Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero by Kelly J. Baptist

Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero by Kelly J. Baptist

Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero by Kelly J. Baptist (9780593121368)

Adapted from the short story that was published in Flying Lessons & Other Stories, this novel tells the story of Isaiah Dunn. Isaiah lost his father almost a year ago and now lives in a motel with his mother and sister. His mother tries to hide her drinking from them, but Isaiah knows what the bottles mean even if she removes the labels. Isaiah is lucky to have his best friend, Sneaky, someone who has a candy-selling hustle at school. It may mean heading into a dangerous part of town, but he’s intent on earning money. Isaiah joins him, hoping to get enough money to get his family out of the motel. But Isaiah is tired too, tired of being hassled by classmates like Angel, who makes fun of him, tired of the teachers cracking down on him, tired of being hungry. Luckily, he also has his father’s journals, which keep him focused, inspire him to write, and lead him to find positive ways to support his family.

In her first novel, Baptist gives us an incredible young hero. Isaiah is a powerful mix of family-focus, creativity and anger. Inspired by his father, he tries to keep focused on the good, on doing the right thing and on supporting his family. But sometimes it is too much for a ten-year-old boy to be the adult. Sometimes you need help. The book is also filled with great adult role models for Isaiah, from teachers to neighbors to employers. He may not see them at first, but they are there, ready to support him and his family.

Baptist’s writing is child-centered and clarion clear. She demands that readers see Isaiah as more than a statistic, as a full human being, worthy of attention and help. In a family that has sustained a powerful loss, she depicts grief with real skill, allowing it to destroy but also to be the reason to rise again.

Powerful, deep and full of creative voice, this novel will make Isaiah everyone’s hero. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

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

Being Toffee by Sarah Crossan

Being Toffee by Sarah Crossan

Being Toffee by Sarah Crossan (9781547603299)

Allison has run away from home without much of a plan. She finds herself sleeping in the garden shed behind what seems to be an abandoned house. But Marla lives there, an elderly woman with dementia. Marla thinks that Allison is her old friend Toffee. Allison manages to start living in the house with Marla. She meets a local girl who helps her get paid for doing homework for others. As the story continues, both Marla and Allison tell their complete stories, ones that they keep hidden from others. The two become closer, telling one another their dreams and secrets, until one day it all falls apart.

Crossan has created a verse novel for teens that is a vital mix of hope and found families. She grapples with difficult subjects like physical and emotional abuse and the loneliness of the elderly. The blend of darkness and hope makes for a compelling read that invites readers into Marla’s old house. The verse is a gorgeous mix of frank storytelling about abuse and wistful longing for a future that makes sense.

The friendship between Allison and Marla unfolds beautifully before the reader, starting in a place of doubt and questions and becoming a lifeline for them both. Marla is not prickly or doddering. Rather she is fully realized as a person, looking at times for a stiff drink and always willing to dance. Allison is a survivor, seeking her own way forward. Bright and strong, she figures out a path as unique as herself.

Another amazing novel from a master storyteller. Appropriate for ages 13-16,

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Review: No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen (9780735262751)

Felix loves trivia and his gerbil who is named after a famous Canadian game show host. He lives with his mother Astrid, who struggles to keep jobs and tends to tell lies whenever she wants. Living in Vancouver is expensive, so when Astrid loses her job and then offends the person who takes them in, Felix finds himself living in a camper van. It’s only temporary, so Felix starts school and doesn’t explain to anyone where he is living. Astrid uses her ability to stretch the truth convincingly to get him a place in the school he wants and to get them a mailing address. Still, living in a van is not any fun after awhile and as Felix makes new friends, he finds it hard to keep lying to them. But there is a way out, if Felix can win the junior version of a national game show, he might just have enough money to get them back on their feet and into a home.

Nielsen tells a story about the power of hope, the importance of friendship and the creation of a community of people who care. It is also the story of a mother who is struggling with depression and an inability to keep a job. Astrid is a great character, a mother who manages to continue to be sympathetic but also disastrous. She is complicated just like their story of homelessness is. This is not a flat look at homelessness but instead an in-depth exploration of how it happens, the trap of being in it, and the long climb back out.

Felix too is a wonderful character. He is bright, funny and written as a twelve-year-old boy. That means that his sense of humor is a little naughty and his sense of integrity and honor is strong. His voice resonates as that of a child his age, not reaching up to be a teen yet. The friends he makes are also depicted well, from his old childhood friend with the warm and messy home to the girl he likes, maybe, and her straight-talking hard-hitting journalism approach.

A nuanced and skilled look at homelessness with great characters to discover along the journey. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Tundra Books.

 

3 New Picture Books about Compassion

The Funeral by Matt James

The Funeral by Matt James (9781554989089)

Norma has to go to her great-uncle Frank’s funeral. She has to miss school, and she gets to see her favorite cousin, Ray. But she still practices her sad face in the mirror. Their car joins a line of cars headed to the church. The funeral is long and Norma has to be quiet. Ray has trouble staying still for that long. Finally, the funeral is done. There are sandwiches to eat and then Norma and Ray head outside to play. They play all afternoon until it is time to go home. Norma thinks that her Uncle Frank would have liked his funeral.

James captures going to a funeral as a small child with a poignancy and beauty. Anyone who attended a funeral as a child will see their own memories come to life. Small things like the flags on the cars, playing outside the church, and the graveyard add up to a full day of remembering someone. James’ illustrations are done in acrylic and ink on masonite. They have deep colors and incorporate collage pieces as well. The illustrations open up and soar when the children go outside, the green of the grass taking much of the space on the page. This is a book that celebrates life and honors the perspective of the child. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

The Old Man by Sarah V

The Old Man by Sarah V., illustrated by Claude K. Dubois, translated by Daniel Hahn (9781776571918)

A little girl wakes up and gets ready for school. Outside, an old man gets up too from where he is sleeping on the ground. He is wet and very cold. He walks to warm himself up. He’s hungry and eats out of a trash can. But he is too tired to continue, so he falls asleep on the ground in a park. The police wake him and ask him to move along. He heads to the shelter for something to eat, but can’t remember his name when he’s asked. He leaves and it begins to rain. He sleeps on the bus but has to leave there too. Then the little girl from the beginning of the book appears and offers the man her sandwich. That evening, he is able to go back to the shelter and this time he remembers his name and gets a hot meal.

The author of this picture book focuses on the power of compassion for those around us. Societal issues are not tackled here, just the pieces of the day of a person experiencing homelessness. They are small but vital, each moment leading to the next and each impacting how the man feels and how well he is able to do. The text is very simple though the book is thicker than most picture books. That allows room for the sepia-toned illustrations that take us on a journey through the man’s day. They are shadowy, chilly and seep under the skin like a shiver. An important book about small acts of kindness. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld (9780735229358)

One day Taylor made a wonderful creation out of blocks. But then everything came crashing down. One animal after another tried to help Taylor feel better. Chicken wanted to talk about it, but Taylor didn’t want to. Bear wanted to shout, but Taylor didn’t feel like it. Elephant wanted to rebuild it exactly the way it was, but Taylor didn’t feel like remembering. Others came one after another, but nothing worked. Taylor was alone until Rabbit came in, moved closer and just sat there right next to Taylor. The rabbit just listened and Taylor talked, shouted, remembered and much more. Then Taylor was ready to create something even better.

Doerrfeld has skillfully created a picture book that looks at anger and disappointment, at the process of working through big emotions and the importance of taking things at your own pace and speed. I appreciate that Taylor eventually is ready to talk, be angry and much more. This is not about bottling up emotions but about listening, supporting and moving forward in your own way. Using animals as the emotional reactions was a smart move, with the frowning bear and chattering chicken. The rabbit immediately changes the tone and feel of the book, mirroring what he is doing for Taylor as well.

An intelligent look at big emotions and how best to deal with them and support one another, this picture book is exceptional. Appropriate for ages 3-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

 

Still a Family by Brenda Reeves Sturgis

Still a Family by Brenda Reeves Sturgis

Still a Family by Brenda Reeves Sturgis, illustrated by Jo-Shin Lee (9780807577073, Amazon)

This important picture book shows how a family who is experiencing homelessness continues to foster connections that demonstrate their love for one another. The little girl who narrates the book must stay in one shelter with her mother while her father stays at a different one. They sleep on cots among other people and the little girl must share her doll with the other children there. Sometimes they meet her father in the park to spend time together, though most of the time her parents are out looking for work and taking turns watching her. They have to stand in line to get food and celebrate holidays even though they are apart. It’s hard but they are still a family.

This book offers a gentle way to explain homelessness to children. It shows what life is like living in the shelter, how family members are separated from one another, and how difficult it is to live in this way. This is one of those important books that serves as a window for some children but also as a mirror for those living with homelessness. Throughout the young narrator shares her positive outlook despite the challenges.

The illustrations by Lee are childlike and explore seeing the subject from the point of view of the little girl. They have a rough quality to them and have the feel of being drawn by colored pencils and crayons.

An important book for urban libraries, this picture book fills a need in many of our communities. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

I Am a Bear by Jean-Francois Dumont

I Am a Bear by Jean Francois Dumont

I Am a Bear by Jean-Francois Dumont (InfoSoup)

Told in the first person, this is a story of a bear who finds himself living on the streets of a city. He has a stack of cardboard boxes that make up his home. He isn’t welcome in any of the stores, and finds it safer to scrounge for food after dark. That means that he sleeps most of the day. He had tried to talk with people, but he scared them since he’s such a big bear. He gave up after awhile, paying no attention to those walking past him anymore. Until one day, a little girl notices him and talks directly to him. She returns the next day too and the bear has made an effort to clean up himself and his home. She calls him a teddy bear and visits again and again. Suddenly the bear has something to look forward to each day, and there is hope.

Dumont is the author of The Chickens Build a Wall and the series of silly books that follow it. This book though is a departure from that frenetic cheery tone. Here there is darkness, hunger and need. Here there is a bear who clearly is not actually a bear, but treated as such by society. It does not matter if young readers realize that the bear is a symbol. The story works much the same with a real bear or a real person. The life is hard, the city stark, and hope nonexistent, at first.

The art here is lush and lovely. It shows life on the street both from the bear’s point of view and also from that of an observer like the little girl. The buildings lean and tower above, the traffic is dangerous and close, and the alley is like a canyon. With sharp angles, the perils of life on the street are evident here as appropriate for a child.

A book that will help talk about homelessness and that offers a way forward, kindness. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy received from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

Review: Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate (InfoSoup)

Jackson knows that it’s all about to happen again. His family is having a garage sale for a lot of their stuff, allowing Jackson and his little sister to just pick one bag of items to keep. There just isn’t enough money for rent and Jackson feels hungry a lot of the time. His father doesn’t want to ask for assistance, preferring to find a way through on their own. When Jackson was younger, the family had lived in their minivan for awhile and now Jackson sees the same signs as before. When they lived in their car, Jackson met his imaginary friend, Crenshaw. Now even though Jackson is older, Crenshaw is back and bigger than ever. Crenshaw is a huge cat with a deep purr, who tells Jackson that he is there to help and encourages Jackson to just tell the truth. As Jackson’s world gets more complicated though, how in the world can an imaginary friend make a difference?

This is Applegate’s first novel for children since winning the Newbery Medal for The One and Only Ivan. Applegate imbues this new book with a shining magic of imagination. She keeps the wonder of Crenshaw real on many levels, not only for Jackson himself but also creating moments where readers will know that Crenshaw is much more than imaginary. This luminous touch keeps the entire book dazzling for readers.

It is even more important given the issues that the book explores. Family poverty and homelessness are critical in our world today and so few books tell that story from the point of view of a child experiencing it. Applegate keeps the story real here, focusing on the impact of being hungry, on the fear that being homeless generates in a child. She also makes Jackson a real hero. A child facing immense problems who, with the help of his imaginary friend, manages to tell his parents what this kind of life does to him. It is powerful, heart wrenching and true.

An important book that mixes an imaginary friend with the harsh reality of homelessness, this is a top pick for young readers. Appropriate for ages 7-11.

Reviewed from copy received from Feiwel & Friends.

Review: No Place by Todd Strasser

no place

No Place by Todd Strasser

Dan seemed to have it all from being popular to his hot girlfriend to probably getting a baseball scholarship to college.  But then his family started having financial problems and they got worse and worse.  Finally, they were forced to leave their home and live in Dignityville, a city park reused as a tent city for homeless people.  Dan struggles to figure out how to continue being the same person with his friends, how to stay focused on his future, and how to keep dating one of the wealthier girls in town.  On a daily basis, Dan is confronted with the differences in lifestyle and priorities.  But Dignityville is not without some good aspects.  Dan gets to spend more time with his family and he gets to know Meg, a girl who attends his high school and who also lives in Dignityville with her brother and family.  Then Meg’s brother is brutally attacked and it quickly becomes evident that there is a conspiracy to destroy Dignityville, one that may end up hurting those that Dan loves.

Strasser tackles the issue of homelessness head on here.  Yet he does in such a way as to make it accessible to those who have not experienced it.  The emphasis is on the fact that there are all sorts of people who are homeless, not just those with addiction and mental health issues.  Seeing the slow fall to homelessness by Dan’s parents and their reaction to being homeless further underlines that people are doing their best in trying and exceedingly difficult situations. 

Dan is a very engaging character, one who quickly learns how profoundly his life has changed.  The other characters at Dignityville are also well drawn and interesting as are Dan’s parents.  The only character I found two-dimensional was Talia, Dan’s girlfriend, who seemed distant and aloof from what was happening.  As the book progressed, the mystery of who was trying to shut down Dignityville moved to the forefront of the story.  I felt that this distracted from an already powerful story and took it over the top.  It was an unnecessary addition to the book.

An important book about a teen and his family experiencing homelessness, teens will find much to love in these pages.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.

Review: Hold Fast by Blue Balliett

hold fast

Hold Fast by Blue Balliett

Early lives in a warm and loving family.  Her father Dash is a lover of words and word games.  Her mother Sum and little brother Jubie make up the total of four in their family.  But when Dash gets involved in something shady, their loving family becomes three.  Then people raid their home, breaking down the door and they are forced to head to a shelter without knowing where Dash is or how he will find them again in the big city of Chicago.  Early finds she has to be the strong one as her mother begins to falter and her brother is so little.  Shelter life is difficult and it takes Early some time to realize that she is in the middle of a mystery that she can help solve. 

Balliett demonstrates her own love of words and wordplay throughout this novel.  Told in beautiful prose, she writes poetically about the city she loves, the beauty of snow, and the power of family.  She incorporates wordplay through her protagonist, who looks at words the way her father taught her to.  Many times words sound like what they are, points out Balliett, and just reading this book will have readers seeing words in a new way.

Balliett also introduces young readers to the poetry of Langston Hughes.  One of his books is at the heart of not only the mystery of the book but at the heart of the family.  As Hughes muses on dreams and their importance, both Early and the reader are able to see his words and understand them deeply. 

The aspect of the homeless shelter and the difficulties the family and Early face there is an important one.  Balliett is obviously making a point with her book, sometimes too obviously.  There are also some issues with plotting, with the book dragging at points and struggling to move forward.  That aside, the writing is stellar and the characters strong. 

Another fine offering from Balliett, get this one into the hands of her fans.  It will also be great choice for reading aloud in classrooms with its wordplay and strong African-American characters and family.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.