All Summer Long by Hope Larson (9780374304850)
Bina’s summer has just started, but it’s already going wrong. Her best friend, Austin, is heading to a month-long soccer camp. He’s also acting strangely and has decided that they are too old for some of their regular summer activities. Once he’s left for camp, Bina finds herself watching too much TV and just hanging out alone. Then she bumps into Austin’s older sister who turns out to be into music just like Bina is. The two of them start hanging out but when Austin returns things stay just as strange. Bina has to navigate her way through new friendships and old ones as she also grapples with her love of music and what that means for her friendships too.
Larson is the author of several graphic novels for children and teens. Here she tackles middle-school summers with a focus on music and individuality. Bina’s summer will feel familiar to readers, a stretch of time that is meant to be the best but ends up being time that needs filling with more than binge-watching TV. The incorporation of a friendship between a boy and a girl that does not involve romance or attraction is great to see. Readers will fret that Austin’s strange attitude means he “likes” Bita, but the truth makes sense and fits the story well.
The art is friendly and approachable. Done in a limited orange and black palette, it speaks of summer heat and sun. Bita herself is lanky and tall, her angles oozing with middle-school gawkiness in an appealing way. Her parents are just involved enough but also absent in a way that shows trust too.
A graphic novel perfect for summer reading. Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from copy provided by Farrar Straus Giroux.
The 5 O’Clock Band by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, illustrated by Bryan Collier (9781419728365)
This second picture book by Andrews takes the reader on a trip through New Orleans. Shorty and his friends had formed a band. They called themselves the 5 O’Clock Band because that’s when they gathered to play. One day, Shorty got so caught up in his music that he missed the meeting time of the band. He tried to catch up with them, bringing the reader along on his walk past New Orleans landmarks and meeting musicians on the streets. Shorty longs to be a great bandleader and as he looks for his band, he learns lessons about being a leader along the way.
Filled with a deep love for the city of New Orleans, this picture book continues the story of Trombone Shorty’s childhood. Andrews’ writing is deft and musical, using repetition and rhythm to great effect. The illustrations by master Collier are lush and beautiful. They depict the richness of New Orleans on the page, filled with yellows and greens.
A jazzy picture book that inspires. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
Flowers for Sarajevo by John McCutcheon, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell (9781561459438, Amazon)
Drasko sells flowers with his father in the marketplace in Sarajevo. They sell the best roses in the entire city. But when war came, Drasko’s father leaves to fight and Drasko is alone selling flowers. He is pushed out of their usual spot to one at the edge of the market. The only good thing is that he can now hear the symphony playing. Suddenly, the market is hit by a mortar and 22 people are killed. Drasko returns to the market the next day, but all is silent and empty. Then a man with a cello enters the square and sits down to play. For 22 days, he plays, once for each person who died. Around him, the market returns and Drasko works to find a way that he too can be courageous each day.
Based on the true story of Vedran Smailovic, the cellist who played, this picture book focuses on the impact of the bombing and the bravery of the cellist on one boy. Readers will realize that Drasko is brave from his approach to his father leaving and his returning day after day to sell flowers. The power of the music and the musician though brings that bravery into the light and shows how it’s important to be visibly brave for others too.
The illustrations by Caldwell are layered and misleadingly simple. They show Drasko’s loneliness but also his discovery of a community around him that will support him. The illustrations have inset pieces with frames that shatter with the mortar shell and then return to being whole as the story progresses.
A look at war and acts of bravery and art. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez (9780425290408, Amazon)
Malú doesn’t want to move with her mother to Chicago, even if it is only for a couple of years and not permanently. She knows her mother wants her to be much more of a proper Mexican young lady just like her. But Malú is much more into punk rock and creating zines. When they get to Chicago, Malú finds herself in a very diverse middle school where she manages to violate the dress code on the very first day. As she struggles with the rules of the new school, Malú starts a punk rock band of other kids who don’t fit in. They enter the school talent contest but don’t get any further than the audition and then are rejected for the performance. Now Malú has to channel her own punk attitude to stand up and be heard.
This is such a winning and cleverly built novel that one can’t really believe it’s a debut book. Pérez captures the push and pull of middle school and being a person with unique interests struggling to find friends. Pérez also weaves in the main character’s cultural heritage throughout the book, making it a vital part of the story and playing it against the rebellion of punk rock. That play of tradition and modern attitudes is a strength of the book, allowing readers to learn about Mexican culture and also about rock and roll.
Malú is a great protagonist, filled with lots of passion and energy. She has a natural leadership about her even as she is picked on by another girl at school. Still, Malú is not perfect and it’s her weak moments when she despairs or lashes out where she feels most real. Her zines are cleverly placed in the book, thanks to the skills of the author who also publishes zines.
A fresh and fun new read that blends Mexican Americans with punk rock in a winning formula. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia (9780062215918, Amazon)
Newbery-Honor winner Williams-Garcia returns with another book that is filled with love, loss and family. Clayton loves playing the blue with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, in the park. It’s something they do together when his mother works double shifts, since she doesn’t approve of the blues or his grandfather. Clayton knows he is ready for a solo on his blues harp, but Cool Papa wants him to wait a bit longer. Then one night, Cool Papa doesn’t wake up and Clayton is left with his mother’s anger at her father and his own deep loss. School becomes almost impossible for Clayton as he struggles with his grief and when his teacher makes him read the same book that Cool Papa had been reading aloud to him, it is too much. Clayton decides to hit the road, find the blues men that his grandfather played with and join them on their travels. But it’s not that simple and Clayton soon finds himself on an unexpected journey on the New York subway.
This book is simply incredible. Williams-Garcia writes with an ease that welcomes readers deep into the story. She manages in well under 200 pages to tell a deep and rich story that resonates. It’s a story of the power of music to connect generations, of grandfathers who teach and lead, of subways and busking, of urban landscapes and neighborhoods. It’s a story of loss and grief, of self discovery too. It is a multilayered book that will inspire discussion and connection.
Clayton is a wonderful main character with his grandfather’s porkpie hat on his head and his harmonica in his pocket or in his hands making music. He is clearly a gifted musician and it is a treat to have a young character playing music like the blues and then mixing it with hip hop. Clayton is an individual and proud of it, yet he loses one of his main anchors in life and has to find a way forward once again.
Deep and resonating, this novel is a demonstration of real skill and the power of books and music. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Little Wolf’s First Howling by Laura McGee Kvasnosky, illustrated by Kate Harvey McGee (9780763689711, Amazon)
Little Wolf and his father head to the top of a hill for Little Wolf’s first try at howling at the moon. They watch as night falls and then Big Wolf demonstrates how it is done with a pure AAAAAAOOOOOOO. Little Wolf goes next, trying to imitate his father. But he can’t help but share his joy at it being his first howling as part of it with an “I’m hoooowling!” Big Wolf tells him that he started well but the ending was not proper form and demonstrates again. This time Little Wolf starts well again but soon adds his own interpretation. Once more Big Wolf demonstrates and again Little Wolf does his own things, this time getting his father’s paws to tap along. Soon the two of them are joining together in Little Wolf’s way of howling.
Kvasnosky’s text is simple and friendly. It will invite young listeners to howl along, so expect to fill your own space with lots of howling. As Little Wolf comes into his own in his personal way of howling, children will love the rhythms and jazzy nature of his voice. There is a great relationship between father and son in this book, a sense of patience emanates from Big Wolf while a wild playfulness exudes from Little Wolf.
McGee’s illustrations are done in gouache relief and capture the vibrancy of nature at dark. They are sprinkled with starlight and light from the moon. The medium also has lots of darkness and texture, creating its own shadows and organic qualities that add to the experience.
A howling good time, this picture book will be a pleasure to share aloud to your own group of little wolves. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan (9781481492065, Amazon)
Amina doesn’t like the spotlight. Her best friend Soojin knows that Amina can really sing, but Amina just won’t even try for the solo for the upcoming concert. Amina’s life is changing now that they are in middle school. Soojin has started being friendly with Emily even though Emily had helped bully them in elementary school. Amina just isn’t ready to forgive Emily so quickly. Meanwhile, Amina’s uncle comes to visit from Pakistan, bringing new ideas about what it means to be Muslim. He causes Amina to start to question whether she should even be singing or playing music at all. Amina feels pressured to change but in multiple directions at once.
Khan has created a book for middle schoolers that takes a quieter look at diversity, family and being true to oneself. It is a book that looks closely at what it means to be a Muslim girl in America and how to follow the values of your culture even as you are pressured to be more American. It is a book that looks at the power of voice, of music and of community to overcome hardship and to share emotions. It is a book that has a gorgeous warmth to it, a joy of family, friendship and diversity.
Amina is a very special protagonist. Rather than being the center of attention, she doesn’t seek it at all. Still, she is lonely or ignored. She has friends and is grappling with the normal changes that come during middle school. On top of that, she is also asking deeper questions about faith, culture and living in America that will ring true for all young readers. Amina’s quietness and thoughtfulness allow those questions to shine.
Filled with important questions for our modern world, this middle-grade novel sings with a voice all its own. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Salaam Reads.
The Unexpected Love Story of Alfred Fiddleduckling by Timothy Basil Ering
Captain Alfred is heading home with his boat full of ducks for his farm and one special duck egg that’s about to hatch as a present for his wife. But his boat is hit by a storm and everything including the egg is thrown overboard. Luckily, the egg survives the storm, kept afloat in the Captain’s fiddle case. When the duckling hatches from the egg, he is all alone until he spots something else floating in the sea. It’s the Captain’s fiddle and when the duckling hugs it closely it produces a beautiful sound. But how can one little duckling and one fiddle survive the open sea? It will take the magic of music.
Ering is the illustrator of The Tale of Despereaux and has created other picture books of his own. This picture book has a gorgeous tone and pace, each moment shining and special as the story unfolds. Ering allows the story space to speak, giving time to the duckling finding the fiddle, a moment to pause when the duckling reaches land, and many other such moments too. Each is beautifully told with a voice that reads aloud beautifully. It’s a tale that children will enjoy, an adventure of wonder and music.
The illustrations are a wonderful mix of cartoon and lush realistic settings. The duckling has a personality all his own, glowing yellow on the page. Other moments like the storm approaching are filled with nature in all of its beauty and fury. The pages turn and one is never sure if it will reveal a sweep of nature or a new comical moment. The entire book works as a whole, the surprise of page turns, the comic elements and the natural details.
A picture book about music and friendship that is a great pick for a read aloud. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes (InfoSoup)
All Garvey seems to do is disappoint his father. His father would like him to play sports and to enjoy them too, but Garvey isn’t athletic. He’d much rather read science fiction and learn about science. Feeling bad about himself, Garvey consoles himself with food and starts to gain weight. He has one friend, who encourages him to join the school chorus. Soon Garvey is making new friends and displaying his talent. He becomes the new soloist for the chorus and his interest in music starts to build a bridge to his father via a new route.
Told in verse, this book of poetry is brief and powerful. Garvey’s situation with his father reads a organic and volatile, the desperation to connect creating even more of a distance between father and son as the failures continue. Garvey’s use of food as a solace is intelligently done, offering hope that he can find his footing again but also not seeing weight loss as the ultimate solution or weight as the real problem. Verse allows Grimes to cut right to the heart of these situations, revealing the layers of issues at play.
Garvey is a bright, funny character. He is shown as a good friend, supportive and also accepting. As Garvey begins to reach out and try new things, he is rewarded by the chorus also reaching out to him. Again, the progress is done in a natural way. Nothing is perfect and there is no magical solution here. It is hard work, talent and slow progress towards a better place.
A shining look at loneliness, bullying and the ability of music to break down barriers. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from library copy.