A Novel that Focuses on a Character with Disabilities

1. Bibliography

Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker. 2015. The War that Saved My Life. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers. ISBN 9780803740815

2. Plot Summary

Ada has a clubfoot. According to her mam, that makes Ada practically worthless. Mam won’t have Ada going outside, showing her “shame” to all of London, so even though Ada is a very bright ten-year-old, she isn’t allowed to leave her mother’s flat with her younger brother Jamie. Not ever. Not even to use the restroom. And if Mam is having a bad day, she’ll hit Ava. Sometimes, she’ll even lock Ada under the sink to spend the night surrounded by cockroaches.

When Ava learns that Jamie is being evacuated from London to the countryside along with many of London’s children, she decides to go too, even though Mam forbids it. Ava and Jamie end up in the city of Kent under the care of a woman, Susan Smith, who doesn’t want to take them. Slowly, Ava and Jamie crack Susan’s prickly exterior and they learn to trust her too. They also learn to read, to write, and—Ava’s favorite activity—to ride horses. But battle is brewing and it’s going to take everyone in England to help with the war effort—Ava included. Two questions remain on Ava’s mind: Will England survive World War II? And will Mam come to take her back?

3.  Critical Analysis

It’s normal to see a disabled character navigate life in a contemporary setting. Less commonly seen in disability literature is a character from the past, for example one who lived in England during World War II. Enter Ada, a girl with a clubfoot. Not only does placing a disabled child in history grant abled children the opportunity to see a disabled child in a new context, it tells disabled children today that they also have a place in history and an important story to share with the world.

However, Ada’s clubfoot does not define her story. As Ada learns to say, her “foot’s a long way from [her] brain.” Ada’s foot sure doesn’t prevent her from learning to read, write, make a friend, ride a horse, or spot a spy. And Ada never wallows in self-pity because of her disability or asks readers to feel bad for her because of it. Brubaker’s superb writing has made it easy for readers to see Ada not as a disabled character to be pitied but as a heroine to be admired for her determination and courage to stand up to an abusive mother and always protect her brother.

And in fact, Brubaker places Ada’s emotional challenges front and center, rather than her physical ones. The real war that Ada fights is an internal one, a battle against her own feelings of unworthiness and ineptitude because of the way Mam has treated her. Ada’s journey from a prickly pear who feels hatred and fear to a confident girl who learns to trust and feels joy is a convincing one, and one that doesn’t dissolve into an unbelievable happily ever after. When Ada has a panic attack after being placed in the Anderson shelter because it seems like the cabinet her mam shoved her in, readers can understand Ada’s terror. Ada’s Anderson-induced panic attacks never go away, a writing choice that I greatly admire. Brubaker does not gloss over or downplay the emotional damage that has been done to Ada and she certainly doesn’t imply that Ada is “fixed” of all the abuse she has experienced for the past ten years because she’s been placed in a better situation for a mere few months. This writing choice validates the experiences of so many people who may take many years to heal from emotional damage.

With exceptional character development, realistic depictions of emotional abuse and its consequences, and an original historical story about one endearing girl, this book is gold. It’s no wonder that this was a Newbery honor title. The War that Saved My Life is a story that belongs on every middle grade bookshelf.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Cybils Awards, 2015, Nominee, Middle Grade Fiction

Goodreads Choice Award, 2015, Nominee, Middle Grade

John Newbery Medal, 2016, Honor

Odyssey Award, 2016, Winner

Parents’ Choice Award, 2015, Gold, Fiction

Schneider Family Book Award, 2016, Winner

From Kirkus: “Ada’s voice is brisk and honest; her dawning realizations are made all the more poignant for their simplicity. With Susan’s help and the therapeutic freedom she feels on horseback, Ada begins to work through a minefield of memories but still harbors hope that Mam will accept her. . . Ignorance and abuse are brought to light, as are the healing powers of care, respect and love. Set against a backdrop of war and sacrifice, Ada’s personal fight for freedom and ultimate triumph are cause for celebration.”

From Booklist: “The home-front realities of WWII, as well as Ada s realistic anger and fear, come to life in Bradley s affecting and austerely told story, and readers will cheer for steadfast Ada as she triumphs over despair.” 

5. Connections

Include The War That Saved My Life in a display about World War II which may also include the following books:

  • Albus, Kate. A Place to Hang the Moon. ISBN 9780823447053
  • Takei, George. They Called Us Enemy. ISBN 9781603094504
  • Korman, Gordon. War Stories. ISBN 9781338290202
  • Bustard, Anne. Blue Skies. ISBN 9781534446069

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley has written many books and won many awards. Create a display of some of her books. The following are possible options:

  • Fighting Words. ISBN 9781662254185
  • Jefferson’s Sons. ISBN 9780803734999
  • The War I Finally Won. ISBN 9780698197138
  • Leap of Faith. ISBN 9780803731271
  • For Freedom. ISBN 978038572961

A Novel That Focuses on LGBTQ+ Characters

1. Bibliography

Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. 2012. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9781442408920

2. Plot Summary

Aristotle is “fifteen,” “bored,” and “miserable.” He’s also friendless. Although he can’t swim, Ari has the idea to spend his summer at the local pool, sitting around in the shallows. Luckily, Ari meets Dante, another fifteen-year-old, who offers to teach Ari how to swim. The two boys become fast friends and spend the rest of the summer connected at the hip, even though Dante is outgoing and connected to his feelings while Ari is closed off and confused about what he wants. As part of their summer escapades, the two friends see a dying bird in the road and decide to help. But when Ari sees that Dante’s bird-saving efforts have put him in the direct path of a speeding car, Ari makes a split-second decision, pushing Dante out of the way and putting himself in the car’s path instead. Ari spends the rest of the summer in the hospital, trying to heal, and hating Dante and the world for seeing him as a hero.

At the end of the summer, Dante and his parents move to Chicago, but Dante continues writing letters to Ari. Dante begins going to parties in Chicago, getting high and drunk, and kissing girls. Ari wonders what it would be like to kiss a girl and get drunk, and determines to kiss Ileana, a girl he’s interested in, and get drunk in the desert in his new truck. By the end of the school year, Dante writes Ari to tell him that Dante’s realized that when he’s kissing a girl, he’s actually pretending to kiss “a good-looking boy.” In the meantime, Ari has kissed Ileana and wants to continue their relationship, but she admits that she already has a boyfriend. Disillusioned, Ari promises himself that he’ll become “the world’s most casual kisser.”

Dante returns for a final summer and asks Ari if they can kiss, just for an experiment. Ari agrees reluctantly, but tells Dante that he feels nothing. Although disappointed, Dante continues to hang out with Ari and starts seeing another boy, Daniel. When Dante and Daniel are caught kissing in an alley at night, Daniel flees while Dante gets beat up and sent to the hospital. Ari, angry, finds one of the boys that hurt Dante and beats him up. Dante’s parents call a family meeting, informing Dante that his actions show that he loves Ari, and that he should stop running from his feelings. The end of the book finds Ari confessing to Dante and the both of them beginning a relationship together.

3.  Critical Analysis

It’s no wonder that fans were still clamoring to read Sáenz’s sequel, Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World a whole nine years after the first book was published. Sáenz wrote a queer story that sets itself apart from the rest. Why? First and foremost, it’s so introspective that most readers will find some way to relate to teenage Aristotle. Ari’s feelings of confusion, of loneliness, and of longing are universal. Readers may not have recurring nightmares like Ari or get hit by a car as they come of age, but they may well question their sexual identity, wonder about the meaning of a kiss, feel strange and different than “everybody else,” deem their parents unreachable and unapproachable, and hide their feelings inside. Sáenz doesn’t make his characters “exotic others” because of their sexual orientation. Instead, he makes them engaging, interesting characters that reflect teenage experiences everywhere.

Sáenz’s story is also commendable for the way it addresses sexuality and the varied experiences and difficulties that may come from being queer in America. When Dante realizes that he’s gay, he writes that “I hate that I’m going to disappoint [my parents], Ari. I know I’ve disappointed you too,” and that he’s terrified of telling his dad, imagining the conversation will go something like this: “Dad, I have something to say to you. I like boys. Don’t hate me. Please don’t hate me.” When Ari’s parents gently suggest that Ari’s gay, Ari initially says, “I’m so ashamed,” “it’s not the way things are supposed to be,” and “I hate myself.” Obviously, accepting one’s sexual identity and coming out is not an easy process, whether it’s due to fear of others’ responses (like Dante) or self-shaming (like Ari).

And fear of others’ responses is a legitimate concern: Ari’s mother explains that his aunt Ophelia was shamed and shunned by her family for the rest of her life after she came out. And when Dante is seen kissing Daniel, he gets jumped and ends up in the hospital. Yet, Sáenz also shows the compassion of many others: when the girl Dante’s been kissing realizes that he’s really only interested in guys, there’s no hard feelings and the two remain friends. Ari’s parents show profound love for him when they call a meeting to reassure him that there’s nothing wrong with being gay and that he is never alone. Dante’s parents are similarly kind and loving to Dante when they learn that he’s gay. Sàenz never shies away from the difficulties that queer people face, but he also remembers to imbue his story with compassion, reminding readers that they, too, are never alone.

There were a few plot points that seemed sloppy: Ari’s fling with Ileana suggests his bisexuality, a topic that is never breached, and her disappearance due to getting “knocked up” and married to an unkind boy in a gang is a tragic plot point that’s unfairly glossed over and blamed on her. The characters display a flippant attitude toward illegal drugs, which is distressing. Furthermore, Ari’s quick acceptance of his own sexuality after years of painful torment and denial felt somewhat unrealistic. Still, while it has its faults, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is an important and accessible book that treats its main characters with respect and empathy, extending its reach to readers too, both queer and heterosexual.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, 2013, Nominee

International Latino Book Award, 2013, Honorable Mention, Young Adult Fiction

Lambda Literary Award, 2013, Winner, LGBT Children’s/Young Adult

Michael L. Printz Award, 2013, Honor Book

Pura Belpré Award, 2013, Winner, Narrative

Stonewall Book Award, 2013, Winner, Young Adult

From Children’s Literature: “As much about family, friendship, and communication as it is about sexual identity, this is a truly powerful story.”

From CLW: “Ultimately, the story line that makes this novel an important addition to the existing coming-of-age body of work is the beautiful way that the story deals with homosexuality and bias, love and hate. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a novel for a young adult reading audience which handles the issue of sexual awakening and homosexuality respectfully.”

5. Connections

Ari writes down his thoughts in a journal. Give teens their own journals and spread crafts on tables, inviting teens to personalize their journals with stickers and pictures.

Dante likes poetry and art. Challenge teens to draw something with emotion like Dante or, if they don’t like drawing, invite them to write a piece of poetry with emotion. Have an artists’ showcase of finished drawings and poetry.

A Book About Someone with Middle-Eastern Heritage

  1. Bibliography

Budhos, Marina. 2006. Ask Me No Questions. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. ISBN 9781416903512

2. Plot Summary

Nadira, her sister Aisha, and her parents are illegal Bangladeshi aliens living in New York City. They’ve lived on expired visas for years, something that “everyone does.” “You buy a fake social security number for a few hundred dollars and then you can work,” Nadira knows. But everything changes after 9/11. The U.S. government begins investigating Muslim communities and cracking down on illegal immigrants. Muslim men from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are required to register with the government. Many are detained, abused, and deported.

Hoping to save himself and his family, Nadira’s father drives the family to Canada, where he hears they’re taking immigrants. Unfortunately, Canada has stopped taking Bangladeshis after the recent influx. Even worse, since his work visa is expired, Nadira’s father is detained at the U.S. border. While Nadira’s mother stays behind to await her husband’s deportation trial, Aisha and Nadira drive back to New York City to live with their an aunt and uncle and return to high school.

Aisha is the family’s golden child, the older daughter who’s at the top of her high school class, the one who knows exactly what she wants and works hard to achieve it. Aisha is “perfect.” Nadira describes herself as the “fat and dreamy second daughter,” “the one who always has to trail after Aisha,” and never does anything important. But after Aisha writes to Homeland Security, calls her father’s detention center, and works with a local Bangladeshi lawyer, all to no avail, she gives up—on her valedictorian nomination at school, on interviewing at Bernard, and on America. Nadira must hold her family together, coming to a new understanding of her value in the family, on her strength, and on the American dream.

  1. Critical Analysis

Ever since Nadira and her family arrived in America, they’ve lived by the motto, “Don’t let them see you.” To Americans, her family has become “invisible, the people who swam in between other people’s lives, bussing dishes, delivering groceries.” Illegal immigrants are “everywhere,” Nadira admits. “You just have to look.” And yet, Nadira and Aisha’s classmates and teachers don’t look. They don’t pick up the signals. They don’t ask the sisters questions. Thus, both illegal immigrants and the “Muslim problem” are faceless to Nadira and Aisha’s peers, teachers, friends, and the other American citizens the sisters interact with on a daily basis. Nadira’s honest and observant musings on her family’s invisibility in America provide valuable reflections on the distinct experiences that she and so many other illegal Muslim immigrants have shared.

Her honest musings slowly turn outward: It is when Nadira allows Americans to truly “see” her that she begins making a difference in her family’s life—showing the deportment judge that her father was saving money so that his daughters could go to college, urging Aisha to reveal her illegal status to her peers as part of her valedictorian speech, getting local media involved in her family’s appeal for residency. Ask Me No Questions is Nadira’s call to its American audience to “tell [us] who [she is]. What [she] really think[s].” Through Nadira’s character, author Marina Budhos allows readers (who, much like Nadira’s classmates, may not see or understand the plight of many of their classmates) to truly see illegal immigrants, specifically Muslims, in all their humanness. Her unforgettable story invites readers to reflect on current U.S. policies and beliefs, to analyze them, and, like Nadira, to take action.

Author Marina Budhos also uses Ask Me No Questions to point out the cultural nuances that Bangladeshis living in America must learn to navigate. Some, like Aisha, decide to assimilate to American culture, copying what the American kids do with phrases like “my mom” and “awesome” and giving up Bangladeshi fashion in order to fit in. Nadira’s parents try to find a balance between American and Bangladeshi culture, fasting for Ramadan and going to the mosque (Bangladeshi culture), but also encouraging their daughters to go to college and pursue careers (American culture). And a close family friend, “Ali-Uncle,” wears a long kurta, has a beard, and prays five times a day, just like he did in Bangladesh. Yet, despite the fact that Bangladeshis in America may express their culture in varying degrees, they all come from the same place “where there is no difference between land and sea.” Mariana Budhos offers no judgement at the way her Bangladeshi characters choose to express their Bangladeshi roots in America, offering that readers do the same.

Finally, Marina Budhos uses Ask Me No Questions to tell a coming-of-age story of one girl who begins her journey “nestled in the back, not seen,” mocked for her weight, and sure that she’s completely useless, to a girl who realizes that she’s been “the person guiding slowly from behind,” intelligent, important, and loved by her family. Nadira’s story shows readers the power of one determined girl who won’t give up, and who takes her future into her own hands, providing a framework for any teen who feels trapped by their circumstances. This little book packs a powerful emotional punch that readers won’t soon forget. Highly recommended for every teen library.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Booklist Editors’ Choice: Books for Youth List, 2006
Kirkus Best Children’s Books List, 2006
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults List, 2007, Fiction
From Bulletin: “Budhos has composed a compelling and thought-provoking contemporary examination of the human side of the law; further, in illustrating the secret burden that Nadira and Aisha carry with them to school each day as they pretend that nothing is the matter, she reminds readers to think differently about the people around them. Sure to elicit discussion, this novel would work very well for a teen book club selection.”
From Kirkus: “Illegal immigrant sisters learn a lot about themselves when their family faces deportation in this compelling contemporary drama. . . A perceptive peek into the lives of foreigners on the fringe.”

5. Connections

Marina Budhos has written several award-winning books. Set out a display of some of them, which may include the following:
• Eyes of the World. ISBN 9780805098358
• Watched. ISBN 9780553534184
• Tell Us We’re Home. ISBN 9781416903529
• Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers. ISBN 9780805051131

Create a display of Ask Me No Questions and other books about immigrants. This selection might include the following:
• Elhillo, Safia. Home Is Not a Country. ISBN 9780593177082
• Lai, Thanhha. Inside Out & Back Again. ISBN 9781476531229
• Nayeri, Daniel. Everything Sad Is Untrue: (A True Story). ISBN 9781432888725
• Umrigar, Thrity. Sugar in Milk. ISBN 9780762495191
• Ha, Robin. Almost American Girl. ISBN 9780062685100
• Van, Muon Thi. Wishes. ISBN 9781338305890

A Graphic Novel by an Asian American Author

1. Bibliography

Takei, George, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (illustrator). 2020. They Called Us Enemy: Expanded Edition. San Diego: Top Shelf Productions. ISBN 9781684068821

2. Plot Summary

George Takei, a Japanese American actor most famous for his stint in Star Trek as Captain Sulu, uses the graphic novel format to convey childhood memories of his family’s incarceration along with more than 120,000 Japanese Americans in military camps across the U.S. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, all persons of Japanese ancestry were considered enemies to America, were taken from their homes with only the possessions they could fit in their suitcase, and were placed in these camps. Japanese Americans would stay locked inside for the next four years. When Takei’s family finally got out, his parents had to rebuild a new life from scratch, having lost their home and livelihood to Roosevelt’s executive order.

Takei’s graphic novel also shows how he rose up from the difficult post-internment adjustment to become a top-notch actor, activist, and influencer in America. While Takei’s biography is punctuated by his young self’s sweet naivete (for example, when young George and his family were trained from California to their first internment camp in Arkansas, his mother told him they were going on “vacation”), Takei also narrates the story through the lens of his current understanding of the difficulties faced by his parents and other detainees before, during, and after their incarceration (for example, the racial and political prejudice Japanese Americans faced, the misplaced guilt they felt after their incarceration, and the government’s erasure of their incarceration story). Takei ends his novel with a beautiful reconciliatory experience in which he visits Franklin D. Roosevelt’s home to deliver a speech about the hope he feels in America, despite its problems, and with a warning for readers to remember the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans so that we don’t the incarceration of the innocent again.

3.  Critical Analysis

I read the highly acclaimed March graphic novels two years ago, the trilogy about John Lewis, I didn’t think I’d ever find another book that was quite as detailed, historically accurate, authentic, and thought-provoking. Lucky for me, I was wrong. They Called Us Enemy is just as detailed, historically accurate, authentic, and thought-provoking as March was. George Takei’s graphic novel memoir is something exceptional.

While there has been a recent push to retell the Japanese American internment story, many newly published books on the subject have fallen flat because the authors are not the ones who experienced it. Takei did experience it firsthand, adding powerful authenticity to his story. Though his memories are those of an optimistic child who didn’t fully understand internment (i.e. the giant barbed wire fence around their new “home” is to keep the dinosaurs away), Takei reflects on his memories these many years later with wiser eyes and clearer understanding of events (i.e. his father didn’t leave work because he had a stomachache, but because he didn’t want to shake hands with Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the man who had imprisoned his family).

Other newly published books have also fallen flat because they don’t seem well researched. Takei and his coauthors have gone the extra mile to tell the story of Japanese American incarceration with depth. Not only do readers learn that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 seventy-four days after Pearl Harbor, but readers also learn about Lt. General John L. Dewitt who said, “a Jap is a Jap. . . it makes no difference whether he is theoretically an American citizen,” and Senator Tom Stewart who told his American listeners that “they [Japanese Americans] cannot be assimilated. There is not a single Japanese in this country who would not stab you in the back.” This deep retelling allows readers to understand how Executive Order 9066 was passed, why it was passed, and why it should never be allowed to happen again. Its depth provides thought-provoking fodder for reflecting, analyzing, and responding to the event and thinking through events happening today. Still, displaying an amazing degree of forgiveness and fairness despite his family’s four year incarceration, Takei also highlights the good things that President Roosevelt did during his presidency, showing his nuanced understanding of one of America’s political leaders. Takei presents Roosevelt as the complex person that he was with both weaknesses and strengths.

Takei also does a great job fleshing out his fellow Japanese Americans. Some of the others in internment camps only spoke Japanese, some—like Takei’s mother—spoke limited English, and some—like his father—spoke English fluently. Some were Japanese immigrants, some were issei (first-generation Japanese Americans), some were nisei (second-generation), and some were sansei (third-generation). Some answered the infamous mandatory camp questionnaires with “yeses,” determined to join the American troops during World War II, and some–like Takei’s parents—refused, becoming “no-nos” and being sent to the “disloyal” internment camp. Japanese Americans are certainly not a monolith in Takei’s memoir.

In displaying his own Japanese American internment story, Takei has inspired a new generation of Americans to think deeply about the damage that stereotyping can do, and the difference that just one person can make for bad or for good. While this isn’t the only Japanese American internment story being told today, it is one of the best. If you don’t yet have this book on your shelf, you should. Highly recommended.   

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, 2020, Winner, Young Adult Literature

Cybils Awards, 2019, Finalist, Graphic Novels (Young Adult)

Booklist Editors’ Choice: Adult Books for Young Adults List, 2019, Nonfiction

Kirkus Best Young Adult Books List, 2019

From Publishers Weekly: “Giving a personal view into difficult history, Takei’s work is a testament to hope and tenacity in the face of adversity.”

From Booklist: “Takei, together with Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, interweaves scenes of his adult realizations and reflections, as well as key speeches and historical events of the period, among the accounts of his childhood, which is very effective at providing context for those memories. . . . This approachable, well-wrought graphic memoir is important reading, particularly in today’s political climate. Pair with John Lewis’ acclaimed March series for a thought-provoking, critical look at the history of racism in American policies and culture.”

5. Connections

They Called Us Enemy pairs well with John Lewis’s March trilogy. Read both, discussing similarities and differences between Lewis’s and Takei’s experiences. Why is it important for us to learn about these two series of events in our country’s history? Which stories from each book were the most memorable to you? What is your biggest takeaway from reading these books?

After reading They Called Us Enemy, watch an episode or two of the original Star Trek series starring Takei. Why do you think Takei wanted to be cast in Star Trek so badly? Why do you think it continues to be such a popular franchise today? What underlying message did you learn from the episode(s) you watched?

A Chinese American Novel by Grace Lin

1. Bibliography

Lin, Grace. 2020. The Year of the Dog. New York: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-06000-3

2. Plot Summary

The Year of the Dog is the semi-autobiographical story of Grace Lin, a Taiwanese American on a special journey to find herself. Grace isn’t sure exactly what she wants to be when she grows up, but she’s determined to figure it out during the year of the dog! But she’ll need to decide exactly who she is first. At home, Grace is called “Pacy,” her Chinese name. At school, she’s called Grace. But when Grace meets the only other Chinese American girl in her school and becomes fast friends, Grace learns that she’s different from her Chinese American friend: Not only does Melody not have an American name like Grace, but the Chinese food that Melody eats at home is very different from the Chinese food that Grace’s mom makes, and Melody knows how to speak Chinese while Grace doesn’t. Grace will have to navigate these differences, using the stories of her parents and penning her own experiences to enrich her understanding of her place in the world. This story includes intermittent illustrations and a final author’s note.

3.  Critical Analysis

The discussion of culture is what makes this book an exceptional one. Grace’s experiences throughout the story highlight what culture is and why it isn’t a monolith. For example, even though Grace and Melody share a cultural heritage, they express it in different ways. Both girls are proud to be Taiwanese, but Grace isn’t any less Taiwanese American for not speaking Taiwanese and Melody isn’t a “better” Taiwanese American for speaking it! Grace Lin’s book points out that there are multiple ways to be Taiwanese American and that’s okay! Grace is bulled by other Taiwanese American girls for not being Taiwanese enough (like when she’s called a “twinkie” at Taiwanese American Convention) and by her white classmates for not being white enough (like when she thinks about trying out for Dorothy in the school production of Wizard of Oz). Grace Lin refutes the fallacy of “not enough.” Grace can be both Taiwanese and American and she’s not “too much” or “too little” of either! She’s a celebration of both. In Grace’s house, the Chinese New Year tradition of putting traditional candy in a bowl is mixed with the new American tradition of adding M&Ms. Grace’s father celebrates the “new” mixed bowl: “It’s just like us—Chinese-American.” Thanksgiving is another mix of two cultures: a small turkey sits on the table surrounded by a feast of traditional Chinese foods. Any and all readers who belong to two cultures can find invaluable understanding and nuance in Grace’s discussion.

Speaking of celebrations, Grace Lin also does a phenomenal job of welcoming readers to Chinese cultural traditions in an accessible, matter-of-fact way. Not only does Lin talk about the Chinese New Year, but also about a Red Egg Party (complete with egg dying and envelopes full of money) and her grandmother’s way of soothing Grace’s neck muscles (by drawing tiger and pig symbols on Grace’s neck). For outsiders, Grace’s explanations of family traditions are helpful and educational. For insiders, they’re respectful acknowledgment of lived reality. Lin also emphasizes her cultural values: The “oral” stories that accompany most chapters in Year of the Dog connect past generations of Grace’s Taiwanese heritage to Grace’s present life, highlighting both storytelling and family as important aspects of Grace’s life and family culture.

With nuanced cultural discussions, an accessible introduction to Chinese traditions, and an interesting protagonist that brings one Taiwanese American child’s perspectives to life, The Year of the Dog is an important, entertaining chapter book. A definite children’s library purchase. Highly recommended.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, 2006-2007, Honorable Mention, Youth Literature

National Association of Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA), 2006, Gold Winner, Grades 3-7

New York Public Library’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing, 2006, Stories for Older Readers Booklist Editors’ Choice: Books for Youth, 2006, Middle Reader

From CCBC: “A breezy novel for middle grade readers is about Grace, whose life is an exuberant blend of home and school, family and friends, and Chinese and American traditions. . . . In an author’s note, Lin states that she set out to write the kind of story she would have loved as a child, in which the magic comes in reading about the regular lives of the characters. She deftly infuses that magic into her own narrative, which is grounded in lively, authentic details of childhood.”

From Kirkus: “This comfortable first-person story will be a treat for Asian-American girls looking to see themselves in their reading, but also for any reader who enjoys stories of friendship and family life.”

5. Connections

The Year of the Dog was an Asian Pacific American Award honor book in 2006. Create a display of APA award titles from past years. Show children last year’s award recipients, reading excerpts from both middle grade books that were awarded and inviting children to browse the tiles on their own.

Create a display of books by Grace Lin. This selection might include the following:

  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. ISBN 9780316038638
  • When the Sea Turned Silver. ISBN 9780316125925
  • A Big Mooncake for Little Star. ISBN 9780316404488
  • Dim Sum for Everyone. ISBN 9780375810824
  • The Ugly Vegetables. ISBN 9780881063363
  • Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same!. ISBN 9780316024525

A Picture Book by Allen Say with a Japanese American Focus

1. Bibliography

Say, Allen. 2011. Drawing from Memory. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 978-0-545-17686-6

2. Plot Summary

Drawing from Memory is the autobiographical picture storybook of Allen Say’s childhood in Japan. Say quickly grew to love drawing comics as a child, something his father disapproved of. After his parents divorced, Say was sent to stay with his grandmother. She, too, disapproved of Say’s passion for drawing, hoping instead that he would be accepted into the prestigious Aoyama Middle School. When Say learned that he’d get his own apartment if he got accepted, he studied hard. At age twelve, Say left for Aoyama, receiving his own apartment where he was free to draw in peace. Learning that the Japanese comics master, Noro Shinpei, lived in town, Say asked to be his apprentice. Lucky for Say, Shinpei accepted. Say began to perfect his art technique with the master, who quickly became like a father. Say’s real father would periodically invite his son to events with his new family, but Say was uninterested. One day, Say received a letter from his father inviting Say to accompany his family to America, where they planned to make a new home. Say was initially reluctant, but Shinpei encouraged him to go, believing that Say would have better opportunities as a budding artist in America. Drawing from Memory ends with Say’s departure. The book also includes an author’s note section which pays homage to Shinpei and the special relationship Say and Shinpei shared even after Say left for America.

3.  Critical Analysis

Popular stereotypical images of “Asians” often include young geniuses who excel in STEM and music with laser focus and have no interest in any other subject. Obviously, “Asians” (who make up over 50 different countries with a plethora of languages, religions, and interests) are not a monolith, and Allen Say’s book Drawing from Memory proves it. Allen Say’s autobiographical story is notabout a math genius, a music genius or a boy who hopes to make it as a STEM leader (although authentic stories about those subject are important too!). Say is only motivated to do well in school because of his love of art—he studies hard to get into the prestigious Aoyama Middle School so that he’ll have an apartment and “art studio” to himself. And Allen isn’t the book’s only art lover. Allen’s fellow apprentice is high school dropout whose passion for art was so great that he escaped home and walked over 350 miles to study with the master of comics. The other Japanese artists that Allen comes in contact with are successful in their craft. Harmful stereotypes are thrown out in favor of authentic personal experiences.

The historical details of Say’s narrative also add depth to the story. Not only does Say lay out the complicated timeline of his family and interfamilial relationships, but he also lays out the world setting. Say talks about World War II, the bombing of the family house in Yokohama, and the labor strikes and the police backlash of the late 40s and early 50s. Along with historical details, Say provides readers with a glance of the values and beliefs that were important in Japan during the 1940s­ and -50s. His parents stressed the importance of education, but often disapproved of his love for art, his father claiming it wasn’t respectable and was only meant for “lazy and scruffy people.” Art was not important, at least to Say’s family. Interestingly, independence seems to have been highly valued. For Say, living an independent life was offered much earlier than in some other cultures. Say left for an apartment of his own when he was only 12 and his fellow apprentice left home and got a job at age 15. His independence seems to have given Say a mature perspective of his mother’s sacrifice on his behalf, helping him to make the decision to go to America with his father and relieve his mother of the financial burden that Say’s schooling and housing had created for her. Divorce was not valued in Japan—Say hides his family situation from his acquaintances, and when his fellow apprentice finds out, the apprentice comments, “Only American movie stars get divorced.” Say’s details allow readers to understand and reflect on the Japanese cultural values that were important during Say’s childhood, adding substance to the story.

The appealing format of Say’s story also makes it unforgettable to readers. The composition style is original, but well done: sketches, photographs, comics, watercolors, ink on paper, and historical images line the pages, bringing Say’s childhood to life in intimate detail, and making it clear to readers that Say has indeed become the artist Shinpei hoped he would be. This is a thoroughly engaging story about the pre-U.S. immigration story that readers oftentimes don’t get to hear. Engaging and artistic, Drawing from Memory would make a great choice for middle grade graphic novel fans, history buffs, artists, or anyone interested in learning about a young Japanese perspective. Highly recommended.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Cybils Awards, 2011, Nominee, Graphic Novels, Young Adult

Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal, 2012, Honor Book

Horn Book Fanfare, 2011, Nonfiction Pick

New York Times Notable Children’s Books, 2011, Middle Grade

Kirkus Best Children’s Books List, 2011

From Kirkus: “Exquisite drawings, paintings, comics and photographs balance each other perfectly as they illustrate Say’s childhood path to becoming an artist. . . . Aesthetically superb; this will fascinate comics readers and budding artists while creating new Say fans.”

From Bulletin: “There’s a thoughtful, measured quality to Say’s modest storytelling, but it’s never dry; compact, simple sentences convey an existence teeming with human interaction (even from afar, his father exerts an influence) and human endeavor as the young boy develops his artistic skills. The narrative is as visual as it is textual, with period photographs, art from Say’s youth, and occasional images from his books joining forces with new illustrations that document his past in clean-lined graphic-novel-styled panel art. While this will obviously appeal to fans of Say’s books, young artists in general will warm to the account of artistic apprenticeship. . .”

5. Connections

Allen Say has his own cartoon character alter ego, Kyusuke, who goes on adventures. Allow middle graders to browse books about drawing comics and provide them with panels to draw their own. After a few sessions of drawing their own comics, invite middle graders to pass their comics around to be read by their classmates. The following comic how-tos might be helpful:

  • Taylor, Des. Cartoons and Manga. ISBN 9781448852833
  • Hart, Christopher. Manga Mania: Chibi and Furry characters. ISBN 9780823029778
  • Bridges, Ruby. Draw Your Own Manga: Beyond the Basics. ISBN 9784770023049
  • Arcturus Publishing. The Complete Guide to Drawing Comics. ISBN 9781784045128

Allen Say has written many, many books and won many, many awards. Create a display of his books. The following are possible options:

  • Grandfather’s Journey. ISBN 9780547076805
  • The Favorite Daughter. ISBN 9780605862326
  • Tea with Milk. ISBN 9780395904954
  • Silent Days, Silent Dreams. ISBN 9780545927611
  • The Inker’s Shadow. ISBN 9780545437769
  • The Sign Painter. ISBN 9780547771953

A Book of My Choice by Native American Authors

1. Bibliography

Smith, Cynthia Leitich (Ed.). 2021. Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids. New York: Heartdrum. ISBN 9780062869944

2. Plot Summary

In this middle grade anthology edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith, fifteen Native authors write short stories and poetry about protagonists attending the Dance for Mother Earth Pow-wow in Ann Arbor, Michigan—an intertribal event celebrating Native Americans from across the continent. Whether the characters are dancing, selling artisan products, storytelling, or even learning more about their Native heritage for the first time, the themes of belonging, healing, and celebrating heritage take center stage. Authors represent the Nations of Nulhegan Abenaki, Cherokee, Upper Skagit, Onondaga, Anishinaabe, Métis, Diné (Navajo), Ojibwe, Ohkay Owingeh, Cree, Wichita, Muscogee Creek, Cree, Choctaw, Apache, and Chickasaw. The back of the book includes a glossary and pronunciation guide, notes/acknowledgements about each short story, short introductions to all contributors, and a letter of gratitude to the readers.

3.  Critical Analysis

Ancestors Approved makes it abundantly clear that Native Americans are not a monolith. Characters have a diversity of interests and talents: Mel (Muscogee Creek/Odawa) is an avid reader, Ray (Cherokee/Seminole) is a budding artist, Rory (Cree) is a fancy dancer, Tokala (Chiricahua/Anishinaabe) is an amateur detective, and Kevin (Navajo) is a basketball player. Characters have diverse living situations. Some characters, like Dalton (Tuscarora), live on “the Rez,” while others, like Aiden (Cree), do not. Characters come from different backgrounds. Some characters, like Alan (Seneca/Navajo), are of mixed Native ancestry while others, like Luksi (Choctaw), are not. Characters experience diverse problems. Maggie Wilson (Cherokee) is dealing with the death of her father, Marino (Ohkay Owingeh) is trying to raise money to save his grandmother’s house, and Jessie (Wichita) is trying to keep it together despite the fact that her mother’s been deployed to the Middle East. Characters are distinct.

Still, while the anthology celebrates the diversity of the Native American experience, it also emphasizes their unity. The themes of belonging, healing, and celebrating one’s heritage crop up in story after story, emphasizing the similarities that the Native characters share.  Refreshingly, the emphasis of the stories isn’t on winning dance competitions or artisan lotteries or storytelling notoriety. The focus of each story is on “winning” something much more profound, whether it’s the trust of a brother, the money to help a grandmother pay her house expenses, the pride in one’s heritage, or the perspective to see someone more compassionately.

The anthology also calls out Native American stereotypes in its many forms. In Tim Tingle’s story, “Warriors of Forgiveness,” the Choctaw elders provide a foil for the so-called Native American “warrior” stereotype. While the elders could choose to prosecute the young man who has stolen Mrs. Simmons’s credit card as “warriors of battle,” they choose to perverse human values as “warriors of forgiveness” instead. In Eric Gansworth’s “Indian Price,” Dalton points out racism against Native Americans in the Boy Scout’s Order of the Arrow Ceremony and refuses to be the “typical Indian” that one stereotyping teenager calls him. In Erika T. Wurth’s “Little Fox and the Case of the Missing Regalia,” Tokala and Shana’s teen slang invite readers to see Native Americans not as “relics of the past” but as real people living today.

As is the case in all anthologies, Ancestors Approved is written in a variety of styles and voices, some more appealing than others. Standouts included Tim Tingle’s “Warriors of Forgiveness”; David A. Robertson’s “Brothers”; Eric Gansworth’s “Indian Price”; Brian Young’s “Senecavajo” and “Squash Blossom Bracelet”; Dawn Quigley’s “Joey Reads the Sky”; Joseph Bruchac’s “Bad Dog”; and Cynthia Leitich Smith’s “Between the Lines.” Still, every story was surprisingly well written. There were no fillers. Readers, Native and non-Native alike, are in for a treat. This book is recommended for all middle grade collections.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection

Horn Book Summer 2021 Middle School Selection

New York Public Library Summer 2021 Books for Kids Selection

CCBC Book of the Week (March 2021)

Amazon.com Editors’ Picks: Best Books Ages 9 – 12

Well-Read Native Youth Book of the Week

Dignity and Justice for All: Stories of Protest, Resistance, and Change: An Annotated Bibliography of New and Noteworthy Books for Young Readers, Published 2018 – 2021 from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

From AudioFile: “Sixteen Indigenous authors weave together diverse stories in celebration of coming together as a community while also highlighting the young protagonists’ many different personalities and experiences. . . . All will find much to love in this collection full of heart.”

From Kirkus: “A groundbreaking Indigenous anthology for young people. Readers can join the fun in this collection of 18 contemporary stories and poems about loving families from various parts of the U.S. and Canada who travel to meet, dance, sing, socialize, and honor Native traditions at an intertribal powwow. . . . A joyful invitation to celebrate the circle of ancestors together.”

5. Connections

Use this link (https://land.codeforanchorage.org/) to input the library’s zip code and show middle graders the Native nations whose land they are living on. Then find out more about those Nations by visiting the Nations’ official websites and checking out relevant library materials.

As part of a book club, ask middle graders to name their favorite Ancestors Approved stories. Invite them to discuss together the reasons why they liked the particular stories. Then have a “book show,” inviting middle graders to peruse other titles written by each of the book’s 16 authors.

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Picture Book by Tim Tingle

1. Bibliography

Tingle, Tim, and Jeanne Rorex Bridges (illustrator). 2006. Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom. El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press. ISBN 9780938317777

2. Plot Summary

Bok Chitto is the river boundary between the Choctaw Nation and the Black slaves that work the plantation on the other side. Martha Tom’s mother warns her never to cross the river, but when the young Choctaw girl is tasked with gathering blackberries for a wedding, she sees delicious bushes on the other side and can’t help but cross. When Martha Tom gets lost, members of a forbidden slave church help her, sending one young Black slave, Little Mo, to direct her back across the river. Soon, a friendship blooms between Martha Tom and Little Mo. When Little Mo’s mother learns she’s going to be sold away from her family, Little Mo asks Martha Tom’s family for help. Even though slave owners are searching for Little Mo’s mother, the combined faith of Little Mo’s and Martha Tom’s family helps Mo and his clan to literally disappear from sight. The family crosses Bok Chitto to safety and to freedom. End notes include information on the Mississippi Choctaws and on Choctaw storytelling.

3.  Critical Analysis

Crossing Bok Chitto is an original story like nothing I’ve ever read before, and there’s no doubt that Tim Tingle has written an engaging story that will rivet young audiences. Children will await the turn of the page, wondering about the fates of Martha Tom, Little Mo, and their entire families. The book is also a shining example of one that manages to respect for the religious beliefs of both cultures portrayed. Little Mo and his family attend a church where the preacher preaches and the congregants sing, while Martha Tom’s family participates in the dances and chants of a Native wedding ceremony. It is both the Christian faith of Little Mo’s family and the ceremonial unity of the Choctaw Nation that bring Little Mo’s family safely across the river. Rather than allow their cultural differences to create a rift, the relationships between the Choctaw and the African Americans in Crossing Bok Chitto are positive and uplifting. As Tim Tingle writes, the story is also “documented the Indian way, told and retold and then passed on by uncles and grandmothers.” Crossing Bok Chitto has the read-aloud quality of a Native American oral tale, perfect for performing, and the fact that the entire story has stemmed from a conversation with Archie Mingo, one of Tingle’s trible elders, adds to its authenticity. The Choctaw chant in the story, a real wedding chant, is another valuable addition.

Bridges’s illustrations are also, for the most part, a plus. Her illustrations accurately depict the characters on both sides of the river—Martha Tom and the Choctaw people look much different from Little Mo and the African American slaves, both in physical characteristics and in dress. Unfortunately, while the illustrations are accurate and each character is drawn distinctly rather than stereotyped, the art style, a mix of acrylic and watercolor painting, feels slightly dated.

Still, while the front cover may not immediately draw children in, the storyline will. Parents, teachers, and other caregivers should make the effort to introduce their children to this unique book, crossing cultural divides and telling a story that isn’t often told. Recommended for all picture book shelves.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Booklist Book Review Stars, 2006

Publishers Weekly Book Review Stars, 2006

American Indian Youth Literature Award, 2008, Winner

Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, 2007, Honor

Skipping Stones Honor Award, 2007

ALSC Notable Children’s Book, 2007

From Children’s Literature: “Tom Tingle, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, tells a very moving story about friends helping each other and reveals a lesser-known part of American History: Native Americans helped runaway slaves. . . . While this is a picture book, it would make a wonderful read-aloud for middle elementary students.”

From Booklist: “In a picture book that highlights rarely discussed intersections between Native Americans in the South and African Americans in bondage, a noted Choctaw storyteller and Cherokee artist join forces with stirring results.”

5. Connections

Create a display of Crossing Bok Chitto and other books by Tim Tingle, such as the following selections:

  • How I Became a Ghost: A Choctaw Trail of Tears Story. ISBN 9781937054533
  • Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey from Darkness into Light. ISBN 9781933693675
  • Stone River Crossing. ISBN 9781620148235
  • Danny Blackgoat, Navajo Prisoner. ISBN 9781939053039
  • House of Purple Cedar. ISBN 9781935955696

Create a display of Crossing Bok Chitto and other freedom-themed picture book stories, such as the following selections:

  • Shange, Ntozake. Freedom’s a-Callin’ Me. ISBN 9780061337413
  • Weatherford, Carole Boston. Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom. ISBN 9780763691561
  • Lendler, Ian. The Fabled Life of Aesop: The Extraordinary Journey and Collected Tales of the World’s Greatest Storyteller. ISBN 9781328585523
  • Cline-Ransom, Lesa. Overground Railroad. ISBN 9780823438730
  • Sís, Peter. Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued. ISBN 9781324015741
  • Văn, Mượn Thị. Wishes. ISBN 9781338305890

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Book By Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza

1. Bibliography

Mendoza, Jean, & Debbie Reese. 2019. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 9780807049402. Adapted from “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014, Beacon Press.

2. Plot Summary

Written like a textbook that teens actually want to read, Mendoza and Reese’s adaptation of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is chock-full of information from a uniquely Indigenous perspective. The book begins pre-1492 with a history and celebration of the peoples and cultures who inhabited the Americas. In the following seven chapters, Mendoza and Reese highlight the calculated devastation and destruction brought about by European colonizers and the American grab for land no matter the cost. The final two chapters detail the Indigenous fight for sovereignty and rights, including the very recent Standing Rock Protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and invite readers to find ways to defend Native American rights. Each chapter includes pictures, headings, “did you know?” sections, and questions for reflection. The book also includes back matter sections for further reading, book recommendations, chapter notes and image credits, and contains a thorough index.

3.  Critical Analysis

Look no further than this book to take readers on a roller coaster ride of emotions. Highs include learning about advanced pre-European civilizations and the victories for the Dakota Pipeline protestors. Lows include chapter upon chapter of horrific descriptions of the death and destruction incited upon tribe after tribe after tribe, and unfair killings conducted on unsuspecting, often nonviolent Native children, women, elders, and men. Chapters two through eight are heavy with traumatic events that, the authors argue, have led to intergenerational trauma for Native Americans, passed down through generations of abuse. While the lows of the Native American peoples are important to acknowledge and the decimation of entire populations is no small thing, I do wish that there were more stories of resiliency since, as emphasized in An Indigenous Peoples’ History, Native Americans are not extinct. They have overcome incredibly difficult odds and they are still here! 

Still, the text is focused and understandable and the format of the book is attractive, both a huge plus for the teen target audience. Chapters are broken into short and manageable parts and images pair well with text. Sections on recommended books and topics for further reading are thoughtful and well-prepared. Footnotes are extensive, evidence of thorough research, and the index is impressive in its scope. The information found in the book is also fresh and is often illuminating, offering sharp insights: Why did settlers often have such an easy time cultivating the “new” and “wild” land? Maybe, Mendoza and Reese suggest, because the land was already being cultivated by the Native population who had lived there for thousands of years! The text also reviews treaties promising Natives land, treaties that were signed by one American president and then ignored by the next. It highlights the unfair treatment of Natives by some of America’s most highly revered presidents, men like Thomas Jefferson (who schemed up ways to make Natives secede their lands) and Abraham Lincoln (who authorized the largest mass execution in U.S. history). This Native-centered history isn’t something teens are likely to learn about in their U.S. history class, making the book invaluable as a resource for students looking to gain a more nuanced perspective of their country. All teen collections should include this book.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Cybils Awards, 2019, Nominee, Nonfiction

Booklist Book Review Stars, 2019

Kirkus Best Young Adult Books, 2019

Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, 2020, Grades 6-8

School Library Journal Best Books, 2019, Nonfiction

From CCBC: “This history of the place, people, and politics of this land from an Indigenous perspective rather than through a lens of American exceptionalism will offer a provocative shift for the majority of young readers. . . . This adaption by Mendoza and Reese of Dunbar-Ortiz’s adult book strikes a tone remarkable for its invitation to consider rather than desire to lecture, even as it definitively challenges the way middle and high schoolers are typically taught to understand the conquest of this land.”

From Booklist: “This adaptation of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014) should be required reading for all middle and high schoolers and their teachers. Dunbar-Ortiz’s scrutinous accounts of Indigenous histories are well-known among history buffs, and in this revision by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza, the same level of detail is maintained while still accommodating a teenage audience.”

5. Connections

Invite teenagers to explore the blog written by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese and dedicated to topics related to The Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People found at https://iph4yp.blogspot.com/. Use the teacher’s guide found there to initiate discussion about the book with teens.

After reading The Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People with teens, create a display of some of the books recommended by Mendoza and Reese at the end of TIPH and allow them to browse the selection:

  • Bruchac, Joseph. Hidden Roots. ISBN 9780439353588
  • Charleyboy, Lisa (Ed.). #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women. ISBN 9781554519583
  • Child, Brenda C. Bowwow Powwow. ISBN 9781681340777
  • Hardcastle, Nick. Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Defeated the Army. ISBN 9781543504064
  • Gansworth, Eric. Give Me Some Truth. ISBN 9781338268669
  • Minnema, Cheryl. Hungry Johnny. ISBN 9780873519267

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Novel of My Choice by a Latinx Author

1. Bibliography

Ryan, Pam Muñoz. 2020. Mañanaland. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 9781338157864

2. Plot Summary

Maximiliano Córdoba is not looking forward to his summer break. While his friends head off to a free fútbol camp, Max feels constricted by his Papá’s overprotective grip. Instead of training with the other boys for the fast-approaching soccer tryouts, Max has to work for his father, the bridgebuilder of the village of Santa Maria, all summer long. Luckily, Papá and Buelo (Max’s grandfather) were both famous fútbolistas, so he won’t miss out on training. But fútbol training isn’t Max’s only worry. As tryouts approach, Papá reveals that he does not have the mandatory birth certificate that Max will need to prove his age and citizenship. Papá must go on a long journey to fill out the necessary paperwork. But when Max learns of a family secret that involves smuggling refugees from the country of Abismo, he realizes that tryouts are the least of his worries. Max will have to learn to take on the mantle of responsibility or face dire consequences for himself, his family, and the young refugee entrusted to his care.

3.  Critical Analysis

Max and his family live in a realistic modern setting, signaled by the transportation, sports pursuits, and technology that are a part of their world. In other words, Max’s world is much like our own. But while the setting of Mañanaland is realistic, the countries of Santa Maria (where Max lives) and Abismo (where the refugees flee from) are not real coutries. Furthermore, the reappearing female peregrine falcon (hinted at in the text as the spirit of grateful refugees), Max’s dreams (revealing the lyrics to the forgotten song that Max’s mother used to sing to him), and Max’s boat ride home (in which Max thinks he may have seen his future) blur the lines between fantasy and reality. This distinct style known as magical realism, mixing modern and fantastic, is a beloved style in Latine culture and is found at the heart of Mañanaland’s story, signaling its proud homage to its literary roots—writers like Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges. The style invites readers to find magic in their own lives and, just like Max, Buelo, and finally Papá, to view the “happy coincidences” that life brings as more than mere happenstance.

Beyond the cultural markers found in the genre of the story itself, the themes present in Mañanaland are timely messages that, sadly, continue to cause grief to many members of the Latine community today. Pam Muñoz Ryan deftly navigates themes of political violence, the crisis of fleeing refugees, and the backlash from neighboring countries. In the country of Abismo (an emblematic name that means “Abyss” in English), a dictator incites war, forcing “legions of people” to flee the violence, and the neighboring country of Santa Maria to pass the “Harboring Law” which states that refugees from Abismo are illegal and that nobody can help or hide them. Max’s family becomes part of a secret group, Los Guardianes de los Escondidos (The Guardians of the Hidden Ones), who try to help refugees through Santa Maria into another country so that they can find a better life.

The book certainly marks itself as a Latine title from Santa Maria’s love of fútbol to the intimate intergenerational connection that Max shares with his father, grandfather, and great aunts and uncles. Max lives in a three-generation household—grandfather, father, and son. The duties associated with being a part of the Córdoba household carry immense weight for Max as he works with his father as the bridgebuilding protégé and as the next Guardia in a long line of selfless refugee guides. It is also through his grandfather than Max learns the important oral legends that lead him and Isadora safely to refuge. Oral history provides essential guidance.

Mañanaland is a phenomenal middle-grade novel, not just for its Latine cultural output and its ultra-relevant social themes that will get kids thinking, but for its focus on bravery, love, and hope despite uncertainty. Ryan has written herself another winner. This book belongs in every middle grade library.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

International Latino Book Award, 2020, Winner, Best Fictional Youth Chapter Book

Cybils Award, 2020, Middle Grade Fiction Nominee

New York Times Notable Children’s Books List, 2020, Middle Grade

Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Books List, 2020, Middle Grade

Kirkus Best Middle Grade Books List, 2020

From Booklist: “In her first book since the Newbery Honor winning Echo (2015), Muñoz Ryan crafts a lyrical, fablelike tale of love, loss, community, and standing up for what is right. The novel is told with evocative and dreamlike writing and features authentic characters who tug at the heartstrings. As the impeccable pacing keeps readers guessing, the timely story line will resonate, especially bringing to mind the plight of young people who have to travel long distances in unfamiliar lands to find safety. This story, infused with magic, reminds children that humanity thrives when people embrace differences and construct bridges instead of borders. Another unforgettable work from a master storyteller.”

From Kirkus: “A boy journeys to self-discovery through the power of stories and traditions. . . . Kirkus Prize winner Ryan (Echo, 2015) beautifully layers thought-provoking topics onto her narrative while keeping readers immersed in the story’s world. Although set in the fictional country of Santa Maria, ‘somewhere in the Americas,’ the struggles of refugee immigrants and the compassion of those who protect the travelers feel very relevant. This tightly packed, powerful fantasy contains resonant truths.”

5. Connections

Learn more about refugees by doing some research together. You might look up statistics and stories from places like Amnesty International or UNHCR. You might consider ways you can volunteer to help refugees in your local community by browsing opportunities together on platforms like JustServe.org.

Create a display of children’s books highlighting refugees. This selection might include the following:

  • Maclear, Kyo. Story Boat. ISBN 9780735263598
  • Văn, Mượn Thị. Wishes. ISBN 9781338305890
  • Guidroz, Rukhsanna. Samira Surfs. ISBN 9781984816191
  • Umrigar, Thrity. Sugar in Milk. ISBN 9780762495191
  • Phi, Bao. A Different Pond. ISBN 9781479597468
  • Rodkey, Geoff. We’re Not from Here. ISBN 9781524773076
  • Buitrago, Jairo. Two White Rabbits. ISBN 9781554987412
  • Adewumi, Tanitoluwa. Tani’s New Home. ISBN 9781400218288
  • Jamieson, Victoria, and Omar Mohamed. When Stars Are Scattered. ISBN 9780593162576

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Poetry Book by Margarita Engle

1. Bibliography

Engle, Margarita, and Rafael López (illustrator). 2017. Bravo!: Poems About Amazing Hispanics. New York: Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 9780805098761

2. Plot Summary

Beginning with Juan de Miralles, a Cuban born in 1713, and moving through the 1800s with Mexicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans, and into the late 1900s with Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, an El Salvadorian, and a Venezuelan, winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1980, writer Margarita Engle pens short but stunning poetic portraits of both famous Hispanics and Hispanics whose contributions have mostly been hidden from the public eye. From politicians to priests and healers to healthy recipe writers, the cast of characters in Bravo! demonstrates the diversity of the Hispanic community. Illustrator Rafael López has contributed illustrations that use both digital and painterly elements to create eye-catching visuals to match Engle’s powerful text. The front of the book includes a letter to readers from Engle and the end includes notes about the lives of each of the eighteen Hispanics highlighted in the picture book.

3.  Critical Analysis

As Margarita Engle explains in her introductory letter to readers, “this is not a book about the most famous Hispanics.” Truly, Engle looks far and wide to create a picture book that shines with the diversity of the movers and shakers that are highlighted in this winning picture book. Readers may be familiar with the names of some Hispanics found in Bravo!—Cuban poet José Martí, for example, or nonviolent protestor César Chávez. But readers probably won’t recognize the names of Hispanics like Aída de Acosta, the world’s first woman pilot, or Ynés Mexía, a botanist that collected an impressive number of new plant species in Mexico and South America. With men and women; rich and poor; Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans; and cowboys, librarians, and baseball players, this book truly celebrates the diversity of the Hispanic culture. López’s illustrations also reflect the diversity within the Hispanic world with portraits of heroes and heroines of diverse skin and hair colors, dress, and economic status.

The quality of Engle’s poetry is just as commendable as the diversity of the Hispanics she’s chosen. Although she only has the single page of a picture book spread to explain each amazing Hispanic, Engle finds a way to convey the importance of each life with powerful simplicity. Juana Briones, for example, leaves her cruel husband after he hits her, and—though the 1800s were not kind to single women—survives “as a rancher and healer,” healing others with medicinal plants and “healing [her]self / with independence.” López compliments Engle’s powerful prose with powerful visuals. On the spread dedicated to Juana Briones, he draws a hand with plants blooming within it. While the hand was once the symbol of an abusive spouse—a hand of hurting—Juana decided to turn her own hands into hands of healing. With such a high caliber of poetry and illustrations, Bravo! provides ample fodder for discussion in classrooms, libraries, and homes. This is a must-have for any library dedicated to diversity.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

New York Public Library’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing List, 2017, Poetry and Song

Tejas Star Reading List, 2018–2019

Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, 2018, Commended Title

From Bulletin: “Eighteen Latinos who made their marks in the New World are featured in verses in their own voices attesting to their achievements and their struggles. . . . López’s full page, mixed-media portraiture captures both the nobility and humanity of his subjects. . .”

From CCBC: “Biographical poems introduce 18 Hispanics whose lives, notes author Margarita Engle, range from some who were celebrated in their lifetimes but have been forgotten by history, to others who achieved lasting fame. Even the shortest poems provide a brief but intriguing sense of their subjects lives and accomplishments while nurturing readers desire to learn more. . . Gorgeous full-page portraits of each subject incorporate elements of the work for which they were known, while inspired spot illustrations add to the volume’s beauty.”

5. Connections

Ask children (ages 8 to 12) to read through Bravo! on their own, and then discuss which of the amazing Hispanics stood out to them. Dividing children into groups, asking each group to do a little more research on one of the Hispanics highlighted in the book. Invite children to present their research at an “Amazing Hispanics” night.

Create a display of children’s books written by Margarita Engle, such as the following selections:

  • The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom. ISBN 9780805086744
  • Enchanted Air. ISBN 9781481435222
  • Mountain Dog. ISBN 9780805095166
  • Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck. ISBN 9780805092400
  • The Drum Dream Girl. ISBN 9781520018171
  • All the Way to Havana. ISBN 9781627796422

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Poetry Book by David Bowles

1. Bibliography

Bowles, David. 2017. They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press. ISBN 9781947627062

2. Plot Summary

The book’s protagonist and first-person narrator, Güero (a Spanish nickname that means “pale skinned”), is a redheaded, freckle faced twelve-year-old Mexican American border kid with a penchant for poetry. The nerdy seventh grader, born of an American father and a Mexican mother, guides readers through the holidays, school days, family gatherings, oral traditions, and superstitions that fill his year. Güero, with his heart on his sleeve, even writes about his foray into the world of love with tough-girl Joanna who can call off the bullies with her tenacious spirit. This interlingual book of poetry includes the forms of haiku, sonnet, lullaby, music lyric, free verse, and a multitude of others. The book also includes a translated glossary of many of the Spanish words and phrases used throughout the story.

3.  Critical Analysis

In David Bowles’s book about a border kid, stereotypes are nonexistent. In fact, Güero’s poetry points out time and time again that Mexican Americans are not a monolith. Despite the fact that Güero is born of a Mexican mother and a father with skin that’s “deep brown like mesquite bark,” the boy has skin that’s “pasty white, covered in freckles.” Being Mexican American doesn’t mean Güero’s family only likes one type of music either. When Güero considers his family’s musical preferences, readers observe a wide variety of musical tastes: Grandma Manuel likes conjunto, Tío Mike is a Tejano fan, great-uncle Juan likes rock’n’roll, Tía Vero prefers disco, Uncle Danny’s a rap guy, Dad and Joe prefer country, Güero’s sister is into K-pop, reggae, and blues, and Güero likes a little bit of everything. Furthermore, people of many cultures live at the border: “Dominicans, / Koreans, Mexicans, Chicanos, / Black and Native. . .”

Bowles’s refreshingly non-stereotypical characters still hold their Latine culture close. Güero’s intergenerational family ties are deep and strong, as illustrated through his poetry. The boy credits his abuela’s stories, told as she sat in her rocking chair, as the fodder, “like larvae in a chrysalis,” for his storytelling passion. Latine family gatherings are also frequent and important. Christmas Eve day is the time to gather all the relatives, “my mother and her concuñas” plus tías and primas and even the great-grandmother, for tamale-making and all the male relatives for football-watching; and the Fourth of July is a day full of family, quesadillas, music, laughter, and singing (and maybe a little troublemaking too). Marriage and Easter Mass are similarly family-centric and always include just about everybody in the extended family too.

Bowles also entwines the narrative with food—bacon, atole, tacos, shrimp, grapefruit, pizza, raspa, tamales, takis—immersing readers in Güero’s world (a world that often pairs food with family). Interlingual texts that peppers the poetry (Spanish mingling with English) bring the world in which Güero chats “with strangers and friends in both languages” into even sharper focus. Truly, there’s no question that Bowles’s story bursts with authenticity. Readers will find themselves strolling down to the movies with Güero and his crew, the taste of takis on the tongue. Perfect for poetry fans and middle-graders looking for an entertaining slice-of-life, They Call Me Güero is a no-brainer addition to any children’s library.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Tomàs Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, 2019, Winner

Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, 2019, Commended Title

Cybils Awards, 2018, Nominee, Poetry

Pura Belpré Award, 2019, Honor, Author

From Kirkus: “In this slim verse novel, Bowles splendidly translates border life via loosely connected vignettes in an eclectic mix of poetic forms.”

From Booklist: “Filled with Spanish dichos and terms, diverse cultures, and Mexican myths, this novel in poems is a clear lens into the life of a Mexican American boy with an identity tied to the struggles, legends, and rich heritage of his ancestors and family, who uses what he learns to move forward.”

5. Connections

There are several poetic forms found in They Call Me Güero— haiku, sonnet, lullaby, music lyric, free verse, and a multitude of others. Show middle-graders to describe their Sundays (like Güero does in his poem “Sundays”) using one of the poetic forms found in the book. If middle-graders feel comfortable, ask them to share their completed poems.

Create a display of They Call Me Güero and other Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Award winners, which may include some of the following selections:

  • Morales, Yuyi. Dreamers. ISBN 9780823440559
  • Tonatiuh, Duncan. Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns: A Mesoamerican Creation Myth. ISBN 9781419746772
  • Quintero, Isabel. My Papi Has a Motorcycle. ISBN 9780525553410
  • Pérez, Celia C. The First Rule of Punk. ISBN 9780425290408
  • Sánchez, Erika L. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. ISBN 9781524700485
  • Stork, Francisco X. The Memory of Light. ISBN 9780545474320

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Novel by Nikki Grimes

1. Bibliography

Grimes, Nikki. 2019. Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir. Honesdale, PA: WordSong. ISBN 978-1-62979-881-3

2. Plot Summary

In Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir told in verse, Nikki Grimes recounts her own personal history from her birth in 1950 until her mid-teenagerhood in 1966. Grimes’s story is one of great trauma. As the second child of a marriage doomed to fail, Nikki remembers lots of yelling. When her father moves out, Nikki’s alcoholic, schizophrenic mother goes to find a job, leaving Nikki and her older sister, Carol, in the hands of an abusive “babysitter” who locks the girls in the closet until just before their mother gets home in the evening. A little later, when their mom can’t seem to make ends meet, Nikki and Carol move in with cousins who “shoot up” regularly. Foster care, splitting Nikki and Carol apart, comes quickly thereafter. It is while staying with her foster family that Nikki learns the power of the pen to calm her fears and manage her burdens. When Nikki returns to her mother, she is beset by gang violence, sexual abuse, racism, and the death of a loved one. Yet, while her childhood is traumatic, Nikki finds her footing with her writing, her religious convictions, and the support of her sister, her writing teacher, and her best friend Debra. The end of Grimes’s memoir includes personal photographs from various periods of her childhood and young adulthood.

3.  Critical Analysis

There’s no doubt about it: Nikki Grimes has the gift of language. From page one, readers will want to invest in the story of the woman whose name is a lie, her first “invention” to protect herself from the real name that “wasn’t worth a lot.” Nikki quickly reveals the book’s title in an early poem, “On Our Own,” writing that she was never warned that “the world was full of / ordinary hazards / like closets with locks and keys.” For Nikki, a key becomes an “ordinary hazard” that locks her in a closet for hours on end while to an outside observer, a key appears to be an object of security just like mothers and grandmothers are supposed to be people of security (although for Nikki, they’re not) and bedrooms are supposed to be places of security (although for Nikki, it’s not).

Yet, while Nikki’s “ordinary hazards” provoke readers to horror, her adolescent life—though exceedingly difficult—is punctuated by what Nikki sees as God’s grace. For her, “hard evidence appears / round every corner.” It’s in the Christian church that Nikki is drawn to that leads her to her best friend, Debra. It’s in her reacquaintance with her father who becomes Nikki’s ally and confidante. It’s in her metamorphosis, as the slip cover shows, of a pitiful black moth—blurry on the edges—into a striking butterfly of neon light revealed underneath. Readers will come away from Nikki’s trauma-filled story full of that same hope she feels as an aspiring poet when the famous writer James Baldwin reads her writing, looks her in the eye, and asks her to give him a call.

African American culture plays a part in Nikki’s formation. Through it, she experiences deep trauma: For example, in June 1964, she mourns the “white-hooded devils” who killed black men like Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, and she’s physically scarred when she refuses to join a neighborhood gang. But through her culture, she also experiences deep peace: attending the Convent Avenue Baptist Church, dubbed a “Black church” by Nikki, brings her the family she’d never had and gives her the strength to “brave the darkness at home, once again.” Her father teaches Nikki about Black history, Black painters, Black musicians, and Black writers, allowing Nikki to see “Black so beautiful,” and to dream of herself as a singer, a dancer, and a writer. Never before have I read a book so unapologetically candid about both the negative and the positive aspects of a culture.

Nikki Grimes’s book invites readers of all backgrounds to rise above their difficulties and cultivate their talents. Raw, gripping, and packing a powerful poetic punch, Ordinary Hazards deserves a place on every young adult shelf. Highly recommended.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Cybils Awards, 2019, Finalist, Poetry

Michael L. Printz Award, 2020, Honor

Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal, 2020, Honor

Horn Book Fanfare Title, 2020, Nonfiction

From Kirkus: “Grimes recounts her story as a memoir in verse, writing with a poet’s lyricism through the lens of memory fractured by trauma. Fans of her poetry and prose will appreciate this intimate look at the forces that shaped her as an artist and as a person determined to find the light in the darkest of circumstances. A raw, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting story of trauma, loss, and the healing power of words.”

From Booklist: “The memoir has heartbreaking moment—seven soul-crushing ones—that will make readers ache for young Grimes and teens grappling with similar circumstances. But inspiring moments bolster her raw, resonant story, showing that there is always light at the end of the darkest of tunnels.”

5. Connections

Ordinary Hazards is a memoir told in verse. Invite teens to write a few memoir poems of their own. Then invite them to share their poems in an online library showcase if comfortable.

Create a display of Ordinary Hazards and other children/YA books written by Nikki Grimes, such as the following selections:

  • One Last Word. ISBN 9781619635548
  • Garvey’s Choice. ISBN 9781501964695
  • Bronx Masquerade. ISBN 9780803725690
  • Words With Wings. ISBN 9781590789858
  • Off to See the Sea. ISBN 9781492638292
  • Legacy: Women’s Poets of the Harlem Renaissance. ISBN 9781681199450

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Novel by Jacqueline Woodson

1. Bibliography

Woodson, Jacqueline. 2020. Before the Ever After. New York: Penguin Random House. ISBN 9780399545436

2. Plot Summary

Playing pro football made ZJ’s dad a hero. Daddy is “Zachariah 44,” the famous scorer, the Super Bowl winner, the darling of the press. But lately, he’s been acting strange. Daddy’s forgetting things—famous football players’ names, his own teammates’ names, even ZJ’s name—he’s experiencing horribly painful migraines that leave him bedridden, and sometimes he’s even yelling at ZJ, something he never used to do. ZJ is baffled at first, then shocked, then scared. Why can’t doctors fix Daddy, turning him from this puzzling new man back into the football-loving, music-jamming, kind, and encouraging man that he used to be? Luckily, ZJ has his family, “his boys,” and his music to keep him grounded despite his family’s devastating new reality. Set in the late ‘90s, this family drama written in verse sheds light on CTE, a degenerative brain disease affecting football players (and their families) that remains woefully understudied.

3.  Critical Analysis

Before the Ever After tells the story of one eleven-year-old Black boyas he watches a football-inflicted brain injury change his father forever. Told through Woodsen’s lyrical free verse, ZJ’s easygoing-turned-heartbreaking son-father relationship holds its readers transfixed, especially since it’s clear that ZJ, the protagonist and first-person narrator of the story, loves and admires his father and that his father loves and admires ZJ back. When asked whether his dad is his hero, ZJ replies that “Zachariah 44” is more than a hero. His dad is ZJ’s “every single thing.” The two jam out to music and bond over Tupac, Beastie Boys, and Rufus Wainwright. Daddy also becomes like a second father to Ollie, one of ZJ’s best friends. So when ZJ’s father becomes unresponsive, angry, and indecipherable, readers will feel the family’s—and especially ZJ’s—immense sadness and loss. Middle-graders probably won’t have experienced the devastation of CTE in their own home, but they will understand the connection that ZJ yearns to feel with his father and the bittersweetness of losing him over and over again.

ZJ is a believable middle-grade protagonist. His story feels authentic to 1999, from the ‘90s music he jams to (like Prince, Public Enemy, Digable Planets) and the hang-outs he enjoys as part of his group of friends (which he dubs the “Fantastic Four”) to the old pop culture references mentioned by his dad (like The Partridge Family, Minnie Riperton, and Earth, Wind & Fire). He’s also a believable Black character, although Black culture’s place in the novel is discreet, rather than overt. Skin color, for example, is only signaled in the text once when ZJ describes his “daddy’s brown hand” and on the cover art showing ZJ riding on his father’s shoulders. However, reader’s will note that ZJ’s mom believes in God and converses with Him as she tries to understand the reason for her husband’s condition. They will also note that the extended family is important to ZJ’s family dynamic. ZJ is in close contact with grandmothers, cousins, and various aunts and uncles who jump in to help his struggling family. In ZJ’s home, Christianity and the extended family carry immense value and weight.

Although not a “happily ever after” story, Jacqueline Woodson has written a lyrical novel that that takes a powerful stand on football, head trauma, and the rights of athletes. Readers won’t soon forget this one. Before the Ever After would make a great addition to any middle school collection. Highly recommended.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Coretta Scott King Book Award, 2021, Author Winner

Cybils Award, 2020, Middle Grade Fiction Nominee

Goodreads Choice Award, 2020, Middle Grade Nominee

Kirkus Best Middle Grade Books, 2020

Booklist Book Review Star, 2020

From Booklist: “Woodson again shows herself to be a masterful writer, and her meaningful exploration of concussions and head injuries in football, a subject rarely broached in middle-grade fiction, provides young athletes with necessary insights into sport’s less glamorous side. In addition to this, it is a novel that explores family, mental illness, and the healing that a tight-knit, loving community can provide.”

From Kirkus: “Using spare and lyrical language for ZJ’s present-tense narration, which moves back and forth through time, Woodson skillfully portrays the confusion, fear, and sadness when a family member suffers from brain injury and the personality changes it brings. . . . The well-rounded secondary characters complete a mosaic of a loving African American family and their community of friends. . . . A poignant and achingly beautiful narrative shedding light on the price of a violent sport.”

5. Connections

Music plays a large role in ZJ’s life and in his relationship with his father. Play September by Earth, Wind & Fire and Memory Lane by Minnie Riperton, and I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston, asking middle graders to listen to the lyrics. Then ask them why these songs might be important to ZJ. Ask middle graders to think about what songs are meaningful to them and, if appropriate, allow them to share their selections with the group.

Create a display of Jacqueline Woodson’s books. This selection might include the following:

  • Coming on Home Soon. ISBN 9780399237485
  • Visiting Day. ISBN 9780590552622
  • Brown Girl Dreaming. ISBN 9780399252518
  • Locomotion. ISBN 9780399231155
  • Show Way. ISBN 9780399237492
  • The Other Side. ISBN 9780399231162

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Book by Kadir Nelson

1. Bibliography

Nelson, Kadir. 2011. Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans. New York: Balzer + Bray. ISBN 978-0-06-173074-0

2. Plot Summary

Written in the voice of an African American senior who talks to her audience as if she’s talking to her own grandchildren, Heart and Soul tells the extensive history of the African American people. The story begins with the exportation of African laborers, slavery, abolition, the Civil War, Reconstruction, westward expansion, the Great Migration, and the Harlem boom, and goes on to detail the history of African Americans in World War II, Jim Crow, civil rights, and—most recently—the election of the first African American president. This 100-page monument to the strength of the African American people is written in twelve chapters, with detailed oil paintings accompanying the written history on every page. The book also includes an author’s note, an extensive timeline and bibliography, and a handy index in the back.

3.  Critical Analysis

Kadir Nelson takes pride in his heritage, a pride that is apparent in his striking illustrations of strong-willed African Americans—people like Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and even sharecroppers and schoolteachers who, though treated unfairly, stand up nobly and seem to look the reader in the eye. Nelson’s focus on the faces of his subjects allows readers to feel a sense of personal connection to the African Americans of history and respect their dignity, even in appalling circumstances.

Though Kadir Nelson’s story explains heavy topics like the founding fathers’ views on slavery, the animalistic treatment of slaves, and the Klu Klux Klan, the tone of the story’s narrator is matter-of-fact—never contemptuous or bitter. The reason to tell the tale is, in the words of this grandmotherly storyteller, to “know where you come from so you can move forward” and to “make the American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness a reality for all Americans.” This isn’t a book of anger, although parts of it will rightly make readers angry. It’s a book to educate, to uplift, and to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

The book wears Black culture on its sleeve, shown most strikingly through its notable use of “oral speak”— the African American senior narrates her story as if her readers are her own grandchildren gathered around her knee. When she notes that the white colonists decided to rebel against English because they didn’t want to be slaves to the king, she says (with a wry hint of irony in her voice that’s almost palpable), “Chile, what in the world could they ever know about that?” Her authentic pseudo-oral narration pays tribute to the African American oral tradition of storytelling, passing down wisdom and history from generation to generation, even when reading and writing was relegated only to the white folks.

The first illustration of Heart and Soul is a painting of scores of Americans of all colors, races, genders, and religions, linking arms around an American flag. Nelson’s point, shown through his words and illustrations, is clear: America and its citizens are best when all of us stand together.

A book that allows children to gain a more nuanced perspective of American history, Heart and Soul is a must-have history book for children in higher elementary and middle school.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Cybils Award, 2011, Nominee, Children’s Nonfiction

YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, 2012, Nominee

White Ravens Award, 2012, Winner, United States

NPR’s Book Concierge Pick, 2011, Kids

From Kirkus: In an undertaking even more ambitious than the multiple-award-winning We Are the Ship (2008), Nelson tells the story of African-Americans and their often central place in American history. . . . This intimate narrative makes the stories accessible to young readers and powerfully conveys how personal this history feels for many African-Americans.”

From Booklist: “Nelson, the creator of We Are the Ship (2008), recipient of both a Coretta Scott King Author Award and a Robert F. Siebert Medal, adds to his notable titles with this powerful view of African American history.”

5. Connections

Create a display of nonfiction African American history books for children and young adults, such as the following selections:

  • Crowe, Chris. Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case. ISBN 9780451478726
  • Beals, Melba Pattillo. Warriors Don’t Cry. ISBN 9780671899004
  • Bridges, Ruby. This Is Your Time. ISBN 9780593378557
  • Lewis, John, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. March: Book Three. ISBN 9781603094023

Create a display of Heart and Soul and other books written and/or illustrated by Kadir Nelson, such as the following selections:

  • We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. ISBN 9780786808328
  • Nelson Mandela. ISBN 9780061783746
  • He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. ISBN 9780803728509
  • Levine, Ellen. Henry’s Freedom Box. ISBN 9780439777339
  • Alexander, Kwame. The Undefeated. ISBN 9781328780966
  • Napoli, Donna Jo. Mama Miti. ISBN 9781416935056

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

An USBBY Outstanding International Book

1. Bibliography

Parr, Maria. 2018. Astrid the Unstoppable. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. ISBN 978-1-5362-0017-1

2. Plot Summary

Astrid is unstoppable. She may be the only child in the small, rural town of Glimmerdal, but that’s not going to stop the fiery young heroine from having fun. Even though he’s seventy-four years old, Gunnvald—Astrid’s godfather—is her best friend and partner in crime. Together, the two have grand adventures. They come up with the best sled design for soaring down the snowy Norwegian mountainside and find the most effective way to round up Gunnvald’s misbehaving ram. Gunnvald knows everything about Astrid, and Astrid knows everything about Gunnvald—at least, she thinks she does. But when Gunnvald receives an unexpected letter with news about some woman Astrid has never heard off, Astrid learns there may be much more to Gunnvald’s past than she’d thought: things like a lover, a long-lost daughter, and a devastating mistake. Can Astrid help Gunnvald to right his past wrongs? And after finding out how much Gunnvald has hidden from her, does she really want to?

Translated from the original Norwegian, Astrid the Unstoppable is a heartwarming friendship story that centers around Astrid’s relationship with Gunnvald, Gunnvald’s relationship with his long-lost daughter, Heidi, and Heidi’s relationship with Astrid. The emphasis of the story is on family and belonging.

3.  Critical Analysis

Characters are front and center in this charming little middle-grade novel. Astrid, our heroine, is a dynamic young character, on par with Anne Shirley in the personality department. The unstoppable “little thunderbolt of Glimmerdal” is funny, obnoxious, loving, and thoughtful. She may not win over everyone in her small town with her loud personality, but she certainly wins over the reader, whether she’s getting into a fist fight with the town’s newest visitors or kidnapping Heidi’s dog to use as leverage in her plot to save Gunnvald’s farm. Whatever Astrid thinks up next is going to be big and a little crazy, but it’s always going to come from the noblest of intentions.

Gunnvald is just as loveable, despite his pretended grouchiness. It’s clear that the old man cherishes his relationship with his little red-haired lioness, and listens to her suggestions (which children will delight to see), notwithstanding the fact that he’s more than sixty years her senior. And it’s a good thing too—Astrid cheers Gunnvald on (and sometimes yells him on) as he attempts to patch up his relationship with his daughter, ask for her forgiveness, and find hope to believe that she still loves him. Children will stand beside Astrid and cheer Gunnvald on as he does his best to reach out to Heidi again.

Astrid’s story, an USBBY honor title, contains several Norwegian markers. Gunnvald and the other old men in the town delight in a Norwegian tobacco substance called “snus” (or “disgusting snus” if you’re talking to Astrid), the characters often eat foods like reindeer meatballs and venison stew, and special emphasis is placed on Christmas and Easter celebrations. But while the Norwegian setting, language, foods, and religious preferences may be new to some readers, all children will find ways to relate to the book’s themes of friendship and family. Most children may not be best friends with their seventy-four-year-old godfather, but they will understand Astrid’s loyalty to her friend despite his flaws and the betrayal she feels when she learns that he’s been keeping secrets from her. They’ll also understand Astrid’s yearning to spend more time with her mother (who’s usually off in Greenland checking rising water levels for her job) and Heidi’s yearning to be loved by both her parents.

Whether you’re eight or seventy-four, you’ll find lots to love in Astrid the Unstoppable. This would make a great addition to any late elementary or early middle-school collection looking for more international titles and more sweet friendship stories. Highly recommended.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Amazon Editors’ Picks: Best Books of the Year, 2018 (Ages 6-8)

Booklist Book Review Stars, 2018

USBBY Outstanding International Books, 2019 (Grades 3-5)

From Booklist: “Drama and humor are interwoven throughout the well-paced narrative, which transports readers to a distinctive locale and introduces vividly drawn, memorable characters. . . Norwegian writer Parr, whose Adventures with Waffles (2013) has been translated into many languages, offers another original chapter book with a strong sense of place and international appeal.”

From Horn Book Magazines: “The action scenes are riveting, but it’s the relationships that deepen the story and make it memorable. Although there’s no missing the homages to Heidi (Gunnvald resembles Spyri’s novel’s grandfather; Gunnvald’s daughter is named Heidi; and Astrid reads Heidi throughout) and Pippi Longstocking (with Astrid’s flaming red hair, self-confidence, and almost-an-orphan independence, not to mention her shared first name with Pippi’s author), Parr (Adventures with Waffles) has crafted a fresh and original tale, all her own.”

5. Connections

The book Heidi plays a large role in Astrid the Unstoppable and book reviewers have also noted many parallels between Astrid and Pippi Longstocking. After reading this book as part of a book club or read-aloud program, read excerpts of Heidi and Pippi Longstocking, looking for similarities between the main characters. You might also suggest that children watch the movie adaptations of Heidi and Pippi.

Create a display of Astrid and other children’s books set in Norway, such as Hilda and the Troll, Adventures with Waffles, D’Aulaires’ Book of Trolls, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, Locked in Ice: Nansen’s Daring Quest for the North Pole, and Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder.

  • Pearson, Luke. Hilda and the Troll. ISBN 9781909263789
  • Parr, Maria. Adventures with Waffles. ISBN 9781536203660
  • D’Aulaire, Ingri. D’Aulaires’ Book of Trolls. ISBN 9781590172179
  • Asbjørnsen, Peter Christen. The Three Billy Goats Gruff. ISBN 9780816430802
  • Lourie, Peter. Locked in Ice: Nansen’s Daring Quest for the North Pole. ISBN 9781250137647
  • Nesbø, Jo. Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder. ISBN 9781416979722

A Picture Book by Mem Fox

1. Bibliography

Fox, Mem, and Julie Vivas. 1983. Possum Magic. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company. ISBN 0-15-200572-2

2. Plot Summary

Hush and Grandma are two possums living in the Australian bush. To the amazement of all the other animals living there—kangaroos, kookaburras, and dingos included—Grandma Poss can do magic. She can even turn Hush invisible, keeping her safe from snakes and allowing her to have fun doing all sorts of silly shenanigans. Unfortunately, Grandma Poss forgets the magic to undo Hush’s spell. When she finally remembers it, Grandma Poss realizes that the two will have to take a culinary tour around Australia to make the poor little possum visible again. The back page of the book includes definitions of Australian (culinary) terms and a map of the Aussie cities that the possums visit on their journey.

3.  Critical Analysis

As someone who lived in Australia for two years, the “spell-breaking” foods introduced by Grandma Poss put a smile on my face. Many of them are Aussie classics—Anzac biscuits, Vegemite sandwiches, pavlova, lamingtons—and after I’d finished reading, I immediately felt the urge to bake my own lamingtons pronto. Mem Fox’s food tour has done what all good books do: it inspires action! I also appreciated the glossary of Australian terms found the in the back of the book, helping readers like me who aren’t quite sure what “mornay” is. According to the glossary, it’s “a supper dish of fish in white sauce, topped with bread crumbs and browned in the oven.” (Are you salivating yet?) In short, what a fun idea to write a book celebrating Australian animals, Australian cities, and Australian food all in one go!

I do wish that the illustrations put a little more emphasis on the fun foods the possums are eating. The pavlova is hardly recognizable sitting on an umbrella in the distance, similar to the only slightly visible packet of Anzac bickies in the cinema. But while the food illustrations feel a little underdone, I love that Julie Vivas’s illustrations highlight the unique Australian wildlife—possums, wombats, echidna, emu—you name it, she’s drawn it into the story, much to the delight of young readers.

I also wish the storyline were a little stronger. It seems almost as though Mem Fox threw together a jumble of three different storylines—one about Grandma Poss’s magic, one about Hush’s invisibility, and one about the Australian food tour—making the story less cohesive. Still, Mem Fox knows how to write a fun, if slightly forgettable, yarn, and Julie Vivas knows how to draw irresistible bush animals. All in all, Possum Magic is a book worth reading.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) Honor List, 1986, Winner, Illustration

Kids Own Australian Literature Awards (KOALA), 1987, Winner, Primary

From Bookbird: “Another treat from Mem Fox that is sure to be treasured. The whimsical illustrations are a wonderful complement.”

From Children’s Literature: “The book provides a warm, wonderful first exploration of Australia!”

5. Connections

Ask children to brainstorm what Hush would eat if she came to your local city. Have the children present their answers to the group. Then have a food party complete with some of the Australian treats mentioned in Possum Magic and some of your own local food “magic.”

Create a display of Possum Magic and other children’s books set in Australia, such as the following selections:

  • Morrison, Yvonne. The Emu That Laid the Golden Egg. ISBN 9781921894008
  • Lai, Remy. Pie in the Sky. ISBN 9781250314093
  • Hameister, Jade. Polar Explorer. ISBN 9781250317681
  • Marshall, James Vance. Stories from the Billabong. ISBN 9781845077044
  • Coote, Maree. Robyn Boid: Architect. ISBN 9780992491741
  • Fox, Mem. I’m an Immigrant Too!. ISBN 9781534436022

A Batchelder Award Novel

1. Bibliography

Lee, Uk-Bae. 2019. When Spring Comes to the DMZ. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House. ISBN 978-0-87486-972-9

2. Plot Summary

In When Spring Comes to the DMZ, one boy’s grandfather—living in South Korea—goes to the observatory at the edge of the DMZ (also known as the “demilitarized zone,” a razor wire barrier that was put in place in 1954, separating North Korea from South Korea), peering at the wildlife thriving within its razor wire walls and at the armies manning the fence without. The boy and his grandfather go to the observatory each season, longing for the tightly locked gates to open and to see long-lost family members that are still trapped on the North Korean side of the divide. The final pages explain the DMZ, the Korean divide, and Uk-Bae Lee’s (and many other Koreans’) hope for the future.

3.  Critical Analysis

Uk-Bae Lee’s illustrations carry a powerfully poignant message starting with the end papers in the very beginning of the book. There’s a map of the world, all in the same whitish hue except for a jagged red scar running through the middle of the Korean Peninsula. Immediately, Lee’s illustrations draw attention to that mottled area. Lee’s clever drawings don’t stop with the end pages, though. The title page includes a picture of the DMZ lookout glasses through which readers will “view” the DMZ wilderness on the next page spread with the grandfather, searching the far end of the razor wire barrier to try to catch a glimpse of what lies beyond.

Later spreads show peaceful animals unaffected by the barrier between North and South Korea, free to roam where they choose, while the soldiers that guard the border are—ironically—exhausted and locked out. The final spread of the story, when the grandfather flings open the tightly locked gates of the DMZ and joyfully reunites with lost loved ones from other side, packs a powerful punch. This is the only part of the story that isn’t describing what Grandfather is doing and seeing through his lookout glasses. Instead, it describes what he wants to do. The joyous family reunion that Grandfather wants so much is not yet a reality, but the beautifully imagined scene that Lee has drawn, uniting two aged brothers that haven’t seen each other in over 50 years, is so touching that readers will long for an end to the DMZ just like Grandfather. The final end pages reveal that the jagged red scar running through the middle of the Korean Peninsula has vanished. Again, the removal of the DMZ is not yet a reality, but a DMZ-less world is so appealing that it invites readers to want it too.

This picture book also offers something unique to picture book readers because it isn’t a historical story about a South Korean tragedy of long ago. No, this is a tragedy that is taking place in real time. The boy in the story is not a relic of the past but a modern 21st century kid, going on a seasonal outing with his grandfather, making him relatable to children across the globe who are reading his story. Still, while the divide is a heavy topic, Lee navigates When Spring Comes to the DMZ with grace, offering an ending that will leave children sad but hopeful. A book that allows children to understand a current global event affecting thousands of Koreans while inspiring empathy, When Spring Comes to the DMZ is a must-have picture book.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Mildred L. Batchelder Award, 2020, Honor

Kirkus Best Picture Books, 2019

From Kirkus Review:“The cupboard is nearly bare of children’s books about the DMZ, making this an excellent introduction to the crises on the Korean Peninsula as well as a great choice for social justice collections, peace promoters, and animal lovers.”

From Booklist: “Highly detailed illustrations in watercolor and pencil capture the softness of Grandfathers heart and the exuberance of wildlife that grows without bounds. Back matter provides a brief explanation of the Korean War and the pain of the separated populations with eerie timeliness.”

5. Connections

Create a display of antiwar books for an elementary-age audience, such as the following selections:

  • Winter, Jeanette. The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq. ISBN 9780152054458
  • Mochizuki, Ken, and Dom Lee (illustrator). Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story. ISBN 9781584301578
  • Coerr, Elizabeth. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. ISBN 9780698118027
  • Long, Michael L., and Carlos Vélez (illustrator). Three Lines in a Circle: The Exciting Life of the Peace Symbol. ISBN 9781646981960

Create a display of When Spring Comes to the DMZ and other children’s books set in South Korea, such as the following selections:

  • Cho, Tina. The Ocean Calls. ISBN 9781984814869
  • Kim, So-un. Three Korean Fairy Tales. ISBN 9780804852272
  • Park, Linda Sue. A Single Shard. ISBN 9780547534268
  • Oh, Ellen. Finding Junie Kim. ISBN 9780062987983
  • Cheung, Hyechong, and Prodeepta Das. K is for Korea. ISBN 9781845077891
  • Lee, JiHyeon. Pool. ISBN 9781452142944

Graphic Novel (Audiobook)


Krosoczka, Jarrett J. Hey, Kiddo. Read by Jarrett Krosoczka and a full cast. New York: Scholastic Audiobooks, 2018. Unabridged, 2 hr., 50 min.


Jarrett’s family life has always been a little bit out of the ordinary. As a toddler, he lived with his drug-addicted mother, Leslie, who often let strange men in the house and wasn’t very available to her three-year-old son. Joe and Shirley, Leslie’s parents, quickly stepped in to raise their grandson from his toddlerhood all the way through high school graduation. Hey, Kiddo deals with Jarrett’s childhood and teenage pain: Although Leslie makes promises of recovery, she hardly ever follows through, and Jarrett knows next to nothing about his father. But this book is also a thank-you letter to Jarrett’s grandparents: Though a little vulgar and a little prone to overdrinking, they do everything they can to make sure their grandson feels loved, and introduce him to his greatest passion, art. The book also gives thanks to Jarrett’s next-door neighbor and childhood friend, Pat; his ever-listening aunt, Holly; his art comic instructor, Mark Lynch; and his long-lost father and half siblings, the Hennessys. Although Jarrett’s childhood is full of inner turmoil against his mother, Jarrett slowly comes to a place of forgiveness and peace, eventually realizing that his mother does love him despite her imperfections. The afterward includes biographical information about Jarrett’s life after college, as well as the lives of his mother and grandparents.


There’s no question why this audiobook adaptation of the graphic novel has received so many awards: The listening experience is truly incredible. While fictional audiobooks include a full cast of “characters,” the cast of Hey, Kiddo is uniquely equipped to allow almost the entire voice cast to be made up of the actual people that Jarrett writes about in his memoir; this “real” cast allows listeners to truly immerse themselves in the story. Jarrett manages to find voice parts for just about everyone who is involved in his memoir. Jarrett voices himself, of course, but his friend Pat also voices himself, his aunt Holly voices herself, his long-lost father, Richard, voices himself, and even his old art teacher, Mr. Shilale, voices himself. As an added bonus, Jarrett’s daughter voices his kid self while Pat’s son voices Pat’s kid self. Even the baby noises used in the audiobook to announce Jarrett’s foray into the world are noises that Jarrett recorded from the mouth of his own newborn son! Realistic sound effects bring the story to life. Shirley’s squeals as she watches Jarrett’s runaway hamster scurry across the floor are so convincing that listeners might almost believe they are real recordings of the incident. Authentic 90s music like the Club Nouveau’s remix of “Lean On Me” also add greater depth to the audiobook experience.

But while the quality of Hey, Kiddo’s audio is phenomenal, some portions of the storytelling seem random and unfocused. Why, for example, does Jarrett include details about high school gym class and the vulgarity of the men’s locker room? Jarrett doesn’t have any life-changing moments there, and it’s no secret that high school language can be crude. Young Jarrett’s sadness about the destruction of his beloved backyard parking lot seemed equally unfocused. The anecdote doesn’t really illustrate anything about Jarrett or about anyone else. At other moments, I wish Jarrett’s storytelling had more depth. In the epilogue, Jarrett expresses his gratitude for his father and half-siblings. Yet, the story itself hardly mentions them. For most of the story, Jarrett is angry at is father or hurling expletive-filled messages his way. A deeper explanation of Jarrett’s reconciliation would have been helpful. Jarrett also mentions Leslie’s boyfriend Miguel during a few scenes, but then quietly drops him from the storyline, leaving listeners wondering where he went.

Still, while the memoir doesn’t always have focus, it does have authenticity. Jarrett’s memoir is frank—frank about Jarrett’s inner turmoil, frank about his mother’s battle with heroin, and frank about the ways he found peace with his past. Teens who have found themselves in a similar situation will feel understood, hopeful, and encouraged. Teens who haven’t had experiences like Jarrett’s will find a story that inspires empathy and awareness. Young adult librarians should find a place on their shelf for Hey, Kiddo.


Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award, 2019

Audie Award Winner, 2020

Odyssey Award Winner, 2020

Booklist Editors’ Choice: Audio for Youth, 2019

Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature Honor, 2019

National Book Award Finalist, 2018

YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Finalist, 2019

From AudioFile: “A full cast of more than 40 performers brings this powerful graphic novel memoir vividly to life. . . . With music, sound effects, and affecting performances, listeners feel like they are at the dinner table with him and his hard-drinking, foul-mouthed grandparents in Worcester, Massachusetts. As co-producer and co-director, Krosoczka has created a uniquely personal audiobook, casting family and friends in the production. . . . making every interaction incredibly authentic.”

From Booklist: “There have been a slew of graphic memoirs published for youth in the past couple of years, but the raw, confessional quality and unguarded honesty of Krosoczka’s contribution sets it apart from the crowd.”


  • Jarrett Krosoczka found his voice through art and comics. After highlighting Hey, Kiddo in the teen section of the library, invite a local comic artist to give a young adult presentation about creating comics. Encourage teens to write their own comic panels. Print out comic panel handouts for teens to take home. Allow them to send in their finished panels and create an online showcase of teen’s comics on the library’s website.
  • Create a display of biographical graphic memoirs (like Hey, Kiddo) for teens to browse. The following books are possible candidates:
    • Ha, Robin. Almost American Girl. ISBN 9780062685100
    • Feder, Tyler. Dancing at the Pity Party. ISBN 9780525553021
    • Lewis, John, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (illustrator). March: Book Three. ISBN 9781603094023
  • With teens, listen to part of Hey, Kiddo on audiobook. Invite teens to create their own short anecdote as an audiobook with sound effects. Then have a listening party, allowing teens to share their work with others.
  • Put out a display of some of the 2020 Audie Awards finalists including Hey, Kiddo. Then allow teens to vote on their favorite audiobooks and hold an awards ceremony for the favorite pick.
    • Berry, Julie. Lovely War. Published by Penguin Random House Audio.
    • Nazemian, Adb. Like a Love Story. Published by HarperAudio.
    • Thomas, Angie. On the Come Up. Published by HarperAudio.
    • Acevedo, Elizabeth. With the Fire on High. Published by HarperAudio.

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

Newbery Award Winner


Kelly, Erin Entrada. Hello, Universe. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2017. ISBN 97800662414151


Virgil Salinas is a quiet eleven-year-old with a big heart. It’s so big that when he learns that his guinea pig, Gulliver, isn’t supposed to live alone, Virgil decides to take Gulliver in his backpack everywhere. Unfortunately for Virgil and Gulliver, there’s a bully on the loose. When Chet “the Bull” Bullens throws Virgil’s backpack down an abandoned well with Gulliver inside, Virgil immediately climbs in to rescue his friend, leaving boy and guinea pig trapped below ground. But all hope isn’t lost. While Virgil battles his fear of the dark, taking comfort in his Filipino grandmother’s folktales and a Filipino spirit that listens to Virgil’s worries, his fortune-telling friend, Kaori, realizes something is amiss when he doesn’t arrive for his scheduled psychic appointment. With her enthusiastic little sister, Gen, and her new acquaintance, animal-loving Valencia Somerset, in tow, Kaori sets off to find her lost friend and maybe prove that there’s no such thing as coincidences. Told from the perspectives of Virgil, Chet, Kaori, and Valencia, this is a story of rescue, of bravery, and of friendship.


The strength of Hello, Universe lies in its characters. The main character of the story is Virgil, an introvert in a family of extroverts. Unfortunately, Virgil’s parents and siblings don’t seem to understand that Virgil doesn’t like being called the shy “Turtle” in the family, and Virgil isn’t brave enough to tell them how much the nickname makes him feel like a loser. Virgil also has to go to resource room on Thursdays because he’s having trouble with math, making him the target of Chet the bully. And to top it off, Virgil has wanted to talk to the cool girl with hearing aids, Valencia Somerset, since the beginning of the school year, but he’s always been too afraid. By the book’s end, however, Virgil’s emotional growth is palpable. Virgil is about to begin a friendship with the very girl he thought he’d never be able to talk to, and he’s learned to stand up for himself, both in his interactions with Chet and with his family. Readers will appreciate the believability of Virgil’s journey and the personal resonance of the challenges he faces—bullying, shyness, and feeling alone.

While the characters in Hello, Universe come alive on the page, the plot of the story is so slow that it often feels like it has never begun. Virgil doesn’t get trapped in the well until the book is already halfway over and his friends’ quest to find him in the forest is over so quickly that the so-called “dire” situation feels cheapened by the easiness of the way. Still, while the plot is lackluster, the conclusion is not. While Virgil’s episode in the well gives him confidence to be more brave, he isn’t suddenly able to solve all of his problems. Even after Valencia herself pulls him out of the well, Virgil is too tongue-tied and embarrassed to thank her. Yet, the conclusion is both hopeful and realistic—while Virgil was too shy to talk to her in person, the ending finds him sending Valencia a text message, one that makes her smile, promising readers a friendship on the horizon.

With a shy Filipino-American boy, a deaf girl who speaks her mind, a Japanese-American girl who isn’t afraid to embrace her quirky love of all things psychic, and a bully with a backstory that inspires empathy and understanding, this story avoids stereotyping and presents real kids with unique personalities, emotions, and perspectives. Kids and adults will appreciate the characters, the conclusion, and the believability of the story. While the plot has its problems, readers will find many aspects of this story to appreciate. Erin Entrada Kelly has written a solid middle-grade.


John Newbery Award Winner, 2018

Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee, 2018–2019

Booklist Book Review Star, 2016

Kirkus Book Review Star, 2016

From Kirkus: “The short chapters, compelling characters, and age-appropriate suspense will hook young readers immediately. . . . An original and resonant exploration of interconnectedness and friendship.”

From Booklist: “Readers will be instantly engrossed in this relatable neighborhood adventure and its eclectic cast of misfits.”


  • Virgil’s grandma, Lola, tells him many Filipino folktales. The stories help inspire Virgil to be brave. Read some Filipino folktales together and ask middle-graders to share their favorite folktales (Filipino or from another tradition). The following book might be a good resource:
    • Romulo, Liana, and Joanne de Leon (illustrator). Filipino Children’s Favorite Stories: Fables, Myths and Fairy Tales. ISBN 9780804850216
  • Valencia looks up to Jane Goodall as her animal-loving hero. Ask middle-graders to name their heroes and, if possible, recommend books about them. Set out books about inspiring real-life heroes for middle-graders to browse. Have a hero dress-up party.
    • Schatz, Kate, and Miriam Klein Stahl (illustrator). Rad Women Worldwide. ISBN 9780399578878
    • McGovern, Ann. Native American Heroes. ISBN 9780545467209
    • Norwood, Arlisha. Black Heroes. ISBN 9781641527040
  • Erin Entrada Kelly has written several award-winning books. Read Erin’s bio on her website (www.erinentradakelly.com/bio/) to middle-graders, and give a short introduction to some of her other books:
    • Kelly, Erin Entrada. We Dream of Space. ISBN 9780062747303
    • Kelly, Erin Entrada. Blackbird Fly. ISBN 9780062238610
    • Kelly, Erin Entrada. Lalani of the Distant Sea. ISBN 9780062747273
  • Put out a display of some of the 2018–2019 Texas Bluebonnet finalists including Hello, Universe. Then allow middle-graders to vote on their favorite title and hold an awards ceremony for the favorite pick.
    • Khan, Hena. Amina’s Voice. ISBN 9781481492065
    • Engle, Margarita, and Rafael López (illustrator). Bravo!: Poems About Amazing Hispanics. ISBN 9780805098761
    • Acampora, Paul. How to Avoid Extinction. ISBN 9780545899062
    • Gratz, Alan. Refugee. ISBN 9780545880831

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

Michael Printz YA Award Honor Book


Stiefvater, Maggie. The Scorpio Races. New York: Scholastic Press, 2011. ISBN 9780545224901


Every year, people come flocking to the little island of Thisby to watch men and their horses compete in the Scorpio Races. But these horses aren’t like other race horses. Scorpio horses are a bloodthirsty, wild species called capall uisce, predators that migrate once a year from their underwater homes onto Thisby’s shores. The man who wins the Scorpio Races takes home a hefty sum, but many of his competitors will die before they reach the finish line, prey to the dangerous animals. So when Kate Connelly, better known as Puck, decides to enter the race as the first female competitor and the first competitor to ride a farm pony rather than a capall uisce, she creates quite a stir on the island. Despite attempts to dissuade the fiery teen, Puck enters the races, hoping to save both her home and her wayward older brother. Sean Kendrick, another competitor, is a four-time Scorpio Races champion. Yet, Sean—a loner and an orphan—still doesn’t have the one prize he desires most of all: Corr, the capall uisce that he rides every year, owned by the richest man on the island. Striking a bargain, Sean agrees that if he wins this year, Corr will be his, but if he doesn’t, the offer is off . . . forever. Both teens have everything to lose in the Scorpio Races, but when the two form an unlikely alliance, they realize an uncomfortable truth: only one of them can win.


The strength of The Scorpio Races lies in its characters. Puck is fiery and independent, unwaveringly loyal to her family and unafraid to speak her mind. Sean is quiet but passionate, wholly committed to Corr and perceptive to the horses under his charge. While both characters had every reason to be bitter—both have lost parents to the cappall and live unglamorous lives—both characters rise to meet their challenges and find beauty in unlikely places, in the island and in the cappall. Readers will cheer Puck on as she battles blatant sexism and continues training for the races, despite a few near-death encounters. Readers will cheer Sean on as he confronts those who have used his talents for their own gain. Although Puck and Sean don’t always make the right decisions, their decisions never seem childish or frivolous. Puck and Sean are written well, and readers will wait in breathless anticipation for the Scorpio Races to finally begin and for the destinies of the heroic pair to be revealed.

The Scorpio Races also sets itself apart with its highly detailed descriptions of the island of Thisby. The book begins, “Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown.” Readers will feel the chilly November air and hear the haunting call of the cappall uisce. The dark, gritty setting invites readers to immerse themselves in the island’s danger, mystery, and intrigue. Readers will understand Gabe’s insistent desire to leave the island and never return and Puck’s insistent desire to stay on the island forever. The setting also helps to convey an important theme: Puck loves the island wholeheartedly, even though loving the island can be dangerous and includes the possibility of pain. Love can be painful, but only by loving and hurting can Puck experience joy.

But if readers pick up this book hoping to read an action-packed racing story, they’re sure to be disappointed. While the plot is certainly creative, it trots along slowly and steadily, only galloping during the last fifty pages. Instead of high-speed chases and gory passages, the book is full of introspection, unhurried relationships, and a series of quiet events that gradually build into a heart-stopping finale. This story is focused on creating developed characters, not on creating a brisk plot. Still, the right readers will be thoroughly captivated by this novel and its perfectly bittersweet ending. The Scorpio Races is highly recommended to teens who enjoy character-driven stories, descriptive settings, and a dash of fantasy.


Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book, 2012

Odyssey Award Honor Book, 2012

Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature Finalist, 2012

From Kirkus: “Masterful. Like nothing else out there now.”

From Booklist: “A book appealing to lovers of fantasy, horse stories, romance, and action-adventure alike, this seems to have a shot at being a YA blockbuster.”


  • After reading The Scorpio Races, invite teens to draw their own depictions of the cappall uisce, the island of Thisby, the characters, or any other subject inspired by the book. Put up a gallery of the finished artwork.
  • Ask teens to decide whether they would choose to leave Thisby like Gabe or stay on the island like Puck. Team Gabe should discuss reasons why Gabe is right to go and Team Puck should discuss reasons why Puck is right to stay. Then hold a friendly debate.
  • Set out a teen book display featuring other books written by Maggie Stiefvater, such as the following:
    • Stiefvater, Maggie. Call Down the Hawk. ISBN 9781338188325
    • Stiefvater, Maggie. The Raven Boys. ISBN 9780545424929
    • Stiefvater, Maggie, Brenna Yovanoff, and Tessa Gratton. The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories. ISBN 9780761375272
  • Put out a display of all the 2012 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature finalists including Scorpio Races. Then allow middle-graders and teens to vote on their favorite title and hold an awards ceremony for the favorite pick.
    • Sherman, Delia. The Freedom Maze. ISBN 9781931520300
    • Mantchev, Lisa. Eyes Like Stars. ISBN 9780312380960
    • Pierce, Tamora. Terrier. ISBN 9780375814686
    • Valente, Catherynne M. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. ISBN 9780312649616

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Historical Novel (Audiobook)


Vawter, Vince. Paperboy. Read by Lincoln Hoppe. Portland, ME: Listening Library, 2013. Unabridged, 6 hr., 11 min.


When he accidentally “busts” his friend, Rat, playing baseball, Vince agrees to take his friend’s paper route for the summer. There’s just one problem: Vince can hardly get a word out without stuttering up a storm, and he’s terrified of trying to talk to people he that don’t know about his condition. With lots of encouragement from Mam—his best friend and colored caretaker—and from his parents, Vince sets out on his month-long stint as paperboy. Vince’s route takes him to Mrs. Worthington, an attractive woman with sad eyes; Mr. Shapiro, an educated seaman and patient friend; TV Boy, a name that Vince makes up for a boy who always seems to be sitting in front of the television; and Ara T, an unkind junkman that Mam forbids Vince from talking to. Although Vince struggles to accept himself and to navigate the complex questions of life as he makes the transition from childhood to adolescence, his paper route provides Vince with life experiences that make Vince a better human being. By summer’s end, Vince has seen and experienced the effects of hate, sadness, and injustice, but he’s also learned where to go to give and receive kindness, love, and acceptance. The author’s note at the end of the story reveals the autobiographical nature of Paperboy and provides readers with deeper insights about stuttering.


Vince, or “Little Man” as Mam calls him, is a believable 11-year-old boy: He’s big into sports—baseball specifically—like many other boys his age; he has his first crush on his neighbor Mrs. Worthington; and he begins to see past the innocent lens of childhood into the harsh realities of his world. Why, for example, does Mam have to sit in the back of the bus? Why is Mrs. Worthington always drunk? Are Vince’s parents who he thinks they are? Why does Mam distrust the junkman Ara T? And why does Vince have a stutter? Readers will journey with Vince through one eventful summer and into young adulthood as Vince learns more about the world and his place within it.

Listening to the book in audio format was especially powerful. The narrator did an exceptional job of recreating the pausing, hissing stutters of Vince’s speech, giving readers a better understanding of Vince’s frustrations as he tries to get out the words he so desperately wants to say. The other characters—Mam, Mr. Spiro, Mrs. Worthington—were easily distinguishable due to the narrator’s skillful navigation of each character’s unique inflection, accent, and tone. The narration was engaging and easy to listen to, making it a great audiobook for long family car trips. And the final author’s note spoken by the protagonist himself is a special treat for invested listeners.

The story’s plot, however, may not catch many young readers’ attention. Although the story does include a man intent on committing a murder, most of the story is introspective and a little bit humdrum. Vince spends much of the text explaining the limitations he feels due to his stutter, the philosophical discussions he has with an educated neighbor, and the mundane daily happenings of the customers along his paper route. Adults may find this book a hard sell due to the book’s less than exciting plot, and young readers may not find it especially easy to connect with this slice-of-life memoir of the late 1950s.

Still, the themes of the story are timeless. While Vince begins the story trying to “fix” himself, he unashamedly accepts his limitations—stutter and all—by the book’s end. At the beginning of Paperboy, Vince tries to stay in the background, avoiding interaction rather than risk embarrassing himself and others. His experiences bringing paper—and his voice—to the doors of many houses helps him to stand tall and dare to be different. So while this book might require more coaxing than the standard middle-grade fare, its powerful message is one that many kids will take to heart.


Winner of the AudioFile Earphones Award, 2014

John Newbery Medal Honor Book, 2014

Washington Post Best Children’s Books, 2013

From AudioFile: “Lincoln Hoppe’s narration is pure perfection in this story about ‘Little Man,’ an 11-year-old boy with a stutter so severe that he can’t even say his own name. . . . Hoppe brings out Little Man’s endearing vulnerability and portrays the stutter with a tender ease and grace that will make listeners feel empathy and hope for the boy. . . . The afterword is read by author, and stutterer, Vince Vawter, making this an extraordinary listening and learning experience.”

From Kirkus: “Carefully crafted language, authenticity of setting and quirky characters that ring fully true all combine to make this a worthwhile read. Although Little Man’s stutter holds up dialogue, that annoyance also powerfully reflects its stultifying impact on his life. An engaging and heartfelt presentation that never whitewashes the difficult time and situation as Little Man comes of age.”


  • Discuss the significance of “TV Boy” in Vince’s story. How does Vince’s perception of the boy change over time? Invite students to get to know someone they may not know very well like Vince did, and teach middle schoolers the basics of American Sign Language.
  • Read Paperboy and I Talk Like a River together. Discuss how the stutter affects each boy and how each one learns how to overcome his challenges.
    • Scott, Jordan, and Sydney Smith (illustrator). I Talk Like a River. ISBN 9780823445592
  • Vince is a skilled baseball player. Set out a sports display of other middle grade sports books such as the following:
    • Rallison, Janette. Life, Love, and the Pursuit of Free Throws. ISBN 9780802788986
    • Alexander, Lori, and Allan Drummond (illustrator). A Sporting Chance: How Paralympics Founder Ludwig Guttmann Saved Lives with Sports.ISBN 9781328580795
    • Alexander, Kwame. Booked. ISBN 9780544570986
  • Put out a display of all the 2014 Newbery Award finalists including Paperboy. Then allow middle-graders to vote on their favorite title and hold an awards ceremony for the favorite pick.
    • DiCamillo, Kate, and K. G. Campbell (illustrator). Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures. ISBN 9780763660406
    • Black, Holly. Doll Bones. ISBN 9781416963981
    • Henkes, Kevin. The Year of Billy Miller. ISBN 9780062268150
    • Timberlake, Amy. One Came Home. ISBN 9780375869259

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

Historical Novel by Kirby Larson


Larson, Kirby. Hattie Big Sky. New York: Delacorte Press, 2006. ISBN 9780385733737


Hattie has been moving from house to house for almost as long as she can remember. This time, she’s been taken in by her distantly related aunt and uncle, although Aunt Ivy hopes to get rid of the orphan by employing her at the local boardinghouse. But Aunt Ivy’s plans are dashed unexpectedly when Hattie’s late uncle leaves her a homesteading claim in rural Montana. At just sixteen years old, Hattie takes an Iowa train west, hoping for a place to finally call home. But first she’ll have to appease an angry cow, brave the cruel winter weather, learn how to cook, make friends with strangers, cultivate forty acres of land, and set 480 rods of fence, all by herself. Things don’t always go smoothly in Hattie’s neck of the woods. Local prejudice against German immigrants—like her friendly neighbor, Karl—are high due to nationwide anti-German sentiment; the weather makes Hattie wonder if she’ll ever get a crop; and she worries for her childhood friend and pen pal, Charlie, who is off fighting World War I across the sea. Yet, Hattie never loses her grit and positive outlook. Daily conversations with God ease Hattie’s lonely existence along with blossoming friendships with homesteading neighbors, even when tragedy strikes. Although Hattie’s story may not be a perfectly painless one, it is surely one of determination and of hope.


Hattie’s story—the story of a sixteen-year-old orphan turned homesteader—isn’t a sugar-coated one. When Hattie first arrives at her new abode in the middle of nowhere, snowdrifts and mouse droppings greet her from inside the tiny shanty house. Hattie’s first few months are spent freezing, scaring off a hungry wolf, and trying to learn how to bake bread instead of the grain bricks that keep coming out of the oven. Putting down fenceposts in the muddy spring isn’t much easier, nor is the planting stage that comes a little while later. On every step of Hattie’s homesteading journey, she must confront an obstacle, each one seemingly more unsurmountable than the last. But Hattie’s no slouch. Her gumption and can-do attitude made Hattie easy to like and her ability to laugh at herself will have readers guffawing along with her.

While the story of one pioneering orphan girl in 1917 may seem completely different from the world of today, Hattie’s story is also a timeless one. Hattie refers to herself as “Hattie Here-and-There,” never feeling like she has a place in the world where she is truly at home. And while Hattie writes to Charlie, a childhood friend who fights the Germans across the ocean, she also befriends a German immigrant, Karl Mueller, and his wife and children. In an America embroiled in World War I, German immigrants are treated with suspicion and, in some cases, with outright cruelty. Through Hattie, the author addresses prejudice, friendship, belonging, and courage, themes that continue to resonate with tween and teenage readers today.

What makes this book truly special is that it is both resonant with its readers and true to its historical period. The story is thorough in its research and authentic in its voice. Kirby Larson’s end notes shed light on her extensive research process as the book’s author, including reading dozens of homesteaders’ journals and books about the “honyockers” of Montana. Recipes for Perilee’s Wartime Spice Cake recipe and Hattie’s Lighter-than-Lead Biscuits found in the back matter are another fun (and delicious-looking) addition that interested readers will be excited to try. And Larson’s revelation that Hattie’s story is based loosely on the life of the author’s own great grandmother will delight readers and may spark a newfound love of history. Although Hattie Big Sky doesn’t end with a traditional happily ever after, this story is sure to be a popular favorite on any bookshelf.


John Newbery Medal Honor Book, 2007

School Library Journal Best Books List for Grade 6–8, 2006

YALSA Best Books for Young Adults List, 2007

From Kirkus: “This fine offering may well inspire readers to find out more about their own family histories.”

From Booklist: “The authentic first-person narrative, full of hope and anxiety, effectively portrays Hattie’s struggles as a young woman with limited options, a homesteader facing terrible odds, and a loyal citizen confused about the war and the local anti-German bias that endangers her new friends. . . . Writing in figurative language that draws on nature and domestic detail to infuse [Larson’s] story with the sounds, smells, and sights of the prairie, she creates a richly textured novel full of memorable characters.”


  • Share Kirby Larson’s revelation that Hattie’s story is based loosely on the life of the author’s own great grandmother. Ask teens to learn more about their own family histories. Then have a special family history event where teens can share their favorite family stories orally, through pictures and art, or through written storytelling.
  • As part of a library youth book club, read Hattie Big Sky together. Then have a Hattie Big Sky party, complete with a “barn dance” and the recipes found in the back of the book.
  • Set out a teen book display featuring books set during World War I, such as the following:
    • Berry, Julie. Lovely War. ISBN 9780451469939
    • Westerfeld, Scott. Leviathan.ISBN 9781416971733
    • Murphy, Jim. Truce. ISBN 9780545130493
  • Put out a display of all the 2007 Newbery Award finalists including Hattie Big Sky. Then allow middle-graders and teens to vote on their favorite title and hold an awards ceremony for the favorite pick.
    • Patron, Susan, and Matt Phelan (illustrator). The Higher Power of Lucky. ISBN 9781416901945
    • Holm, Jennifer L. Penny from Heaven. ISBN 9780375836879
    • Lord, Cynthia. Rules. ISBN 9780439443821

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

Scott O’Dell Award Winning Book


Williams-Garcia, Rita. One Crazy Summer. New York: Amistad, 2010. ISBN 9780060760885


Delphine knows that her mother is nothing but crazy. So when her Pa decides it’s time to fly Delphine and her two younger sisters to California to meet the mom that abandoned them seven years ago, Delphine isn’t all that excited. At least Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern will be able to go to Disneyland. But when the girls touch down in Oakland, they learn that their summer will be no amusement park. Cecile, their mother, is about as motherly as a cactus and she definitely did not ask to have her three girls shipped over. While Cecile busily prints off posters and poems for the radical Black Panthers in her kitchen, she sends her daughters off to a Black Panthers-sponsored summer camp each morning to get free breakfast and to get out of her hair. In the crazy summer of 1968, the girls learn more about Black power, revolution, and—slowly but surely—more about their outwardly prickly mother.


In this short but powerful novel, eleven-year-old Delphine take center stage. Delphine, the narrator of One Crazy Summer, has a voice that rivets readers from the very beginning. She muses that she’s a “plain” kind of person, steady and straightforward, but Delphine is anything but plain. Her sisterly devotion makes her both extraordinary and lovable. When Cecile only gets Chinese takeout every night, leaving Fern with nasty stomachaches, Delphine determines to shop for ingredients and cook dinner herself. When Cecile takes Delphine’s money, leaving the children without the California trip they’d hoped for, Delphine makes their own vacation, taking her sisters to explore San Francisco through her own eleven-year-old ingenuity. When summer camp classmates tease seven-year-old Fern for carrying around a doll, Delphine is quick to defend her sister. Readers can’t help but root for this no-nonsense main character.

The setting of the story is vivid and alive, firmly entrenched in Oakland, California during the summer of 1968. Delphine begins the story with a nod to Muhammad Ali as the plane’s turbulence is compared to a “Cassius Clay-left-and-a-right-jab.” The book is also peppered with other historical references: Delphine’s sisters talk about then-popular TV shows like Captain Kangaroo and Mighty Mouse, singers like The Monkeesand Brenda and the Tabulations, and the Vietnam War. Most integral to the novel is the Black Panthers, a radical group that recruits the girls’ mother for help making prints and poetry for their cause. While Cecile is printing and writing, she sends her daughters off to a Black Panthers-sponsored summer camp for kids where they’re taught about words like “revolution” and “Black power” and participate in a rally to remember the murdered Black Panther, Bobby Hutton.

Thanks to William-Garcia’s talent, the revolution and its members are written with incredible nuance. Sister Mukumbu, a Black Panther summer camp teacher, is compassionate and kind, while another Black Panther, “Crazy Kelvin,” is—well—crazy.. Delphine notices both the foreboding rifle-bearing leader, Huey Newton, and the hospitable, kind summer camp workers working together with locals, both Black and white. While Cecile never turns into the mom the girls have hoped she would be and Delphine never receives the motherly praise she craves, this bittersweet mother-daughter relationship is offset by Delphine’s loving and unbreakable sisterly bond with Vonetta and Fern. A memorable main character, a vivid setting, and a nuanced perspective of a radical historical group make this book a standout. Libraries need this book on their shelves.


Winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award, 2011

John Newbery Medal Honor Book, 2011

National Book Award Finalist, 2010

Winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, 2011

From Kirkus: “The depiction of the time is well done, and while the girls are caught up in the difficulties of adults, their resilience is celebrated and energetically told with writing that snaps off the page.”

From Booklist: “Regimented, responsible, strong-willed Delphine narrates in an unforgettable voice, but each of the sisters emerges as a distinct, memorable character, whose hard-won, tenuous connections with their mother build to an aching, triumphant conclusion. Set during a pivotal moment in African American history, this vibrant novel shows the subtle ways that political movements affect personal lives; but just as memorable is the finely drawn, universal story of children reclaiming a reluctant parent’s love.”


  • Create a small book display with middle-grade and young adult novels about the Black Panthers. Along with One Crazy Summer, include books such as the following:
    • Magoon, Kekla. The Rock and the River. ISBN 9781416975823
    • Spotswood, Jessica (editor). A Tyranny of Petticoats. ISBN 9780763678487
    • Shih, Bryan, and Yohuru Williams (editors). The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution. ISBN 9781568585567
  • In One Crazy Summer, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern recite poetry in front of a crowd. Host your own poetry recitation/slam night and invite middle-graders and young adults to recite poetry they’ve written or that they enjoy.
  • Read a short bio about Rita Williams-Garcia, the author of One Crazy Summer. Then set out a display of other middle-grade and young adult books by Williams-Garcia.
    • Williams-Garcia, Rita. P.S. Be Eleven. ISBN 9780061938627
    • Zoboi, Ibi (editor). Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America.ISBN 9780062698742
    • Williams-Garcia, Rita. Like Sisters on the Homefront. ISBN 9780140385618
  • Put out a display of all the 2011 Newbery Award finalists including One Crazy Summer. Then allow middle-graders to vote on their favorite title and hold an awards ceremony for the favorite pick.
    • Vanderpool, Clare. Moon Over Manifest. ISBN 9780385907507
    • Holm, Jennifer L. Turtle in Paradise. ISBN 9780375836886
    • Preus, Margi. Heart of a Samurai. ISBN 9780810989818
    • Sidman, Joyce, and Rick Allen (illustrator). Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night. ISBN 9780547152288

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Biography


Fleming, Candace. The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2020. ISBN 9780525646556


The title says it all: The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh is about one man’s great triumphs—among them, his nonstop flight from New York to Paris—and his great flaws—among them, his belief in eugenics and a master race. Fleming takes her readers through Charles’s strange childhood, his short-lived college stint, and his pilot training. After graduating at the top of his class, Lindbergh heard about the race to get from New York to Paris and knew his plane could do it. With luck and incredible endurance, Charles and The Spirit of St. Louis made their historic flight across the Atlantic, the nation going wild for the “flying kid.” From then on, Charles was swarmed by tabloids. His wedding was carried out in secret, but his honeymoon was interrupted by intrusive reporters. When his young son was kidnapped and held for ransom, the press ran amok on his property. The Lindberghs finally fled to England to escape, but while there, Charles became even more enamored with Germany and eugenics. Returning to America, he became the voice of America First, opposing American involvement in World War II and supporting eugenics and anti-Semitism. For the rest of his life, Charles was both admired and detested by Americans and the world at large.


Candace Fleming has already proved that she’s well-versed in nonfiction stories for kids and teens with titles like Family Romanov, a Robert F. Sibert honor book; Amelia Lost, an ALA Notable Children’s Book; and The Lincolns, winner of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award; and over 25 other informational books. The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh, the 2021 YALSA Award winner, is another exceptional piece of writing. Not only is Fleming’s biography engaging and easy to read, but it’s also sprinkled with the genuine voices of its protagonists. Her abundant use of authentic, raw journal entries from both Charles and Anne allow their personalities to leap from the page, creating an intimate picture of two very real, very flawed individuals. Photos, an extensive bibliography organized into primary and secondary sources, detailed source notes for all thirty-three chapters, and a thorough index provide readers with a wealth of resources that many teens will undoubtedly feel compelled to use to learn more about this fascinating, sometimes shocking character.

But Fleming does more than merely write a story to shock her readers. Anyone looking for a nuanced perspective on a very complex man will find it here in the pages of The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh. Fleming deftly paints a picture of the man who is neither solely the hero celebrated by America after his historic flight nor the villain decried by that same America after his infamous America First speeches echoed from radio stations across the nation. Nuance is so often lost in the human race’s inherent eagerness to categorize historical figures as either “good” or “evil.” Yet Fleming never gives in to this urge, staying ever faithful to her multifaceted approach of this complicated man, capable of both great love (stopping at nothing to save his infant boy) and terrible hatred (stopping at nothing to promote eugenics in America). Fleming invites readers to explore Lindbergh’s complicated life, to see both the bad and the good—ignoring neither—and to think critically about both. Controversial and vibrant, Charles Lindbergh comes alive in Fleming’s unforgettable biography. This book deserves be added to every library collection.


Winner of the 2021 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults

Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Book of 2020

Booklist Book Review Star, 2020

From Booklist: “Fleming places, in his historical context and ours, a man of intense contradictions. Absorbing and distressing in turns, this utterly prescient capture of a life and the lives it influenced is essential in classrooms and for history buffs alike.”

From Publishers Weekly: “A compelling biography of a flawed, larger-than-life man.” 


  • Provide a brief introduction to The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh and other young adult aviation stories, such as the following:
    • Wein, Elizabeth. A Thousand Sisters: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II. ISBN 9780062453013
    • Sheinkin, Steve, and Bijou Karman (illustrator). Born to Fly: The First Women’s Air Race Across America. ISBN 9781626721302
    • Waters, Eric. Fly Boy. ISBN 9780143176305
  • Along with The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh, show teens young adult materials about the Lindbergh family, such as the following:
    • Bryant, Jen. The Trial. ISBN 9780375827525
    • Haddix, Margaret P. Revealed. ISBN 9781416989868
    • Anne Morrow Lindbergh: You’ll Have the Sky. PBS Documentary: 2016. Susan Wallner (director).
  • Read a short bio about Candace Fleming, the author of The Rise and Fall of Charles Fleming. Then set out a display of other young adult books by Fleming for teens to browse.
    • Fleming, Candace. The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia. ISBN 9780375867828
    • Fleming, Candace. Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart. ISBN 9780375841989
    • Fleming, Candace. The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary. ISBN 9780375836183
  • Put out a display of all the 2021 YALSA Nonfiction Award finalists. Then allow teens to vote on their favorite title and hold an awards ceremony for the favorite nonfiction pick.
    • Soontornvat, Christina. All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team. ISBN 9781536209457
    • Sabic-El-Rayess, Amra, with Laura L. Sullivan. The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival. ISBN 9781547604531
    • Rocco, John. How We Got to the Moon: The People, Technology, and Daring Feats of Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Adventure. ISBN 9780525647416
    • Rusch, Elizabeth. You Call This Democracy?: How to Fix Our Democracy and Deliver Power to the People. ISBN 9780358387428

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

Nonfiction Book by Catherine Thimmesh


Thimmesh, Catherine, and Melissa Sweet (illustrator). Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018. ISBN 9781328772534


Girls Think of Everything is an informational book dedicated to girls and inventions from around the world. The book begins with end pages that introduce famous women inventors from the pre-1800s to 2018. Next comes the table of contents and an introduction to women inventors of yesteryear, of modern times, and of the future, followed by in-depth studies of 15 famous women inventors that have changed the world. Among them are Azza Abdelhamid Faiad, a teenager living in Egypt with ideas for eliminating plastic waste; Ann Moore, a former Peace Corps pediatric nurse who designed an ingenious baby carrier; and Grace Murray Hopper, a mathematician who helped to create the first universal computer language. Thimmesh finishes the book with a section titled “Your Turn,” with resources for kids and teens interested in creating inventions of their own. The book also includes bibliographic sources, a glossary of terms, and an index.


Girls Think of Everything is a well-crafted informational book and in its show of diversity, the book shines especially brightly. From chocolate chip cookies to waterproof solar lanterns; from KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, to Albuquerque, New Mexico; and from well-established professionals to high-schoolers and college students, this book is a fantastic showcase of women inventors and inventions of all kinds. Middle-grade and teenage readers will appreciate the diversity of inventions, races, and age groups of the inventors, especially the four high school inventors included in this updated second edition. Readers will also be inspired by the “Your Turn” section in the back of the book, which provides resources to learn more about the patent process and the programs and contests available to young inventors on an international level.

The book’s organization is good, for the most part. Girls Think of Everything includes a top notch timeline, table of contents, introduction, select bibliography, glossary, and index—each a valuable research tool for its middle-grade audience, especially the inventors-in-training among them. However, the lack of order for Thimmesh’s 15 invention stories (chronological, alphabetical, or otherwise) is puzzling, especially since the book begins with end pages displaying a chronological timeline of women inventors. The pink side blurbs that accompany each invention are also problematic. While the extra information is fun to read, it always pops up mid-story when readers are still trying to engage with the main text, thus distracting from rather than enhancing the main text.

But despite some design flaws, Thimmesh’s stories create interest and enthusiasm about each unique invention and inventor, inspiring readers to create inventions of their own. Especially exceptional entries included those of Grace Murray Hopper, a woman with a can-do attitude and a love for mathematical code; Trisha Prabhu, a teen who heard about the harmful effects of cyberbullying and felt compelled to take a stand; and the inventing duo Anna Stork and Andrea Sreshta, two college students who wanted to help those effected by the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010. Girls Think of Everything offers a fascinating look at woman inventors and, despite its imperfections, deserves a space on the middle-grade STEAM shelf.


From School Library Journal: “This updated edition of the 2000 collective biography showcases greater diversity in its representation of women inventors. . . . Expanded resources for aspiring scientists and a time line that emphasizes more recent inventions are welcome changes. . . . In a growing marketplace of works about women transforming the world, this title holds its own.”

From Horn Book: “Today’s readers will find a laudable increase in the subjects’ diversity as well as a more contemporary focus. . . . A resource as informative as it is empowering.”


  • Using Girls Think of Everything, share the four stories of high-schoolers and their inventions. Then ask middle-graders to think of a problem they’d like to solve and invite them to come up with a prototype for an invention to solve it.
  • Divide middle-schoolers into groups and invite them to pick one inventor from Girls Think of Everything to study and research together. Then ask each group to present to the other groups about the inventor they researched.
  • Read about Ruth Wakefield, the inventor of the chocolate chip cookie. Then present children with the ingredients for cookies and allow them to choose an unconventional (but safe) ingredient to add to the cookies. Create a name for the cookies and, if possible, allow children to taste the cookies they’ve invented.
  • Read a few stories from Girls Think of Everything. Then read a bio of Catherine Thimmesh and set out some of her other books for children to browse such as the following:
    • Thimmesh, Catherine. Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon. ISBN 9780618507573
    • Thimmesh, Catherine. Lucy Long Ago: Uncovering the Mystery of Where We Came From. ISBN 9780547051994
    • Thimmesh, Catherine. Team Panda: Helping Cubs Return to the Wild. ISBN 9780544818910

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

Sibert Award Winner


Bryant, Jen, and Melissa Sweet (illustrator). The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus. Grand Rapids, MI: Erdman’s Books for Young Readers, 2014. ISBN 9780802853851


Peter Roget (pronounced “Roh-zhay”) loved making lists. At the age of 8, he began his first, listing the Latin names of beasts next to their English counterparts. As he grew older, Peter became more and more enamored with lists and especially with lists of synonymous words. Even as he studied, traveled, became a doctor, got married, started a family, and dabbled in science, Peter continued growing his book of synonyms. Finally, after several other men had attempted to create thesauruses but with mixed results, Roget’s children convinced him to publish the thesaurus he’d been creating for years. His was the best, they assured. The people who read Roget’s thesaurus thought his was the best too! It became an instant hit. Even today, more than 150 years after Roget’s thesaurus was first published, it has never gone out of print. The Right Word includes a short timeline of Peter Roget’s life and other concurrent world events, a selected bibliography, suggested books for further reading, sources, a complete list of the 1,000 words found in Roget’s thesaurus, an author’s note, and an illustrator’s note.


The Right Word is one of those rare books with incredible dedication to detail and historical accuracy. Each page reveals careful study on the part of both author and illustrator. For example, readers learn that at age 8, Roget began writing his first “book”—a list of Latin words he’d learned from his English tutor. What makes this seemingly normal piece of information so incredible is that Melissa Sweet uses the illustrations to deepen the reader’s understanding of Roget’s list. To accompany the story about 8-year-old Roget, readers see an illustration of the actual words Roget printed in his book, a list of Latin beasts and their English counterparts—leo for lion, ursus for bear. In this and every other illustration, the lists of words that Melissa Sweet draws come straight from Roget’s notebooks and his 1852 thesaurus. Her design not only complements the text, but it often gives readers further understanding about the subject.

While the illustrations are notably researched, they might prove problematic to readers who find Sweet’s signature collages (colorful organized chaos) visually overstimulating. For example, Sweet draws columns of lists describing the four elements, the weather (in Latin and English), shapes, triangles, things that are green (in Latin and English), and things that fly, all on just one motley page spread of browns, whites, greens, reds, and blues ripped from pages of many-textured papers, some clipped onto the page, some pasted helter-skelter. With so much clutter, readers may be derailed from the main text of the story.

But while the illustrations sometimes outshine the text they’re meant to complement, it’s never due to poor writing. Jen Bryant has a knack for creating sentences that use just the right words to keep readers interested. The book begins, “Baby Annette slept in Mother’s arms, a small pink blossom against a wall of black.” The first sentence creates immediate interest with its unique metaphor—a baby isn’t a blossom but she could certainly look like one! Bryant never stops constructing these wholly original sentences. Roget’s idea for a thesaurus is carried “like a secret treasure,” and to describe the popularity of Roget’s thesaurus, Bryant writes, “People snatched it from the shelves like a new kind of candy,” a simile that will certainly strike a chord with its young, confectionery-loving audience.

The story’s reference aids are impressive too. Most notably, the timeline of principal events both in Roget’s life the world at large gives readers a better sense of the time period Roget inhabited. During Roget’s lifetime, he saw the end of the American Revolution ended and, only eighty years later, the beginning of the American Civil War. Young researchers will also learn that the term “scientist” wasn’t coined until Roget was almost 50!

One of the characters in The Right Word declares that Roget’s thesaurus is “a marvel, a wonder, a surprise!” But The Right Word itself, an incredibly crafted informational picture book, certainly deserves the same praise. This book is a must-buy for every library.


Robert F. Sibert Informational Picture Book Award Winner, 2015

Randolph Caldecott Honor Book, 2015

Orbis Pictus Honor Book, 2015

Golden Kite Award Winner, 2015

Kirkus Prize Finalist, 2014

From Booklist: “In brilliant pages teeming with enthusiasm for language and learning, Bryant and Sweet (A Splash of Red, 2013) joyfully celebrate curiosity, the love of knowledge, and the power of words.”

From Kirkus: “Bryant’s prose is bright and well-tuned for young readers. She goes gently, omitting Roget’s darkest traumas, such as witnessing his uncle’s suicide. Sweet tops herself—again!—visually reflecting Roget’s wide range as a thinker and product of the Enlightenment. . . . In a word: marvelous!”

From Publishers Weekly: “Together with Bryant’s sympathetic account, Sweet’s gentle riot of images and words humanizes the man behind this ubiquitous reference work and demystifies the thesaurus itself.”


  • After reading The Right Word, play a synonym game with middle-graders. Split children into groups and then say a word (like “big”), giving the groups one minute to write down as many synonyms as they can for the word (like “humongous,” “gigantic,” “ginormous,” “huge,” etc.). Then share the words each group has come up with, and repeat the exercise.
  • Read The Right Word with another 2015 Sibert Honor picture books, such as the following:
    • Roy, Katherine. Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands. ISBN 9781596438743
    • Tonatiuh, Duncan. Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation. ISBN 9781419710544
    • Powell, Patricia H., and Christian Robinson (illustrator). Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker. ISBN 9781452103143
  • As a creative writing prompt, ask children to write their own unique list of things like Peter Roget did in The Right Word, and pull out art supplies for children to decorate their lists. Hang them up when they’re finished.
  • Read The Right Word. Then read a bio of the illustrator, Melissa Sweet, and set out some of the other nonfiction books she’s illustrated, such as the following:
    • Sweet, Melissa. Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White. ISBN 9780544319592
    • Sweet, Melissa. Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade. ISBN 9780547199450
    • Markel, Michelle, and Melissa Sweet (illustrator). Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909. ISBN 9780061804427

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

Novel in Verse


Lai, Thanhha. Inside Out & Back Again. New York: Harper, 2011. ISBN 9780061962783


Told in verse, Inside Out & Back Again is the story of a girl and her journey from her war-torn home country, Vietnam, to a strange, often difficult new one in America. The novel begins in February 1975 in Saigon, where Hà lives with her mother and three older brothers. With the country in the throes of war and her father taken by the communists, Hà and her family are shepherded aboard a runaway navy ship by a kind uncle. For over three weeks, the family and other Vietnamese refugees live at sea on cut rations and one bathroom break a day, hoping to be spotted and saved by rescue boats. Finally, Americans come, bringing food and transport to camps in Guam and then in Florida, where the family waits for weeks on end, hoping and praying for an American sponsor. When a “cowboy” comes to the camp looking for a car mechanic, Hà’s brother Quang, who studied engineering in Vietnam, catches his eye and cowboy man decides to bring the whole family home with him to Alabama. The move to the state is difficult for school-smart Hà, who now struggles to learn English and keep up with her classmates. Bullies and racist neighbors make life even more difficult. Still, Hà manages to rise above her difficulties, holding tightly to her family, a kindly next-door neighbor, and school friends who care. One full year after Inside Out begins, Hà senses that her future is bright.


Lai’s mastery of imagery, exemplified in her descriptions of papaya, is astoundingly good. First, Hà introduces readers to the papaya seed she has planted, “a seed like / a fish eye, / slippery / shiny / black”—and then to the freshly picked papaya itself, which Hà describes as “soft as a yam / gliding down / after three easy, / thrilling chews”—and lastly, to a different kind of papaya given to her in her new home in Alabama: “Three pouches of dried papaya / chewy / sugary / waxy / sticky / not the same / at all.” The imagery of the fruit, “middle sweet / between a mango and a pear,” imbues itself into the pages so descriptively, so palpably that readers will feel as though they can almost taste the exotic fruit—and with it, Hà’s joys and sorrows.

Lai hasn’t just mastered imagery; she’s mastered language itself. There’s no doubt that her poetic verse packs a Bruce Lee punch, despite the brevity of the lines. Readers will smile behind the curtains with Mother as Hà’s brother Vu teaches neighbors combat techniques in the front yard, slowly winning over the community after having eggs thrown through their door and bricks smashed through their window. Readers will join Hà in despair when “Mother runs in after work, / hands clenched into white balls,” her amethyst wedding stone—and the last hope of her husband—lost forever. Readers will sympathize with Hà as her friendly neighbor, “MiSSiss WaSShington,” begins to teach her English, the hissy language she can’t pronounce. Finally, readers will cheer with Hà as she reveals her New Year’s hope: to “truly learn . . . to fly.” Hà’s emotions—and, inevitably, the reader’s own—will run the gamut, from scared and sorrowful to exultant.

This book is an important one. It is a book that will likely resonate with refugees and, perhaps more importantly, provide those who have never had a refugee experience with important insights. Furthermore, its format gives middle-graders an impressive introduction to verse poetry, and its imagery and emotional appeal provide unquestionable literary merit to middle-grade, teen, and adult readers alike. This book should be part of every library’s collection.


Newbery Medal Nominee (2012)

National Book Award for Young People’s Literature (2011)

Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Nominee for Older Children (2012)

From Publisher’s Weekly: “Narrating in sparse free-verse poems, 10-year-old Hà brings a strong, memorable voice to the immigrant experience as her family moves from war-torn South Vietnam to Alabama in 1975.”

From BookPage Reviews: “Lai’s spare poetry, full of emotion and infused with humor, is accessible to young children and adults alike. This moving and beautifully told story is a must-read for anyone who works with children new to the country.”

From Kirkus Reviews: “In her not-to-be-missed debut, Lai evokes a distinct time and place and presents a complex, realistic heroine whom readers will recognize, even if they haven’t found themselves in a strange new country.”


  • Read Inside Out & Back Again as an introduction to the Vietnam War. Then suggest the following books on the Vietnam War for teens to read and discuss in groups:
    • Crowe, Chris. Death Coming Up a Hill. ISBN 9780544302150
    • Schmidt, Gary D. Okay for Now. ISBN 9780547152608
    • Kadohata, Cynthia. Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam. ISBN 9780547152608
  • Read Lai’s free verse poems about the papaya. Discuss how she uses imagery to bring her poetry to life. Invite middle-graders to write their own free verse poetry about fruit. Then, bring papaya and other fruits for a fruit party while children share their poems.
  • After reading Inside Out & Back Again, invite middle-graders and teens to read other books and short stories by Thanhha Lai. Then, have a discussion about which they liked best and why:
    • Lai, Thanhha. Listen, Slowly. ISBN 9780062229182
    • Lai, Thanhha. Butterfly Yellow. ISBN 9780062229236
    • Scieszka, Jon (editor). True Stories. ISBN 9780062316523
  • After reading Inside Out & Back Again, invite teens to read other verse poetry. Then, vote on which they liked best and hold an awards ceremony for the favorite verse novel. The list could include the following:
    • Reynolds, Jason. Long Way Down. ISBN 9781481438254
    • Anderson, Laurie H. SHOUT. ISBN 9780670012107
    • Wolff, Virginia E. Make Lemonade. ISBN 9780805080704

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Book by Douglas Florian


Florian, Douglas. Poetrees. New York: Beach Lane Books, 2010. ISBN 9781416986720


In Poetrees, Douglas Florian has created a poetry collection dedicated to all things tree—its seed, its bark, its roots and rings. His poems also go beyond tree anatomy to teach readers about a wide variety of tree species—among others, the baobab (“Vat tree. / Fat tree. / Bottle tree. / Brown tree”), the giant sequoia (“Grow by degrees / To world’s tallest trees”), and the bristlecone pine (“One of the oldest trees on Earth, / With swirling branches, twirling girth”). The book’s original format turns the book sideways to read top to bottom rather than left to right, and its original art was created using a variety of mediums on top of brown paper bags. The book includes a “glosatree” and a list of other tree resources for the blossoming arbor lover.


Douglas Florian has a strong sense of rhythm, and the arrangement of each poem’s meter and line reflects deliberate writing. In his first poem, “The Seed,” Florian uses a single, unbroken poetic line in the shape of the infinity symbol to deftly depict the never-ending cycle of the tree (and the seed and the tree . . . ). In “Coconut Palm,” Florian creates a short, bouncy ABAB rhyme scheme to echo the light tone of the poem’s text. In “Monkey Puzzle Tree,” Florian pens a true limerick, the perfect vessel for his humorous musings. Each of Florian’s poems has a rhythm that matches its tone, a true feat in the poetry world. Furthermore, Florian’s poetry never feels forced and his poems hold to an unfaltering rhythm, reminiscent of the unfaltering stability of trees.

The design of the book itself is also commendable. The pages turn vertically, allowing trees to reach great heights on the paper. But the quality of the illustrations themselves is a mélange. Some reflect the mood of the poem exceptionally well. (These include “Giant Sequoias” with its breathtaking collage of ecological coexistence, and the gorgeous watercolor circles in “Tree Rings” which complement the wonder of discovering a tree’s history.) However, some illustrations are so bizarre that they make otherwise strong poems seem at best badly matched with their visual counterparts and at worst unappealing. (These include “Roots,” paired with an unsettling and seemingly random brown watercolor of a shirtless man, and “Banyan,” accompanied by underdeveloped tree outlines and a strange Weiner-dog-esque creature lying at the root).

As for the language of Poetrees, one characteristic of the collection is the ample use of the pun. In fact, puns can be found in almost every poem in the collection, in both the poetry itself (cold-climate paper birch is renamed “paper birrrrrrrrrrrrrch”) and in the illustrations (dogs peek out from underneath the “bark”). While clever puns are sure to delight clever children, on occasion the puns feel too ample. In “Japanese Ceder,” for example, the puns “ex-seed-ingly” and “tree-mendous” are repeated five times in the short ten-line poem, making it seem more trite than witty. Occasionally, Florian produces poetry that feels underdeveloped. Take “Oak,” for example, with its four short lines—“From the acorn / Grows the tree— / Slowly, / Slowly.” In summary, Florian’s Poetrees shows a grasp of rhythm and rhyme, but the illustrations and language aren’t consistent enough to merit true excellence.


From School Library Journal: “This exquisite collection, with its thoughtful wordplay and timely subject, rewards careful reading and should resonate with a wide audience.”

From Horn Book Magazine: “Trees need all the help they can muster in today’s world; this quirky entry may well enlist interest.” 

From Booklist: “Starting with the book’s title and ending with a final glossatree, the wordplay in Florian’s latest poetry collection provides plenty of fun.”

From Kirkus Reviews: “Trees receive a witty and informative rhyming appreciation. . . . Although some of [Florian’s] wordplay falls flat (sequoias are “Ancient seers / Of three thousand years”), by and large the poems live up to his usual high standard. . . . Readers and listeners will learn and laugh.”


  • Read the shape poem “Tree Rings” together. Then invite children to create shape poems of their own.
  • Show children a local field guide of trees and go on a neighborhood walk together, allowing children to collect leaves, seeds, and bark. Then, use the book to identify tree species together and create a “neighborhood tree guide” by pasting leaves and seeds onto paper and writing the species name underneath. The following book could be a helpful reference:
    • Gibbons, Gail. Tell Me, Tree: All About Trees for Kids. ISBN 9780316309035
  • Read excerpts from Poetrees with other excerpts from Douglas Florian. Ask children which book or poem is their favorite and why.
    • Florian, Douglas. Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars: Space Poems and Paintings. ISBN 9780152053727
    • Florian, Douglas. Insectlopedia. ISBN 9780152163358
    • Florian, Douglas. Winter Eyes. ISBN 9780688164584
  • Read Poetrees with other picture books about trees. Then, ask children to write and illustrate their own tree story.
    • Napoli, Donna J., and Kadir Nelson (illustrator). Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya. ISBN 9781416935056
    • Hopkins, H. J., and Jill McElmurry (illustrator). The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever. ISBN 9781442414020
    • Zweibel, Alan, and David Catrow (illustrator). Our Tree Named Steve. ISBN 9780142407431

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

Award Winning Poetry Book


Hoberman, Mary A., and Linda Winston (editors). The Tree That Time Built. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2009. ISBN 9781402225178


Science and poetry are more alike than we might think. That’s what a children’s poet laureate–schoolteacher duo are out to prove in a book dedicated to the greatest naturalist of all time—Charles Darwin. This compilation of over 100 poems by more than 70 poets is divided into nine sections honoring topics such as the sea, the trees, prehistoric life, reptiles, and our role in taking care of the planet. Classic poets like Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, and Ogden Nash make an appearance. Yet the duo is also careful to select poems from modern award-winners like Joseph Bruchac, Douglas Florian, Kristine O’Connell George, and Tony Johnston, as well as lesser-known writers. Poems are sometimes accompanied by minimalistic art and brief comments or questions for the reader to ponder. The back of the book includes a glossary, suggestions for further reading, and short summaries of each poet.


The organization in The Tree That Time Built is well done and the design is clean and clear. Each section is marked with a thoughtful introduction and a breathtaking tree illustration. Teachers, parents, and middle-graders need look no further for a poetry collection that bridges the gap between juvenile and adult poetry. The book includes not only oral readings of many of the poems, but also a helpful glossary, poet bibliography, and additional resources for further naturalistic and poetic study. And, with questions reflecting on what the world would be like without trees or what would happen if we lost our connection to the natural world, the book prompts thoughtful middle-graders to think more deeply, helping them to gain important analytical skills and a deeper appreciation for poetry, science, and the connections we share with all living things.

Furthermore, poems run the emotional gamut. Some are funny like “The Jellyfish and the Clam”—one “‘no more than a lump of wet squish,’” the other “‘just a thick shell.’”  Some are philosophical like “If They Spoke,” a poem in which Mark Van Doren wonders what animals would tell us if they could talk. Some are comforting like “The Sea is Our Mother,” and others melancholy like “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” In a truly incredible display of their selection powers, Hoberman and Winston have successfully balanced an enormous variety of poetical voices, no one outtalking the others.

One especially captivating poem is an excerpt from March ’79, translated from its original Swedish. The translator writes, “I come across the marks of roe-deer’s hooves in the snow. / Language but no words.” Here, readers uncover an original and wholly surprising insight—that animal tracks tell a story. As delightful as this poem was to read, even more delightful is the fact that each and every poem has its own insight to ponder. In this collection, there are no duds.


Cybils Award Nominee for Poetry (2009)

From Publisher’s Weekly: “Taken in total, the poems encompass nature’s multitudinous qualities, from harsher realities (‘On my early walk/ I passed the Frog Prince/ dead in a rut of the road,’ in Virginia Hamilton Adair’s Early Walk) to its ability to inspire at its most microscopic, as Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, ‘Atom from atom yawns as far/ As moon from earth,/ as star from star.’”

From Booklist: “Selected by Winston, an anthropologist and teacher, and Hoberman, the current U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate, this attractive, accessible anthology collects poems that celebrate both the facts and the mysteries of the natural world.”

From Library Media Connection: “Children’s Poet Laureate Mary Ann Hoberman gives us an exciting collection of over 100 poems that make connections between poetry and science. . . . This collection would be a great choice to use as a collaborative tool with Middle School Science and English classes.”

From School Library Journal: “From the playful to the profound, the poems invite reflection and inspire further investigation.”


  • Ask middle-schoolers to pick one favorite poem from the collection and memorize it. Then have a recitation party together.
  • Focus on one of the poems from the collection that includes commentary from Hoberman and Winston. Talk through their commentary and discussion prompt together.
  • Listen to one section of the poetry collection audio CD together while middle-schoolers create a piece of artwork that relates to that poetry section. Then, put on an art show and allow them to present their work.
  • After reading The Tree That Time Built, read through some of the poet biographies in the back of the book and present children with these poets’ other works. The following books could be possible candidates:
    • Hoberman, Mary A., and Betty Fraser (illustrator). The Llama Who Had No Pajama: 100 Favorite Poems. ISBN 9780152055714
    • Prelutsky, Jack, and James Stevenson (illustrator). The New Kid on the Block. ISBN 9780688022716
    • Sidman, Joyce, and Beth Krommes (illustrator). Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature. ISBN 9780547315836
    • Singer, Marilyn, and Josée Masse (illustrator). Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reverso Poems. ISBN 9780525479017

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Traditional Tale Caldecott Honor Book


Isaacs, Anne, and Paul O. Zelinsky (illustrator). Swamp Angel. New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 1994. ISBN 9780140559088


The plucky heroine of Swamp Angel, Angelica Longrider, is born extraordinary. As a newborn, she’s taller than her mother, and at age two she builds her first log cabin. But giant Angelica doesn’t stop there. The girl—dubbed “Swamp Angel” at the tender age of twelve after rescuing some muck-mired Tennesseans—becomes the beloved champion of the Tennessee frontier. So when a big bad bear called Thundering Tarnation starts stealing winter rations out of poor settler’s food cellars, Swamp Angel signs up to hunt the beast down. Although every other hunter fails to catch the varmint, Angel isn’t deterred. When she finally spots him, Angel and the bear grapple in a fight for the ages, grabbing tornados like lassos, throwing each other into the sky, and creating such a stir that the Great Smoky Mountains are formed. Finally, Tarnation falls down dead at Angel’s feet and Tennesseans celebrate, receiving bear meat enough to fill their food cellars to bursting point. Careful stargazers can still see the legacy of Angel and Tarnation’s fight: the vague outline of a bear thrown into the heavens twinkling up in the night sky.


Swamp Angel is a truly exceptional tale. A great deal of the story’s charm comes from Isaacs’s mastery of the spoken language of the frontier. Tarnation the bear is deemed a “varmint” and Swamp Angel is “much obliged” for the pelt of this “most wondrous heap of trouble.” Isaacs writes flawlessly with the casual exaggeration characteristic of the tall tale narrative. “There was nothing about the child,” she nonchalantly begins, “to suggest that she would become the greatest woodswoman in Tennessee” although the newborn is bigger than her mother and is given a shiny new ax for a cradle toy. In fact, the writing fits the tall tale mold so well, readers will find themselves wondering whether this story was actually penned by Isaacs or whether she first heard the tale from an old Tennessean relative.

Furthermore, the details of the illustrations make the story come to life. Readers will notice that some of the hunters standing in line with Angel (e.g. the angry man with the bee-infested bucket of molasses and the smug man holding his giant bear trap) are the same hunters that Tarnation defeats just a page later. Readers will take note of the details of the settlers’ dress—Angel in her apron and bonnet, trappers in coonskin caps, and gentlemen in top hats. They might even spot Swamp Angel’s small but mighty red hound dog who follows her around on almost every page. Even more importantly, Zelinsky’s illustrations turn the tall tale even taller—the huge bodies of Angel and Tarnation fight across vast mountain ranges, drink up entire lakes of water, and pull down every last tree in the forest with their snores. Zelinsky’s illustrations of epic proportions pair perfectly with Isaacs’s larger-than-life heroine, making this book the perfect addition to any picture book collection.


Caldecott Medal Nominee (1995)

Pennsylvania Young Readers’ Choice Award for Grades 3–6 (1997)

An ALA Notable Book (1995)

A New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book of the Year (1994)

Winner of the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award (1995)

Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee (1996–1997)

From The Horn Book:“Move over Paul Bunyan, you are about to meet Swamp Angel. . . . Visually exciting, wonderful to read aloud, this is a picture book to remember.”

From Publishers Weekly: “Zelinsky’s stunning American-primitive oil paintings, set against an unusual background of cherry, maple and birch veneers, frankly steal the show here. Their success, however, does not diminish the accomplishment of Isaacs, whose feisty tall tale marks an impressive picture-book debut.”


  • Read Swamp Angel to introduce a unit on American pioneers and life on the frontier with excerpts from other children’s books:
    • Tunis, Edward. Frontier Living: An Illustrated Guide to Pioneer Life in America. ISBN 9781585741373
    • Greenwood, Barbara, and Heather Collins. A Pioneer Sampler: The Daily Life of a Pioneer Family in 1840. ISBN 9780395883938
  • Learn about the clothing worn by the settlers in Swamp Angel and bring settler clothing for children to try on.
  • Read Swamp Angel in tandem with other tall tales:
    • Keats, Ezra Jack. John Henry: An American Legend. ISBN 9780812459463
    • Kellogg, Steven. Pecos Bill: A Tall Tale. ISBN 9780688140205
    • Houran, Lori H., and Luke Flowers (illustrator). The Tale of Paul Bunyan. ISBN 978-1984851796
  • Read Swamp Angel with other Caldecott nominees of 1995. Have a class vote to decide which one “wins” the class nomination.
    • Bunting, Eve, and David Díaz (illustrator). Smoky Night. ISBN 9780152018849
    • Rohmann, Eric. Time Flies. ISBN 9780517885550
    • Lester, Julius, and Jerry Pinkney (illustrator). John Henry. ISBN 9780140566222

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Picture Book Version of The Three Little Pigs


Salinas, Bobbi. The Three Pigs/Los Tres Cerdos: Nacho, Tito and Miguel. Spanish version written by Amapola Franzen and Marcos Guerrero. Oakland, CA: Piñata Publications, 1998. ISBN 0934925054


In the beginning of this southwestern retelling, piglets and sow bid each other a tearful adios as the boys decide to strike out on their own. Mamá leaves her three pigs with a warning: watch out for José, the wily wolf. The first pig, Nacho, finds a good plot of land and makes himself a desert home out of straw, but—as in the original tale—José the wolf is quick to blow his house down. The unfortunate Nacho is then locked in a pigpen, awaiting suppertime when he’ll be made into delicious carnitas or chicharrons. Nacho’s brother, Tito, doesn’t fare much better after building his house out of wood. But Miguel, the third brother who builds his house out of adobe, keeps José at bay. The wicked wolf tries various tricks to fool Miguel into coming outside, but Miguel gets the better of José each time. The wolf is finally so angry at being outsmarted that he climbs down Miguel’s chimney to eat up the smug pig. Unfortunately for José, Miguel has his famous hot green chile stew boiling at the chimney’s bottom. After performing first aid and showing a sad-looking burnt wolf to the door, Miguel frees his brothers and they sit down to a delicious dinner.


Los Tres Cerdos is an excellent retelling of the original “Three Little Pigs.” Like its predecessor, the book includes the trademark elements of straw, wood, and brick; of one naughty wolf; of huffing and puffing and blowing houses down; and of not opening the door by the hairs of the pigs’ “chinny-chin-chins.” Yet the book also retells the tale with its own unique flair, adding clever new additions like “No way, José,” chicharron pig snacks, and Miguel’s hot green chile stew. Furthermore, the Spanish words and translations are spot on, and the book includes an index to help readers gain additional insights into the Spanish words and southwestern cultural images found in the illustrations and dialogue.

And speaking of the illustrations, Salinas’s detailed naïve style adds fantastic depth to her retelling. Observant readers will be able to use context clues from household items to note that Nacho is a piano player, that Tito is an aspiring artist, and that Miguel is a book-loving scholar. The illustrations also give the story its distinct Spanish-American flair with nods to cultural icons like the “Mona Frida,” hung from Tito’s wall; the Virgin of Guadalupe, framed in Mamá’s house; and a Gabriel García Márquez novel, sitting on Miguel’s shelf. Details make Los Tres Cerdos come alive.

Most importantly, readers will appreciate this non-violent retelling for its commitment to both mercy and justice. The wolf gets to go home alive, penitent but chastised. The pig brothers get to enjoy a delicious southwestern meal together and live in their safe and sturdy adobe houses happily ever after. With exceptional attention to detail in the language, culture, and illustration, this retelling would make a great addition to any library collection.


Winner of the 1999 Tomás Rivera Book Award

From Publishers Weekly: “This book offers a spicy retelling of the familiar tale of the three little pigs . . . The excellent illustrations are entertaining, intelligent, and witty, offering lots of visual jokes and cross-cultural references to the likes of Elvis Presley, César Chávez, and Cantinflas . . . Highly recommended for all bookstore and library collections.”


  • Put on a classroom play of the story using the costume suggestions found in the back of the book.
  • Work together to recreate green chile stew using the recipe found in the back of the book or pre-prepare stew and eat it together.
  • Read with other Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award winners:
    • Lomas Garza, Carmen. In My Family/En Mi Familia. ISBN 9780892391639
    • Mora, Pat, and Raul Colón (illustrator). Tomás and the Library Lady. ISBN 9780613283625
    • Morales, Yuyi. Just a Minute!: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book. ISBN 9780811837583
  • Read with other cultural retellings of “The Three Little Pigs.” Then, compare and contrast the retellings together:
    • Brett, Jan. The 3 Little Dassies. ISBN 9780399254994
    • Ketteman, Helen, and Will Terry (illustrator). The Three Little Gators. ISBN 9780807578247
    • Kimmel, Eric A., and Leo and Valeria Docampo (illustrator). The Three Little Tamales. ISBN 9780761455196

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

A Folktale Retold by Eric Kimmel


Kimmel, Eric A., and Erin Camarca (illustrator). Rattlestiltskin. Portland: WestWinds Press, 2016. ISBN 9781943328383


Rattlestiltskin is a southwestern spin on the original German fairy tale, substituting tortillas “so light, they float like clouds” for straw that spins into gold and Don Ignacio, the richest man in town, for the king. Rosalia is the southwestern substitute for the miller’s daughter, and try as she might, she can’t make tortillas float for Don Ignacio until a rattlesnake-wearing man appears. Rosalia offers to do anything he asks in exchange for his secret to making tortillas float, and the man promptly agrees to her terms. When Don Ignacio tastes Rosalia’s new floating tortillas, he is overjoyed and presents her with a life of luxury. Rosalia is carefree—until the rattlesnake man appears again and demands that she become a maid for him and his brothers. Rosalia can only escape her fate if she guesses his name, and after coming up short two days in a row, she runs away. But before Rosalia gets too far, she spots a shack and overhears the rattlesnake man inside say his name—Rattlestiltskin—allowing her to break free of her promise and continue to live her luxurious lifestyle.


There are several ways in which Rattlestiltskin shines. The oral readability of the story is fantastic, and readers will especially delight in reciting the square dance song that Rattlestiltskin sings. (“Promenade and don’t be slow. What’s my name? I’ll bet you know . . .”) Kimmel’s almost perfect maneuvering of Spanish words and phrases intermingled with English is also commendable and adds authenticity to the southwestern bent of the story. Plus, illustrations add additional insight into the southwest with brightly colored traditional clothing and the rugged desert landscape of the southwestern wilderness.

Unfortunately, there are also several ways in which Rattlestiltskin flops. Unlike the original miller’s daughter, Rosalia’s plight is never so dire or unfair that readers have much of a reason to root for her. On the other hand, readers don’t have much of a reason to root against Rattlestiltskin. After all, he’s only asking Rosalia to keep her end of their agreement and his request isn’t for anything very unreasonable. Asking her to be the maid at his house is mild when compared with the original Rumpelstiltskin’s evil wish to take away a mother’s baby; it’s one that even seems fair after he’s taught Rosalia his amazing secrets. Furthermore, the man mercifully allows Rosalia to try to guess his name again and again. Thus, when the ever-jolly Rattlestiltskin is rattled to pieces, it seems undeserved, and when the final spread of the story shows a frightening picture of an evil-looking Rattlestiltskin hiding in the rocks, it clashes awkwardly with his upbeat nature. In summary, the lack of high stakes and consistency, and a villain more likable than the heroine left the story feeling half-baked and mediocre.


From School Library Journal: “An enjoyable play on an old favorite that will be a sound addition to most picture book collections.”

From Kirkus Reviews: “This adaptation is uneven, fluctuating between clever—the story’s title—and pedestrian—the tale itself.”

From Booklist: “Peppering the book with Spanish vocabulary and phrases, Kimmel adds a multicultural twist through words visually enhanced by first-time illustrator Camarca’s desert landscapes and traditional dress. In spite of noble intentions to add diversity to a well-known story, the result feels a bit awkward, and the art, occasionally almost disturbing.”


Work together to recreate tortillas using the tortilla recipe found in the back of the book or pre-prepare tortillas and eat them together.

Teach the children a simple square dance like the ones found below:

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xXePOakJGs
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFskdWvq0wk&feature=share
  • https://ourpastimes.com/square-dance-kids-6356669.html

Read with other books by Eric Kimmel and ask children to write about which book is their favorite:

  • Kimmel, Eric A., and Trina S. Hyman (illustrator). Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. ISBN 9780823411313
  • Kimmel, Eric A., and Janet Stevens (illustrator). Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock. ISBN 9780823407989
  • Kimmel, Eric A., and Omar Rayyan (illustrator). Joha Makes a Wish: A Middle Eastern Tale. ISBN 9780761455998

Read with other retellings and versions of Rumpelstiltskin. Then, compare and contrast the retellings together:

  • Zelinsky, Paul O. Rumpelstiltskin. ISBN 9780140558647
  • Stanley, Diane. Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter. ISBN 9780064410953
  • Hamilton, Virginia, and Leo and Diane Dillon (illustrators). The Girl Who Spun Gold. ISBN 9780590473781

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

Classic Picture Book Review


Thompson, Kay, and Hilary Knight (illustrator). Eloise. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1955. ISBN 9780671223502


In Eloise, a mischievous 6-year-old takes readers through her daily routine at her ritzy home, the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Readers are introduced to the lobby, where Eloise is dubbed a “nuisance”; the elevator, where she provokes the elevator man by “skibbling” up and down tirelessly; the hall, where she makes “a really loud and terrible racket” for the other residents; and various fancy rooms that are left a little less fancy in the wake of little Eloise. The 6-year-old also introduces readers to her pets, her nanny, her French teacher, and her wild imagination. Most of all, readers are introduced to Eloise’s big, often impish personality from the first page to the last.


Loud, opinionated, and very unique, Eloise is a picture book character like no other. Readers will never have to guess how Eloise feels about anything or anyone, whether it’s her boring boring boring French tutor Philip whom she mimics until he screams, or her nurse, Nanny whom ooooooo she just absolutely loves. Eloise’s voice is full of made up words and childlike observations (did you know that Kleenex makes a very good hat and so does cabbage leaf and an egg cup?), making her voice strong and certainly unforgettable, despite the simple, meandering plot of the story. Illustrations support and strengthen text with spreads as unforgettable as the one where readers watch Eloise saw Saylor the doll in half and ride in an ambulance to save the poor thing from this most terriblest accident.

However, while the voice and illustration of Eloise are to be lauded, the book often seems too mature for its 5- to 8-year-old audience. In fact, Kay Thompson herself never intended for this book to be a children’s book. It was intended, as its subtitle suggests, to be a book for precocious grown-ups. Children may not pick up on the illustration of the gin that 6-year-old Eloise has stashed away in her room, but they will hear the somewhat offensive mature phrases “for Lord’s sake” and “Oh my Lord” repeated about a dozen times. And while characters that are overly cute, sweet, and well behaved may not be memorable to children and didactic texts can turn them right off, Eloise seems to have no meaning nor subtle takeaway, unless it is that Eloise is actually a character to be pitied. She’s a 6-year-old whose parents are completely absent and whose mischievous acts seem to be the only way she knows how to get anyone’s attention. Or maybe the takeaway is that her naughtiness holds no undesirable consequences, an idea that caregivers may not be thrilled to have to correct.


New York Times Bestseller List

Times “100 Best Children’s Books of All Time” List

Bookroo “Best 100 Classics of All Time” List

From Time: “She is a magnificent moppet.”

From the New York Times: “Eloise is one of the most recognizable characters in children’s literature.”

From Variety: “Eloise is poised to become an overnight sensation.”


Read with other popular children’s books written in the 1950s:

  • Geisel, Theodor Suess. The Cat in the Hat. ISBN 9780394800011
  • Johnson, Crockett. Harold and the Purple Crayon. ISBN 9780747532033

Read with other picture books with strong character voice:

  • Willan, Alex. Unicorns Are the Worst!. ISBN 9781534453845
  • Pizzoli, Greg. The Watermelon Seed. ISBN 9781423171010
  • Lobel, Arnold. Frog and Toad Are Friends. ISBN 9780064440202

Read with other picture books that include elevators:

  • Minh, Lê, and Dan Santat (illustrator). Lift. ISBN 9781368036924
  • Kulling, Monica, and David Parkins (illustrator). Going Up!: Elisha Otis’s Trip to the Top. ISBN 9781770495166
  • Frankel, Yael, and Kit Maude (translator). The Elevator. ISBN 781734783902

Read with other picture books about the day in the life of a child:

  • Viorst, Judith, and Ray Cruz (illustrator). Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. ISBN 9780689711732
  • Falconer, Ian. Olivia. ISBN 9780689829536

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

Review of a Book Illustrated by Kadir Nelson


Levine, Ellen, and Kadir Nelson (illustrator). Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad. New York: Scholastic, 2007. ISBN 9780439777339


In Henry’s Freedom Box, young Henry and his family work as slaves. Henry longs to be free, but his master sends Henry to work for his son instead. As a slave for the master’s son, Henry grows up working in a tobacco factory and meets a girl, Nancy, who is working under another master. Both masters allow Henry and Nancy to marry, and they have three children together. But when Nancy’s master loses his money, Nancy and the children are sold and taken away forever. Henry decides that he’ll do anything to leave slavery behind. With the help of a sympathetic white man, Henry is nailed in a box and mailed to Philadelphia where he becomes free at last.


The story of Henry is a story that children won’t soon forget. Its plot moves forward at a quick and steady pace, yet never glosses over the harsh realities of Henry’s life as a slave. Readers watch as Henry is taken from his family of origin and placed in a harsh environment where he can be beaten, as his wife and children are sold away, and as he mails himself to freedom nailed inside a box. However, while Henry’s Freedom Box makes the harsh realities of slavery clear to young readers, the text is written in a tactful and age-appropriate manner. The writing style is engaging and easy to understand, making it accessible for its intended audience. There’s no doubt that Ellen Levine makes good stories.

But the best part of the book is its illustrations. Illustrator Kadir Nelson’s crosshatched pencil lines covered with layers of watercolor and oil paint practically burst from the page, bringing the details of each scene into sharp focus. Facial expressions are drawn with especially astonishing clarity, driving home the emotions that Henry is feeling—his anger as he works in the tobacco factory, his delight as he talks with Nancy for the first time, his horror and heartbreak as he learns of the selling of Nancy and the children, and his determination to find his way to freedom. Pictures will invite readers to engage with Henry’s story, to triumph with Henry in his deliverance, and to develop a deeper understanding of a dark part of America’s history. This book would make an excellent addition to any picture book collection for older readers.


Caldecott Medal Nominee (2008)

Pennsylvania Young Readers’ Choice Award for Grades 3­–6 (2010)

California Young Readers Medal for Picture Books for Older Readers (2012)

Comstock Read Aloud Book Award Nominee (2008)

From Publisher’s Weekly: “Powerful illustrations will make readers feel as if they have gained insight into a resourceful man and his extraordinary story.”

From School Library Journal: “This book solidly conveys the generalities of Henry Brown’s story.”

From Kirkus: “Related in measured, sonorous prose that makes a perfect match for the art, this is a story of pride and ingenuity that will leave readers profoundly moved.”


Read with other picture books about Henry “Box” Brown. Compare and contrast the differences in each story.

  • Weatherford, Carole Boston, and Michele Wood (illustrator). Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom. ISBN 9780763691561
  • Walker, Sally M., and Sean Qualls (illustrator). Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown. ISBN 9780060583101

Read with other Caldecott nominees of 2008:

  • Seeger, Laura V. First the Egg. ISBN 9781596432727
  • Willems, Mo. Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity. ISBN 9781423102991

Read with other award-winning books illustrated by Kadir Nelson and discuss how the art is similar and different in each book:

  • Alexander, Kwame, and Kadir Nelson (illustrator). The Undefeated. ISBN 9781328780966
  • Nelson, Kadir. Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans. ISBN 9780061730740
  • Nolen, Jerdine, and Kadir Nelson (illustrator). Thunder Rose. ISBN 9780152060060

Read with other picture books as an introduction to the Underground Railroad:

  • Tate, Don. William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad. ISBN 9781561459353
  • Cole, Henry. Unspoken: A Story From the Underground Railroad. ISBN 9780545399975
  • Stroud, Bettye, and Erin S. Bennett (illustrator). The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom. ISBN 9780439851176

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.

Caldecott Review


Blackall, Sophie. Hello Lighthouse. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2018. ISBN 9780316362382


Hello Lighthouse is the story of one lighthouse and its last “keeper,” a man whose job is to make sure the lighthouse lamp is wound up tight, its oil is refilled, and the events of the day are written in the logbook. Time passes in the lighthouse and, with it, many events—the arrival of the keeper’s wife, the rescue of three wrecked sailors from a storm, the birth of a daughter, and—finally—the invention of a lighthouse machine that needs no keeper, causing husband, wife, and daughter to say goodbye to their beloved lighthouse and find a new home on the shore.


Hello Lighthouse is not your average picture book. Unlike such favorites as Corduroy or How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Sophie Blackall leaves her characters nameless and without a book-long problem to solve. However, while these omissions might make another picture book fall flat, in Sophie Blackall’s deft hands, Hello Lighthouse shines from its promontory station as a wonderful children’s book.

What makes Hello Lighthouse truly exceptional is its pictures. Beautiful Chinese ink and watercolor illustrations accompany and amplify textual descriptions—the colors of the sunrise reflect on the water as the text declares that “from dusk to dawn, the lighthouse beams” and the lighthouse becomes a ghostly silhouette when “the fog makes everything disappear.” But the illustrations go far beyond simple textual amplifications. They invite curious young readers to uncover hidden gems in the intricate details of each spread, like the words of the letter written to “dearest Alice” or the weather remarks written in the logbook of the lighthouse. And images are drawn from unique, cinematic perspectives, such as the eye-level illustration that invites readers to greet the lighthouse from across the shore with husband, wife, and child. Young readers are sure to come away from this book full of a little more imagination and a little more wonder.


2019 Caldecott Medal

Publisher’s Weekly Best Picture Books of 2018 Pick

New York Times Notable Children’s Books of 2018 Pick

From Publisher’s Weekly: “This graceful account celebrates a lost era and vocation—the sometimes lonely, sometimes dangerous job of keeping a lighthouse. . . . A jewel of a creation.”

From School Library Journal: “A lovely picture book, recommended for all libraries. A delightful bedtime read perfect for one on one sharing.”

From Booklist: “Blackall’s charmingly old-fashioned art style is beautifully matched to this nostalgia-rich story, which imbues an antiquated place with warmth and wonder.”


Read with other award-winning books illustrated by Sophie Blackall:

  • Mattick, Lindsay, and Sophie Blackall (illustrator). Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear. ISBN 0316324906
  • Blackall, Sophie. If You Come to Earth. ISBN 145213779X

Read with other books about lighthouses such as:

  • Armitage, Rhonda, and David Armitage (illustrator). The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch. ISBN 0590551752
  • Hopkinson, Deborah, and Kimberly B. Root (illustrator). Birdie’s Lighthouse. ISBN 0689835299

Use as an introduction to a weather unit with other weather books such as:

  • Rabe, Tish, and Aristides Ruiz (illustrator). Oh Say Can You Say What’s the Weather Today? ISBN 0375822763
  • Gibbons, Gail. Weather Words and What They Mean. ISBN 0823441903

Use as an introduction to an inventions unit. Point out that a new light is installed in the lighthouse. Brainstorm with the children about things they want to invent. Then, ask them to draw a picture of their inventions.

*Note—This book review was created as an assignment for a course at Texas Woman’s University.