Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o, illustrated by Vashti Harrison (9781534425361)
Sulwe is a little girl with skin as dark as midnight. She doesn’t look like anyone else in her family and no one in her school has skin as dark as hers either. At school when the children are given nicknames, the only ones Sulwe is given refer to her dark skin and aren’t nice, like Blackie. Sulwe tries to make her skin lighter by using an eraser and eating light-colored foods only. But nothing changes it. Her mother explains that she is beautiful just as she is and needs to know that beauty is about how Sulwe sees herself not how others see her. That night, Sulwe has a dream where a star comes into her room and tells her a story about Day and Night. Day was celebrated by everyone but Night was not. So Night decided to leave and it was daytime all the time. No one was able to rest and the plants couldn’t grow. Day convinced Night that she was needed and just as beautiful at her darkest as Day was at her brightest. Night returned to much celebration and the two sisters never left each other’s sides again. With that inspiration, Sulwe was able to see the beauty of her own dark skin and her confidence grew.
The writing of this picture book is straightforward when it needs to be. It doesn’t hide the racism that Sulwe faces every day, the judgement she receives based solely on her skin color and the way that she in turn judges her own beauty and worth. The folktale part of the book works well, taking the story on a new path and demonstrating using Night, the importance of diversity and the impact we all have on one another.
The art by Harrison is so beautiful. Sulwe glows on the page, her dark skin always lit dramatically showing the slide of a silver tear on her cheek or the glow of city lights on her face. When the story moves to Day and Night, the beauty of both characters is clear. The depiction of Night plays with black and dark, never allowing her to disappear into that deepness.
Dramatic and important, this picture book deals directly in self-esteem and racism.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.
Slay by Brittney Morris (9781534445420)
Kiera spends her days at high school as one of the only black kids other than her boyfriend and her sister. She is regularly asked by the white kids about what is discriminatory and asked to speak for her entire race. Her sister and boyfriend are both activists and speak loudly and clearly about what is oppressive. But Kiera has her own opinions and they come out in the video game, SLAY, she designed that is specifically focused on giving black gamers their own safe space online. Hundreds of thousands of people now play SLAY, but no one in her life knows that Kiera plays it at all, much less that it is actually her game. When a boy gets killed over game money though, everyone is looking for the elusive game developer. The game gets labeled anti-white by some people and soon Kiera finds herself in the battle of a lifetime to defend her game and keep it from collapsing.
Writing about video games can be nearly impossible. The problem is capturing the action and abilities on screen while still keeping the game believable and understandable. Morris does this extremely well. She marries a battle card game with an MMORPG, which works particularly well. It’s a game that readers will want to play themselves, which is a tribute to how well Morris describes the game, gameplay and the world she has created.
Morris has also created great human characters in this novel. Kiera is smart and capable, channeling her energy and anger at the casual racism of other games into building one of her own. I love that we get to enter Kiera’s story after the development of the game and once it is already popular. The novel also wrestles very directly with racism, with stereotypes, and with being yourself in a world that excludes you and your voice.
A brilliant video game book that celebrates being black and the many dimensions that brings. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.
Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Mendez, illustrated by Jaime Kim (9780062839930)
A little girl is always asked where she is from. She tries to answer by saying “I’m from here, from today, same as everyone else,” but they simply insist that she tell them where she is really from. So the girl asks her Abuelo where she is from. He closes his eyes and gives her an unusual but important answer. He tells her of the varied places that her people come from. They come from wide open land in the Pampas, from brown rivers that give food, from high mountains where condors fly. She also comes from ocean waters, from hurricanes where rain makes tiny frogs sing. She comes from people who were enslaved for the color of their skin, from plazas filled with sadness. But most of all, she comes from love and from the dreams and hopes of her ancestors.
I must admit that I expected a book about the damage of asking that question of children of color. This book surprised and delighted me as it offers children being asked the question a positive way to see their ancestry whether it makes sense to others or not. The answer from the Abuelo in the book is pure poetry, taking readers on a journey through parts of the world and carrying self-acceptance along as an important theme. There is a sense of shared strength in all of the images of places that is embodied in that child.
The illustrations are beautifully rendered with deep colors that shine on the page. The varied landscapes carry readers forward into the story, inviting them to cool off on mountaintops and slow down to float on ocean waves. It is a book that celebrates our world, our cultures and our histories.
Powerful and poetic, this is one that belongs in all libraries. Appropriate for ages 3-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Peculiar Pig by Joy Steuerwald (9780399548871)
Penny is an unusual pig, since she’s actually a dachshund puppy. She doesn’t get bigger like her pig siblings, instead she gets longer. She’s different in other ways too, like her bark compared to their oinks. But her mother pig loves her just the same as her litter mates. When the piglets root in the mud, Penny digs with her paws instead. Penny also prefers to practice her barking instead of playing in mud puddles. Her piglet siblings teased her about how different she is, but Penny just kept being herself. Then one day, a snake appeared in the barnyard and suddenly Penny started growling and barking. She chased that snake away! Her own unique abilities saved the day.
Steuerwald has written a lovely little picture book about the value of being yourself and your own peculiar traits being your strengths. She nicely skirts the impact of bullying, keeping the piglets from being too aggressive, instead focusing on Penny and her personal gifts. The writing and story is told briskly and with a directness that will work well with small children.
The artwork is particularly captivating with each of the pigs unique from one another as well as from Penny, of course. The small brown dog stands out on the page against the pink and black piglets. The bright eyes and smiling mouths of the different animals make for a happy tone throughout the book.
Embrace your differences with this neat little picture book. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
Leila in Saffron by Rukhsanna Guidroz, illustrated by Dinara Mirtalipova (9781534425644)
Leila isn’t sure she likes what she sees when she looks in the mirror, but her grandmother tells her how lovely the color saffron looks with her dark eyes. It makes Leila feel better, but she still sees her skinny arms and knobby knees in the mirror. As she joins her extended family for dinner, she realizes that she smiles the same as her aunt. Leila helps her grandmother make the curry. She heads out to the neighbor’s garden to ask for some cilantro. Everyone congratulates Leila on a wonderful dinner. Before Leila leaves that evening, her grandmother shows her a trunk of silk scarves. They are all the colors of the foods they just worked with, and Leila discovers a saffron one that makes her see herself clearly in the mirror.
Guidroz has created a book centered on a warm and loving Pakistani family. Leila’s concerns with her appearance are addressed by the family in a more holistic way, talking about beauty but also focusing on her skills and her talents. They never make her feel less for having concerns, instead surrounding her with options and choices to really feel more fully herself.
The illustrations are filled with oranges, yellows, reds and deep greens. They also have lots of patterns, filling the page with different textiles. Those colors pop against the simple white backgrounds.
Rich and warm, this book is just like a good curry. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Salaam Reads.
Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, illustrated by Vashti Harrison (9780525553366)
Zuri has hair that can do almost anything. It curls all over when she gets up in the morning. She wears it in all different styles. In braids and beads, she is a princess. With two puffs, she is a superhero. Then one day she wakes up and it’s a very special day. Her father is still asleep, so she decides to try to do perfect hair herself. After a little accident in the bathroom, her father joins her. Together they figure out how to get her hair just right, but not without a few mishaps along the way. All in time for her mother to return home!
This picture book celebrates African-American hair. Offering all sorts of styles, the book exudes warmth and self-esteem. Creating an opportunity for a father to try to do hair, makes this book all the more lovely, also adding just the right dash of humor too. The use of modern technology to help is also something you don’t see a lot in picture books. The digital art is full of bright colors, humor and light.
Fall in love with this family and their hair. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Kokila.
Mary Wears What She Wants by Keith Negley (9780062846792)
Based on the real-life story of Mary Edwards Walker, who turned heads and drew ire when she dressed in pants mid-1800’s. This picture book shows a little girl of that time deciding to wear pants herself. The book firmly sets itself in the time period by explaining about societal expectations and the limitations that dresses placed on girls. The strong reaction of the townsfolk makes Mary question whether wearing pants is worth their anger. With her father’s support, she decides to continue wearing the clothes that make her happy. It turns out, she started a new trend!
Negley includes an author’s note that explains the story of the incredible Mary Edwards Walker who was also one of the first female doctors in the United States. The picture book focuses on gender expectations and how dressing as yourself is an important decision to make even if others in society don’t appreciate it. This is a strong statement for all youth and particularly for children who are gender nonconforming or transgender.
The art by Negley lifts the book into the modern era. Filled with bright colors and patterns, the illustrations have a great edge to them and a strong graphic quality. There is a playfulness to the illustrations that matches the tone of the book overall as well.
A great pick for discussions about gender expectations and clothing. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Amazing Idea of You by Charlotte Sullivan Wild, illustrated by Mary Lundquist (9781681191836)
Inside every apple is the idea of a tree wrapped inside a tiny seed. If you plant it, that idea starts to grow and bloom. This picture book explores the ideas that are inside you! Just like the tree inside the seed or the chick inside an egg, ideas are inside of you and waiting to come out. It’s like the frog inside the tadpole, the flight inside a gosling or the butterfly inside the caterpillar. Ideas are personal and transform our world. What is inside of you?
Written with an inspirational tone, this picture book encourages children to think deeply about what they want to grow into. The message is empowering and personal, giving children the space and time to dream and think. In the story, the little girl creates an apple orchard from apple seeds which serves as a metaphor for how small things can grow large and make big changes to the world around us. The illustrations are positive and bubbly. Featuring a child of color though not a specific ethnicity, the illustrations have a warmth about them.
An appealing book with a focus on self-esteem and personal growth. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Bloomsbury.
Hands Up! by Breanna J. McDaniel, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (9780525552314)
A police phrase is turned into something much more positive in this picture book. Starting with being a small baby and lifting her hands to play peek-a-boo, an African-American girl grows up on these pages. Along the way, she raises her hands for all sorts of positive reasons like getting dressed, reaching high, and doing her hair. She takes action with her hands up: getting books from a shelf, dancing, playing basketball, and worshiping. The book ends with the girl joining her family in a protest march.
McDaniel has written a book about the joy of life, the small and big things, and the important aspects of a life well lived. It is a book about not living in fear and not being seen as a problem because of the color of your skin. It is a book that reads as a celebration and its own protest against racism and prejudice.
The illustrations by Evans are so bright they almost blind. Pages are filled with sunshine and lemon yellows. He uses textures for clothing that make the book more tactile and organic. Throughout, he depicts a loving multi-generational African-American family.
Powerful and standing in its truth, this book is exactly what is needed right now. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Dial Books.