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 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 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 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 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 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.

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

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.