Focused by Alyson Gerber (9781338185973)
Clea loves to play chess; it’s her favorite thing to do. She likes it a lot better than her classes at school where she struggles to pay attention and follow directions. She’s also having a lot of emotional outbursts now that she’s in middle school. Clea knows that it’s because she’s just stupid and that she doesn’t try hard enough. She thinks that no one around her wants to tell her the truth. Then Clea gets tested for ADHD, and she discovers the reason for her issues at school. Still, it isn’t as simple as just taking medication and having a written schedule. In fact, before she realizes it, Clea has managed to drive her best friend away with her behavior. Clea must start figuring out how to manage her ADHD, her personal life and keep her schoolwork in hand, all while trying to be chosen for chess tournaments on the weekends.
Gerber has once again created a female protagonist who struggles with something beyond their control. I deeply appreciated Gerber’s focus on Clea finding a voice to ask for what she needed and her ability to fall down and get back up again. The book also shows ADHD not as something to blame but as a true issue that a person must manage and deal with on a daily basis. Gerber writes with a sensitivity about ADHD that comes from experiencing the issues herself.
As with her first book, readers will discover a lot to relate to with Clea. Simply understanding invisible disabilities more clearly is helpful for all readers. Those who face similar challenges will find a main character worth cheering for on these pages. Clea works incredibly hard even when she fails, thinks of others often, is a great sister and friend, and still can’t fix this issue on her own. It’s a testament to the power of getting help on a variety of levels.
A personal look at ADHD, this novel is a compelling and thought-provoking read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.
Sincerely, Harriet by Sarah Winifred Searle (9781541542723)
After moving to a new city with her parents, Harriet is stuck sitting around their new apartment alone while her parents start new jobs. She is missing camp back in Indiana and writes her camp friends postcards about sightseeing in Chicago, even though she hasn’t gone anywhere. She starts to pretend that the mailman is sinister, that the third floor of the house is haunted and that the kind owner of the house, Pearl, is a murderer. Pearl though continues to try to connect with Harriet during her long summer, using books and stories as a way to relate to one another. As the book steadily reveals, Pearl’s son had polio while Harriet herself has MS. This book beautifully portrays a teen’s long summer and dealing with a chronic illness.
Set in the 1990s, this graphic novel depicts a Latinx family as they move closer to Harriet’s doctors in Chicago. The family is warm and lovely, connected to Harriet but not hovering or overly worried about her. The graphic novel uses warm colors, sultry breezes and just enough mystery about what the truth of the house could be to keep the pages turning. The focus on books and reading is conveyed through the eyes of a teen who doesn’t really enjoy reading her assigned books. Filled with diversity, there are lots of people of color as well as people experiencing disabilities in this graphic novel.
Harriet herself is a rather prickly character, so I loved when she faked reading The Secret Garden, saying that she didn’t really like the main character that much. Readers will develop a sense of connection with Harriet as her vivid imagination comes to life, even though she may have misled the readers as well as herself at times. There are few graphic novels that have characters with invisible disabilities who sometimes need mobility aids and other times don’t. This is particularly effective in a graphic novel and portrayed with grace and gentleness.
A quiet graphic novel for tweens and teens that is just right with some lemonade and pizza. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Graphic Universe.
Mallko and Dad by Gusti (9781592702596)
This autobiographical picture book takes a raw and impassioned look at fatherhood and unconditional love. It is the story of the author and his son who was born with Down Syndrome. Mallko was not what his father was expecting, and Gusti did not accept his son at first. Steadily though, he quickly realized that Mallko was complete and fine as he was. Mallko’s mother and older brother accepted him much faster, showing Gusti the way forward. The book explores Mallko, his humor and his life. His art is shown side-by-side with his father’s on the pages. This is a book that is a clarion call for parents to realize that their children don’t need to change to be loved, they are worthy of it always.
Perhaps the most impressive part of this book is Gusti’s willingness to be this open about his hesitation of having a child who is different than he was expecting. Gusti does not try to rationalize his response or make apologies for it. It is clear he is pained by how he first reacted and is making up for those days of doubt. The rest of the book simply celebrates Mallko and exactly who he is. He is captured in a rainbow of images, cartoons capturing his activities, playing with his family, and simply being a child. It is a breathtaking display of love and feels like Gusti put his heart on every page.
An incredible book that is a picture book, but as thick as a novel thanks to the quantity of images crammed inside waiting to inspire you to love. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from copy provided by Enchanted Lion Books.
Days with Dad by Nari Hong (9781592702336)
Narrated by a little girl, this picture book looks at growing up with a father in a wheelchair. The girl’s father often apologizes for activities he can’t participate in. But the little girl always responds by saying that she prefers other similar activities that they can do together. Her father can’t go ice skating, but they can fish together through the ice. He can’t swim in the sea, but he can build sandcastles with her. He can’t ride bikes, but they can look at the flowers in the park together. Throughout the book, the tone is positive and joyful, showing that life is about what people can do together and the time spent with those you love. Described on the jacket as semi-autobiographical, this book has been listed on IBBY’s 2017 Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities. This book’s illustrations add to the lightness of the story with their playful feel. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Review copy provided by Enchanted Lion.)
Mama Africa by Kathryn Erskine, illustrated by Charly Palmer (9780374303013)
A picture book about the incredible South African singer, Miriam Makeba, who became the voice of fighting against apartheid. Called Mama Africa, she sang to expose the injustice happening around her at a time when it was dangerous to do so. Eventually, she lived in exile in the United States yet never stopped speaking and singing about her home. She spoke before the United Nations to appeal for help. Finally able to return home after apartheid ended, she continued to fight for justice the rest of her life. Erskine lived in South Africa during apartheid and draws from that knowledge in her book. Throughout, there is a celebration of the impact of song and the importance of giving voice to those living under injustice. The art by Palmer is rich and vivid. He offers portraits of people as well as landscapes that capture the fight for freedom. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (Review copy provided by Farrar Straus & Giroux.)
That Is My Dream! By Langston Hughes, illustrated by Daniel Miyares (9780399550171)
Miyares turns the poem “Dream Variation” by Langston Hughes into a picture book that shows a segregated town in the 1950s. There are separate drinking fountains for white and black people and the races are separate when they relax as well. Then the book changes with a feeling of whirling and release into a book that shows equality, shared time together and the hope of a day spent in harmony. The book is infused with hope, showing how possibilities of freedom and equality can be realized eventually. The book doesn’t move to the present, instead staying in the 1950s and showing what no segregation would have looked like back then. The illustrations by Miyares are beautiful, filled with deep colors and diversity. A very special book that pairs important poetry with a renewed vision. Appropriate for ages 4-7. (Review copy provided by Schwartz & Wade.)
Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Boris Kulikov (InfoSoup)
Louis Braille lost his sight at age five from an accident and a resulting infection. His family helped him learn to cope, making him a cane that he could use to explore a little farther from home each day. His brothers taught him to whistle and his sisters made him letters out of straw. He could play dominoes, knew trees by touch, flowers by their smell and could listen to books being read aloud. But there were no books for blind children like him. Even when he got into a school for the blind in Paris he had to work very hard and become one of the best students to be able to access their books. When Louis achieved that though, he found that the books were done in large raised wax letters so thick books were actually quite short. Then there was news that a French army captain had created a way to send secret messages that was read by touch. Louis worked to make the system readable by the blind, creating his own alphabet system as a teenager!
Bryant writes in first person from Braille’s point of view. She explains how Louis lost his sight with just enough detail to make it understandable how tragic it was but doesn’t overly linger there. When Louis’ sight is gone, the text changes to become filled with noises and other senses than sight. Bryant moves the story forward using Braille’s desire to read for himself, that drives both the story and Braille’s own life. As each opportunity proves to be disappointing, Braille does not give up hope, instead developing throughout his life a tenacity to find a solution.
Kulikov’s illustrations play light against dark. When Braille loses his sight, the pages go black with shadowy furniture forms only. Color is gone entirely. The reader is not left there, but moves back into the world of color unless the story is speaking about Braille’s blindness specifically, so when Braille finally gets to try reading the wax lettering, the page goes dark again, also showing his disappointment in the solution.
Intelligently designed and depicted, this is a warm and inspiring look at the life and achievements of Louis Braille. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Knopf Books for Young Readers.
Maxi’s Secrets by Lynn Plourde
Timminy is not looking forward to starting a new school, particularly one where his father is Assistant Principal. Now he won’t be able to disguise from his parents how bullied he has been at school due to his small size. But his parents try to make the move more palatable by giving him a puppy, Maxi, who is a huge white furry ball of energy and love. Eventually, they discover that Maxi is deaf and have to figure out how to keep her safe in their woodsy new home. Meanwhile Timminy is busy worrying about school, dodging bullies who put him in lockers. When he meets his neighbor, Abby, she doesn’t put up with his whining about his size. After all, she doesn’t let her blindness slow her down at all. It is up to Timminy to realize that his size doesn’t define him any more than Abby’s or Maxi’s disabilities do. It’s time for them all to stand tall.
Plourde has created one of those dog books. You know, the ones where the dog dies. But at least she admits it right up front, warning readers that Maxi is one to be adored and loved but that she will be gone before the story is done. The book happily is about much more than that. It is about bullying and the ability to keep strong in the face of being different and unique. It is also about everyone being more than they seem on the surface, even those who may appear to be bullies at first.
The writing here is heartfelt and fast. Timminy is a great protagonist and though he can whine at times, it is always justified. The fact that he learns a lot from those around him is to his credit. He is also someone who offers second chances to others and seeks them himself when he does something wrong. This is a book about friendships and allowing people into your lives even if they are different in ways other than hearing and sight and size.
A tearjerker of a book, this is one with a huge heart to go along with the huge white dog. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Nancy Paulsen Books.
Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan (InfoSoup)
Joe and Ravi could not be more different. In fact, the only things they seem to have in common is they are in the same class and they could each use a new friend. Ravi has just moved to the United States from India and is discovering how very different school in a new country is. Joe’s two best friends have moved away and now he is left at the mercy of the class bully who also has Ravi in his sights. Joe has to attend special classes to deal with the way that he gets overloaded by sights and sounds. Ravi’s teacher has trouble understanding his English with his Indian accent and may be sent to special classes as well. Ravi is eager to befriend the class bully, who is also from an Indian background. How can these two very different boys figure out that there is a friend right there who needs them just as badly.
The book is divided into the perspectives of Ravi and Joe, each boy written by one of the authors. Beautifully, the two voices meld together into a cohesive whole. The two boys have distinct personalities and points of view that go far beyond their different cultures. The book speaks directly to stereotypes, particularly first impressions of people before you get to know them as a person. It illustrates this without a lecturing tone, instead demonstrating it in the ways the two protagonists interact with one another throughout the novel.
This is a very approachable book, one that invites readers to explore and see what is happening. It has a light tone, yet reaches deeper meanings and explores real issues that children today face no matter what their background or culture. Adding to the depth of the book are glimpses of the boys at home, showing how they spend their free time and the way their parents and families interact. It’s a way to further show both their differences and their similarities and works particularly well.
A perfect lunchtime read, this one is worth saving a special spot for on your shelf. Appropriate for ages 8-11.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis (InfoSoup)
The author of Otherbound returns with a stunning science fiction novel for teens. Denise and her mother are ready to leave their apartment, but her mother won’t move fast enough. She is trying to wait for Denise’s sister, Iris. Now they are not going to reach the shelter in time and that means that they probably won’t survive the comet hitting Earth. As they drive the empty streets to their temporary shelter, desperately late, a chance encounter leads them on another path. Instead of a temporary shelter, they are offered shelter in a generation ship that will wait out the comet hit and then leave earth. Now it is up to Denise to figure out how to fix everything, to find her sister in destroyed and flooded Amsterdam, and even more importantly get them all a spot on the generation ship before it takes off. But who is going to take Denise who is autistic and her mother who struggles with drug addiction?
Duyvis set this book in her native Amsterdam and throughout the novel, one can see her love for her nation and her city. Yes, she destroys much of it, but the spirit of the people is clear on the page as is the beauty of the city even through its destruction. The science here is done just right, with a clear connection to today’s technology but also taking it leaps ahead, allowing readers to truly believe it is 2035. This book is not afraid of asking difficult questions about disabilities and addiction and whether only the perfect deserve to survive in this situation.
The book is beautifully written, with an impressive protagonist who shows that disabilities are no reason that you can’t be a survivor and even more so, a heroine. Denise is a beautiful mixture of autistic behaviors when she is pushed but also bravery and resilience. The book is an intelligent mix of adventure and survival with a compelling question of what could make Denise worthy enough to stay. There are additional ethical questions throughout, including how far one would go to save a loved one.
A brilliant science fiction novel that offers diversity and a powerful story. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from ARC received from Abrams.
The winners of the 2016 Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award have been announced. The award is given by The Division on Autism and Developmental Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children in collaboration with the Special Needs Project. The award recognizes “effective, enlightened portrayals of individuals with developmental disabilities in children’s books.” The award is presented in even years only. Here are the winners:
CHAPTER BOOK AWARD
Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
PICTURE BOOK AWARD
My Friend Suhana by Shaila Abdullah and Aanyah Abdullah