Free Lunch by Rex Ogle (9781324003601)
Rex is starting sixth grade hungry and with a black eye. At school, he has an English teacher who dislikes him on sight. He isn’t in any classes with his best friends either, since he is in high level ones that they make fun of. He also is on free lunch, which he has to announce to a school worker every day. His home life though is even worse. Living with almost no furniture, no bed, and with a mother who is verbally and physically abusive, Rex struggles to find any moments of safety. His mother’s boyfriend beats her up regularly, something that Rex feels responsible for as well as helpless to stop. Still, this book does have hope that things can improve and change, but there is no magic bullet out of poverty and abuse.
Ogle writes of his own childhood in this very personal book. He doesn’t shrink away from any of the tough subjects, showing the layers of anger and abuse that a family can have, the variety of triggers and the inability to make it stop. He writes of a grandmother who served as a place of hope and refuge, but also was a person who angered his mother. Ogle tells of hunger in a way that only someone who has experienced it can speak of it, hunger for food but also hunger for love and understanding in his family.
There is a rawness to Ogle’s writing, an honesty that shines on the page. His weaving in of hope makes reading this book possible, not leaving the reader to languish in the haunting and horrible world he writes of. That hope is vital for the character of Rex too, it keeps him making new friends, finding a way forward, and being willing to change himself to make his family better.
Profoundly honest and full of heart, this book is one that all teachers and librarians need to read to understand the children they serve. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Norton Young Readers.
Guts by Raina Telgemeier (9780545852517)
This is the third book in Telgemeier’s autobiographical series that started with Smile and Sisters. Raina has an upset stomach one night and throws up, but her mother has the same problem, so it’s most likely a stomach bug. But with Raina, the stomach ache doesn’t go away. She is a quiet, self-conscious and shy girl dealing with the ins and outs of school and friendships. As Raina starts to grow anxious about vomiting, eating the wrong foods, and general things in life, her stomach gets worse. Once she starts seeing a therapist, she learns techniques to help her cope with her panic and help her face her fears.
It’s great to see Telgemeier return to stories of her own life. Her storytelling is strong and vivid with a story arc that reveals the impact of anxiety on a child’s life but also offers an empowering view of how to move forward and regain control. Her sense of humor is also on display here even about her own anxieties. As always, her art is approachable and inviting.
Expect even more Raina fans after this third book in the series! Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.
At the Mountain’s Base by Traci Sorrell, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (9780735230606)
In a cozy cabin under a hickory tree, a grandma sits and weaves. She also worries. Her family gathers around her, singing. Their song tells of a woman in a battle, flying in a plane, protecting and defending. Their song sings of a dream of peace too. The family gathers together, wishing for her return. Told in the beautiful simplicity of a single poem, the words and the weaving work together to create something very special.
By the author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, this book focuses on a fictional Cherokee family and is inspired by Native women who served in past wars and continue to serve in the military today. The Author’s Note tells of one Native woman who helped train male student pilots, risking her own life as she did so. She served as a cargo pilot during World War II and also as an air traffic controller during the Korean War.
The illustrations of this picture book truly weave the story together. Thread and yarn appear as borders to the images, linking and looping them together. The Native family and the pilot are shown as strong women full of love for one another.
An important tale of female Native soldiers and the families who wait for their return. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Kokila.
Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai (9780062229236)
Hang has lived with the fact that she was responsible for her little brother being taken away to American in the last days of the Vietnam War. She had hoped for them both to be taken together, but instead he was ripped screaming from her. Now, six years later, Hang has come to the United States herself and is determined to find her little brother by following the only clue she has, an address on a card. Not finding anyone at the address, Hang is helped by an urban cowboy, LeeRoy, who longs to ride in rodeos and follow his dreams. LeeRoy is quickly caught up in Hang’s quest and the two of them discover her brother with some lucky help along the way. But that is just the beginning of a summer spent laboring on a farm together, learning about the work of being a cowboy, and finding ways to connect their pasts and their present.
The first chapters of the this book and many of them throughout are so laced with pain and ache that readers will feel it in their own bones. Lai tells the story of Hang in bursts of memory, escaping from the tight hold Hang has over them. The reader and Hang are powerless as the searing memories escape, glimpses of the truth and eventually the full story of a girl strong enough to survive pirates, parasites, icy water, and war. Lai takes two very unlikely protagonists and creates a love story for them, one that captivates with its honesty and originality.
Hang is one of the most remarkable protagonists I have read in years. Far from being broken by her wartime trauma, she continues to fight back, literally at times. She is raw, sarcastic and not defined by her past, but still continuing to be haunted by what happened. She is complicated and so profoundly human. Lai made a brave and smart choice to write Hang’s accented English with Vietnamese typography, echoing Hang’s own notebook that tells her own English is pronounced. Readers will struggle along with Hang at first, but join LeeRoy in understanding her quickly.
Painful and traumatic, this book is filled with sweat, work and more than a little love. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperCollins.
A Slip of a Girl by Patricia Reilly Giff (9780823439553)
This verse novel tells the story of a girl surviving the Irish Land Wars between the English landowners and the Irish tenant farmers. Anna has grown up on their family farm, but their family struggles to make the required payments to stay. Around her, she sees other families being forced from their homes, the houses themselves knocked down to prevent them from staying. After her mother dies, Anna and her father sometimes have to poach fish to keep the family fed. Their potatoes are not thriving either due to too much rain. When an encounter with the English Lord’s rent collector turns violent, Anna and her father are arrested. Anna manages to escape, taking her baby sister with her to find her aunt in a distant town. Anna must draw on her own resilience and courage to save her entire family.
Giff’s verse is well-written and evocative. She brings the world of Ireland after the Great Famine to life. Giff stresses the dire problems facing the Irish farmers as they struggle to make enough from their farms to feed their families much less pay the landlord. By showing Anna as a member of a larger community, Giff is also able to show the various results of not paying rent. The use of historical photos is key, because one can hardly believe that they would use a battering ram to decimate a home rather than let it stand. The brutality of that act among others shows the merciless nature of the situation in rural Ireland in the 1890’s.
Anna herself is a dynamic heroine. Desperate to learn to read, she meets with the local school teacher in the evenings, reading the book she found outside as well as his books. She never sits idly by, always helping her family and trying to improve their lot. She even joins in with the Irish protests to secure their own land, another act of bravery and defiance.
A strong historical verse novel with a great Irish heroine. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Holiday House.
Dig by A. S. King (9781101994917)
Meet five teenagers who either barely know one another or don’t know each other at all, but all are from the same broken family. It’s a family where the roots run deep into potato farming and racism. It’s a family broken by high expectations, greed, and an inability to connect. Each of the teens carries their own moniker other than their first name. There is the Freak, a girl who can flicker from one place in the world to another. The Shoveler is a boy with big secrets to tell. CanIHelpYou? works at a drive through, selling more than burgers and fries to her customers. Loretta the Flea-Circus Ring Mistress lives in a family of violence and hunger, but has her own flea circus at least. First-Class Malcolm lives with his father who is dying of cancer and jets back and forth to Jamaica. Each teen carries so much weight, so much dirt with them, and yet there is hope if they can just dig deep.
I won’t lie, this is one tough book. King wrestles with the issues, choices and lives faced by teens in the modern world. They are lives embittered by racism, poverty, drugs, violence, and lies. Still, as the reader gets to know each teen, there is grace beneath all of these layers of family crap and expectations. There is responsibility too, responsibility to be different than the previous generation and make better choices for themselves and their families.
I also won’t lie about the fact that this is a very important book. It looks at racism with an eye towards white people taking responsibility for their history, for their current state, for making assumptions, relying on friends of color for cover, and for not being allies in a real way. It lays all of that bare, insisting that the characters and readers take action in their lives to remedy things, to speak of the unspoken, to insist on change happening. So this tough read is filled just enough light through the muck of life.
A great teen novel full of depth with a strong voice and a definitely point of view. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
A Visit to Grandad: An African ABC by Sade Fadipe, illustrated by Shedrach Ayalomeh (9781911115816)
On an alphabet adventure, Adanah heads out to visit her grandfather in Modakeke, Nigeria. The book starts in school with Adanah heading on break. She packs her bags and camera. Her Dad drives her to her grandad’s house out in the country with lots of animals around. The two of them spend time together, having lunch that is invaded by insects, drinking juice, and cleaning the kitchen. At night, Adanah sleeps under a mosquito net. Water is fetched in kegs, more work and cooking is done, and stories are told in the evening. Finally, Mom is there to take Adanah back home to share her adventures with her little sister, Zainab.
This alphabet book works really well as it shows life in modern Nigeria. It is that exploration of Nigeria that really shines in this book, allowing readers to see a fascinating mix of modern and traditional parts. The strong structure of the alphabet helps keep the book focused and while X will always be for something like xylophone almost none of the other letters are a stretch at all. The text feels free and unforced, which is impressive in this sort of book.
The art is bright and fresh, filling the pages with color and glimpses of home life and the landscape. On each page, there are other items that start with that same letter of the alphabet. The art is structured so well though, that it is easy to miss that these elements are even there until you are encouraged to look for them at the end of the book.
An alphabet picture book focused on family and Africa. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Cassava Republic Press.
My Grandma and Me by Mina Javaherbin, illustrated by Lindsey Yankey (9780763694944)
The author tells the story of growing up in Iran at her grandmother’s side. Mina followed her grandmother everywhere. She woke with her at dawn when they prayed together. They bought bread from the delivery boy every morning by lowering baskets from their third-floor window. Mina’s best friend lived next door and their grandmothers were best friends too. The grandmothers prayed for one another to go to heaven at their respective mosque and church. Mina’s grandmother sewed all of her own chadors which Mina used to create a rocket ship when she draped them over the table. When her grandmother fasted for Ramadan, Mina was too little to fast for an entire day. So she joined her grandmother in eating at dawn and then after dusk too in addition to her regular meals. The love the two have for one another shines in this picture book.
Javaherbin opens the world of Iran to readers in the United States. Her memories of spending time with her grandmother are filled with moments of real connection, of quality time spent together side-by-side, of support and of true adoration for one another. The moments are beautifully small and everyday, showing how love is built throughout our lives, not in grand gestures but in the smallest ones.
The illustrations by Yankey are done in mixed media. They incorporate textiles and patterns. The warm glow on every page invites readers into a loving home. The illustrations are delicate and filled with details.
A beautiful look at the love of grandmother and grandchild. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.
Once Upon a Goat by Dan Richards, illustrated by Eric Barclay (9781524773748)
A very naive king and queen tell their fairy godmother that they want to start a family. They’d like a child that they can place either on the hearth next to a vase or out in the garden by the roses. They say that a boy would be great, but “any kid will do.” So at the next full moon, they open their castle door to discover a baby goat on their doorstep. They reluctantly bring the goat into their perfectly designed home where it immediately starts eating things, butting statues, and even pooping on the floor. When they remove the goat to the garden though, they eventually rush out on a rainy night to rescue it and bring it back home. They think it is only for one night, but soon the goat has lived with them for months. When the fairy godmother returns though, she is surprised about the goat and realizes that a mistake has been made! When the human child is discovered living with a goat family, she abruptly moves the children back to their biological parents. However, families aren’t quite that simple.
This fractured fairytale sets up the scene very quickly and the entire story moves at a wonderful pace. The text is simple and carries the story well, offering just enough detail to create plenty of humor. The chaos of a goat in their perfect lives is just right, eating everything in sight and destroying plenty of the rest. It’s a great metaphor for any new child entering a home and the destruction of the ideal plans that have been made. The resolution of the confusion of the child and kid is very satisfying and will have readers cheering along.
The illustrations by Barclay are wonderfully detailed and rich. He uses a nice mix of simple scenes and then more elaborate ones with some images having elaborate borders and others showing the splendor of the castle. The mix is very successful, always paying attention to leaving enough white space for the eye.
Let’s not kid around, this is a great picture book. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Knopf Books for Young Readers.