover they have all sorts of things in common. But when the train reaches Chattanooga, Tennessee, Michael has to return to his own car and the sign goes up again. Luckily, his new friend knows it is fair and shares a final drawing of all people riding in the same train car together.

In a book that starts with the wonder of trains and the joy of a train ride, this picture book shows the impact of arbitrary race laws throughout the United States in the early 1960s. While consistent racism in Alabama is an everyday occurrence for Michael, it is the on-again, off-again rules that will catch readers’ attention as well as that of the train passengers. It clearly demonstrates the differences in the way racism impacts lives in different parts of our country, speaking clearly to today’s issues as well as that of our past.

The art by Ransome is a grand mix of train travel with tunnels, bridges and cities together with a diverse group of passengers and staff on the train. There is a sense of frustration and limits in the illustrations with the closed doors and signs that is replaced with a joyous freedom as the two boys explore the train together.

A critical look at our shared civil rights history and a call for us to do better. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Candlewick

Time for Kenny by Brian Pinkney

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Time for Kenny by Brian Pinkney (9780060735289)

Told in four short chapters, this picture book shows readers a day in the life of a small boy named Kenny. Kenny must first get dressed. He tries on all sorts of other people’s clothes, like his dad’s shirt, his mother’s shoes, and his grandfather’s hat. Then he is finally dressed and ready to go. In the next story, Kenny doesn’t like the vacuum cleaner. After all, it eats all of the food he drops. Could it eat his stuffed animal? Could it eat Kenny?! The third story shows Kenny’s sister teaching him to play soccer. At first, Kenny tries a lot, but misses. Then he starts to get the hang of not using his hands and even makes a goal. The last story is about how Kenny isn’t tired at all when it’s his bedtime, or is he?

Told in simple language, these stories show the universal experiences of toddlers and younger children. From creative clothing choices to learning new skills to having to go to bed, each of these is wonderfully accessible. The book also shows a loving Black multigenerational family, depicted with Pinkney’s signature illustrations that are full of bright colors, swirls of motion and a great use of white space.

A charming picture book that reflects a day in a toddler’s life with warmth. Appropriate for ages 1-3.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Greenwillow Books.

Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Peña

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Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson (9780399549083)

The award-winning team that brought us Last Stop on Market Street have returned with another picture book together. This picture book is also about traveling on public transportation with Milo and his sister traveling on the subway together. Milo passes the time on the long ride by looking at the people around him on the subway. He imagines what their life is like and then draws it in in his book. Looking at a man with a crossword puzzle, Milo imagines him in an apartment with lots of pets. When a little boy in a suit comes on the train, Milo imagines that the boy is a prince who lives in a castle. A woman in a wedding dress, Milo pictures as soaring up in a hot air balloon after her wedding ceremony. When a group of dancers whirl aboard the train, Milo imagines that they are not welcome in stores or in fancy neighborhoods. When they reach their destination, Milo and his sister head into the prison, where he sees the boy in the suit in line too. Milo rethinks his image of the boy and all of the others he drew on his trip.

This is one of those marvels of a picture book that is told in a straight forward way and also manages to insist that readers think again, assess themselves. It is done without lecture or shaming, an exploration of assumptions made from people’s appearances and then how wrong they can be. Milo himself is a great protagonist for this, creative and thoughtful. He shows how race and economic status factors into stereotypes and how different the truth can actually be.

Robinson creates a diverse urban setting for Milo to experience, filled with people of all races. His cut paper images are full of characters of all ages and different cultures. Readers will find themselves thinking about the others on the train just as Milo does, making their own assumptions.

Another gem of a picture book from two masterful artists. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.

We Wait for the Sun by Katie McCabe

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We Wait for the Sun by Katie McCabe, illustrated by Raissa Figueroa (9781250229021)

This picture book is based on one of Dovey Johnson Roundtree’s favorite stories of her childhood and her grandmother, Rachel Bryant Graham. Born over 100 years ago, Roundtree grew up to be a renowned civil rights attorney. She and her grandmother headed into the night in midsummer. They move through the darkness to the woods to gather blackberries. As they walk through the night, other women join them, silent in the dark. The darkness gets thicker as they move into the woods, and Dovey’s grandmother encourages her to hold onto her apron strings and let her eyes adjust. They reach the blackberry clearing and everyone gets to work but not before Dovey gets the first and best berry to eat. They pick berries, the women chatting, until the sky turns pink and at her grandmother’s command the sun rises over the horizon.

McCabe takes a powerful moment in Roundtree’s life and turns it into a picture book that invites children to explore the woods at night and not be afraid. There is a sense of adventure throughout the book illuminated with the wonder of being out in a summer night. The profound silence of the night and its darkness make for a book full of mystery with text that asks to be read in a hushed tone to share the moment with one another all the way through sunrise.

Figueroa’s illustrations are rich and beautiful. She takes the darkness and tinges it with blue, teal and purple to show paths, faces and the women walking together. She also sweeps the path with fireflies and glimmers, adding to the wonder of the book.

A story that serves as an allegory for resilience, going through the darkness and knowing the sun will rise. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Roaring Brook Press.