Sona Sharma, Very Best Big Sister? by Chitra Soundar

Cover image for Sona Sharma.

Sona Sharma, Very Best Big Sister? by Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Jen Khatun (9781536214826)

Sona lives in a home with lots of family members and others who stop by regularly. There is her mother and father, Thatha, her grandfather, Paatti, her grandmother, and The President who lives in the neighborhood. There is also Elephant, her best friend, and a toy she has had since she was tiny. When Amma, Sona’s mother, tells her that she is expecting a new baby, Sona isn’t so sure that it’s good news. She will have to share her room and her things with the new baby. Sona wants badly to be the best big sister ever, but sometimes her emotions get in the way. She has a chance to help pick the perfect name for the new baby, but she may just wait too long in the end.

Perfectly pitched for young readers, this early chapter book is a glimpse of life in India with rickshaws to get to school, jasmine in the garden, and pooris for a snack. Sona’s reaction to a new baby is just right, an honest mixture of wanting to participate and also resenting what she may lose too. The extended family plays a large part in giving Sona both the attention and the space she needs to process her feelings without making her ashamed along the way.

The illustrations add to the depiction of life in India, capturing the connection of the family members, shared meals, and crowded streets. The images are full of warmth and love.

A look at the emotions of a new baby combined with a visit to India. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick.

The Genius under the Table: Growing Up behind the Iron Curtain by Eugene Yelchin

Cover image for The Genius under the Table.

The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Eugene Yelchin (9781536215526)

Yevgeny only seems to disappoint his parents who are rather desperate for him to find a natural gift that will let him escape Soviet Russia. They already know he’s not much of an athlete, unlike his older brother who is going to be a famous ice skater. When his mother takes him to see Mikhail Baryshnikov dance, Yevgeny tries to become a ballet dancer, practicing the movements in their tiny shared apartment. But what he truly loves to do is draw. Since he sleeps under the huge table, he steals his father’s pencil and draws on the bottom of the table where no one can see. Could those small doodles be the talent that his family has been waiting for? And what about the KGB agent who lives down the hall? And what happened to the grandfather whose pictures have been removed from the family album and no one speaks about? There are so many questions to be answered, but Yevgeny must be willing to start insisting on answers.

In this hilarious and touching book for middle grade readers, Yelchin shares a memoir of his own childhood in Russia during the Cold War. Yevgeny is a wonderful naïve protagonist, who doesn’t understand the immense political and social pressures hovering over his family and the entire Russian people. His misunderstandings of this and his growing desire for answers add tension to the story as readers will understand far more than he does.

As Yevgeny covers the bottom of the table with drawings, readers are shown Yelchin’s illustrations of his family and others in his life. They are humorous and filled with a wry charm that shows Yevgeny’s point of view.

Filled with an honesty about life in Cold War Russia, family expectations, and one gifted child. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick.

Let Me Fix You a Plate by Elizabeth Lily

Cover image for Let Me Fix You a Plate.

Let Me Fix You a Plate by Elizabeth Lily (9780823443253)

A family packs up and heads out on their annual trip. After driving for hours, it is dark when they reach West Virginia. The dark midnight kitchen is warm and light as the children doze off. In the morning, there is sausage, blackberry jam and coffee for Papaw and dad. The children help Mamaw make banana pudding. After three days, it’s time to leave and head to Florida. Their Abuela hugs them and invites them in for food. The midnight kitchen is full of Spanish words, tostones, and flan. In the morning there is fresh juice and arepas. The house fills with people, dancing and music and snacks eaten behind the couch. The trip comes to an end with full bellies but already missing all of the food and family. They get home late, and their own midnight kitchen fills with waffles before bed.

An ode to great food and grandparents, this picture book explores the connection between food and family, creating strong memories that linger once you return home and can still taste on your tongue. Told from the point of view of one of the children, the book looks at arrival at night to each home, the transformation in the morning, and then the special treats shared at each place. The homes may differ in terms of food, faith and language, but throughout the emphasis is sharing traditions, spending time together, and eating.

The illustrations are a joy, depicting such warm kitchens and filled with small details that create a real feeling of each home. The end pages in the book feature the various elements of each of the homes, including the tractor cups, coal minor portrait and cat plates in West Virginia and the toston press, rosary, and little house in Florida. The deep colors, friendly faces and warm hugs shown also demonstrate the love and connection with all of the homes.

Warm, loving and delicious. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Neal Porter Books.

A Soft Place to Land by Janae Marks

Cover image for A Soft Place to Land.

A Soft Place to Land by Janae Marks (9780062875877)

Joy has had to move with her family from their beloved house into an apartment, since her father lost his job. Other things have changed too, like sharing a room with her little sister and being able to hear her parents argue clearly through the thin walls. Joy also had to give up her piano lessons, since they can’t afford them any more. So her plans to be a composer for movies have been put on hold. She also has to start a new school, but luckily she meets a very friendly new neighbor who goes to her school too. Nora also shares the secret Hideout that all of the kids in the building use to escape their small apartments. It’s top secret and no adults even know the room exists. Joy and Nora also start their own dog walking business for residents of the apartment. But when disaster strikes, Joy may lose it all: the business, the hide out and all of her friends.

The author of From the Desk of Zoe Washington returns with her second book. This novel explores socioeconomic layers from the point of view of a girl caught in the midst of difficult life changes that she has no control over. Written with a deep empathy for young people and the difficulties they face, the book also mixes in humor and a strong sense of larger community that keeps it from being overly dark. The book offers a couple of moments of mystery, where Joy must figure out what happened to one of the dogs and another where she has been exchanging messages with someone who may be in trouble.

Throughout it is clear that even though some things may be outside of Joy’s control, she has agency to make some changes and choices. Joy is a great character, one who could have become sullen and shut down in the face of the situation, but instead makes new friends and finds a way forward. She is a character full of caring for others, always helping out her sister, trying to fix friendships, and in the end solving the mysteries and finding a solution for a hideout that works for the adults too.

Friendship, families and finding your way are central in this middle grade novel. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.

The Longest Storm by Dan Yaccarino

Cover image for The Longest Storm.

The Longest Storm by Dan Yaccarino (9781662650475)

This picture book explores the Covid lockdown in a creative and open way that also allows it to speak to other times of darkness that families experience. Covid is shown as a storm that hits and is unlike any other storm, one that forces you to be inside for an unknown length of time. The family struggles with their new time together in a house, going from feeling strange to people getting angry and staying apart from one another. That’s when the storm rumbled and lightning struck, knocking the power out. One candle lit against the darkness brought the family together. The next morning felt different with pancakes and board games and a new way forward even though they were still caught in the storm. Then one day, the sun came out again. It was possible to go outside and start cleaning up.

As I mentioned, this picture book speaks deeply to a variety of dark times felt by a family. The family goes through a complete grief cycle on the page, allowing the book to be about the loss of a parent just as easily as it is about Covid. It’s a beautiful accomplishment of writing, speaking to the universal rather than the specific and allowing us all to see the grieving process as part of Covid too.

Yaccarino often does light-hearted titles, but this one has a lot of emotions that flow across the page. He uses color and expressions to convey many emotions from the anger of being together to the loneliness of being together but separate to the relief of finding joy in one another once more.

A powerful look at Covid and loss that will speak to all of us. Appropriate for ages 4-7.

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.

When Grandfather Flew by Patricia MacLachlan

Cover image for When Grandfather Flew.

When Grandfather Flew by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Chris Sheban (9780823444892)

Grandfather loved to birdwatch. Milo was a quiet child and he listened to Grandfather’s information on birds and what his Grandfather loved most about them. Grandfather liked many birds like the hawks and kestrels, but his favorite was the soaring bald eagle. Grandfather loved the sharp sight of the birds and all they could see from high above. One day, Milo and Grandfather rescued a chickadee that hit the window, releasing it into the air when it had recovered. As Grandfather lost his eyesight, he could still enjoy the birds at the trees since Milo and his nurse could help him identify them. When Grandfather died, it was Milo who called everyone outside to see the eagle that soared high and then circled down low near them with a flash of his eyes.

Told in the voice of Milo’s older sister, this picture book is a look at an aging grandparent and his eventual death. The book offers connectivity to Grandfather through his love of birds, sharing that love with one child in particular who was willing to listen and to see for him. Newbery-Medalist MacLachlan has crafted this story with kindness and gentleness, offering a sibling view that loves both Milo and Grandfather, a voice that marvels at the chickadee release and at the eagle coming so low.

Sheban’s illustrations are done in watercolor, pastel and graphite. They have such depth and texture, the colors extraordinarily layered and light-filled. They share the wonder of birds in flight, the beauty of the farm landscape and the quiet connections of the family.

A quiet and profound look at life, love, birds and death. Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from copy provided by Holiday House.

Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac

Cover image for Rez Dogs.

Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac (9780593326213)

When Malian is at her grandparents visiting, Covid-19 brings everyone into lockdown. Malian lives in Boston with her parents usually and now she is on an extended visit on the Wabanaki reservation where her grandparents live. She works to keep her grandparents safe from the virus, keeping social services and the mailmen at the end of the driveway. She is helped by Malsum, a wolf-like dog who simply showed up one day and stayed. Dogs on the reservation are different than in the city. Malsum is his own dog, responsible for himself, though he does enjoy the attention and food that Malian and her grandparents give him. Malian’s grandmother’s fry bread is a special treat for everyone. This is a lovely look at how one family got through Covid by supporting each other.

Told in verse, this middle-grade novel shares oral storytelling traditions and celebrates the love of grandchild and grandparents. Bruchac is a celebrated Abenaki children’s author with hundreds of publications in his body of work. There is a wonderful sense of place throughout this book, showing the way of life on the reservation. The pace of life is slower too, partially due to the pandemic but also by choice.

Malian is a great guide to life on the Wabanaki reservation, since she lives a different lifestyle when she is in the city. She clearly shows the distinctions between the two ways of life, each with their own benefits and challenges. Malsum, the dog, is a character himself, guiding the humans around him through his body language, approval and defense.

A timely novel that looks at the pandemic and its impact on indigenous families. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland

Cover image for How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe.

How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland (9781534448667)

Moon has always lived in the shadow of her beautiful sister, Star. Now Star is a Fotogram influencer, making enough money to have bought their family a new house. Their mother is ecstatic with Star but has always had problems showing any sort of love to Moon. Star has been offered a seat on a tour bus of influencers traveling the nation for the summer, and Moon is sent along as her photographer, a role she has played for years. Moon will also be the tour’s “merch girl,” manning the booth that sells items for the influencers to all their fans. Moon has been planning her escape to college after the summer and pockets her money for the meal plan to help pay for board at college, deciding to live off peanut butter and grilled cheese on the bus. But she hadn’t planned on Santiago, an impossibly gorgeous guy who is the grumpy and rude brother of the owner of Fotogram. He’s also the other person doing merch sales. It’s hate at first sight, at least until Santiago starts to share his talent with food and Moon starts to question everything that her mother has ever told her.

Incredible writing, a fresh plot and lots of character growth make this teen novel a pure joy to read. Gilliland has real skill with dialogue, making all of the conversations seem natural and realistic but also clever and sharp-witted. Throughout the book there are wonderful slow reveals of information, such as how Moon actually got her scar (she did not fall out of a tree). The nature of Moon’s relationship with her sister and mother is honest and painful, each moment scalpel sharp and devastating, even when Moon herself doesn’t realize how bad it is.

Moon is a magnificent Latina protagonist. She is not waif-thin nor muscular, moving through her life with wobbly and jiggly bits that she struggles to love. She is herself a gifted earth artist and someone with a deep and meaningful connection to nature. One that often leaves her covered in insects like luna moths, ladybugs and dragonflies, something her mother considers a curse. Moon is complex, acerbic, funny and immensely vulnerable, just like the novel itself.

One of the best of the year, this is a book to fall for. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.