Loretta Little Looks Back by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Cover image of Loretta Little Looks Back

Loretta Little Looks Back by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (9780316536776)

This novel offers first-person monologues from three generations of a Black family from Mississippi. They are a sharecropper family, caught in the aftermath of slavery and the cycle of poverty that resulted. Starting in 1927, Loretta tells the story of growing up picking cotton on land her family did not own. Her loving father died from exposure to the pesticides they sprayed in the fields. He gave her sapphire socks made with his own hands and she placed her other most valuable possession inside them, a marble that glowed like the sun. Loretta found Roly left outside as an infant. He grew into a boy who had a way with plants and animals. When the family got their own plot of land, they were attacked at night by someone who brutalized their animals, killing most of them, and poisoned their land. Roly slept out in the fields, hoping to draw the poison out and return the land to fertility. Then he caught the eye of Tess, a girl who he eventually married and had a daughter with. Aggie was that daughter, a girl who would not back down, much as her father would not make a hasty decision. Aggie fought for the right to vote even when she was not old enough to. She and Loretta worked together to pass the racist voting test and then to pay the toll tax. Beaten by police, Aggie finds comfort in the sapphire socks and the glow of the marble passed down to her. Just like the others in her family, she never stopped and never gave up.

Told in three distinct voices that speak directly to the reader, this novel takes a direct look at the systemic racism that has created such privilege for some and injustice for others. The use of monologues is brilliant, as the voices come through to the reader with real clarity, each speaking from their personal experience and from history. There is a sense of theater to the entire novel, helped by the introduction to each chapter that give stage directions and offers a visualization of how this would appear on stage. Often these are haunting images, transformative and full of magical realism.

The three characters are marvelously individual, each with their own approach to life, each facing daunting challenges and each ready to take those on, though in their own way. It is telling that as each new generation entered to become the new main narrator, I felt a sense of loss as the other moved off stage, since each was such a compelling character and each had more to share. I was pleased to see they stayed as part of one another’s stories all the way to the end of the novel.

Incredible writing, important civil right history, and a brilliant cast of characters make this novel glow. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

A Long Road on a Short Day by Gary D. Schmidt

Cover image for A Long Road on a Short Day

A Long Road on a Short Day by Gary D. Schmidt, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin (9780544888364)

One January morning, Samuel’s mother mentioned that she wished they had a cow. His father smiled, took his best knife, and invited Samuel to come along to find a cow for his mother. So the two headed out into the cold and snow. At the Snow’s place, they traded the knife for two tin lanterns. Samuel got to play with their dog a bit too. At the Perry’s house they traded the lanterns for a book of poetry. Samuel got to visit some kittens in the barn and got a doughnut too. They traded the book to Widow Mitchell for a pitcher, then the pitcher for a sheep when Dr. Fulton went by. At the general store, the sheep was traded for a pocket watch after Samuel struggled to get it into the pen. He was glad they weren’t keeping the sheep! The pocket watch was traded for a pony and cart. With the storm brewing and night coming on, they almost stopped, but decided to keep trying for a cow. Soon Samuel was picking out a cow in trade for the pony and cart, and he got to choose something else besides!

Schmidt fills this simple story of trading with neighbors with so many small details that the entire small community is populated with characters. Each has a reason for needing to make the trade and often a treat for Samuel along the way. While the road is long and cold, it is also filled with a merry sense of community and shared responsibility. When Samuel makes the hard choice to not keep the little pony and cart, he is rewarded with more than a stubborn sheep for his sacrifice.

Yelchin’s illustrations are done in full-color in this chapter book. They show Samuel meeting each animal along his travels, each animal (except the sheep) one that he longs to keep with him. The illustrations have a marvelous old-fashioned, country quality to them.

A great wintry chapter book with lots of animals and a series of marvelous smart trades. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Clarion Books.

The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed

Cover image for The Black Kids

The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed (9781534462724)

Set in Los Angeles in 1982 during the Rodney King riots, this teen novel deals directly with racism and class. Ashley lives in a wealthy part of LA, attends a private school, and has only white friends who she has known since childhood. They spend lots of time around the pool drinking, flirting and planning their prom. As the protests engulf LA though, race becomes a part of everyone’s focus, something that Ashley has tried to ignore, including all the comments one of her friends keeps making. Ashley finds herself becoming closer with LaShawn, a Black kid at school who is a star athlete and whose home is threatened by the protests. He has gotten into Stanford while Ashley has been placed on the waitlist. Ashley makes a comment about his new shoes to her white friends and suddenly becomes a rumor, leading to LaShawn punching another student and potentially losing his place at Stanford. Ashley must figure out how to make things right and also what side she is on.

Reed takes a historical moment in time that continues to resonate today. Remarkably, this is a debut novel. Written with such assurance and clarity, the book allows Ashley to find her own way, something that is often not clear as she continues to make mistakes based on her friends and her class. Reed keeps from becoming didactic at all, instead giving us the perfect character to learn alongside, to hope realizes what is truly happening, and to empathize with and get really angry at.

This book doesn’t duck away from anything. Reed takes on micro and macroaggressions around race and class. She explores how wealth does not protect Black Americans from being targeted, treated differently in our justice system, or stopped by police at gun point. She shows readers this with such power and straightforward honesty that it is impossible to rationalize it away.

Beautifully written, this historical novel is powerful and gripping. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Simon & Schuster.

Displacement by Kiku Hughes

Displacement cover image

Displacement by Kiku Hughes (9781250193544)

This historical graphic novel takes a modern-day teen and puts her back in time. Kiku is vacationing with her mother in San Francisco, when she first travels through time back to World War II. As the mists form around her, she finds herself watching her grandmother play her violin as a teen. It happens again the next morning, when Kiku finds herself joining the line of Japanese-American people heading for the internment camps. Those experiences were shorter. But then Kiku finds herself back in time for a longer period as she experiences the internment camps herself. She lives near her grandmother, but can’t bring herself to actually meet her face to face. As Kiku witnesses and actually lives the experiences of Japanese-Americans in the internment camps, seeing how they suffered, the restrictions, the injustice but also the communities that were formed in the camps.

Hughes uses a dynamic mix of modern and historical in this graphic novel. She takes the sensibilities of a modern teen and allows readers to see the world through Kiku’s eyes. When Kiku is stuck in time, readers get to experience the full horror of the internment camps and what our country did to Japanese-Americans. Hughes ties our current political world directly to that of the camps, showing how racist policies make “solutions” like internment camps more likely to happen. She also keep hope alive as well, showing Kiku making friends and also developing a romantic relationship with a girl she meets.

The art is done in full color throughout. The color palette does change between modern day and the internment camps, moving from brighter colors to more grim browns, grays and tans. Hughes uses speech bubbles as well as narrative spaces that let Kiku share her thoughts. There are no firm frames here, letting colors dictate the edges of the panels.

Timely and important, this is a look at what we can learn from history and stop from happening now. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.

All He Knew by Helen Frost

All He Knew cover image

All He Knew by Helen Frost (9780374312992)

Henry started out life talking and able to hear, until a fever took his hearing as a small child. By the time Henry is six, he is labeled as “unteachable.” He is turned away from the school for the deaf after failing their test, refusing to blow out a candle when asked. His parents are encouraged to send him to an institution where he will be cared for. Given their lack of money during the years before World War II, they reluctantly agree. Henry is sent to Riverview, where his life becomes bleak, food is often scarce, children are beaten and restrained. He makes some dear friends there though, working to protect and care for them even as the system works to tear them down. When World War II starts, Victor arrives at Riverview. He’s a conscientious objector, sent to work as an attendant there. He quickly learns that Henry is far from unteachable, reaching out to Henry’s family, including Henry’s beloved sister who has always seen that Henry is smart and kind.

Frost is a master at the verse novel, creating entire worlds that spin by with her poetry. Here the verse draws readers into the darkness of Riverview. One could get caught in that dark, but Henry is there to show a way to see the squirrels outside the window, make friends with some of the other children, and find a way to live one day at a time. While he misses his family horribly and does not understand what happened to make them send him there, he understands much more than everyone thinks he does.

Frost keeps hope at the center of the book. She uses both Victor and Henry’s sister and family members in this way. They all love Henry, trying to figure out how best to deal with an impossible situation exacerbated by poverty and wartime. But hope really is an inherent part of Henry himself, who faces every day and its brutal challenges with a touch of humor, a courage to defend his friends, and a determination to survive.

An important look at how those with disabilities were treated in our country and how conscientious objectors made a difference in their lives. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Summer We Found the Baby by Amy Hest

Summer We Found the Baby by Amy Hest

Summer We Found the Baby by Amy Hest (9780763660079)

Bruno and Julie aren’t really friends anymore, but in the small town of Belle Beach, Long Island, they still see one another. That’s how Bruno sees Julie discover the baby that was left on the steps of the new children’s library. Julie carries the baby off, leaving Bruno to discover the note that Julie never found. Bruno though is on a mission for his brother who is overseas fighting in World War II, and he must decide if he will miss the train to New York or not. Told through flashbacks that show the story of Bruno, Julie and Julie’s little sister, Martha, this book explores the impact of the war on families and also how one complicated situation can somehow tie their entire summer together.

Hest creates a marvelous story told in brief chapters by each of the three characters. Their perspectives are beautifully individual, filled with misunderstandings about one another, views that are entirely their own, and opinions that they form along the way. The book is almost a puzzle, where one must figure out what is actually happening through these independent lenses that show a fractured image of the truth.

Each of the three characters has their own personality, deftly created and shown by Hest. Her writing is brief and clear, allowing each character’s words to stand strong as their own. It is the quality of her writing and the profound respect she shows her young characters that really let this delight of a novel work, revealing the moments and experiences of a single sun-drenched summer on the beach.

Ideal for summer reading, this work of historical fiction is masterful. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick.

 

We Are Not Free by Traci Chee

We Are Not Free by Traci Chee

We Are Not Free by Traci Chee (9780358131434)

Brace yourself for this teen novel that brings you along with fourteen teens who are taken into the Japanese detention camps in the United States during World War II. The teenagers have all grown up together in Japantown in San Francisco. But when Pearl Harbor is bombed, their lives are destroyed when their families are relocated to the detention camps. Told in each of their voices, the story revolves around their daily lives in the camp, the intolerable racism and injustice that they face, and how they navigate still being Americans.

Chee moves from her successful fantasy trilogy to this incredibly impactful story of a group of friends who are taken from their lives. Her writing is exceptional, moving from straightforward storytelling to passages that sing with poetic touches to direct verse. All of it screams of the injustice, demanding that people see what actually happened in the camps and the impossible decisions faced by the Japanese Americans who were held there. She also very successfully moves to the battlefields of World War II, breaking lives and hearts.

Fourteen voices are a lot to manage as an author, but Chee does it with such a deep understanding of each character that readers can simply allow the characters to flow around them at first. By the end of the book, readers will have connected with each of the characters both from their own perspectives and from the adjoining stories of the other characters that include them as well. It is deftly done, capturing readers into this powerful story and making it impossible to look away or deny.

Incredibly eloquent and compelling, this historical fiction for teens is one that can’t be missed. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HMH Books for Young Readers.

We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly

We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly

We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly (9780062747303)

Welcome to 1986, the year of the Challenger disaster and a year when all three of the Thomas children find themselves in seventh grade together. Fitch and Bird are twins and used to be very close. Bird loves science and exploring how things are made. As the Challenger nears its launch, she finds herself spellbound by the potential it represents for women in space and for her own future. Fitch meanwhile is struggling to deal with the anger that rises inside of him constantly, filling his days playing Major Havoc in the local arcade. Cash has been held back a grade and no longer plays basketball, which he misses desperately. He finds himself wondering if he is actually good at anything at all in life. The three siblings grow up in a family that is filled with anger, regular arguments and verbal abuse. As the three grow apart, circumstances including the Challenger disaster pull them back together, just in time to allow them all to find a potential way forward.

Kelly is a Newbery Medalist and this book shows her skill and superb understanding of the minds of youth. Using the setting of the mid-1980’s, she invites readers to see that while some things are different, much of the emotions, family tensions and life was the same as today. The Challenger disaster provides the ideal unifying factor in each of the sibling’s stories which are told from their own points of view. Yet Kelly does not overplay that element, never drawing the lines starkly but allowing readers to connect elements themselves.

The three siblings are quite different from one another and yet their shared upbringing and lack of safety at home create a unified experience that they all emerge from in different ways. Bird, the smart one, who takes things apart and does well at school, wonders if she is disappearing. Fitch burns with an anger he can’t explain, lashing out at others. Cash too is frustrated but he takes it out on himself and struggles internally.

A deep and magnificent middle-grade novel. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Greenwillow Books.

Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen by Anne Nesbet

Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen by Anne Nesbet

Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen by Anne Nesbet (9781536206197)

Darleen has grown up in the movie industry, first appearing as a baby and now at age twelve as “Daring Darleen” in a series of silent films. It is 1914 and the trend is to have the worlds of film and real life converge, so Darleen’s uncles make a plan for her to be kidnapped from outside a movie theater while being filmed by them. Everything seems to be going to plan until Darleen is snatched by the wrong kidnappers and discovers that she has been taken along with Victorine, a girl just her age who is an heiress. The two must figure out how to escape, using Darleen’s natural penchant for heights and daring moves that her dead mother also had. Still, she had promised her father to keep her feet on the ground, but that’s hard to do as her adventures continue almost like being in a real screenplay.

There is so much to love here! Nesbet creates the daring and inventions of early film-making in this middle-grade novel. The chapters are meant to be episodes, some offering a great cliffhanger until the next installment. The series of adventures makes for a page-turner of a book with two girls at its center who form a grand friendship along the way and adore one another for being just who they are.

Darleen is a heroine through and through from her day job in front of the camera but even more so in real life as she skillfully figures out puzzles, finds ways to escape, and does it all with real courage. In many ways, Victorine is her opposite. She wants to tell the truth at all costs, knows all sorts of facts and loves books and travel. The two together form an unstoppable force. It is also great to see Nesbet pay homage to Alice Guy Blache by having her as a secondary character in the novel.

A grand adventure of a novel that will have readers enthralled. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Candlewick.