Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon (9781534449671)

Yolanda’s family has lived on the pecan farm for generations, but they aren’t accepted by the townsfolks who call the brujas, or witches. Yolanda herself seems to have not gotten a magical gift though. Her younger sister has hers, with bees flying around her head and the ability to make plants grow and flower. It’s similar to her Wela’s gift with butterflies. Now though, Yolanda’s family is dwindling with only her sister and grandmother left. As her grandmother falls into a strange sleep, Yolanda sets out on a journey across their property. Joining her is her ex-best friend, her sister whom she also isn’t really speaking to, and a boy who may have a big crush on Yolanda. The grass has magically grown over the last few days, obstructing the view across their land, lengthening the journey to several days rather than hours, and putting real dangers in their path. They must all work together, Wela included, to complete the journey and find the answers to their family puzzle.

Impossible to summarize in any way that makes sense, this novel is a marvel of natural magic, connection to a place, and an in-depth exploration of a family. The connection to nature is evident throughout the novel both in the way that characters can work their magic with insects and plants but also through the grass that grows and the way the land stretches to create a world to explore. Throughout the book there is an intensity, a focus that allows the strange world to become solid and real.

A large part of that intensity is Yolanda herself, a character who holds grudges and demands to walk her own path, even if it’s foolish. She has lost contact with the people she had been closest to in the world, her best friend and sister, and had also lost connection with her grandfather before his death. The journey is just as much about her finding a way back to these people as it is about solving the larger family puzzle.

Strange and unique, this magical realism novel is an enticing summer read. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from copy provided by McElderry Books.

Stepping Stones by Lucy Knisley

Stepping Stones by Lucy Knisley

Stepping Stones by Lucy Knisley (9780593125243)

Jen didn’t want to move out of the city and onto a farm with her mother, leaving her father behind. She particularly doesn’t enjoy her mom’s new boyfriend, Walter, who is always telling her how she should act. On the farm, Jen does love the hayloft with its privacy and kittens. She’s not quite sure about the chickens at first until she meets the fuzzy chicks, but even then taking care of them is a pain! When Walter’s two daughters come to visit on weekends, it’s particularly hard. The girls work at the farm’s stall at the market, selling berries, granola and flowers. But Andy, the oldest daughter, is bossy and constantly putting Jen down. Jen would much rather be drawing in her notebook than doing math at the market. Being a new family is hard, but small steps make big connections.

Knisley is one of my favorite graphic novelists. It is great to see her returning to graphic novels for children. She captures the emotions of being young with such empathy, valuing the perspective of her characters. She also allows her young characters to find their own way forward, the adults around and causing problems at times. Here it is figuring out how to be potential step-siblings while wrestling with a new life in the country, and a frog too.

Knisley fills her book with small moments of life on a farm and in the country. Every person who lives, loves or tolerates the country will enjoy her depiction. As always, her illustrations are clear, funny and full of great moments.

Full of fresh air, chickens, garden-rampaging deer, and a complicated family, this graphic novel is a great summer read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House Graphic.

A Bunch of Board Books

Here are some great recently-released board books to embrace this summer:

Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi

Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi, illustrations by Ashley Lukashevsky (9780593110416)

To raise an antiracist baby, you must understand that’s it’s all about showing them that society can transform. This is not a space to be neutral, but one to be an activist. This board book explores what it takes to raise a child who is not racist in our society. First, see all skin colors, don’t be artificially color-blind. Second, talk about race. Third, politics are the problem, not people. Fourth, there is nothing wrong with people, no matter their race, sex, gender, orientation or faith. Fifth, celebrate differences. This book continues through number none which is believing that we can overcome racism. With bright illustrations, this book takes a firm stand of hope and optimism as long as hard work is done and children are raised to see themselves as part of the solution.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Kokila. 

Pride 1 2 3 by Michael Joosten

Pride 1 2 3 by Michael Joosten, illustrated by Wednesday Holmes (9781534464995)

Join in the happiness of a pride parade in this counting board book. There is one parade in June with two DJs playing music. Three families, four activists, five motorcycles. Six floats go by with seven divas posing. Eight signs are held high with nine people standing together in unity. The final ten are people waving a variety of pride flags. Incredibly inclusive, this board book welcomes everyone to pride parades and celebrations with open arms. The illustrations are bold and bright, featuring all sorts of characters and families who are part of the LGBTQIA+ family.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Little Simon. 

Wake Up, Let's Play by Marit Tornqvist

Wake Up, Let’s Play by Marit Tornqvist (9781782506263)

This dreamy board book invites children to join in the fun that two friends find together. They play all sorts of things, like birthday party and restaurant. They build sandcastles and play stormy seas in the bath. Busy towns with wooden tracks fill the room, and sometimes art wanders onto the walls. They play through snow and even into the night. Then it’s time to figure out what to play tomorrow! Told in very simple sentences, this board book has marvelous illustrations that are quirky and fantastical. At the same time, these are exactly the games that small children play, so it is rooted in reality. A marvel of a little book.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Floris Books.

The Camping Trip by Jennifer K. Mann

The Camping Trip by Jennifer K. Mann

The Camping Trip by Jennifer K. Mann (9781536207361)

The little girl narrating this picture book has never been camping before. So she is very excited when her Aunt Jackie and cousin Samantha ask her to come. She just knows that she is going to love it. She packs using a list from her aunt, then leaves her father behind and heads out on the journey to the camp site. It’s a long drive to Cedar Tree Campground. When they reach it is it big and quiet with lots of trees and a lake. They set up camp, then they go swimming. But swimming in the lake with fish isn’t at all like swimming in an indoor pool. They go hiking, but hiking has a lot more hills than walking around town. Dinner is tofu dogs and broccoli salad, which is actually pretty good. Smores are munched before bed. But sleeping in a tent is something else that is pretty different, though it might help to look at the stars until you get sleepy. The next day, even the lake doesn’t look quite as scary anymore.

Mann celebrates the big outdoors and the joys (and pains) of outdoor activities. She nicely shows things that the narrator can learn to love, like swimming in a lake and going on hikes, rather than mosquito bites. Mann shows how high expectations of having tons of fun can feel horrible when reality comes along, but also how being open to new experiences allows us to love new things just as they are, fish and all.

Mann’s illustrations are done in pencil on tracing paper which is then digitally collaged and colored. The picture book reads more like a comic book with panels and lots of speech bubbles. The Black family at the heart of the book gives it a fresh and inclusive take on being outside.

Perfect for reading when camping in the wilderness, backyard or living room. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Candlewick Press.

When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed (9780525553908)

This graphic novel memoir takes readers directly into the heart of a huge Kenyan refugee camp and the life of one boy who lived there. Omar and his brother Hassan lost their parents in Somalia when their village was attacked. Omar still hopes to find his mother, who was separated from them in the chaos. The brothers live together in their own hut in the camp and are watched over by their guardian who lives next door. When Omar has a chance to go to school, he must make the gut-wrenching decision of whether to leave Hassan, who doesn’t speak, behind. Their time in the camp is spent waiting, waiting for a UN interview, waiting to see if they can finally be moved to another country, waiting for water, waiting for food. It is also a time filled with doubts and hope, requiring true resilience for Omar to see a way forward.

It’s always a delight to see a new graphic novel by Jamieson, author of the Newbery Honor book Roller Girl. It’s all the more impressive to see her take on the challenge of a more serious topic and to do it as a biographical piece, telling the true story of Omar Mohamed and his time in the refugee camp. Jameison crafts the story in a way that truly reveals the plight of those in the camp, the horrors of what they experienced in the past, and the dullness of the routine days. She fills the pages with Omar’s deep caring and worry for his brother, his only remaining family member, and the reality of his sole responsibility to not only keep him safe but offer him a future.

As always with Jamieson, the art is wonderful. In particular, she offers glimpses of the beauty of the night sky in the camp and the warmth of the community of people who have been thrown together by tragedy. It is marvelous that Mohamed worked with her to tell a true story of the camps, that truth resonates on the page, lifting this new work to a different level.

Human, tragic and empowering, this book gives a human face to the many refugees in our world. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from purchased copy.

 

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert (9780316456388)

Alberta has lived in the small town of Ewing Beach her entire life. She’s one of the only Black kids in the entire middle school, so when another Black girl just her age moves into the old bed and breakfast in her neighborhood, Alberta is thrilled. Alberta does have a best friend, but Laramie doesn’t understand some of the things that Alberta experiences, particularly with Nicolette, a bully who makes sly comments that imply that Alberta is different or gets special treatment due to her race. As seventh grade starts, Laramie gets closer with Nicolette and the popular group of kids while Alberta finds herself spending more time with Edie, the new girl. When Edie and Alberta discover a series of old journals in the bed and breakfast, they find themselves untangling a mystery that reveals haunting secrets about race and identity.

This is Colbert’s first middle-grade book and she brings the skill she has shown in her award-winning novels for teens to this new audience. The book embraces difficult subjects but also shows how having a strong family and sense of identity eases even hard conversations and situations. The book deals very directly with race and racism, having gay parents and a complicated family structure, and divorce. It also explores middle grade friendships and their tensions with empathy and solid advice.

Through the two main characters of Alberta and Edie, readers get to experience different sorts of Black girls. Alberta wears bright colors and loves to surf, spending lots of time at the beach. Edie who is from Brooklyn, wears black goth clothing and loves to read. They are both far from being stereotypical in any way, something that shouldn’t need to be said about today’s books but is also still noteworthy. The adults in the book show the same differences and exude a sense of warmth and support.

A great middle grade read about family, friendships and race. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

The Little Blue Cottage by Kelly Jordan

The Little Blue Cottage by Kelly Jordan

The Little Blue Cottage by Kelly Jordan, illustrated by Jessica Courtney-Tickle (9781624149238)

The little blue cottage on the bay waited patiently every year for the little girl to return. She came with the warmer weather, taking up her place in the window seat and looking out at the water. The cottage was her favorite place, filled with dolphins, seagulls, swimming and boats. When fall came, the little girl and her family left once again, leaving the cottage to face winter. Still, summer came each year and the girl arrived, growing ever bigger. Eventually though, she and the family stopped coming, leaving the blue cottage to fade to gray, empty and waiting for years. Then one day, the girl, now a mother, returned to her beloved cottage to repair it, repaint it a merry blue, and live in it once more.

Jordan’s text invites readers to really experience the seasonality of cottage life. She uses near rhymes and natural rhythms to share both the joy and loneliness of the cottage that mirrors the emotions of the humans in the story as well. The long seasons of neglect have a quiet dignity to them, while the triumphant return is a marvelous ending.

The illustrations are detailed and visually interesting. They show the cottage on its own little beach, the beauty of the busyness of the family and the light they bring with them. The growing weeds and fading paint are particularly well done. The family is multicultural, adding to the book’s appeal.

Just right for vacation reading, this one will have you dreaming of a cottage on the water. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Page Street Kids.

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (9780062882769)

After a plane crashes on its way to the Dominican Republic, two families are impacted with grief and loss. Camino lives in the Dominican Republic with her auntie who is a local healer. She dreams of becoming a doctor and going to college in America. Her father, who died in the plane crash, lived most of the time in New York City, spending every summer with Camino. In New York City, Yahaira’s father was also killed in the crash. Yahaira had adored her father until she discovered his secret. She had been his champion chess player, competing and winning for him. But once she found out that he had another family in the Dominican Republic, she never forgave him. Now he is gone and it isn’t until they are preparing for his funeral that Yahaira and Camino discover that they are half-sisters born within months of one another.

Written in verse, this novel moves between the perspectives of Camino and Yahaira. The book begins with their father still alive and quickly moves to the crash and the shock of loss. The differences between their lives are stark with the poverty of the Dominican Republic clearly depicted as well as the dangers for teen girls. Still, it is also shown as a place of strong community, loving families, with bright colors, great food and warm welcomes.

Acevedo so clearly could have allowed the revelation of their shared father to be the defining moment of both of the girls’ lives. But she moves beyond it, creating a bond between these two teenagers that is powerful and haunting. It is not automatic, but steadily built as the trust grows between them, offering them both a way forward from the crash that they never anticipated.

Beautifully written, this is another marvel of a read from Acevedo. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Quill Tree Books.

Parachutes by Kelly Yang

Parachutes by Kelly Yang

Parachutes by Kelly Yang (9780062941084)

Claire and Dani could not be more different from one another. Claire comes from Chinese wealth in Shanghai. When her father decides that she should go to school in the United States, she is quickly moved to California and into Dani’s house. Dani lives there with just her mother. She attends the same school as Claire, but as a scholarship student. Dani loves to debate and enjoys the attention her debate coach shows her. As the two girls navigate high school in parallel but separate social spheres, they both encounter sexual harassment and assault. Both of them shut down, lose sight of themselves, and tell almost no one what has happened. But as they get angry and refuse to be silenced, the two discover that they may just be the person the other one has needed to be their champion.

Yang tells the story of Chinese parachute students who come to the United States for high school. Their experience is fascinating and unique. Sent to a foreign country alone as a teenager, often from very wealthy families, these teens must learn in a new language and figure out a different society. There is so much to envy here, from the clothing to the handbags to the cars. The expectations for someone like Claire are huge, the pressure form her family immense, and the situations very adult.

Against that wealth and shimmer, Dani’s story is set. She is Filipino, she and her mother work as cleaners in the large homes. She goes to school with wealthy kids, but is known as a scholarship student. She is bright and ferocious, defending her friends along the way. Yet when her teacher sexually harasses her, Dani loses her voice and must regain her passion and anger to find a way forward.

The pairing of these two different girls is phenomenal, their journeys linked but separate in many ways. Powerful, wrenching and insistent, this novel is a rallying cry. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.