Review: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo (9780062662835)

In her second novel, Acevedo cements her place as a master author for teen readers. Emoni’s life has not been easy, getting pregnant as a freshman in high school was not part of her plan. Now as a senior, her life is filled with work, caring for her daughter, and taking care of her Abuela. There is room too for her love of cooking, but not enough room for big dreams for her future. When a culinary class is offered for the first time at her school, Emoni hesitates to apply even though she longs to. The class includes a trip to Spain, which Emoni knows she will not be able to afford, nor could she leave her daughter or ask that of her grandmother. Still, she signs up for the class. It’s not easy, learning to not improvise in the kitchen but follow the rules and recipes. She can’t add the small touches that make her cooking magic. As Emoni opens herself up to new experiences, her life begins to open in other ways too, allowing herself to find romance and new connections.

In this novel, Acevedo gifts us with a story in prose where you can see her skill as a poet shining through often, taking words and making them dazzling. The fierceness of her first book is still here, with some of the short chapters taking on issues like racism and poverty. The entire work is such an incredible read. Emoni takes up a place in your heart and mind, insisting on being heard and believed.

The portrayal of a young mother who is ferociously caring and loving of her daughter, is something not seem often in our society. Emoni stands as a character speaking for women, a teen caring not only for her daughter but also standing alongside her grandmother as they care for one another. Throughout the book, there is a strong sense of community and extended family that are supportive of Emoni and her dreams.

A stellar and important read, let’s hope this one wins more awards and attention for Acevedo. Appropriate for ages 16-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperTeen.

Review: Carmela Full of Wishes by Matt de la Pena

Carmela Full of Wishes by Matt de la Pena

Carmela Full of Wishes by Matt de la Pena, illustrated by Christian Robinson (9780399549045)

When Carmela woke up on her birthday, she knew that she was finally old enough to accompany her older brother as he did the family errands. The two headed out into their bustling urban neighborhood, passing shops, a nursing home, and street vendors. Her big brother though wasn’t as happy to have his little sister tagging along. He ignores her as much as possible, even as she jingles her bracelets and tries to get his attention. When Carmela discovers a dandelion growing in the sidewalk, she learns about making a wish before blowing on it. After a tumble though, it is smashed on the ground. Her brother though knows just what to do to make it better.

De la Pena and Robinson are the two that created Last Stop on Market Street together. In this second book, they tell the gentle story of a young girl reaching an important milestone in her life. The story is complex, revealing that her father has been removed from their home because he didn’t have the right papers. The relationship between the siblings is deftly shown, the older sibling not having much patience until something bad happens. Then his care demonstrates clearly his love for his little sister and leads to a culminating moment in the book.

Robinson’s art is wonderful. Done in painted collage, the illustrations have a warmth to them that works particularly well in this tale. He excels at showing relationships in his art, in creating special moments. The Valentine-like cut paper pages that show Carmela’s possible wishes are beautiful moments on the page.

Another gorgeous and diverse picture book from two masters, this one belongs in every library. Appropriate for ages 3-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Carlos Santana: Sound of the Heart, Song of the World by Gary Golio

Carlos Santana Sound of the Heart, Song of the World by Gary Golio

Carlos Santana: Sound of the Heart, Song of the World by Gary Golio (9781627795128)

Carlos Santana was born into a musical family with a father who was a popular mariachi performer. Carlos started learning to read music at age five and to play the violin at age six. But his father is often gone, playing musical gigs around Mexico. His father sends money home to the family, and eventually Carlos’ mother decides to head to America with the children. Carlos earns money playing music for the tourists, but his heart isn’t in it. It isn’t until he hears American blues music for the first time that he discovers his own kind of music. Carlos tries to play with his father’s band but it does not go well. Eventually, his father realizes that his son needs a new instrument, one that goes with his own blend of Latin and blues.

Golio tells a story of Santana’s childhood, focusing on the impact that music had throughout his early days but also the importance of finding his own musical voice that is entirely unique. The relationship between father and son is a critical one in this picture book biography, resonating throughout Santana’s childhood. Golio tells a complex story and yet keeps it straightforward for a young audience.

The illustrations are done in mixed media of torn paper, acrylics and printed inks. They are layered and deep, the colors swirling on the page. The faces of the various family members and Santana are particularly arresting. The art has a great vibrancy and a feel of freedom around it.

A great pick for libraries looking for quality biographies of musicians. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy provided by Henry Holt & Co.

 

 

Review: Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina (9780763690496)

Merci’s life starts to really change during sixth grade. She doesn’t fit in at her private school with the other kids, mostly because she is a scholarship student. Her brother Roli seems to be able to fit in naturally thanks to his love of science. As part of her community service for the school, Merci is a Sunshine Buddy. When she is paired with a boy to guide around school, Merci is shocked but opinionated Edna is bothered by how much time and contact Merci now has with the new cute and popular boy. Meanwhile, Merci’s grandfather is struggling. He has started to forget things, calls people by the wrong name, can’t ride a bike anymore and get angry over small things. Other times, he is just as he has always been, immensely patient and loving. Middle school is always a confusing time, but Merci has a lot more to deal with than other kids. Can she navigate family and school without losing who she is?

Medina has created an engaging middle-grade novel that grapples with several big topics. There is a theme of bullying at school, particularly because of differences in social status and culture. At the same time, readers will notice long before Merci does that she is deeply liked by many of her classmates and forms connections with ease as long as she is herself. There is her grandfather’s Alzheimer symptoms, something that Merci tries to figure out but is not told directly about until late in the novel. Her confusion and concerns turn to anger when she discovers that she is being treated like a child and not included in knowing about the diagnosis.

Throughout the novel, Merci is a strong character who has a lot more going for her than she realizes. Bringing people into her life and allowing her family and school life to become one is a skillful way to show that being ashamed of one’s family is actually not the solution. Merci takes the novel to figure things out, a steady and organic evolution for her character, a character that young readers will relate to easily.

A winning middle-grade novel that is part of #ownvoices, this is a must-read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.

Review: Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson (9780399252525)

Released August 28, 2018.

In her first middle-grade novel since her award-winning Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson speaks to the greatest challenges of our society through the viewpoints of six children. When their teacher creates a special time every Friday for six of her students to spend time together with no expectations and no adults, a safe space is created. It’s a space where Esteban can share that his father has been picked up and taken for deportation. It’s a space where Amari can talk about racial profiling with his best friend who happens to be white. Haley records their conversations, capturing them all so that they can remember this time. But she too has a secret to share, if she is brave enough to tell the truth.

Woodson writes with such ease, digging deeply into the emotional state of these young people as they share their stories with one another. She shows the United States through their eyes. It’s a place of opportunity worth risking your life and family to come to, but it’s also a place of immense danger. People are deported, families separated, and others are shot. Woodson captures all of this through the eyes of Haley, a girl who lives with her own secret. Through Haley, the story of children visiting parents in prison and eventually reunited with them is told in all of its mixed emotions.

Each of the children in the story is so very different that they can never be confused with one another. Woodson gives each a distinct voice and set of opinions, shares their stories. They are presented as full human beings with histories, families and struggles uniquely their own. Woodson also offers here a voice for children who are not great at school for one reason or another.

A book that celebrates diversity and asks deep questions about our modern society, this is a novel that so many children will see themselves reflected in and others will learn something from. Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Nancy Paulsen Books.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (9780062662804)

Released March 6, 2018.

Xiomara feels completely unheard and smothered by her mother’s high expectations, particularly those around church and confirmation. She knows how to use her fists to settle arguments, often coming to the defense of her twin brother. She ignores the lewd glances of the men around her who react to her curves far too often. Xiomara’s mother refuses to allow her to date, so when she catches her daughter kissing someone, there are real consequences. Still, Xiomara continues to find her voice. She asks questions at confirmation and eventually joins the school’s poetry club. Xiomara’s passion for words, slam poetry and speaking out won’t stay hidden from her mother for much longer.

Written by a famed slam poet, this book is ferociously written, taking life and putting it on the page with an honesty that almost hurts. The entire verse novel is beautifully written and each poem is a study in how to capture a moment in time with clarity. There are some poems that shine, the anger burning so brightly that they can’t be ignored. They beg to be read aloud into a microphone.

Xiomara’s character is complex and amazing. She is a girl just finding her voice, emerging from the huge shadow her mother has cast and finding her own way forward. She is a mix of sensuality, verse and anger that is completely intoxicating.

One of the best verse novels I have ever read, this one deserves a standing ovation. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and HarperTeen.

 

4 Picture Books Celebrating Hispanic Heritage

All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle

All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Mike Curato (9781627796422)

A boy and his family are heading to a birthday party for a newborn baby. But first they have to get their old car to run. The car, like many in Cuba, is very old and has been repaired again and again. Papa opens the hood and the boy helps hand him tools to get the engine chattering again. The road is bumpy and the car is crowded with neighbors who also needed a ride that day. As they get to Havana, the countryside transitions into an urban world, filled with other old cars, bicycles and people walking. After the party, the family heads back in the car in the darkness.

Engle’s skill with writing fills the page with the richness of Cuba and its cars. She spends time looking at the engine and letting the child help. There is a feeling of joy upon entering Havana and a wonder about it as well. The illustrations also feel that way, the text and illustrations slowing together as Havana comes into sight and is entered. A great pick for car fans and diversity. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

La Princesa and the Pea by Susan Middleton Elya

La Princesa and the Pea by Susan Middleton Elya, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal (9780399251566)

A Peruvian twist on the classic fairy tale of The Princess and the Pea, this picture book incorporates Spanish words into the story. El principe wanted a wife but his mother was very selective. When a maiden riding past caught the prince’s eye, his mother devised a sneaky test of a pea and a pile of mattresses. But this twist on the tale has one additional surprise for readers familiar with the tale: a prince with a mind of his own! The text of this book is simple and filled with touches of Spanish that keep the book firmly grounded in Peru. The illustrations do the same with traditional outfits and bright colors that blaze against the subtle backgrounds. A great pick to share with children who will love the twist at the end. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (ARC provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.)

Sing Don_t Cry by Angela Dominguez

Sing Don’t Cry by Angela Dominguez (9781627798396)

Two children are visited once a year by their grandfather from Mexico. He brings his guitar and shares songs with them every night. He encourages his grandchildren to sing even if they feel sad. When he was a child and had to find a new country to live in, music helped him. The power of music to change your mood and to draw new people and opportunities to you is explained very simply here. Preschoolers will understand the draw of music and will enjoy the direct message of using music as a way to change. Inspired by the author’s own grandfather, this picture book is a celebration of music and grandparents. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Yo Soy, Muslim by Mark Gonzales

Yo Soy, Muslim: A Father’s Letter to His Daughter by Mark Gonzales, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini (9781481489362)

Crafted as a letter from a father to his daughter, this picture book sings with love. The poetic language of the text soars celebrating their identity as Muslims and Indigenous people who speak both Spanish and Arabic. The book focuses on positivity but also addresses the fact that some people will be unkind, not smile or ask pointed questions. The book then returns to celebrating identity and diversity, strengthening the message of pride. The illustrations are filled with deep colors, natural scenes and a playfulness that heightens the book. An underlying folklore quality to them ties the images to heritage. A great diverse picture book for all libraries. Appropriate for ages 3-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Allie, First at Last by Angela Cervantes

Allie First at Last by Angela Cervantes

Allie, First at Last by Angela Cervantes

Released March 29, 2016.

Allie has never won anything in her life. Her entire family though has a shelf of trophies. Her older sister is a national debate champion. Her brother is a star soccer player. Even her little sister is a rising star as an actress. Allie is almost certain she is going to win the science fair, but it ends up a disaster instead of a win. That’s thanks to “help” from Victor, a new boy at school. When another opportunity to win an award comes up, Allie knows that she has to try hard. She decides to do a photo essay on her great-grandfather who is a decorated World War II veteran. But her ex-best friend who won at the science fair has also decided to use Allie’s grandfather as the subject of her entry. When is it going to be Allie’s turn to shine?

This is a very accessible book, written with a light hand and a friendly tone. That lightness allows this book to deal with deeper truths without getting caught up in darkness. It is a book that speaks to the importance of doing well, healthy competitiveness and the pleasure of a job well done. It also looks deeply at how that healthy competition can twist and become something that is no longer positive in one’s life. Allie’s entire family tries to teach her this in different ways, some by being more competitive and others speaking to her intrinsic worth whether she has trophies or not.

While Allie was a great protagonist, two secondary characters really stand out in this book. First is Victor, a boy who is from a poor family and someone that Allie assumes is being tutored. It turns out that Victor is incredibly smart and is doing the tutoring. Victor though is less concerned with acclaim than with his future. Allie’s great-grandfather is another amazing character. He offers sage advice and a point of view that is particularly filled with grace and compassion. The fact that almost all of the characters in the novel are Hispanic and offer a wide array of points of view about life makes this book all the more winning.

A charming story with strong characters and a clear message that winning is not everything. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.

Review: Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle

Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle (InfoSoup)

Released August 4, 2015.

In this verse memoir, Engle tells the story of her childhood during the Cold War. With half of her family coming from Cuba and a grandmother who still lived there, Engle had a strong connection to Cuba. It was there that as a child she found herself, connected to the island culture and lifestyle, ran wild in nature, and discovered a quieter life. It contrasted with her life in Los Angeles, filled with bustle and crowded with people. Through both of these distinct worlds, she has a constant, her love of books and words. As the Bay of Pigs escalates, Engle fears for her island family and has to deal with the increased hatred of Cuba and Cubans in America. Cut off from family with the Cuban embargo, Engle can do little to help and again turns to her words to express herself.

Engle is one of the best verse novelists working today. While all of her previous books are splendid, this one is personal in a new way, one that offers up her heart. She shows her love of Cuba so vividly and so profoundly that her connection there runs through the entire novel. At the same time, she also shares the loneliness of a girl who likes books and words and who struggles to make friends at times. Add to that the political turmoil that has continued for decades and you have a book that could have been a tragedy but instead rises beyond that and straight into hope.

As always, Engle’s verse is exceptional. She captures emotions with a clarity in her verse that makes it immensely compelling to read. There are poems that show a pig being slaughtered on the farm in Cuba that makes it sound both brutal and delicious, the perfect mix of tempting and revolting. There are poems that capture the night sounds of Cuba and the longing for a horse of her own. They show the beauty of milking cows, the strength of a hard-working hand, the joy of connecting with a horse as you ride it. It all melts together into a picture of Cuba that is both personal and universal.

Give this to children who loved Brown Girl Dreaming for another verse memoir that is sure to inspire young readers to see the world in a more diverse and brilliant way. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.