Review: From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks (9780062875853)

This debut middle-grade novel is a stellar look at family, taking risks and doing what you know is right despite opposition from those you love. Returning from her twelfth birthday party at a bakery, Zoe discovers a letter from her father, a man she’s never met. Zoe knows that her father went to prison for murder, but that’s about it. Zoe is sure that her mother won’t let her write back to her father, but Zoe decides to do it behind her back and soon the two are corresponding. When Zoe’s grandmother discovers that the two of them are in touch, she doesn’t object and helps Zoe continue, also letting her speak to Marcus on the phone at her house. Marcus claims that he is innocent of the crime he’s been convicted of and at first Zoe isn’t sure whether to believe him or not, then her grandmother agrees that she has always thought he was innocent. Now Zoe decides that she can find the alibi witness Marcus’ lawyer was unable to locate for his trial. It’s just going to take even more lying to her family.

Marks writing is delectable. She moves seamlessly between writing about Zoe’s interest in baking and her time spent in a professional bakery helping out and then the mystery and drama of Marcus’ crime and his potential innocence. Her depiction of Zoe is deftly done, creating a truly multidimensional character who is juggling her own dreams, problems with her closest friend, and now communicating with her birth father. All of these elements could have been jarring but come together as a perfectly baked treat.

Race is definitely a powerful element in this middle-grade novel where Zoe’s exploration of men falsely convicted of crimes speaks about how many are African-American men. Zoe’s own family is multi-racial, and she is aware of the negative attention that brings even in their large community of Boston. 

A novel that’s not afraid to ask deep questions and seek answers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.

Review: Bodega Cat by Louie Chin

Bodega Cat by Louie Chin

Bodega Cat by Louie Chin (9781576879320)

Explore the life of a New York City bodega cat in this picture book. Chip is the cat who lives in the Matos family’s bodega. He keeps an eye on everything from the breakfast rush, where he knows everyone’s orders, to the stock on the shelves, that he loves to hide and sleep in. He helps with deliveries too. In the evening when Damian comes home, they play superheroes together, dashing through the neighborhood along with the cat from the grocery store across the street. Dinnertime comes with a Dominican meal shared with neighbors and friends. The bodega never closes, so Chip’s job never ends!

Chin, a native New Yorker, pays homage to his city through the lens of the importance of bodegas and small grocery stores in neighborhoods throughout the city. He cleverly uses the iconic bodega cat as the perspective from which to view the store. Chip is a delight of a character, offering pride, a knowledge of his neighborhood, and a dedication to the people they serve.

The illustrations are done in a comic-book style that works particularly well. They are bright, busy and filled with the bustle of a store. Chip himself hides around the store, offers help, and is in the midst of everything.

A great book about a vital part of New York City. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard

Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal (9781626727465)

Told in a repeating format explaining all of the things that fry bread is, this picture book celebrates an iconic food in Native American families. Fry bread may be first and foremost a food, but it is also about family. In this picture book, a diverse Native family comes together to make fry bread together. Children of all ages participate in forming the bread and then listen together as it fries in the pan. Fry bread looks different depending on how long you fry it, tastes different depending on the recipe and the cook. It brings families together to celebrate their heritage, but also to realize where fry bread came from and how it relates to the massacres of Native peoples in the United States.

This picture book is about far more than a delicious family treat. Maillard looks at its connection to our nation’s history, the damage caused by the European invasion, and what fry bread means today. Much of the real detail of this is in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, but even the briefer read-aloud part of the book offers this connection to children. The nuance of a food being both celebratory and yet also indicative of what happened to an entire people, is an important one. This is a celebration that Native Americans have survived and live on, continuing to gather, eat and celebrate.

The illustrations of this book are so warm and merry. They show a diverse group of family members gathering to cook together. There are all sorts of skin tones, hair and ages represented here, the air tinged with love and connection around them.

A beautiful and inclusive picture book that takes a deep look at food, family and history. Appropriate for ages 3-6.

 

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Saturday by Oge Mora

Saturday by Oge Mora

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.

Review: I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins

I Remember Poems and Pictures of Heritage compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins

I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins (9781620143117)

This wonderful collection of poems and illustrations speak directly to the poets’ cultural heritage. Each poem looks deeply at family and identity, whether it is being asked where you come from or meeting a family member for the first time. Some of the poems show the fear of being African-American in America, the oversimplification of race when filling out forms, the way food can bring people together, and the joy of summer nights. The illustrations paired with each of the poems highlight the wide variety of cultures and heritages in the texts. The result is a rainbow of skin tones and colors, weaving together to create a book that reflects the vastness of our country.

The poems and illustrations in this book are very impressive. As they play through the authors’ memories of their childhoods and the variety of emotions those memories evoke, the reader gets the pleasure of visiting each author’s experience. Poetry always gives a more concentrated look, a deep feel for the author, and that is certainly the case here. The illustrations are wonderful, each self-contained and presented almost as a treasure to discover along this journey.

A great compilation of art and poetry that celebrates diversity and inclusion. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Lee & Low Books.

Review: Between Us and Abuela by Mitali Perkins

Between Us and Abuela by Mitali Perkins

Between Us and Abuela: A Family Story from the Border by Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Sara Palacios (9780374303730)

Maria, Juan and their mother hadn’t seen Maria’s grandmother in five years. Today they were celebrating Christmas by taking a bus to the border with Mexico for Los Posada Sin Fronteras where families could meet with the border fence between them. Maria had made her grandmother a scarf that her mother was finishing and Juan had drawn a picture for her. When they reach the border, they must stand in line for their turn to see their family. They get their turn and get to see their grandmother and the fence disappears as they reconnect. But there is no way to get their gifts through the fence, until Maria has an idea that even the border police approve of.

Perkins takes a celebration that few of us have heard of and turns it into a universal story of immigration and separated families on the United States border. Through Maria’s story, readers will deeply connect with the physical separation of families and the power dynamic in place. Mitali though leaves readers with a soaring hope as Maria manages to get Juan’s gift to her grandmother despite the fence in the way. The illustrations capture the small family and the large border fence, offering real perspectives on the size but also showing how those fall away when family connects with one another.

A strong and purposeful look at walls, immigration and family. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Year We Fell from Space by Amy Sarig King

The Year We Fell from Space by Amy Sarig King

The Year We Fell from Space by Amy Sarig King (9781338236361)

Liberty loves the stars. She creates star maps that allow her to capture what she sees in the stars by drawing her own constellations on the night sky. But when her parents get a divorce, it is like her entire world fell apart. Her father assures her that she will see him often, but they don’t see him for 86 days after the divorce! In the meantime, Lib has witnessed a meteorite fall to earth and recovered the heavy stone. As time goes on, Liberty begins to seethe with rage. It’s an anger that emerges in school sometimes, sometimes at her parents, but mostly sits inside her, red and hot. It’s that anger that made her throw the toaster through the kitchen window, hides a diamond ring from a bully at school, and allows her to tell her father what she really thinks. Liberty worries that she might have depression like her father, and she gradually learns the power of talking about her feelings openly.

Amy Sarig King is the name that the YA author A.S. King writes under for middle-grade books. She does both extremely well. Here King shows the first months of a divorce from the children’s point of view. She steadily reveals what happened in the parent’s marriage, but the real focus is on grief as the two sisters must navigate their way through the pain of losing their family. The emotions run high, from tears to yelling to throwing things. They all feel immensely authentic and real on the page.

Liberty is a great heroine. Far from perfect, particularly at school, she is navigating life by confiding in a meteorite and trying to help everyone else. She is filled with rage much of the time, but also filled with a deep compassion for others, sometimes to her own detriment. King looks frankly at mental health issues here both in parents and in Liberty herself. The use of counselors is spoken of openly and without issue as the family gets the help they need.

A powerful look at divorce, grief and coming to terms with life. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Review: The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake

The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake

The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake (9781368048088)

Lyric, Maine was the ancestral home of Violet’s family, established by her great-great-great-grandmother who survived a shipwreck. Now Violet has been sent there after a wreck of her own, created when she partied too much and almost lost her brother Sam to suicide. Stuck in the small town, she finds a volunteer job at the local aquarium. That’s where she meets Orion, a gorgeous boy her age who knows all about marine life and how to run the cash register, skills that Vi can only dream of having. Orion’s best friend is Liv, who happens to be obsessed with the Lyric shipwreck and can’t wait to meet Violet, a direct descendant. Things get more complicated as Violet tries to help Liv and Orion move forward in a romantic way, Violet tries to avoid romance herself and along the way makes the best friends of her life.

I must admit this was one of the hardest books to summarize. There is so much here that all fits so beautifully into the novel but can’t be easily explained. There is the power of music, the impact of nature, the importance of dreams, the vitality of connection to one another, and the continued reverberation of loss and grief. All of that is here in these pages, written so beautifully that it aches. There are some cliches like Violet shaving her head, but those disappear into the richness of the book, becoming references and anchors to other stories rather than taking up too much space here.

The writing is exquisite, the emotions on the page are allowed to be raw but also often are hidden from view behind banter or fights about other things. Violet’s bisexuality is shown organically and openly, something that is simply there and innately understood by the reader. Mental illness is treated much the same way with panic attacks, depression, and anxiety all included in the story, important to the plot, but never gawked at.

Beautiful, powerful and full of feeling, this book is amazing. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler

Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler

Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler (9780399162909)

After her father dies, a girl, her mother and seven siblings move into a tar-paper shack in the woods. The shack is worn but inside they discover a root cellar with a pump that offers clean water. The family plants a garden with seeds they brought with them and find a large berry patch too. In autumn, Mum walks to town to get work doing chores and all of the children pitch in at home. They can their harvest so that it will last through the winter. In winter, the boys go hunting and often return home empty handed. But when they get a turkey, the family feasts. When spring arrives, the family starts to trade baked goods for eggs and milk from neighbors and the little shack looks like home now.

Wheeler takes a story from her own family history during the Great Depression and turns it into this heartwarming story of determination and resilience in the face of incredible poverty. The focus here is on how the entire family worked together to meet the challenge, each sibling taking on duties and roles that suited their age and ability. The stalwart mother is also shown as an incredible cook, a source of hope and the reason the family survived.

Wheeler’s illustrations ensure that hope is the focus of this picture book. While drab and dirty at first, the little shack is transformed just by the people who inhabit it. Games are simple and done without any real toys, even the baby finding leaves and sticks the perfect things to play with. The jewel-like canned foods enliven the darkness of the root cellar, promising safety in the cold.

A brilliant historical picture book. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Nancy Paulsen Books.