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.
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.
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.
Stephen loves his Brooklyn neighborhood and spending time with his best friend Dan. Most of the time he doesn’t even notice that he’s Black and Dan is white. But when Dan’s cousin Chad moves nearby, he starts taunting Stephen for being a coward. As Chad dares him to enter an abandoned building, Stephen realizes that he’s the only Black kid in the group. Lately people have been reacting differently to him, now that he’s in sixth grade. People in the neighborhood suspect him first, assume he’s doing something wrong, and watch him in ways that they don’t Dan and Chad. Stephen begins to learn more about being Black in America, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the fact that there are different rules for Black children and teens. But Stephen doesn’t want to be assigned to a lane and stuck there. Is there a way for him to make his own lane with all of his friends, Black and white, included?
Maldonado has written a powerful story that unflinchingly shows the racism inherent in our society, the differences between the ways that white children and Black children are treated, and the dangers faced by Black teens in particular. The inclusion of Black Lives Matter and the focus on the many Black young people who have been killed by police is powerful, strongly tying this fictional story to reality. The realization of Stephen as becomes treated differently by others is shone with empathy and a call for social justice.
The characters here are well drawn. Maldonado shows how being a white ally looks in practice through Dan, how being a non-ally looks in Chad, and the power of friendship across races. But this is not shown as a solution for the systemic racism that he also shows with clarity. It’s a book that will inspire conversation that is necessary.
Powerful and thought-provoking, this look at identity and race belongs in all libraries. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Twins by Varian Johnson, illustrated by Shannon Wright (9781338236132)
Maureen and Francine are twins who have always been in the same classes, participated in the same activities and had the same group of friends. But sixth grade is different. The girls are in different classes and don’t even spend a lot of time together after school any more. Maureen finds herself hanging out with their friends at the mall but not with Francine, who’d rather be called Fran now. Maureen is struggling with marching for the cadet troop she is part of, so in order get extra credit for her grade, she is encouraged to run for a class office. Fran too is planning to run for president. So the battle grounds are set when Maureen decides to run for president too to prove that she can be just as brave and outgoing as Fran. The problem is that she might not be after all!
In this graphic novel, Johnson, himself a twin, captures the dynamics of close siblings perfectly. The two sisters go back and forth between adoration, supportiveness, strife and anger. It makes for a dynamic book that really looks at the differences between twins, the way feelings get hurt and how that can play out in larger decisions. That difference between the two girls is explored throughout the book, giving it layers and eventually showing how differences can make them both stronger for each other too.
I reviewed this from an unfinished galley, so my copy did not have full-color images throughout. The art throughout the graphic novel shows the relationship between the two girls and their emotions clearly. The pages are filled with diverse characters.
Sure to be popular, this graphic novel appears light but has lots of depth to explore about sisterhood. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Lou loves to sing, but she hates to perform. Truly hates it, complete with panic attacks. A large part of it is that she doesn’t deal well with loud noises, so applause causes her real distress. But Lou’s mother insists that Lou is their way out of the financial problems they are in. Currently living in their truck, Lou and her mother look for her big break when Lou performs at a local coffee shop. Just as things seem to be going their way though, an accident leads to social services discovering how Lou and her mother have been living. Soon Lou is being sent across the country to stay with an aunt and uncle she hasn’t seen since she was a young child. Enrolled in a fancy school, Lou misses her mother horribly even though she now has her own room, plenty to eat and adults who love her. With a new friend who insists she joins theater, Lou starts to see a new future for herself, though she’s not sure where her mother fits in.
The author of Roll with It returns with another story about a child with special needs. Lou’s sensory processing disorder plays a large role in the story and in the way that she feels about herself, too. From riding on planes to appearing on stage to letting her voice be heard, it is all more difficult for Lou. Lou’s special need is portrayed with empathy as is the homelessness that Lou and her mother experience and the other struggles that her mother faces.
Throughout the book there is a sense of hope, a feeling that there are adults around to help. Whether it is social workers, school counselors, teachers or relatives, Lou is surrounded by adults willing and able to help her move forward and make big decisions about her life. Still, while they lend a supportive hand, it is Lou who makes her own decisions, challenges herself, and finds her own unique path.
A deep look at a child with a disability, poverty and community. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
This sequel to All Summer Long continues the story of Bina and her band. This new graphic novel shows the drama of middle school friendships and how that can be made even worse by adding in band dynamics. At first, Bina loves being in a band with her best friend, Darcy. But when Enzo joins them, she starts to feel like she’s being pushed out of her own band! It gets even worse when Darcy and Enzo become romantically involved. As they try to change Darcy’s music, Darcy decides to leave the band. Meanwhile, she is realizing that her next-door neighbor and friend, Austin, has a crush on her. Bina though doesn’t feel the same way. It’s a lot to navigate as a middle schooler and it leads to one epic punk reaction that results in Bina starting to speak out for herself.
So often sequels are not as good as the first. Here, the story gets even stronger as we get to see Bina grow into her own voice and her own musical stance. The addition of band drama into the huge changes already happening in middle school makes for true drama that is not overplayed here, but creates moments for growth and self-reflection with some rock and roll thrown in.
Larson’s art is as great and approachable as ever. Done in a limited color palette of black, white and a dusky purple. The art invites readers right into Darcy’s private world, her music and the band.
A rocking sequel that will have fans of the first happily dancing along. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from copy provided by Farrar Straus Giroux.
Ross desperately just wants to be normal, but that isn’t working out for him. After being diagnosed with a rare eye cancer, he has a permanent wink. He goes for treatments each week, making friends with an old guy who is always there as well as with one of the technicians who is desperate to improve Ross’ taste in music. Meanwhile at school, he is steadily becoming stranger as his hair starts to fall out in clumps, he has to use gloppy creams, and he starts to wear a hat all the time. He’s the opposite of normal and the bully in his class definitely notices. But even as he gets further from normal, he starts to figure some things out, like how great it feels to play the guitar even if your fingers are ready to bleed, how amazing it is to play in a band, and how a ton of humor can get you through almost anything.
Based on the author’s personal story, this book takes a unique look at a cancer journey. Harrell’s book is downright hilarious, never allowing the book become too full of the harrowing nature of having a rare cancer and the impacts of the treatment. Ross and Rob are too funny to let that happen, incorporating the adventures of Batpig to help. Through all of the humor a poignancy shines through, allowing those moments of serious crisis to really stand out with their importance and yet also their impermanence.
The book is filled with comic pages, art, and notes. It has hair clumps, face goop, music mixes and more. These graphic elements help to break up the text but also really demonstrate Ross’ skill with art and his quirky sense of humor as he deals with his cancer.
Funny, sarcastic and honest, this is a cancer book with laughter and head-banging music, not tears. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
A little girl tells her mother that she won’t be going back to school because no one could say her name, not even her teacher. So her mother explains that names are actually songs, and offers various examples, each accompanied by phonetic help in pronouncing them. The little girl goes on to explain the bullying behavior of some of the other students, pretending to choke on her name. Her mother explains that some names are not pronounced in the throat, but in the heart. Some of the children at school were scared of her name too, but her mother explains that certain names contain fire because they are so strong. What about the children who said her name was made up? Names come from dreamers who create new names when old ones were stolen, explains her mother. The next day, the little girl heads back to school, ready to sing her name for her teacher and class.
This picture book is completely inspiring, both for children with unique or unusual names but also for teachers and classmates to help lead everyone to inclusion of diversity in their classrooms. I love the help in pronouncing the rainbow of names shared in the story, particularly when that same pronunciation help extends to names that are not unusual such as Benjamin, Olivia and Ms. Anderson. It’s a clever way to show that we all have interesting names and we have learned to pronounce them all.
The illustrations show a diverse class of children in an urban setting as the little girl and her mother walk home together. As her confidence in her name grows, the world around becomes filled with colors, streaks of pinks and golds, clouds of pastel. These same bursts of cloud and fire return when she goes to school, declaring her griot-inspired name for everyone: Kora-Jalimuso.
A book that shows how powerful inclusion is, simply by saying someone’s name with care and conviction. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Innovation Press.