The Word for Friend by Aidan Cassie (9780374310462)
Kemala, the pangolin, loved everything that was new and different when they moved. There were new foods, new smells, new clothing to admire. But there was also a new language to learn. When Kemala headed to school, she realized that no one could understand her. So she curled into a ball in dismay. She stayed that way until recess, when she climbed high in a tree to get away from everyone. She sat on a branch cutting animals out of leaves, until Ana found her there. Kemala showed Ana how to cut leaves too, and Ana loved it even though she made a big mess. While Kemala didn’t want to go back to school at all, she steadily found herself learning a new language with Ana’s help, particularly through animals they cut out. Until finally, Kemala is brave enough to try talking to the entire class.
Cassie has written a universal book about friendship, belonging and learning a new language. She wisely chose Esperanto as Kemala’s new language in the book. Esperanto is not associated with a specific country, so Kemala could be moving anywhere in the world. Cassie gives the entire story room to breathe a bit, offering time for Kemala to relax and start to learn in a very believable way. The connection with one specific kind friend is also great to see, as well as a tactile way for them to connect with one another without speaking at first.
The art is welcoming and friendly with all sorts of unusual animals in the class that Kemala joins. The choice of pangolin as a main character works particularly well, both her connection with her mother but also when she gets overwhelmed, the ability to just curl up protectively.
A great book to talk about language learners and welcoming new students to school. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.
Our Favorite Day of the Year by A. E. Ali, illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell (9781481485630)
When Musa started kindergarten, his teacher explained that the other children around him would become his new friends. Musa wasn’t sure about that, they were strangers! His teacher also said that her favorite day of the year was the first day of school and that show-and-tell that year would center around each child’s favorite day of the year. Musa was thrilled, he knew that everyone would pick Eid along with him! Musa soon found out that the other children celebrated different holidays. A few weeks later, Musa and his mother brought in food and told the class about Eid. On Mo’s turn, he talked about celebrating Rosh Hashanah. Moises explained that his family celebrated Los Posadas on Christmas. Kevin’s family of scientists enjoyed celebrating Pi Day with plenty of pie. Each child had their own celebrations and all the children got to learn about one another’s cultures in a very celebratory way.
Ali’s story is focused on inclusion and demonstrates how that can look in a classroom filled with children from various cultures, countries and faiths. The story is straight forward and powerful, clearly showing that not all children celebrate Christmas and even when they do, it may not look the same. Readers will enjoy seeing not only the celebrations shared in the story, but others shown on the class calendar.
Bell’s illustrations are done digitally but also incorporate handmade textures, giving them a marvelous organic quality that warms them. The children and families here are diverse with multiracial families, grandparents raising children, and gay parents represented in the story.
A beautiful look at diversity and inclusion through family celebrations and holidays. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Salaam Reads.
Something to Say by Lisa Moore Ramée (9780062836717)
Jenae goes through life being invisible. It’s her own superpower, just like her favorite show, Astrid Dane. At school she is entirely ignored, and she prefers it that way. Her family is different, though with her mother always rushing, her brother’s injury and her grandfather’s health problems, Jenae can end up invisible there too. So it’s very strange when the new boy at school notices Jenae immediately. Aubrey is also different from the other kids. He too loves Astrid Dane. But Jenae isn’t looking for a friend at all. She keeps pushing Aubrey away, but Aubrey just keeps coming back. Soon Jenae realizes that she has found a friend. It’s too bad that circumstances are creating a time when she will have to ruin their friendship to avoid having to do the thing she fears most, giving a speech in front of a crowd.
There is so much to love in this book. The warm family that Jenae comes from gives the book a wonderful heartbeat, including a brother who won’t really talk to her after his accident and his return home from college. Her grandfather is full of advice, pushing Jenae to face her fears head on. Jenae blames herself for much of what happens in her family, including her brother’s accident. She deeply believes that she can think strong thoughts and make things happen.
Still, that’s not true when it comes to Aubrey, a new friend who brings lots of mixed feelings for Jenae. Jenae with her unique view of the world, her ability to be alone and not lonely, and her independence is also full of fears at times. She’s marvelously complex, geeky and individual. Aubrey is much the same, yet where Jenae is quiet, Aubrey always has something to say.
Full of fascinating characters, this book is about finding your voice, standing up and insisting on being heard. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.
Nana Akua Goes to School by Tricia Elam Walker, illustrated by April Harrison (9780525581130)
When Zura’s teacher announces that next Monday is Grandparent’s Day, Zura isn’t as enthusiastic as her classmates about her grandmother visiting the class. Her grandmother, Nana Akua, is one of her favorite people on earth, but Zura was worried that the other children and families might laugh or be mean. Her grandmother looks different than most people in the United States. She has marks on her face representing her tribal family as well as beauty and confidence. When Zura admits to being worried for her grandmother, the two work together on a plan which involves bringing Zura’s quilt with its Adinkra symbols from Ghana. Monday arrives quickly and several other grandparents do their presentations. Zura introduces her grandmother who explains the marks on her face and the important tradition they represent. Then it’s the class’ turn to do their own marks in removable makeup.
Walker explains in her author’s note how she learned about the Adinkra symbols and the tradition of facial marks in Ghana. She uses these elements to tell the universal story of children of color whose parents or grandparents immigrated from another country and whose culture carries through in stories and traditions to the present day. Walker shows how such visible differences can cause pain and worries but also how they serve as a bridge to a deeper understanding as long as we take the time to listen and learn.
Harrison’s art is beautiful. She fills Zura’s classroom with children from a variety of races and cultures. She uses patterns and colors, almost creating the effect of stained glass on the page. The faces of her characters shine, sometimes looking right at the reader, as Nana Akua does when explaining her marks.
A celebration of diversity that show how openness to being different creates community. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Schwartz & Wade.
Parachutes by Kelly Yang (9780062941084)
Claire and Dani could not be more different from one another. Claire comes from Chinese wealth in Shanghai. When her father decides that she should go to school in the United States, she is quickly moved to California and into Dani’s house. Dani lives there with just her mother. She attends the same school as Claire, but as a scholarship student. Dani loves to debate and enjoys the attention her debate coach shows her. As the two girls navigate high school in parallel but separate social spheres, they both encounter sexual harassment and assault. Both of them shut down, lose sight of themselves, and tell almost no one what has happened. But as they get angry and refuse to be silenced, the two discover that they may just be the person the other one has needed to be their champion.
Yang tells the story of Chinese parachute students who come to the United States for high school. Their experience is fascinating and unique. Sent to a foreign country alone as a teenager, often from very wealthy families, these teens must learn in a new language and figure out a different society. There is so much to envy here, from the clothing to the handbags to the cars. The expectations for someone like Claire are huge, the pressure form her family immense, and the situations very adult.
Against that wealth and shimmer, Dani’s story is set. She is Filipino, she and her mother work as cleaners in the large homes. She goes to school with wealthy kids, but is known as a scholarship student. She is bright and ferocious, defending her friends along the way. Yet when her teacher sexually harasses her, Dani loses her voice and must regain her passion and anger to find a way forward.
The pairing of these two different girls is phenomenal, their journeys linked but separate in many ways. Powerful, wrenching and insistent, this novel is a rallying cry. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.
The Homesick Club by Libby Martinez, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon (9781773061641)
Monica and Hannah go to school together and have formed The Homesick Club at their lunch table. Monica is from Bolivia and misses the time she spent with her grandmother feeding the hummingbirds. Hannah is from Israel and she is homesick for the sunshine and desert tortoise that she loved. When their class gets a new teacher, Miss Shelby, she seems to be homesick too for Texas. She talks longingly about the wide-open sky and the stars now that she lives in a big city with skyscrapers. The girls invite Miss Shelby to join their Homesick Club and she does! It’s there that she shares her longing for Hummingbird Cake. Now Monica has just the right inspiration for her presentation to the class.
This picture book explores what it feels like to be a transplant from somewhere else whether it be from elsewhere in the country or from another country entirely. The author cleverly equates these two, leaving no questions about who belongs in our country and why. Rather the focus here is about the emotional toll homesickness takes and how sharing those feelings with someone else can be healing for everyone.
The art in this picture book is light and airy. Using plenty of white space, it is playful and colorful. It sets a nice tone for the book, showing everyone’s differences but also reinforcing the similarities that we all have as well.
Resilience, friendship and cake. What else could you need? Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Groundwood Books.
We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly (9780062747303)
Welcome to 1986, the year of the Challenger disaster and a year when all three of the Thomas children find themselves in seventh grade together. Fitch and Bird are twins and used to be very close. Bird loves science and exploring how things are made. As the Challenger nears its launch, she finds herself spellbound by the potential it represents for women in space and for her own future. Fitch meanwhile is struggling to deal with the anger that rises inside of him constantly, filling his days playing Major Havoc in the local arcade. Cash has been held back a grade and no longer plays basketball, which he misses desperately. He finds himself wondering if he is actually good at anything at all in life. The three siblings grow up in a family that is filled with anger, regular arguments and verbal abuse. As the three grow apart, circumstances including the Challenger disaster pull them back together, just in time to allow them all to find a potential way forward.
Kelly is a Newbery Medalist and this book shows her skill and superb understanding of the minds of youth. Using the setting of the mid-1980’s, she invites readers to see that while some things are different, much of the emotions, family tensions and life was the same as today. The Challenger disaster provides the ideal unifying factor in each of the sibling’s stories which are told from their own points of view. Yet Kelly does not overplay that element, never drawing the lines starkly but allowing readers to connect elements themselves.
The three siblings are quite different from one another and yet their shared upbringing and lack of safety at home create a unified experience that they all emerge from in different ways. Bird, the smart one, who takes things apart and does well at school, wonders if she is disappearing. Fitch burns with an anger he can’t explain, lashing out at others. Cash too is frustrated but he takes it out on himself and struggles internally.
A deep and magnificent middle-grade novel. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Greenwillow Books.
Ways to Make Sunshine by Renee Watson (9781547600564)
Even though her father got a new job, Ryan and her family have had to move into a smaller and older house because money is still a problem. Ryan though is able to see the positive in most things, though maybe not her brother some days. She loves to cook, coming up with unique combinations to make good food even better. One thing she struggles with is public speaking, like on Easter where no matter how much she practices her part, she can’t manage to say it into the microphone in front of the congregation. Maybe this is the year? So when Ryan’s class is working on a talent show, Ryan has to figure out how to turn her passions into performance. She is also navigating changing friendships and mean girls who seem intent on pushing her to the side. Ryan may not want the spotlight, but she does bring sunshine wherever she goes.
Watson, winner of a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Author Award, has created a book for young readers that offers a modern look at being an African-American girl in Portland. The city is tied into the story very successfully, drawing people to beloved places to taste and explore along with Ryan. While the title is full of optimism, the book looks at important issues for elementary-aged children such as race, acceptance, self-esteem, and friendships.
Ryan isn’t a Pollyanna character, rather she is a girl who has resilience and optimism. She is distinctly her own person and Black girls will see themselves as she navigates the many changes in her life. She is smart, creative and positive.
A rival to Ramona, get this one in the hands of young readers. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.
Rick by Alex Gino (9781338048100)
The author of award-winning George returns with another story that explores identity and what it takes to be a good friend. Rick’s best friend Jeff is someone that makes rude comments, makes others the butt of his jokes, but is still pretty nice to Rick most of the time. Now that they are in middle school, Rick is noticing new opportunities. He is drawn to the school’s Rainbow Spectrum club and lies to Jeff about where he is going once a week. In the club, Rick discovers a space where everyone is welcome and accepted. He also learns a name for his own identity which lets him realize that there is nothing wrong with him. As he makes new friends in the club, Jeff starts to target their posters for his bullying and hate. It’s up to Rick to decide if he can stand up to Jeff, his best friend, or if he will continue to stand by and stay silent.
Gino’s writing is a delightful mix of depth and lightness. They keep their tone light throughout the book and yet explore deep subjects of bullying and identity. Gino incorporates so many different characters who identify as part of the LGBTQIAP+ community. It is lovely to see so many different representations in one book, while insisting on using inclusive terms and respect for everyone’s identity. There is even the surprise of Rick’s own grandfather and how he identifies himself, deftly showing that this community has existed for some time.
Rick is a great protagonist, exploring his own identity as someone who doesn’t relate to others falling for girls or boys that they have never really met. He explores the possibility of being asexual or ace, demonstrating on the page what questioning looks like.
Another winner of a rainbow book from a great middle-grade author. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.