The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta (9780062990297)

This award-winning teen verse novel deals with gender, identity and fabulous drag performances. Michael’s father is entirely absent in his life, leaving the room when they are in the same house together. Michael does have a connection with his father’s Jamaican family, receiving gifts from them and time spent together. He lives with his Greek-Cypriot mother in London; she accepts Michael entirely, from the time he was a small boy wanting to play with Barbies to college as a gay man. Along the way, Michael must deal with racism, of not being black enough and assumptions being made about him by society. He doesn’t know any other gay black people, forging a path on his own that leads him to university and a club that does drag where he finds his voice and a stage persona too.

Atta is a poet and this is his debut YA novel which has already won the Stonewall Book Award. Just starting reading, it is clear that the poems are done by a master storyteller. They allow readers to deeply understand the struggles of Michael from his family life to friendships that come and go to coming out and then performing. There is a valuable evolution on the page where Michael comes out and yet doesn’t quite become himself fully for several years, until he finds a place to belong.

Atta’s writing is beautiful. He mixes his own poetry with that of Michael the character, moving gracefully between the two. Somehow they are distinct from one another, the voices similar and still separate. The use of poetry to tell such a personal and deeply-felt story makes this really work, as poetry and verse are a fast way to allow readers to see the heart and soul of a character.

Brave, beautiful and deep, this teen novel is masterful. Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.

Review: I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day

I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day

I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day (9780062871992)

Released October 1, 2019.

Edie knows that her mother was adopted by a white couple, but the only thing she knows about her mother’s background is that she is Native American. Her mother won’t talk about her childhood at all. While looking in the attic with her friends, Edie discovers a box of old photographs and documents with a woman who looks a lot like her and has the same name! As Edie explores the documents, she realizes that her parents have been lying to her for her entire life. Even when she tries to give them a chance to tell the truth, they continue to avoid it. One of her best friends seems to be more interested in filming Edie’s story than in really supporting her, so Edie must figure out who she can really trust.

This is Day’s debut children’s book and it’s a very special one. Based on her own family history and the government’s role in separating Native children from their families, the book offers a glimpse into the heart wrenching loss of a child. Day also takes on the vital need for Native Americans to be portrayed fully in film, TV and the media.

With those big issues at play, it is to Day’s credit that this story stays firmly focused on Edie and her own journey to understanding her family and her culture. As the mystery of her name and her family is solved, readers will get to experience Edie’s first glimpses of her Native family. The stories are full of deep wounds caused by white government policies that damaged Native families for generations. Still, it is full of hope as well and the promise that healing can continue and justice can be found.

An important book about one Native girl’s journey to learn about her people and herself. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperCollins.

Review: Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe

Gender Queer A Memoir by Maia Kobabe

Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe (9781549304002)

This memoir is done in a comic or graphic format. It’s the autobiography of Maia, who uses the pronouns e/em/eir. It tells the story of eir childhood growing up being assigned as a female gender at birth. From loving snakes to peeing outside to taking off eir shirt to go swimming along with the boys, Maia never conformed to gender stereotypes. Eir parents didn’t either, but Maia’s need to not be identified as female ran far deeper. Growing older, Maia had crushes on both boys and girls, and wondered if e was bisexual. Still, Maia had to continue to explore what dating, crushes, love, and sex meant to em until e realized what it meant to be nonbinary and asexual.

Kobabe shares so deeply in eir memoir. It is such a personal journey, filled with moments of deep connection and joy, the agony of pap smears, the constant questioning of identity, and then ending with incredible hope. This memoir was at first written to help eir family understand em, and it will work that way for those wanting to understand being gender nonbinary. It also aids in understanding asexuality and how that impacts relationships. Sex is handled with a refreshing frankness on the pages.

Kobabe’s art is very effective. E does full-page pieces that feature family members and other parts that read as fluid story telling in a more traditional way. These different approaches blend together into a dynamic format that invites readers into Kobabe’s life.

Vital and important, this memoir is tender and impactful. Appropriate for ages 16-adult.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

Review: I Am a Tiger by Karl Newson

I Am a Tiger by Karl Newson

I Am a Tiger by Karl Newson, illustrated by Ross Collins (9781338349894)

Released July 30, 2019. 

A very confident little mouse declares that he is actually a tiger. The other animals don’t believe him at first, but he manages to demonstrate that he can growl like a tiger, climb trees like a tiger and even hunt for his lunch. When a real tiger comes along, the mouse declares that the tiger is a mouse! After all, the tiger has a twitchy nose, little hands and feet, and probably ate cheese recently. Mouse continues to show that he has all sorts of tiger-like skills. The defeated real tiger asks then what the other animals are and Mouse gives them all sorts of new identities, including a banana and a balloon. When Mouse leaves and gets a glimpse of himself in the water though, he realizes that he isn’t a tiger after all. Maybe he still isn’t a mouse either?

Newson’s writing is brisk and bright. Done entirely in dialogue, this book begs to be shared aloud with children. Children will love the confident little mouse and his ability to make ludicrous claims and stand by them. Mouse is a great character, becoming all the more interesting when he discovers he isn’t really a tiger after all. The twist at the end is a delight that doesn’t discourage Mouse in the least. The illustrations by Collins are large and colorful. They help tell the full story of what is happening and carry a lot of the humor too.

An uproarious picture book about a little mouse with a big imagination. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

 

3 Swimmingly-Good Picture Books

The Brilliant Deep by Kate Messner

The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding The World’s Coral Reefs by Kate Messner, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe (9781452133508)

All his life Ken Nedimyer was fascinated by the ocean. He would dive in the Florida Keys to see the coral reefs and wonder at how they grew. Then he started to notice that the reefs were losing color and dying. Ken placed rocks in the ocean and then took them back to use in saltwater aquariums. One of his rocks happened to have a staghorn coral emerge on it, something that was illegal to remove from the sea unless it was growing on a live rock collector’s site. Then Ken had an idea, using this first piece of coral to grow more and more of them. He took those corals back to the dying reef and planted them there, not knowing if they would grow. It was a beginning, one that would show how reefs could be helped to recover, one coral at a time.

This inspirational nonfiction picture books shares the way that one person can help the environment by taking a risk and doing the work. The end of the book shares ways that children can help the coral reefs, with more articles and organizations to explore. The text of the book celebrates the wonder of the ocean and still explains the environmental crisis. That tension between the two makes for a compelling story. The illustrations glow on the page, lit by sunlight filtering through the water. They are luminous and hauntingly beautiful, even the images outside of water carrying a strong sense of place and the ocean.

A great picture book biography to share aloud or give to children who love water themselves. Appropriate for ages 4-7. (Reviewed from copy provided by Chronicle Books.)

Dude By Aaron Reynolds

Dude! By Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Dan Santat (9781626726031)

This one-word picture book is a delight in different emotions. Two friends head to the beach together for a day of surfing and sun. Platypus and Beaver head into the sea, greeted by a soaring pelican who dips down to the water and back up again, but not without a little humor on the way. Then a shark shows up! But he just wants to join in the surfing fun. When a big wave crashes them onto the beach and ruins their boards, it’s good that they have made a new friend so that the fun can continue.

The use of just one word works brilliantly here. Sharing it aloud is great fun, though those reading aloud will have to look to the pictures for how that particular “Dude!” should be said. It is used for joy, panic, fear, dismay, sadness and much more throughout the story. Thankfully, the illustrations are done by master of humor, Santat. His bright palette and combination of comic panels and large two-page spreads make for a dynamic combination just right for this story.

A bright sunny summer read, dude! Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from copy provided by Roaring Brook Press.)

Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love (9780763690458)

Julian and his abuela take the subway home. On the subway, Julian notices three mermaids riding with them. Julian loves mermaids and daydreams about swimming in the deep and turning into a mermaid himself. When they get home, Julian mentions that he’s a mermaid too, but his abuela is busy heading for her bath. While she is bathing, Julian finds flowing hair for himself and a crown, a gown made of a curtain and some lipstick. When Julian’s abuela sees him, she gets dressed and then gives him a necklace. They head out of the house and off to a parade of other mermaids where Julian fits right in.

There is so much to celebrate in this picture book. Julian is an amazing example of a young person expressing their gender identity in a very direct and yet imaginative way. His grandmother is an even better image for people to read about, a grandparent who accepts a child for who they are without question and offers a way forward hand-in-hand. Told in very simple terms, this story is approachable for all ages, even parents and grandparents.

The illustrations are rich a beautiful. On light brown backgrounds, the illustrations are bright and shining. They are filled with body positivity in a variety of ways both subtle and direct. Perhaps the most successful part is Julian’s transformation into a mermaid in a way that still shows the costume and how it was created but also turns Julian’s dream into reality right before the readers’ eyes.

This one belongs in every library, it is sublimely diverse and accepting. Appropriate for ages 5-7. (Reviewed from library copy.)

3 Hopeful Picture Books

Next Year by Ruth Vander Zee

Next Year by Ruth Vander Zee and Gary Kelley (9781568462820)

A gripping look at the Dust Bowl from the point of view of a child growing up in the 1930s, this picture book combines strong imagery with a poetic prose. The book takes no time in becoming dramatic, showing a dust cloud coming towards the boy: “Like midnight in the middle of the day, without moon and stars.” When he reaches home after crawling for two miles because he can’t stand in the dust and the wind, he discovers his parents despairing and desperate. While they may have been hopeful at one time, the boy knows that he has to help and learns about alternative ways to farm. As the days pass, the rain returns but it’s too late for his parents’ hope to return. Powerful and fascinating, this picture book look at the Dust Bowl is exceptional. (Reviewed from library copy.)

StolenWords_Jacket.indd

Stolen Words by Melanie Florence, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard (9781772600377)

A little girl asks her grandfather how to say grandfather in Cree. Her grandfather pauses for a long moment and then explains that he lost his words a long time ago. He then explains to his granddaughter about being taken away from home and put into a boarding school. He wasn’t allowed to speak Cree there at all, only English. The next day, the little girl comes out of school with a book, an introduction to Cree for them to learn together. The author of this picture book is half Cree and never got to speak with her own grandfather about his language and his history. The book is filled with beautiful language, capturing the harshness of the boarding schools and the love of close family as contrasts of cold and warm, hard and soft. Grimard’s illustrations also show the contrasts through images, turning black and white for memories rather than the soft colors used in the modern parts of the book. An introduction to the importance of language, families and identity that is appropriate for small children. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Three Balls of Wool by Henriqueta Cristina

Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World) by Henriqueta Cristina, illustrated by Yara Kono (9781592702206)

Published in partnership with Amnesty International, this picture book uses colors of wool to speak to the conformity required under Communist regimes. The book focuses on a family who flees their home country in the hopes of finding a better, kinder place to live. At first their new country is good. The children can go to school and the parents are less worried. But steadily things change and soon there are only three colors of sweaters for the children to wear. The mother of the family though, realizes that she can make a difference and sews the yarn from the different sweaters into new patterns that incorporate all three. Soon the new designs spread and things begin to change for the better. Cristina has written this picture book analogy from her own experiences as a child. There is a straightforward nature to the writing that allows the analogy to really work, giving it a strong foundation. The art is graphic and strong, leaping off of the page and yet also paying homage to Communist buildings and structures. This is a clever and intelligent book worth discussing in classrooms and families. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (Review copy provided by Enchanted Lion.)

3 Picture Books to Celebrate Being Yourself

I Love My Purse by Belle Demont

I Love My Purse by Belle Demont, illustrated by Sonja Wimmer (9781554519545)

Charlie decided one morning to take the bright red purse that his grandmother had given him and wear it to school. His dad noticed immediately and mentioned that boys don’t carry purses, but Charlie continued down the stairs with his purse. His father thought  about the Hawaiian shirts he would love to wear to work. At school, a girl in his class noticed the purse and told Charlie that boys don’t carry purses. Charlie carried on. The girl started to wonder about wearing face paint to school. At lunch, some older boys pointed out that Charlie had a purse and then one of the boys wondered about what it would be like to cook real food at school. The crossing guard mentioned his favorite sparkly shoes when he saw Charlie’s purse. The next day, things changed. Charlie still carried the big red purse but others were doing what they wanted to too.

Demont manages to write a book about embracing children who are not following gender norms without making the book about lecturing readers. The clever piece of the book is that those protesting Charlie’s purse are then inspired themselves to break with societal norms and rules in their own way. Wimmer does a great job with making the illustrations bright and merry, showing Charlie as a happy child who is sure of himself even as others question him. A winner for families and schools being more inclusive about breaking gender norms. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from e-galley received from Netgalley and Annick Press.)

No One Else Like You by Siska Goeminne

No One Else Like You by Siska Goeminne and Merel Eyckerman (9780664263539)

In a world of more than 7 billion people, you are unique. This picture book explains just how special you are. People live in different types of places around the world. People can be quiet or noisy. People have different types of bodies, come in different colors, shapes and sizes. They wear different clothes. People are also similar. They are all fragile, all need compliments and care. Some people are happy, some scared. They come from different families, different faiths. All of those differences add up to mean that there is no other person just like you!

Originally published in Belgium, this picture book has a decidedly European feel to it. The loosely structured book has a lovely meandering style, rather like a conversation with a good friend about how special you are. The illustrations are smaller and more contained, the pages filled with plenty of white space. They have a playful style, showing different people and lots of different children. A lovely book to encourage self esteem and individuality. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (E-galley provided by Netgalley and Westminster John Knox Press.)

Why Am I Me by Paige Britt

Why Am I Me? by Paige Britt, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Aiko (9781338053142)

Told in simple yet profound poetry, this picture book asks a deep question about identity. Why are you the person that you are? What would happen if you were someone else? How would that change you and your experience? Due to how simple the text is, the illustrations are key to the success of the book. They are vibrant and rich, showing an urban setting with lots of different races and religions living in harmony together. This picture book is a great way to start a discussion with a class or single child. Perfect for public libraries in search for diverse picture books that invite children to think deeply about the subject. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (ARC provided by Scholastic.)

 

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk (9781101994856, Amazon)

The author of Wolf Hollow returns with her second novel for young people.  This is a novel of the Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts where Crow has lived all of her life. She lives on a solitary island with Osh, the man who found her afloat in a little boat when she was a newborn baby.  The others on the islands won’t associate with Crow, since they all assume that she came from a nearby island that was a leper hospital. Miss Maggie is the exception, she cares fiercely for Crow and makes sure that she learns what she needs to despite not being able to attend school. As Crow starts to piece together her own history, she exposes those she loves to new dangers that are far worse than the storms of nature they weather together.

Wolk once again has created a novel that brings a place to life. Here she has chosen the Elizabeth Islands and the islands themselves feature prominently in the story both in terms of their isolation but also in their beauty. The islands serve as shelter, home, a source of fuel and food, and a community as well. The island with the hospital for lepers insures that Crow is even more isolated than the rest of the community due to the questions of her past. It’s a brilliant setting, one of the best that I have ever read where each page is a reflection of the sea and the islands.

Crow is a dazzlingly great heroine. She is strong and independent, determined to figure things out even as those around her give up. She pieces together clues from the mystery of her past, a mystery that permeates the entire novel even after it is solved. Crow is anxious to learn of her history and throughout the novel explores questions of identity and family of love and betrayal. It’s a novel that swirls and eddies, displaying beauty and dangers in turn.

This is a beautifully written and deep novel for middle grade readers who will long to visit Crow’s island themselves. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Dutton Books for Young Readers.

 

Sophie Someone by Hayley Long

Sophie Someone by Hayley Long

Sophie Someone by Hayley Long (9780763689957, Amazon)

Sophie can vaguely remember leaving England on a train with her mother when she was a small child. Now Sophie is fourteen and her family has been in Belgium since they left England. She attends school, has a best friend and knows how to speak several languages. Her father owns a car service station, she has a new little brother born in Belgium and things seem normal. But her mother won’t leave the apartment and a strange man comes to her father’s shop and calls him by a different name. As Sophie starts to piece things together, she will have to travel back to England to figure the entire puzzle out and find out who she truly is.

Long has written this novel for teens in code as Sophie tries to stop anyone from publishing her story if they find it. The coding is a fascinating layer to the story, creating a puzzle for the readers even as Sophie is unravelling her own. Readers will grow better and better at figuring out the code, allowing the story to shine through the puzzle. The writing beyond this layer is deft and the mystery is incredibly rich. Readers will be able to figure it out before Sophie does, but questions linger that continue the riveting nature of the novel.

Sophie herself is a strong and smart heroine. As she pieces the mystery together, she uses her intelligence but also has a strong streak of optimism and hope as she faces the truth about her family. Her ability to not only face the unknown but seek it out and discover things is noteworthy. Even as she discovers that she is not the person she thought she was, Sophie does not fall apart. She faces the future with a new clarity and understanding.

An unusual and fascinating novel, it grips you right from the beginning and won’t let you loose until the final pages. Appropriate for ages 13-15.

Reviewed from ARC received from Candlewick Press.