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.
The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (9781524740740)
So many picture books about starting kindergarten focus on the stress and worries of the child. Here is a picture book that looks at a confident child who manages to start his time at school without stressing out. The little boy at the center of this book thinks of himself as a king and using at confidence to face his first day at school. He gets dressed himself, eats a big breakfast, and takes his royal carriage (the bus) to school. Once he is there, he holds his head high and smiles at everyone, just like his Mommy told him. He introduces himself to his new teacher and to the other children at his table. He likes his teacher, plays with the other kids, and has a great time. At the end of the day, he can’t wait to tell his parents about what happened and looks forward to the next day of school too.
This book is entirely refreshing in its approach to the first day of school. Barnes doesn’t just feature a confident young man but he also shows that the parents have been instrumental is getting this child to feel empowered. There is a focus too on joining a community of learners and being a good friend. The book is written in second person, which clearly invites readers to feel this confident themselves.
The illustrations are colorful with deep and bright backgrounds that show the different scenes. The class is made up of diverse children and exudes a wonderful inclusive warmth on the page. There is a sense of discovery about the wonders of school as the book continues.
One of the most positive books about kindergarten I’ve ever read. This one is a must buy! Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Nancy Paulsen Books.
Operatic by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler (9781554989720)
A middle grade graphic novel that focuses on the power of music and opera? Yes please! This innovative graphic novel tells the story of Charlie, who has an assignment to find her own personal perfect song. Her music class listens to all sorts of musical genres but the one that resonates with Charlie (and no one else in her class) is the music of opera singer Maria Callas. As Charlie searches for her song, she is thinking of two classmates. There is Emile, who is quiet and intriguing. Then there is the empty desk left by Luka, who was targeted and bullied for his gender nonconformity. As Charlie finds her song, she also discovers her inner diva and the ability to empower those around her.
Maclear’s story is all about the impact that music, specifically the right music at the right time, can have on one’s life. She writes with a deep empathy for young people finding their own way through middle school, focusing on the importance of friends but also on reaching out to others and helping them too. The book is filled with emotion and connection that exemplifies youth and hope.
Eggenschwiler’s art is exceptional. He creates images that perfectly capture the emotions of have a crush on someone, or feeling certain ways in your group of friends. The illustrations move through various single-colors as their main palette from yellows to blues to reds and back. Filled with individuality and creativity, the illustrations are interesting and unique.
A great graphic novel for middle grades, this one speaks to each person being both an individual and a member of the community. Appropriate for ages 11-14.
Reviewed from library copy.