Private Lessons by Cynthia Salaysay (9781536209600)
Claire started to play the piano when her father got sick. Now after his death, it is a connection to his memory. As Claire longs to go to a school for music, she auditions to become a student of Paul Avon, a well-known and respected piano teacher in San Francisco. Her traditional Filipino mother is uncertain, but is soon charmed by Paul and manages to cover the cost of the lessons. Claire is soon practicing constantly, trying to get Paul’s approval for her playing and reach the emotional center of each piece of music. She participates in competitions and places well, but it never seems like quite enough. As Paul’s moods get more sour, he leaves Claire to watch his house while he goes on tour. When he returns though, Claire’s fantasies about playing for him and finally gaining his approval don’t work out and things turn sexual and sour between them.
Salaysay’s book is unusual and fascinating. She captures the drive and perfectionism of being a pianist who competes. She also shows the steady grooming and isolation of a young woman who is invited to the outskirts of adulthood and abused. At the same time, Salaysay also shows that sex has meaning and is nothing to be ashamed of, unless it is abusive or rape. This delicate line is kept pure throughout the book, as Claire learns about herself and what one event can do.
Salaysay’s writing is exquisite. Readers will at first be on alert about Paul and his approach, but soon will settle in just as Claire does as her playing improves. Yet throughout there are multiple points of tension for Claire and the reader. There is Claire’s falling out with her best friend, fighting with her mother, traveling to the city, and steadily becoming someone else. Yet when she is wounded and hurt, it is those same people she left behind who are there for her and help label what happened to her.
A symphony of a book, this novel encompasses music, race, sexuality and assault. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick.
Madame Badobedah by Sophie Dahl, illustrated by Lauren O’Hara (9781536210224)
Mabel lives at the Mermaid Hotel near the sea where she goes on many adventures without shoes. When a strange new guest arrives at the hotel, Mabel becomes a spy to try to figure out the story of the woman she dubs Madame Badobedah. The lady comes with her pet tortoise and lots of bags and trunks that could be filled with anything, including stolen treasure. After watching her for awhile, Mabel decides that the woman must be a supervillian who is hiding out at Mermaid Hotel. When Mabel’s spy cover is blown, Madame Badobedah invites her into her room for tea. Soon the two are traveling on imaginary adventures together that feature pirates and mermaids, a partnership of young and old.
This picture book has more text than many, but please don’t let that stop you! Dahl’s writing is sharp and witty, offering exactly the right amount of detail to conjure up the hotel fully and craft interesting characters who are fully realized. Told in Mabel’s voice, the book has the feel of a vintage book but with a modern sensibility as well. Filled with creativity and imagination, the stories Mabel conjures are fascinating and the journeys the two kindred spirits share are marvelous.
The illustrations by O’Hara capture the vivid red hair of Madame Badobedah, the wonders of the hotel, and intrepid Mabel on her many adventures. Real life swirls effectively with the imaginary worlds on the page in both text and illustrations.
An adventure worth taking with two great partners. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy provided by Walker Books.
Ways to Make Sunshine by Renee Watson (9781547600564)
Even though her father got a new job, Ryan and her family have had to move into a smaller and older house because money is still a problem. Ryan though is able to see the positive in most things, though maybe not her brother some days. She loves to cook, coming up with unique combinations to make good food even better. One thing she struggles with is public speaking, like on Easter where no matter how much she practices her part, she can’t manage to say it into the microphone in front of the congregation. Maybe this is the year? So when Ryan’s class is working on a talent show, Ryan has to figure out how to turn her passions into performance. She is also navigating changing friendships and mean girls who seem intent on pushing her to the side. Ryan may not want the spotlight, but she does bring sunshine wherever she goes.
Watson, winner of a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Author Award, has created a book for young readers that offers a modern look at being an African-American girl in Portland. The city is tied into the story very successfully, drawing people to beloved places to taste and explore along with Ryan. While the title is full of optimism, the book looks at important issues for elementary-aged children such as race, acceptance, self-esteem, and friendships.
Ryan isn’t a Pollyanna character, rather she is a girl who has resilience and optimism. She is distinctly her own person and Black girls will see themselves as she navigates the many changes in her life. She is smart, creative and positive.
A rival to Ramona, get this one in the hands of young readers. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.
Rick by Alex Gino (9781338048100)
The author of award-winning George returns with another story that explores identity and what it takes to be a good friend. Rick’s best friend Jeff is someone that makes rude comments, makes others the butt of his jokes, but is still pretty nice to Rick most of the time. Now that they are in middle school, Rick is noticing new opportunities. He is drawn to the school’s Rainbow Spectrum club and lies to Jeff about where he is going once a week. In the club, Rick discovers a space where everyone is welcome and accepted. He also learns a name for his own identity which lets him realize that there is nothing wrong with him. As he makes new friends in the club, Jeff starts to target their posters for his bullying and hate. It’s up to Rick to decide if he can stand up to Jeff, his best friend, or if he will continue to stand by and stay silent.
Gino’s writing is a delightful mix of depth and lightness. They keep their tone light throughout the book and yet explore deep subjects of bullying and identity. Gino incorporates so many different characters who identify as part of the LGBTQIAP+ community. It is lovely to see so many different representations in one book, while insisting on using inclusive terms and respect for everyone’s identity. There is even the surprise of Rick’s own grandfather and how he identifies himself, deftly showing that this community has existed for some time.
Rick is a great protagonist, exploring his own identity as someone who doesn’t relate to others falling for girls or boys that they have never really met. He explores the possibility of being asexual or ace, demonstrating on the page what questioning looks like.
Another winner of a rainbow book from a great middle-grade author. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.
The Society of Distinguished Lemmings by Julie Colombet (9781682631560)
The lemming society had a lot of rules to follow in order to belong. In their warren of tunnels, there was no wild behavior, no growling, no rolling and no mud. Lemmings also had to walk on their hind legs and use utensils to eat. But Bertie got tired of all of the rules, the fine dining, the musical performances and the noise, so he headed up to the surface. When he got outside, he met a bear! After trying to get the bear to act like a lemming, Bertie tried the things the bear wanted to do. With the bear’s help, Bertie started to realize that he actually enjoyed things like rolling in the flowers, climbing trees and jumping in puddles. When Bertie is gone too long, all of the other lemmings come outside too. They try to change the bear and make him eligible to join the lemming society, but he doesn’t conform well to their rules. Eventually, they dismiss him to make their new plans and are off on a vacation as a group. When they are gone, Bertie realizes that they are headed for their doom! Perhaps a big bear could save them all?
The fussy and particular Society of Distinguished Lemmings is depicted here with plenty of peculiarities, a list of their rules, and other odd things that they insist upon. The fussiness and high expectations add up to a very stifling but also funny lemming existence. The introduction of Bertie and his quest for a new friend and a new way of life is refreshing. A bear is just the right creature to be a little bit dirty and very active. The contrast between lemmings and the bear could not be clearer or done with more merriment.
The illustrations are cleverly done with plenty of details about the lemming society revealed through the images themselves. There are lots of little asides in the illustrations through speech bubbles that add to the whimsical nature of the rule-following lemmings.
A funny look at breaking the rules, making new friends and finding oneself. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Peachtree Publishing.
My Best Friend by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki (9781534427228)
A little girl talks about her new friend, who just might also be her best friend too. The two of them play together at the park, quacking like ducks, running around, and even siting quietly. Her friend knows how to turn leaves into skeleton hands and fix flowers that have been stepped on, kind of. The two draw together, and the little girl realizes they might just be best friends. They hide together during hide and seek, trying to muffle their giggles. When the little girl pretends to be a pickle, her friend laughed and laughed. They may like different kinds of ice cream, but they can still be best friends. Perhaps tomorrow they can learn each other’s names!
Fogliano perfectly captures the wonder of meeting a kindred spirit as a child and spending an entire day together laughing and playing. Her writing shows all of their shared activities and how they help the two girls bond closely together, despite just having met. Silly things like pretending to be a pickle serve to prove they have the same sense of humor, so that taste in ice cream flavors can be ignored. The ending of the book is clever and sets just the right moment, showing deep understanding of children.
Tamaki’s illustrations are marvelous. She shows the two girls playing and laughing together. They are done in a modern limited color palette of pinks, greens and browns that show the girls in fine-lined detail with very expressive faces. It’s like getting to play along with them yourself.
A warm look at first friendships. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Efren Divided by Ernesto Cisneros (9780062881687)
Efren’s family works hard all day to provide for him and his younger twin siblings, Mia and Max. Efren’s mother, Ama, really holds the family together, creating delicious meals from leftovers every day. He thinks of her as “Soperwoman” because of the delicious sopes she makes. When Ama is seized by ICE and deported, it falls to Efren to watch his younger siblings, getting them ready in the morning, to bed at night, and trying to distract them from missing Ama. Efren’s father is working two jobs and not sleeping at all, just to send money to his mother in order to get her back into the U.S. As Efren’s school work and friendships start to suffer from the pressure he is under and his worry for his entire family, he looks for ways to make sure that his little brother and sister still feel loved, the way his mother would want them to.
Cisneros has created an ownvoices novel for middle graders that grapples with the state of immigration in the United States. The book is timely, speaking directly to situations that children across our country face every day if their parents are undocumented. The level of fear and dread that ICE has for these families, the danger of being deported, and the risks of returning to their families is all captured here,
Efren is a marvelous protagonist. He is smart and has a huge heart as well as an astounding amount of patience towards his little brother and sister. Living in real poverty, his only wish is for his family to be whole, not for a phone, a bigger TV or anything but having his mother back.
A gripping and rich look at the impact of current immigration policies on children of undocumented families. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperCollins.
Cherry Blossom and Paper Planes by Jef Aerts & Sanne te Loo (9781782505617)
Adin and Dina lived on the same farm. The two of them spent long days together picking cherries on the farm and climbing high in the cherry trees. They ate the cherries and kept the pits, planting them around town in the hopes that trees would grow. But then one day, Adin’s family decided to move to the city. Adin moved to an apartment building, far from any cherry trees. Dina gave him a bag of cherry pits to take with him. He spent time creating paper airplanes, loading them with pits and launching them off his balcony. Dina did get to visit once during their year apart. The two of them quickly fell back into being close friends. When spring came, the cherry pits were gone but a path of blooming trees led right back to the farm from the city. A path that just had to be followed.
This Dutch import has a lovely quiet to it. From the quiet friendship spent together in trees eating cherries to the quiet of loneliness for a close friend, all are captured on these pages. The emotions of a friend leaving are captured beautifully too as is the lasting connection between people and places. The writing is superb, celebrating cherries and trees and steadily building to that moment in spring when trees burst into bloom.
The art of this picture book celebrates the countryside and nature. The book captures the seasons with different colors and silhouettes of the trees. The rich green of summer turns to the browns of autumn to the whites of winter and then to a vibrant light green of spring that reaches to the city with its illumination on the page.
A lovely look at a cherry of a friendship. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Floris Books.
In a Jar by Deborah Marcero (9780525514596)
Llewellyn was a rabbit who loved to collect things in jars. He collected small things from his days like bright yellow leaves in the autumn which would remind him of what he had done and seen. One night when the sunset turned the sky “the color of tart cherry syrup,” Llewellyn went down to the shore with a lot of jars. He gathered the light of the night into his jars and gave one to a girl who came by. Evelyn was amazed to find that the in the jar glowed all night long the color of sunsets. Soon the two of them were gathering all sorts of things in jars like rainbows, the sound of the ocean, and even entire seasons. Their collection got very large, until one day Evelyn’s family moved away. For some time, Llewellyn felt like an empty jar but then he had an idea. He went out one night and collected a meteor shower in a jar and sent it to Evelyn. In turn, she collected the sounds and lights of the big city she now lived in and sent it to Llewellyn. Llewellyn set out on an autumn day to gather a jar for Evelyn and that’s when he met Max, and Llewellyn happened to have a jar for him too.
Marcero sets the tone for this book right from the first page. You simply know that something amazing and magical is about to happen. She does this with simple words that children will easily follow and then also throws in lines like the sky the color of “tart cherry syrup” and “the wind just before snow falls.” Each of these lines creates a beautiful image and moment for the reader, indicating that something special is happening. This continues through the book, reminding readers that it is these moments that make life magical, whether you can bottle them or not.
The art here is tremendously gorgeous. Marcero creates pages of meteor showers, sunsets filled with birds soaring, and entire seasons on two pages that are filled with moments of wonder and amazement, and yet that are also moments we could all have and share. There’s a beautiful tension between the beauty on the page and also the normalcy of it all.
A picture book that shows everyone that these magical moments are there for us all to collect and share. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.