Yang Warriors by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Billy Thao (9781517907983)
In the Ban Vinai refugee camp, there is a group of young warriors who train together. They run drills, balance rocks on their heads, meditate and wield branches as sacred swords. They are led by Master Me, a ten-year-old who teaches them. One day, Master Me meditated and decided that the warriors must leave camp and forage for greens. But no Hmong person was allowed to leave the camp without permission. People had been beaten for doing it and some had even disappeared. But Master Me was set on carrying out the mission. The narrator of the story is a young girl whose older sister was in the warrior group. She was 7 years old, scared but determined to carry out the mission. That day, the warriors stealthily left camp and returned carrying morning glory greens. Many were injured on the mission, but that day they became more than children playing at being warriors and became true heroes to everyone in the camp.
Yang tells the story of life in a Hmong refugee camp through the eyes of her childhood self. The hardships, violence and rules of being in such a camp are foundational to the overall story, though not the direct focus. The tale really is about the power of children to be heroes for their families, the determination and courage to take action in the face of injustice, and the way that real life heroes are so much more important than those with capes.
The illustrations by Thao are unique and interesting. He makes each of the children recognizable even though they move as a group of warriors. He uses interesting frames throughout the images, showing the children through doorways or from the fire itself as danger increases. The illustrations are stirring and also show just how young these children were.
A tale of child heroes in a Hmong refugee camp that is worth cheering for. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy provided by University of Minnesota Press.
The first in the Thirteen Witches trilogy, this fantasy novel tells the story of Rosie Oaks who survived a witch attack as a newborn baby. She was left though with a mother who cannot love her and can barely care for her at all. Rosie has always known her mother to be this way, so she doesn’t expect anything else. Rosie spends her time reading books and writing her own stories until one day she decides that she is too old for them and burns her stories. That triggers the sight, allowing her to see the ghosts that live all around her. Ebb, a ghost boy, shows her the Witch Hunter’s Guide to the Universe, a book her mother hid that contains all she knew about the thirteen witches that control the world. Rosie discovers that her mother has been cursed, her memories stolen by the Memory Thief, a witch who may be the weakest but is also unstoppable. As Rosie learns more about the witches, her mother’s curse, family secrets and friendship, she realizes that she is the one who must now hunt the witch but at what cost?
Anderson has written a unique fantasy novel where witches are profoundly powerful beings, able to steal memories, stop time, and inflict curses. The world building is skillfully crafted, offering a world parallel to our own where a ladder goes to the moon, where ghosts exist and strive to head to the Beyond, and where witch hunters have magical weapons they craft themselves. Through Rosie, readers get to experience the wonder of discovering that world as well as feel the tragedy of her mother’s curse deeply too.
Anderson populates her book with characters who are fascinating and worthy of their own novels. There is Ebb, the ghost boy who has his pet ghost spider and who befriends Rosie when she needs it most. There is Germ, Rosie’s only friend, who loves Rosie and can see ghosts suddenly just like Rosie can. There is the Murderer, an angry ghost with his own tragic story who Rosie discovers holds the secret to her own survival as an infant. The Memory Thief herself is a fascinating mix of tragedy, danger and horror.
A great start to a new fantasy trilogy, this book mixes ghosts, magic and witches into something spectacularly new. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
When a child doesn’t want to go to school because he’s scared and nervous, he talks with his grandfather. His grandfather understands exactly how his grandchild is feeling and takes him on a ride in his car which is also a time machine. It takes them both to see when he left his mother back in 1952 and had to be brave himself. They stop in 1955 to see him working up high on buildings, needing to get beyond being so scared. In 1957, Big Papa had to get over his fears to ask a lovely girl to dance, a girl who would eventually marry him. They then head to 1986 when the child was left with Big Papa. He wasn’t sure if he could take care of a baby all on his own. All about bravery in spite of being scared and nervous, this book shows that it is those moments that define a life.
Bernstrom takes readers on a real ride through history through the eyes of this African-American family. Generations appear and their clear love for one another is evident. Even with a baby being left behind for a grandparent to raise is shown as a chance to save a life and find a new way forward. Children in smaller non-nuclear families will recognize the connection between a sole adult and their child in these pages. It’s particularly lovely to see an African-American man in this role.
Evans makes the pages shine with light as he uses bright yellows and mystical swirls and stars to show the passing of time. Every page is saturated in color, glowing with the connection of the two characters. The child is never declared to be a specific gender in either the text or illustrations, making the book all the more inclusive.
A bright and vibrant look at why to be brave. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Based on the true story of a remote village in France that resisted the Nazi invasion in their own way, this novel is a testament to bravery in the face of seemingly unrelenting evil. The story focuses on several teens who live in Les Lauzes, France in 1943. They go to school, sleep in the local dormitories, and also help in the resistance. Some of them are Jewish, hidden in plain sight with the other teens and children. Others are from the village and know the terrain and area so well that they can be messengers. Still others spend their nights getting people safely across the border to Switzerland. Meanwhile, there is a rather inept policeman who tries to figure out what is going on. He is almost as young as the others, but focused on proving himself and defending his country. As the teens take more and more risks, they learn that resistance is a way through paralyzing fear and towards freedom.
Preus has written such an engaging tale here, with so many of the elements based on real events. In fact, the more unlikely the scenario, the more likely it is to be true. This makes reading the epilogue at the end of the book great fun as one discovers the real people behind the characters. The simple bravery of all of the villagers by taking in Jews and others, hiding them in their homes and barns, and helping them escape is profound. There is a delight in seeing where items were hidden, in realizing the power of forgery, of accompanying these characters on their travels to help people survive.
A large part of the success here is Preus’ writing which contains a strong sense of justice and resistance in the face of the Gestapo. Even as some children are being taken away, the others gather to sing to them, standing in the face of the Nazi force directly. There is no lack of sorrow and pain though, with parents lost to concentration camps, children never having known safety, and arrests being made. Still, there is a joy here, of being able to fight back in some way against overwhelming odds.
A great historical novel with strong ties to the true story. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
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.
A very positive picture book about first-day jitters when starting school. Bear is “so big,” a refrain that carries through the entire book. He is big enough to get himself dressed. He is so big that he can make his own breakfast too. He packs his own bag, ties his shoes, and heads out to the bus stop. But when the bus gets there, it is so big! The kids around him are big too. So is the large school. Bear is worried and sits down on the steps. There he notices a smaller child hesitating to go in too. The two join hands and head into the big school together where they discover that it’s not too big after all.
Wohnoutka’s story is told in the simplest of words by repeating “so big” and other phrases multiple times. It’s a story about confidence that starts strong, is lost along the way and rediscovered too. The bravery that it takes to try something completely new and then the resilience that is necessary to keep moving forward even when scared is shown deftly in this simple story.
The art is bright and centers entirely on Bear and the other children. Perspective is used very effectively to show how large the bus, the children and the school appear to a small child. Other times when he is more confident, Bear takes up space on the page and the perspective shifts to allow that.
Great for first day jitters, this book is simple and effective. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Truman by Jean Reidy, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins (9781534416642)
Truman is a small urban turtle. He’s about the size of a donut and lives with Sarah high above the busy streets filled with taxis and buses. He is very happy spending quiet time with Sarah. But then one day, Sarah seems different. She is wearing a bow in her hair, a new sweater and has a big backpack. She even gives him some extra green beans as a treat. Before Sarah leaves, she touches Truman and tells him to be brave. And down on the street, Sarah boards a bus for the first time! Truman tries to wait for Sarah to return, but she is gone much longer than she ever has been before. So Truman finds a way out of his aquarium and makes a long journey towards the apartment door. He is being brave and will find Sarah!
Reidy tells a first day of school story from the point of view of a pet left behind by a child. It’s a wonderful answer to what pets do when children leave for school and will also speak to younger siblings being left behind at home when their older siblings head to school. The emotions of Truman are clearly conveyed and his worry is tangible even though readers will know exactly what is actually happening.
Cummins’ illustrations play with perspective nicely as Truman’s point of view is shared as well as views of the busy city street below the apartment. Big and bold, the illustrations show Truman’s limited world grow bigger and bigger as he explores the apartment landscape alone.
A look at bravery and the deep love of a pet, even a small, green one. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
A young girl heads out into her day telling herself that today she will be fierce! She dons her clothes as her armor and bravely heads outside into the day. She is undaunted as a pack of dogs out on a walk bound towards her, charming them with bubbles she blows and imagining them as dragons. She waits for the bus with bigger kids, giants that she dares to be near. She heads to the library to learn and explore even more, thinking of the school librarian as the “Guardian of Wisdom.” She stands up to bullies in the cafeteria and makes a new friend. She talks in class even when she feels shy. Now she just has to be fierce again tomorrow!
Written in strong declarative sentences, this picture book is filled with energy and a sense of taking action. The unnamed protagonist of the book is a little girl of color who takes large and small risks throughout her day, including just getting on the school bus. Throughout her day, readers will see her getting all the more strong and fierce, meeting bigger challenges. The illustrations are vibrant and bright with the girl’s rainbow top glowing on every page. The other children at school represent a broad look at diversity too.
This strong picture book offers encouragement for children to be brave and to be themselves. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Roaring Brook Press.
Pet lives with her family in a lighthouse on the southeast coast of England just as World War II is coming to England’s shores. The daughter of a German immigrant and a lighthouse keeper, Pet loves the wildness of the coast, the way they can see long distances from the pinnacle of the lighthouse, and the warmth of their family. But as the war progresses, things change. Mutti is taken to an internment camp for being German and in the process is accused of espionage and sending messages to the Germans. Pet knows that her kind and gentle mother hasn’t done it, and sets off to find out what actually happens. There is the strange man who lives in a shack nearby or it could even be Pet’s older sister, who is always disappearing and doesn’t seem to be actually working on her boat the way she claims. As the war gets closer, Pet must work to untangle who is an enemy in their small town and who she can trust as her family crumbles around her.
I was entranced with the writing of Strange’s first novel, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, and this one has the same strong and stirring writing laced with touches of magic and wonder. In both of her books, Strange makes young women the heroines of their own stories even as they struggle to figure out what is going on around them. The setting here is almost another character in the book, depicted with glowing terms and a love of the sea. The perspective of the lighthouse is used throughout the novel and aspects of the structure help our young heroine discover the truth, even when it is hard to hear.
Pet is a unique heroine. She is not particularly brave since she tends to freeze at signs of trouble and be unable to move even when in physical danger. That continues to be true throughout the book. Yet at the same time, Pet also shows what bravery truly is and works with desperation and determination to discover the truth.
Another brilliant read from a gifted author, this one offers an extraordinary perspective on World War II. Appropriate for ages 9-12.