I Will Be Fierce by Bea Birdsong, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani (9781250295088)
A young girl heads out into her day telling herself that today she will be fierce! She dons her clothes as her armor and bravely heads outside into the day. She is undaunted as a pack of dogs out on a walk bound towards her, charming them with bubbles she blows and imagining them as dragons. She waits for the bus with bigger kids, giants that she dares to be near. She heads to the library to learn and explore even more, thinking of the school librarian as the “Guardian of Wisdom.” She stands up to bullies in the cafeteria and makes a new friend. She talks in class even when she feels shy. Now she just has to be fierce again tomorrow!
Written in strong declarative sentences, this picture book is filled with energy and a sense of taking action. The unnamed protagonist of the book is a little girl of color who takes large and small risks throughout her day, including just getting on the school bus. Throughout her day, readers will see her getting all the more strong and fierce, meeting bigger challenges. The illustrations are vibrant and bright with the girl’s rainbow top glowing on every page. The other children at school represent a broad look at diversity too.
This strong picture book offers encouragement for children to be brave and to be themselves. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Roaring Brook Press.
The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins by Gail Shepherd (9780525428459)
Lyndie is definitely not a good Southern girl, much to her grandmother’s despair. She tends to find trouble easily and not make friends quickly. When her father loses his job, they move in with his parents. Lady, Lyndie’s grandmother, has specific ideas of how Lyndie should act and even creates a strict schedule for her that gives her no free time. But somehow on Lyndie’s first day of school, she finds an injured fawn on the way to school and ends up not making it to school that day. Lyndie’s best friend is a do-gooder whose family takes in a boy from a local juvenile detention facility. As Lyndie gets to know him, they become friends and share secrets with one another. When Lyndie chooses to put family before friends, she could lose everyone.
The voice in this novel is unique and confident. Set in 1985, the characters are grappling with the impact of the Vietnam War on the men in their community. The book looks at the results of the war and how one suicide can ripple through several families. Shepherd does not make this simple or easy, she allows it to stand in all of its complexity and gives us a young history buff to explore it with.
Shepherd creates an entire world in her writing, one that invites readers in to deeply feel for and cheer for Lyndie even as she makes plenty of mistakes and missteps. Lyndie is a champion though, and readers will completely understand her motivations as she chooses one direction or another. Happily, Lyndie is her own person, filling her days with the history of the region, exploring news on microfilm, and finding ways to live in a new home with rigid expectations.
An exceptional debut novel that invites readers to care just as deeply as Lyndie does. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Kathy Dawson Books.
New Kid by Jerry Craft (9780062691200)
All Jordan wanted to do was go to art school, but instead his parents decided to send him to a private school full of opportunities for his future. Starting the school in seventh grade on financial aid, Jordan is also one of the only students of color there. Jordan is soon trying to figure out how to navigate from his Washington Heights neighborhood to the Riverdale Academy Day School. As he travels to school, he steadily changes his outfit to fit in more. He also does code switching to fit in better. Still, with some teachers it doesn’t work at all and they continually get his name wrong as well as that of other kids of color. As Jordan’s frustration grows, it shows in his art as he creates pointed social critiques of a school he is starting to really enjoy though he wonders if he will ever fit in.
This is one of the best books for middle school age that deals with microaggressions, bias, privilege, and racism. Given that it is a graphic novel too, that makes it all the more appealing as a source for discussion. Craft takes on all of these issues with a forthright tone, frustration and a willingness to engage. He doesn’t make all of the white people clueless, but many of them are just like in real life. Jordan’s struggle to codeswitch and fit in is beautifully conveyed in the art and story line.
Jordan serves as a catalyst in the school, crossing lines to make new friends, avoiding the school bully, and having serious conversations with other kids. At the same time, the book is filled with humor, which offsets the serious tone about racial and biased incidents which are never laughed off. The inclusion of all sorts of pop culture references makes the book all the more fun to read.
A strong and compelling work of graphic fiction. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord (9780545914246)
Emma is about to start public school for the first time as a fifth grader after being home schooled. On the evening before her first day of school, her father, a game warden, gets a call about a rabbit stuck in someone’s fence. Emma goes with her father on the call and discovers that it’s not a wild rabbit after all, but a domesticated bunny. Emma and her father take the bunny home and plan to turn it over to a shelter the next day. Then Emma must start school where she has plans to find the perfect best friend. However, things don’t go as planned and Emma is paired on a school project with Jack. Jack has problems paying attention in class, speaks when it isn’t his turn, and loves to talk about animal facts. Jack isn’t the friend that Emma is looking for. As Emma struggles to distance herself from Jack and get closer to the girls in her class, she is also learning more about herself along the way.
Lord once again has created a very readable book for older elementary readers. She perfectly captures the stress of going from a home-school environment to a public school classroom as well as the high expectations to find a best friend. As Emma works to manage her high expectations, she discovers that she is also being bullied by a girl in her class who is also mean to Jack. Still, it is not that simple to accept Jack as a friend, because he is different and has troubles, and yet, he may be the exact friend that Emma needs.
Emma is a complex character, which is very impressive given the short length of this novel. As she moves to a public school, she shows her gentleness with her rabbit, her love of family, and her deep longing for a true friend. She grapples with being pushed to work with Jack, being lied to by a classmate, and then finding herself being mean to Jack behind his back. Friendship is not simple!
An appealing read that will hop right into your heart. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic Press.
A Friend for Henry by Jenn Bailey, illustrated by Mika Song (9781452167916)
In his classroom, Henry is looking to make a new friend. It can’t be the class pet, because Gilly the fish can’t play on the swings. It can’t be his teacher. As Henry considers different children in his class, he realizes that some of them are too colorful even when you try to do something nice for them. Others don’t listen very well, like a friend would. Other kids break the rules or play with worms. Henry found himself watching Gilly in her fishbowl. Katie is watching Gilly too. Henry thinks about Katie. The two play blocks together quietly and Katie listens to Henry and he listens to her. They play together but each in their own way. It’s just right.
Bailey has written a captivating story about a boy with particular needs and wants in a friend. Henry has strong opinions about friends, ones that make him angry when they are dismissed. When Henry gets too frustrated he ends up in a bit of trouble at school. It is great to see a book embrace the deep emotions of children and not label any of them as wrong. Henry doesn’t have to change at all to find a friend, he just needs some patience.
Song’s illustrations are simple and warm. They depict a diverse classroom of children, all possible friends for Henry to consider. Done in ink and watercolor, they show everyone’s emotions throughout the day very clearly through body language and facial expressions.
A lovely look at the emotions of finding a friend. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Chronicle Books.
The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu (9780062275097)
The author of The Real Boy and Breadcrumbs returns with a new marvelous read for middle graders. Lark and Iris are twins. It’s the thing that everyone notices about them. They are very different underneath their physical similarities. Iris is rational, protective and always willing to argue. Lark is dreamy, creative and sensitive. When the two girls are separated for the first time into different classrooms at school, Lark retreats into herself. She has several humiliating experiences that Iris can’t find a way to help with. Meanwhile, Iris finds herself being quieter without Lark to speak up for and has difficulty finding her own way. She is drawn to a strange new antiques shop and begins to spend time there reading old books that belonged to a mysterious “Alice.” The man in the shop is extremely odd, talking about magic and collections. Other odd things are happening as well with art disappearing around the city and crows gathering in the trees. When Iris finds herself in real danger, the mysteries begin to make horrible sense, but she isn’t sure that anyone will even care she is gone.
Ursu once again weaves an incredible tale of magic. This one is set in Minneapolis and Ursu beautifully shares elements of the northern Midwest and the Twin Cities in the story. The setting of anchors this tale in reality which works particularly well as the reveal of the magical part of the book is so gradual. The book is nearly impossible to summarize well or concisely because there are so many elements to the story. As you read though, it is a cohesive whole, a world that Ursu builds for the reader with real skill where the elements click together by the end of the book.
While the book is about both Lark and Iris, the focus is primarily on Iris, the more prickly and outspoken sister. Lark is seen through the lens of Iris’ concern for her and Lark’s opinion of her own role with her sister isn’t shared until towards the end of the book. That reveal is one of the most powerful elements of the book, demonstrating how Iris has not been seeing things clearly at all. The narrator voice is just as well done, creating a feeling of a tale within a tale, where magic is real all along.
A grand adventure of a book full of magic and girl power. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Walden Pond Press.
Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt (9780544790858)
Carter’s family is a bit of a mess. On their first day of school, there are lunches to pack, socks to find, ribbons to tie, and dog vomit to clean up. So when an English butler appears on the doorstep just as Carter is heading out to buy milk, it solves a lot of immediate problems. Still, there are other issues that Carter is still grappling with, including grief and loss. As the story continues, readers learn more about the darkness in Carter’s family and his role as the oldest to be strong for everyone. As Carter matches wits with the butler who seeks to control all of Carter’s free time, the two become a team and along the way start a cricket league at Carter’s new school. As the past becomes too much for Carter to bear alone, he learns about the power of sports, teams and a good butler.
Schmidt takes the spirit of Nanny McPhee and Mary Poppins and gives us a male version in Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick. The book demands a certain amount of setting aside of disbelief for things like cricket being embraced by an entire middle school and a twelve-year-old driving a car. It is mix of lighthearted storytelling and deeper subjects, moving from eliciting laughter into moments of real tragedy with skill. Readers may not fully understand cricket by the end, but will know what a sticky wicket actually is and how the basics work.
Carter is a protagonist who is dealing with a lot. As the book progresses, he learns how vital he is for his little sisters and how his interacting in their lives is powerful. He steadily builds confidence as the story continues with the final scenes fully demonstrating not only his person growth but also the depth of his struggles. As the tragedies of his family are revealed, readers will be amazed that Carter continues on as he does despite it all. He is a figure of resilience and humor.
Another winner from a master storyteller, this novel for middle graders introduces cricket and one amazing butler. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Clarion Books.
It Wasn’t Me by Dana Alison Levy (9781524766450)
When Theo’s photographs are vandalized at school, he and five other seventh graders spend their spring break doing a Justice Circle. Theo is angry that he has to spend time with the people who may have ruined his photos but also scared that that person targeted him enough to also spoil his pinpoint camera project the next day. But as the Justice Circle works, the five of them discover ways to make new connections: sock puppets, yoga-ball soccer, and lots of candy. Still, as the end of the week nears, no one has confessed to being the vandal and Theo is getting more and more stressed. When one more of his projects is ruined that week, he is convinced he knows the perpetrator. But does he?
Levy’s middle-grade novel cleverly mirrors The Breakfast Club and yet also takes the format in a different direction by adding a mystery. Readers will quickly make assumptions about the different teens themselves. Was it the jock? The weirdo? The goody-goody? The invisible kid? The screwup? One of them has to be the culprit. Still, as the week goes on, readers will question those initial opinions and learn that there is more to each of the characters than a single label.
Strongly written and compellingly paced, this novel is a fascinating look at how justice can be done in a school setting without the use of detentions or suspensions. It asks readers to look deeply at the characters, to join Theo on his journey of learning about the others. As the characters reveal more about themselves, they become all the more human and interesting, and they might just become friends too.
A great novel about the complexities of being a seventh grader and the truths you hide. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Delacorte Books for Young Readers.
Building Books by Megan Wagner Lloyd, illustrated by Brianne Farley (9781524773687)
Katie loved to build with blocks, from the noises that they made to the way they wobbled and then fell. Most of all, Katie loved building something new. Owen loved reading books, from the smell of the paper to the rustle of turned pages. Most of all, Owen loved reading something new. The two argued about which was best and then the school librarian stepped in. She gave Katie a stack of books to read and Owen a stack of books to shelve. Katie couldn’t settle in and read at all. So she started to build with the books until after a very large topple of a tower, a book on castle engineering caught her eye. Owen meanwhile was reading the books he was supposed to shelve. But then he noticed that books could balance on one another and soon he was building with them. The two admitted to each other that the other had been right, but then they come together and put building and stories into one big idea.
Lloyd writes the stories of each child in parallel with one another. The rhythms and patterns of each of their experiences match one another, creating a great structure for the book. The intervention of the librarian amusingly does not go as she plans, with the children taking their own approach to everything. Beautifully, it isn’t until Katie discovers just the right book for her that the world of reading opens up. Meanwhile, Owen is having a similar experience with building.
The illustrations by Farley add so much to the story. He manages to create amazing structures out of blocks and books, including elephants and giraffes that will have readers looking closely at them and wondering if they could actually be built. The final pages with the two children working together is also incredible. I also love the librarian’s response to what she has inadvertently created.
Funny and accepting, this book shows the power of reading and how it can build into something brand new. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Alfred A. Knopf.