Thirty Talks Weird Love by Alessandra Narvaez Varela

Cover image for Thirty Talks Weird Love.

Thirty Talks Weird Love by Alessandra Narvaez Varela (9781947627482)

In 1990s Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, girls were being kidnapped from the streets, so Anamaria’s parents were very careful about where she was in the city and what she was doing. She spends most of her time studying and trying to get top rank in her class at a private middle school, since she plans to be a doctor. Then one day, a limping woman who claims to be Anamaria from the future arrives to change the past. She is by turns frightening, cheesy and just plain strange. The woman also says that she is a poet, not a doctor, something that Anamaria can’t even comprehend. She also insists that Anamaria needs help and needs to change the way she is living and get help.

The wild title and cover lead readers to an exploration of depression and overwork in young people in schools. Written in verse, the book also shows the power of being willing to take a chance and find a way to express yourself in poetry and words. Varela chillingly captures the smallness of Varela’s world, a toxic trudge of schoolwork and messed up friendships and working for her parents. Even as everyone works to protect her from the dangers of the streets, they are unaware that the real danger may be invisible and inside Anamaria herself.

The writing here is marvelous. Varela shows how halting first attempts at poetry grow into true self expression and a way to release internal pressures. Anamaria shows herself to be deep and thoughtful, far more interesting than the girl striving to beat everyone at school. The author uses clever poetic formats to transform larger poems into something altogether different and drawings combined with words to create apologies and new connections.

A deep delve into depression and the power of poetry. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Cinco Puntos Press.

I Can Help by Reem Faruqi

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I Can Help by Reem Faruqi, illustrated by Mikela Prevost (9780802855046)

Zahra loves to volunteer to help a boy in her class. Kyle has problems with reading, writing, cutting and gluing. Kyle is great at drawing and other things though. As Zahra helps him, she discovers that he is generous, funny and kind too. Then one day, when Zahra is swinging high on the swings and seeing the new colors of the leaves, she overhears some girls saying mean things about Kyle. She stops swinging and one girl asks her why she volunteers to help Kyle anyway. The next day, the girls stare at Zahra as she is asked to help Kyle cut some paper. Zahra makes a poor choice and stops helping Kyle, telling him to do it himself. Zahra has become a mean girl that she doesn’t even recognize. The next year, at a new school, Zahra has a chance to make different decisions and do better, and that’s just what she does.

The author of Amira’s Picture Day returns with a book based on her own experience as a child. It’s a look at a child who longs to be helpful but allows peer pressure to lead her away from who she sees herself being. The bullying nature is written so accurately, not overblown into something but kept slick and insidious. Zahra’s own response is honest and real, the shame of acting that way and not seeing a way forward. This book could have turned didactic very quickly and nicely shows a child making her own decisions and coming out of it having learned something about herself and who she intends to be.

The illustrations offer a diverse classroom. They use plenty of white space while expanding to larger images at times too. The children’s faces are done very effectively, showing a wide range of emotions.

Sure to create opportunities for discussion, this picture book gives space for children to make mistakes and recover from them. Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from copy provided by Eerdmans.

Not Little by Maya Myers

Cover image for Not Little.

Not Little by Maya Myers, illustrated by Hyewon Yum (9780823446193)

Dot is the smallest person in her family. Everybody thinks that she’s too little to do things, but they are all wrong. She can do all sorts of things. She’s also the smallest person in her class. People even ask if she is in preschool. That’s when she proves them wrong by talking about all the things that she knows. When a new student joins her class, Sam is even smaller than Dot is. He is quiet and seems to be afraid of Dot. At recess, she sees that the mean boy is talking to Sam, and it’s clear he isn’t being nice. Dot decides to sit with Sam at lunch, both to talk to him about the bully but also to measure and make sure she is taller. Before she can reach the table though, the mean boy is there again and he is saying that Sam is a baby! Sam slumps lower and lower, while Dot gets angrier and angrier. The bully then makes the mistake of calling Dot little. But Dot has found her voice and knows she needs to stand up as tall and brave as she can.

Myers captures the indignities of being small for your age with Dot. Beautifully, Dot uses her words to fight back at the stereotypes, both by demonstrating what she knows out loud and also in the end by standing up to a bully. Dot’s push back at being called “little” is cleverly handled, as is her desire to not be the smallest when Sam arrives. It’s all lovely and richly human.

Yum’s illustrations show a protagonist from a multiracial blended family. Dot dresses in polka dots with bright colors that draw the eye directly to her on the page. Even if she is sometimes the smallest thing on the page, she is the focal point.

A big hearted book for tall and small alike. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Neal Porter Books.

Harry Versus the First 100 Days of School by Emily Jenkins

Cover image for Harry Versus the First 100 Days of School.

Harry Versus the First 100 Days of School by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Pete Oswald (9780525644712)

This chapter book invites readers to experience the first 100 days of school alongside Harry. Harry has worries about his first day of school, helped quite a bit by his older sister showing him the way things work. He has a real fear of guinea pigs, a creature he believes is much more like a wild pig than the small furry rodent it actually is. Harry decides that his goal is to become an expert on something, though he isn’t sure what. Perhaps an expert on Fluff Monsters, a video game he loves. Harry quickly makes friends at school, surprising himself by who he actually gets closer to. He learns to set healthy boundaries with classmates who like to play jokes and also finds himself overcoming a lot of his fears along the way. In fact, he turns out to be an expert on quite a lot!

Award-winning author Jenkins sets exactly the right tone here. Throughout the book, there is humor that will have children immediately engaged and that is layered beautifully with empathy for Harry and the others in his class. Harry and his classmates are multidimensional characters who reveal themselves over the course of the book. Readers will laugh out loud at the humor here and be drawn deeply into the story of how Harry survives first grade.

The illustrations by Oswald work well to break up the text and make this a more approachable book for young readers. Oswald captures the diversity of Harry’s class and community. The urban setting is vibrant and colorful while the classroom is warm and inviting.

Funny and clever, this is just the right book for first graders and any others who may need a good giggle about school starting. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House Children’s Books.

Amira’s Picture Day by Reem Faruqi

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Amira’s Picture Day by Reem Faruqi, illustrated by Fahmida Azim (9780823440191)

It is Eid tomorrow, and Amira is thrilled. She gets her hands decorated by mehndi designs that she has to let dry from green to a rich brown. They also get to miss school tomorrow! Amira is happily helping her family make goody bags for the children at the masjid, when she sees the notice about tomorrow also being Picture Day at school. The class was going to be photographed all together and now Amira would miss it. The next morning, Amira got ready for Eid but still longed to wear the dress she had picked out for Picture Day. Once they were at the masjid, Amira was swept up in the celebration of Eid with lots of food, hugs and sharing of goody bags. But when the celebration ended, she once again thought about Picture Day. On their way home, Amira had a big idea that involved the leftover goody bags and maybe going to Picture Day after all.

Faruqi shows the push and pull of being Muslim in a country like the United States where children must miss school to celebrate holidays like Eid. When Eid which is based on the lunar calendar, falls on an important day at school, it can be very difficult for children. That’s what happens with Amira in the story and her navigation of it shows the tension between loving her family and her faith but also wanting to be part of her school community too. The book shows various parts of Eid without minimizing Amira’s wishing to be at school too.

Azim’s illustrations are bright and colorful. She shows the diversity in both the Muslim community as well as at Amira’s school. She creates great facial expressions as Amira navigates having to go to Eid and potentially miss out on Picture Day. Readers will clearly understand her happiness, wistfulness and pleasure at being able to find a solution.

A strong addition for school and public libraries that celebrates the diversity of children in our communities. Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from copy provided by Holiday House.

Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-to-Be Best Friend by Dawn Quigley

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Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-to-Be Best Friend by Dawn Quigley, illustrated by Tara Audibert (9780063015371)

Boozhoo! Welcome to a new chapter book series featuring an Ojibwe girl. Jo Jo has two best friends. There is Mimi, her pet cat, who may need to be saved from having to get shots. Then there is Fern, her school best friend, who has been acting a lot more distant lately. Jo Jo lives on the Ojibwe reservation with her mother and grandmother. Because Mimi must get shots soon, Jo Jo tucks her into her bookbag and takes Mimi to school with her. At school, they have to do a rhyming exercise that Jo Jo doesn’t get quite right. But when she tries to hide Mimi in her shirt and Mimi escapes, Jo Jo suddenly speaks in rhymes much to her teacher’s surprise. With Fern not being overly friendly, Jo Jo realizes she needs to start making new friends besides Mimi, so Jo Jo tries following her grandmother’s advice and being friendly to everyone. But its’ not that easy!

Written with a ton of humor that will have you laughing out loud, readers will immediately love Jo Jo with her unique view of the world. She’s a girl who thinks that her gym teacher’s name is “Jim” and doesn’t realize that words spelled alike sometimes don’t rhyme at all. Meanwhile, she is a great friend, a great artist, and just has to find her own unique way through life.

Quigley’s writing is just right for a chapter book. It pairs well with the illustrations which show Jo Jo and her series of misadventures through a few days in her life. From the chaos of Mimi in class to Jo Jo’s humorous art style to her attempts to be more friendly, all are captured in the images with humor and empathy.

A look the life of a modern young Ojibwe with plenty of giggles. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Heartdrum.

My First Day by Phung Nguyen Quang

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My First Day by Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien (9780593306260)

A boy heads out on his own to his first day of school. He lives on the Mekong River and takes a boat to school, this time all alone. He heads out as dawn is breaking in the sky, weaving along the river, through the waves, and entering the mangrove forest. The journey is long, with dark rainy weather at times that then becomes colorful skies. The forest is dark and seems to have creatures all over watching him travel. When he exits the forest, he can see fish skimming under the water, water buffalo along the shore, and soon his friends in their own boats heading to school!

Quang and Lien beautifully takes a universal experience of the first day of school and makes it unique to the Mekong Delta experience. Through this fascinating journey of natural wonder, the main character must be brave and resolute that he can do this by himself. The text is marvelous, quiet at times as the weather or the setting becomes oppressive and then soaring with relief and joy when the weather changes and his destination is in sight.

The illustrations are exceptional, drawing readers deep into the Mekong. The focus is on the boy’s experience, but the river itself is a character too. Its waters glimmer in the shallows with green light, darken with the rain, and are painted with algae green at the mouth of the forest. Dotted with lotus flowers, bubbles and cresting waves, the river and the boy experience this journey together.

A journey to school that is far more than crossing a busy street! Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy provided by Make Me a World.

Butterflies Belong Here by Deborah Hopkinson

Butterflies Belong Here by Deborah Hopkinson

Butterflies Belong Here by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Meilo So (9781452176802)

A Latina little girl has moved to the United States, discovering that she acts like a caterpillar and hides in the back of the class since she can’t speak English. In the summer, she looks for monarch butterflies, but can’t find any even in the community garden. In fall, she finishes her book about monarch butterflies. Able to read better now, she learns that the monarchs need milkweed to survive. Encouraged by her school librarian and inspired by the monarch’s migration, she forms a plan that she presents to her class. It’s hard to stand in front of the class and speak in English, but she really wants to plant a migration station for the monarch butterflies. Soon they are all working together, led by her, to create the station. She feels herself evolving now, into a citizen activist who stands at the front of the crowd.

The parallels between the narrator’s experience and that of the monarch butterfly offers a great framework for this picture book. Those connections are not overplayed, rather they form the reason that this little girl finds solace in studying butterflies. Interspersed throughout the book are excerpts from the nonfiction book on butterflies that she is reading. It’s a clever way to offer information in a separate and clear way.

The illustrations show a girl finding her way in a new country and a new city. The transformation in her body language as she becomes more confident and finds her voice is profound in the illustrations. By the end, she glows on the page alongside her garden.

An inspiring look at how to help butterflies but also how to find your voice. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy provided by Chronicle Books.

Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri

Cover image for Everything Sad Is Untrue

Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri (9781646140008)

Khosrou answers his teacher’s writing prompts with stories of his extended Persian family. He and his older sister and mother immigrated to Oklahoma, often living in a motel while staying away from his mother’s abusive new husband, who she marries and divorces multiple times. The other kids in his class don’t believe his stories. They are full of blood and poop, told by a boy who doesn’t speak or think like them who is unpopular and hairy and whose lunch smells bad. Khosrou’s stories though reveal where he came from, a home with birds in the walls and a family of huge wealth. They show how his mother and sister found Christianity, putting their lives at risk in Iran and the resulting loss of his father, his nation and their status. The story moves between life in Oklahoma, full of bullies and violence to the amazing setting of Iran filled with the smell of jasmine, epic grandparents, and color.

Closely tied to Scheherazade’s story telling in One Thousand and One Nights, this novel is remarkable. Nayeri beautifully uses that framework of a series of stories that lead one to the next, hinting at future tales and never stopping as they move forward. He incorporates stories at so many levels, from poop humor that is a welcome relief (pun intended) to stories of his family in Iran to stories of immense bravery to stories of abuse and fear. It’s a world of stories that shows the tangled lives of immigrants, from what they have lost to what they discover as well.

Nayeri tells his own personal story here. It’s tie to his own childhood is clear, giving the stories an honesty that shines through even when the story is fantastic and wild. The book is like a woven Persian tapestry, though I don’t see the single fault that Nayeri has woven into it. It’s complete and marvelous, a rug of jewels that can still be walked on by us all.

A journey of a book that deeply shows the experience of an Iranian immigrant. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from library copy.