The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illustrated by Oge Mora (9781524768287)
Born a slave in the mid-1800’s, Mary was not allowed to learn to read. Even when emancipation came, she was unable to learn to read because she and all of her time was used in making very little money. When a group of evangelists gave her a Bible, she promised herself that one day she would be able to read it. All three of her sons’ births were recorded in that Bible by other people who could read and write. Mary could only leave her mark by the words. After a lifetime of hard work, Mary became too old to sharecrop any longer and took on other jobs like cleaning and babysitting. At well past ninety years old, Mary’s sons read to her but they each passed away, her oldest son dying at age ninety-four. Mary lived on and learned of reading classes taught in her building. She spent the next year learning to read, and finally could read at age 116. She was awarded the title of the nation’s oldest student by the US Department of Education and went on to receive many gifts, some from Presidents of the United States.
Hubbard cleverly fills in the details of Mary Walker’s early life since very little is known about it. It is a fact that she had her Bible for over 100 years before she could actually read it. It is also a fact that she learned to read that quickly. Chattanooga, Tennessee gave her the key to the city twice in the 1960’s and has a historical marker in her name. Her life stands for the ability to learn at any age, the resilience of surviving slavery, and the power of the written word to bring opportunity into your life. Beautifully, the book doesn’t need to lecture on any of those values, Mary’s life simply speaks on its own.
Mora’s art is done in mixed media of acrylic paint, marker, pencil, paper and book clippings. She uses a heavily textured and painted background in some images that sweeps the sky across the pages. In others, patterns and words fill the space offering glimpses of her future long before she could actually read.
This picture book based on a true story is inspiring. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy provided by Schwartz & Wade.
Cub by Cynthia Copeland (9781616208486)
This graphic novel looks at life in middle school during the 1970’s, a time filled with bullies, bell bottoms, and possibilities. Cindy is in seventh grade and dealing with being one of the prey in a school with plenty of predators, particularly mean girls. Cindy plays dead and doesn’t react to the comments of people like Evie Exley, so they leave her alone. Cindy loves reading and creating art, so when her favorite English teacher suggests that she become a writer, Cindy jumps at the chance. Soon she is working as a cub reporter for the local paper, accompanying a real reporter to meetings and events around the community. She starts taking photographs and learns to edit her writing to be appropriate for a newspaper. She also finds her voice and a group of friends who are just as unique as she is.
Middle school can be painful but this graphic novel is a breath of fresh air. While it does address the larger issues of middle school bullying, it is truly about simply being yourself in the midst of it all and finding other kids who are doing the same thing. There is a touch of romance here, but only a touch that is just right for the seventh grade setting. The focus on self-esteem and following your dreams is a call for all young girls to find their own paths and then work hard to reach their goals. Cindy is an example of someone who makes mistakes, learns from them, improves and reaches goals that she may not have realized she even had in the beginning.
The art in this graphic novel is immensely approachable, embracing the seventies setting with fashion, hair styles, and the cars being driven. The time period is a large part of the story as Watergate is breaking just as Cindy starts being a cub reporter. Journalism is an inspiring profession both in the seventies and today, something that is worth commenting on in today’s world.
A graphic novel with a strong female protagonist who follows her own dreams. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Algonquin Young Readers.
Sunny Rolls the Dice by Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm (9781338233155)
This third in the Sunny series of graphic novels continues the story of Sunny, who is growing up in the 1970s. Sunny is starting middle school and things with her friends are becoming more and more confusing. There is the mystery of hair rollers, the unspoken rules of being a girl like when a boy bumps you he’s showing he likes you and that even if girls talk about boys all the time, it’s not OK to be friends with them. But there are things that make perfect sense to Sunny, like playing Dungeons & Dragons with her group of friends, who are mostly boys. When that too ends up being forbidden in middle school, Sunny must decide if she wants to be groovy or wants to be herself.
As someone of almost the exact same age as Sunny in the 1970s, one of the most charming parts of this series is how much of the seventies is captured in the stories without it becoming unnecessarily retro. I also love the inclusion of Dungeons & Dragons. Sunny is a girl after my own heart as I played a paladin always. The fact that D&D bridges from the seventies to today is impressive. The tone is just right as well, offering moments of real humor and empathy in the middle school years. As always, the art is right on, with the failures of Sunny to curl her hair, the beauty of tight Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, and the quiet loveliness of a paneled basement for gaming.
Bright and funny, this is another great book in the series. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.
Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds (9781481438285)
In ten separate but linked stories, award-winning author Reynolds creates an entire neighborhood of ten blocks. The book begins, and refers throughout, with a school bus falling from the sky. There is one story per block, different kids on each block living their lives, going to school, facing various things in their futures, pasts and presents. There are best-friend boogers, petty theft for a good cause, complicated but important handshakes, stand-up comedy, body odor and body spray, and fake dogs. It’s a book about what happens after school, whether it is friendship or bullying, loneliness or comfort.
This one deserves a medal. Period. It’s one of those books that reads so easily, since it’s written with such skill. The voices of the characters are varied but all intensely realistic and vibrantly human. Reynolds plays with the reader but invites them into the joy of the joke, showing the layers of what children are and what they feel and do. He demonstrates that ten times here, always deeply exploring each character before moving on to the next and celebrating them.
The stories arc together moving from humor to pain to loss to fear to freedom and everywhere in between. The characters form a community on the page, streets unfold before the reader and they get to journey them with friends they just met opening the book. The final chapters are masterful, the text moving from narrative to spoken word to rap. The rhythm of the book throughout is a dance, here it becomes a heartbeat of life.
Look for this incredible read to win some big awards this spring. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.
Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy (9780062473097)
Sweet Pea’s parents have gotten a divorce and came up with the brilliant idea of living just one house away from one another on the same street to make it easier on Sweet Pea. The houses are decorated very similarly too, particularly Sweet Pea’s room in each of them. In between the two houses is one that belongs to the town’s resident advice columnist, a woman known to be eccentric and a loner. So when she asks Sweet Pea to be responsible for picking up her mail and sending it to her, it’s a big surprise. As Sweet Pea’s own life continues to get more complicated with friend issues and her mother starting to date, she keeps one secret all her own. She has started to reply to some of the letters asking for advice herself!
This is Murphy’s first foray into middle grade writing and it’s a great way to start! In Sweet Pea, she has created a female protagonist who isn’t obsessed with boys, isn’t thinking about hair and makeup, and is much more concerned with her family, her cat and her friends. Sweet Pea is funny, intelligent and brave. She also procrastinates, takes a few too many risks, and fails sometimes at friendship. She is also not a small girl, all of which makes her a breath of fresh air in middle grade books.
As always, Murphy’s writing is light and readable even when dealing with large emotions or issues. In one of the best scenes of the book, Sweet Pea pukes at a birthday party she crashed. The scene offers humor mixed with deep empathy and then addresses the bravery it takes to return to school afterwards. This book is all about giving people second (and even third) chances, including yourself.
The author of Dumplin’ has another winner here. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.
Guts by Raina Telgemeier (9780545852517)
This is the third book in Telgemeier’s autobiographical series that started with Smile and Sisters. Raina has an upset stomach one night and throws up, but her mother has the same problem, so it’s most likely a stomach bug. But with Raina, the stomach ache doesn’t go away. She is a quiet, self-conscious and shy girl dealing with the ins and outs of school and friendships. As Raina starts to grow anxious about vomiting, eating the wrong foods, and general things in life, her stomach gets worse. Once she starts seeing a therapist, she learns techniques to help her cope with her panic and help her face her fears.
It’s great to see Telgemeier return to stories of her own life. Her storytelling is strong and vivid with a story arc that reveals the impact of anxiety on a child’s life but also offers an empowering view of how to move forward and regain control. Her sense of humor is also on display here even about her own anxieties. As always, her art is approachable and inviting.
Expect even more Raina fans after this third book in the series! Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.
Back to School by Maya Ajmera and John D. Ivanko (9781580898379)
Filled with incredible photographs, this nonfiction picture book explores the different ways that children attend school throughout the world. Some children are homeschooled, others are taught at night, still others study in crowded classrooms. Children take different transportation to school from buses to camels to boats. Some children wear uniforms to school while others wear regular clothes. In all schools though, you learn math and reading. You understand the world better; you make friends.
The text of this book is simple and straight-forward, making it just right for even the youngest children heading to school. Each photograph adds to the larger story of going to school by explaining what is happening in each vivid image and what country the children are from. The photographs are stunning, filled with children from across the globe and offering real glimpses into their lives at school.
Just right for starting a new school year, this is a smile-filled joyous look at learning. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Charlesbridge.
So Big! by Mike Wohnoutka (9781547600793)
A very positive picture book about first-day jitters when starting school. Bear is “so big,” a refrain that carries through the entire book. He is big enough to get himself dressed. He is so big that he can make his own breakfast too. He packs his own bag, ties his shoes, and heads out to the bus stop. But when the bus gets there, it is so big! The kids around him are big too. So is the large school. Bear is worried and sits down on the steps. There he notices a smaller child hesitating to go in too. The two join hands and head into the big school together where they discover that it’s not too big after all.
Wohnoutka’s story is told in the simplest of words by repeating “so big” and other phrases multiple times. It’s a story about confidence that starts strong, is lost along the way and rediscovered too. The bravery that it takes to try something completely new and then the resilience that is necessary to keep moving forward even when scared is shown deftly in this simple story.
The art is bright and centers entirely on Bear and the other children. Perspective is used very effectively to show how large the bus, the children and the school appear to a small child. Other times when he is more confident, Bear takes up space on the page and the perspective shifts to allow that.
Great for first day jitters, this book is simple and effective. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.
Truman by Jean Reidy, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins (9781534416642)
Truman is a small urban turtle. He’s about the size of a donut and lives with Sarah high above the busy streets filled with taxis and buses. He is very happy spending quiet time with Sarah. But then one day, Sarah seems different. She is wearing a bow in her hair, a new sweater and has a big backpack. She even gives him some extra green beans as a treat. Before Sarah leaves, she touches Truman and tells him to be brave. And down on the street, Sarah boards a bus for the first time! Truman tries to wait for Sarah to return, but she is gone much longer than she ever has been before. So Truman finds a way out of his aquarium and makes a long journey towards the apartment door. He is being brave and will find Sarah!
Reidy tells a first day of school story from the point of view of a pet left behind by a child. It’s a wonderful answer to what pets do when children leave for school and will also speak to younger siblings being left behind at home when their older siblings head to school. The emotions of Truman are clearly conveyed and his worry is tangible even though readers will know exactly what is actually happening.
Cummins’ illustrations play with perspective nicely as Truman’s point of view is shared as well as views of the busy city street below the apartment. Big and bold, the illustrations show Truman’s limited world grow bigger and bigger as he explores the apartment landscape alone.
A look at bravery and the deep love of a pet, even a small, green one. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.