King and Levithan on Censorship for Kids

Lynn:attack of the black rectangles Censorship is a hot and timely subject, especially now. We all hear the news and read about politicians’ rhetoric. For librarians, authors, publishers, and teachers, this is not a new issue although it is especially front and center now. But how do you address censorship with kids? Amy Sarig King has written a terrific new book that does just that for middle-grade students. Attack of the Black Rectangles (Scholastic, Sept. 2022) approaches the subject through the eyes of 6th grader, Mac Delaney.

Mac already has a lot going on in his life. Mac lives with his mom and grandfather, with his erratic dad making occasional visits. Mainly during those, he works on a classic car that belongs to Mac’s grandfather. Increasingly, Mac’s dad tells him that he is really an alien from another world and an anthropologist studying Earth’s culture. Fortunately, Mac has great support from his mom, grandfather, and a close set of friends.

Mac is excited about 6th grade and he thinks his new teacher is “the kind of teacher I’ve wanted my whole if-it’s-not-interesting-I-don’t-care life.” For one thing, their lit circle is starting Jane Yolen’s intriguing book, The Devil’s Arithmetic. But strangely, when Mac gets his book and starts to read, he discovers words in the book that are covered over with black rectangles! What is going on? What are these words, who did this, and why?

King skillfully shows us Mac’s first encounter with censorship, his thought process, and the actions he and his friends undertake. Mac’s voice is wonderfully authentic and very engaging as this important issue is threaded into a compelling story of Mac’s struggles to understand his father, himself, his own coming of age, as well as the wider issues in the world. Interestingly, King has found a way to deal with censorship in a way that largely avoids the various political issues that are currently front and center without diluting the basic issue. This is a perfect book to use in a 6th-grade classroom and is guaranteed to generate discussion and thought.

Cindy: I’m late for my part here, having spent Banned Books Week finally reading The Handmaid’s Tale for my local library’s banned books reading challenge. Now, perhaps, I can finally check out the video series, if I can bring myself to do it. What a chilling read. 

As for King’s novel, I was sold by the cover art. It’s perfect and will certainly draw in young readers and will grace Banned Books Week displays for years. Once inside the pages, it is King’s mastery with characters that brings this story to life. She doesn’t shy from including the adults, and they are well done again here, especially Mac’s grandfather and their important relationship. And Jane Yolen’s surprise entrance at the school board meeting was a delight. Jane is everyone’s hero. Mac and his friends come up against adults who don’t want to admit there’s a problem and those who, instead, listen and support them when they take action. 

Answers in the Pages by David LevithanThe students in Answers in the Pages (Knopf, 2022) by David Levithan, are in the same situation when the parent of one student decides that the class science fiction novel is “inappropriate” for unstated reasons. The book’s structure features the current challenge to the book, alternating with excerpts from the challenged book, and another storyline from the previous generation in this town. The stories all merge at the end and will raise as many questions as answers as readers ponder what is “inappropriate,” how people read texts differently, and the importance of supporting a diversity of readers.

The majority of the challenges in our area, as well as across the country, focus on LGBTQIA+ issues, so books like Levithan’s will provide some food for thought for the younger readers who may wonder what all the fuss is about, while King’s book sheds bright light on the misguided efforts to protect children from words and ideas. My thoughts are with the educators and librarians who are striving to provide books for all of their readers despite the many attacks against them.

 

Having Emotions Means You Are Human…or Does It?: a Rover Named Resilience – A Rover’s Story by Jasmine Warga

Lynn: rover's storyWhat does it mean to be human? Does it mean the ability to wonder, to hope or to be scared? Does it mean recognizing that you have emotions? Jasmine Warga’s newest book explores that important question and she does it in a way that is intriguing, unusual, and compelling. A Rover’s Story (Scholastic, Oct. 2022) began when Warga’s young daughter asked her to turn on the TV to watch the Mars Rover Launch in November 2022. After watching in fascination together, one of her daughters asked Warga, “Mama, do you think the robot is scared?” And a book was born.

Resilience is a robot intended to travel to Mars, take samples and photographs, send home information, and locate another rover that has gone silent. Readers meet Resilience in a NASA lab where workers, especially scientists Raina and Xander, work long into the night to prepare the little robot for its mission. Short chapters alternate at the beginning between Resilience as something happens to create awareness, Sophie (Raina’s daughter), and Journey, another rover in production. Warga skillfully develops all these fascinating characters, both Homosapien and robot as all of them experience the various emotions that make us all who we are.

Spanning over 17 years, the story follows Resilience and his eventual teammates, Fly, his chatty enthusiastic drone, Guardian, a satellite, and the various humans remaining behind. Adventures, catastrophes, loneliness, hope, courage, and, yes, fear, all play a fascinating part in the explorations, both physical and emotional, in this story. I started the book a bit wary of anthropomorphizing the robot but I blew past that at light-year speed. I fell head-over-wheels in love with all these characters and will think about Resilience for a long long time. This would be a great choice for a classroom read-aloud.

Cindy: “Zappedty, zip,” I don’t blame Warga for getting sucked into the lives of the Mars rovers. I was hooked after reading The Mighty Mars Rovers: The Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity (Clarion, 2012) by Elizabeth Rusch. Even though it was nonfiction, the rovers came alive in her writing and had me rooting for them as if they were human. The blurb on the advanced reader copy of A Rover’s Story describes it as The One and Only Ivan meets The Wild Robot. Having read and loved both of those stories for a similar age level, I would agree. There is much to be learned about what it means to be human in children’s books, and not just from the human characters. The teamwork between the scientists is equaled by that between Resilience, Fly, and Guardian. Sophie has her own worries, at first jealous of the time her mother gives to the rover, then concerned for the project once she meets Resilience and watches the launch, and then problems that aren’t so easily fixable as reprogramming a robot. This is a story that is sure to prompt some discussion amongst tweens, and it really would be a great read-aloud as Lynn suggests. 

Redefining Beauty – A Face For Picasso

Face for PicassoLynn: What is beauty? That question has deeply impacted lives, especially of women, through time and remains a dominant force today. And how does that definition dominate your life and worth if you are not beautiful by the classic ideal? Perhaps none know the answers to that better than Ariel and her twin sister Zan, born with a rare genetic disorder, Crouzon Syndrome. The life-threatening disorder causes the bones of a person’s face to fuse in infancy. With the skull unable to expand, the brain’s and face’s normal growth cannot happen. To save their lives, the twins underwent dangerous surgery at 8 months of age and eventually more than 60 surgeries to “correct” their facial features.

Ariel Henley’s searing memoir brings this experience to readers in her debut book and it is unforgettable. When they were young children, a national magazine carried a story about the twins, writing that, “their faces resemble the works of Picasso.” Henley uses Picasso’s appalling life story and treatment of women to frame her story, eventually reclaiming her life from that narrow definition and moving past it. Her story is broken into three parts, Before, After, and Healing with 7th grade, an especially emotionally traumatic year, as the midpoint.

Henley’s account describes the risky, often experimental, and incredibly painful surgeries in some detail but the most enduring pain she describes is the treatment and reactions of other people. That pain was deeper and more lasting than any surgical procedure and marked the twins in ways that it has taken decades to deal with. The casual cruelty of other people is the stuff of nightmares and Henley writes of it with great skill. The twins had a wonderfully supportive family and childhood friends but for years the reactions of others defined their sense of worth. Ariel Henley has come a long way in her healing and her story is both painful to read and incredibly inspiring. She is a writer to watch and a person to cheer for. Her reflections on beauty and how we as women allow that ideal to define us is, for me, the heart of this story. I will be pondering this for weeks to come.

Sadly, this book was hard to find in my public library consortium. It should be purchased by all libraries and available for teens and adults everywhere.

 
 
 

Retirement Means Indulgence Reading – Adult Book Reviews on Bookends!

Lynn: Cindy and I are both retired and, while we love keeping our hand in with youth books, we find ourselves drifting quite often into adult books. I used to feel a bit guilty about that but if you can’t experience some indulgence in retirement, when can you? We decided it’s long overdue to start including some occasional reviews of adult books that we are enjoying.

Unquiet Bones by Mel StarrI’m going to start our new category by reviewing a series I’ve been reading with great pleasure for many years, The Chronicles of Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon (Lion) by Mel Starr. Adding to my enjoyment is the fact that Starr is a West Michigan author, and a career history teacher and I love finding local authors. Starr published the first of the series, The Unquiet Bones in 2008 but sadly I didn’t discover it until 2020 when I was looking for something to heal my pandemic reader’s slump. It was perfect for me! Totally engaging, with a charming and oh-so-human hero, an interesting mystery, and an outstanding historical setting. I loved it and I have been steadily moving through the series ever since, inserting it in the midst of YA, MG, and the occasional high-octane adult thriller and science fiction.

In the Unquiet Bones, we first meet Hugh de Singleton, a young surgeon fresh from training in Paris, setting up his first practice in Oxford. When an important local lord has a serious accident under his office, Hugh rushes out to provide medical assistance. Greatly impressed and grateful, the powerful lord offers Hugh a position as surgeon for his area and as his Bailiff.

Starr does a wonderful job of weaving the details of ordinary life in the 1300s into an intriguing mystery. Hugh is thoughtful, often introspective, and has a strong sense of justice. There is plenty of humor and Starr nails the dialog and setting in such an accessible way, providing a Glossary with terms. The descriptions of the meals are worth the time all by themselves. Who wouldn’t enjoy a feast of parsley bread and honeyed butter, fruit and salmon pie, aloes of lamb and pomme dorryse?

This is not a fast-paced thriller with explosions everywhere but an intriguing mystery confided by long-time friend and gently paced. Each new volume gets better and I love watching Hugh and his family grow and develop. Give them a try and stay tuned for more adult book recommendations.

To McCloskey’s Ducklings with Love

Lynn: Ducks on paradeThis is a post about a childhood favorite, a city’s tribute, and a book celebrating them all.

Robert McCloskey’s wonderful Make Way for Ducklings was published in 1941. It was a book I adored as a child and my parents read it over and over to me. They may have tired of it but I never did. For a time, my family lived in Boston and all the locations in the book were a treasured part of my childhood. It was years later when the city commissioned a sculpture in 1987 to honor the famous book and by then I was an adult living far away. But on my visits back to Boston, I always checked in on the ducklings. And while I read articles about the wonderful contributions anonymous Bostonians made to the sculptures, it wasn’t until I chanced on a Goodreads listing that I learned about Ducks on Parade (Brandeis University Press, 2021) edited by Nancy Schön, the artist who created the famous sculpture in the Public Garden.

Schon’s introduction provides the history of the sculptures and relates that on their first birthday, in an official celebration the ducks were dressed in birthday hats and confetti. Shortly after that costumes began appearing on the ducks, mysteriously added during the nights. Schön marvels at the charm and skill of the costumes and writes of the special connection between the people of Boston and the duckling sculpture they have so clearly made their own. The book is a collection of photographs of the costumes that have adorned the ducklings over the years and a real celebration of public art.

Over the years the costumes have included seasonal and holiday themes like Easter bonnets, Pilgrim outfits, or Reading Day Dr. Seuss hats. They have also celebrated sports teams, and cultural events, or been symbols uniting the city like Boston Strong. Each photo made me smile and like the sculptor, marvel at how the people of Boston have made this sculpture their own.

For those of you still reading and loving Make Way for Ducklings, this wonderful little book will be a terrific pairing.

Queen of the Tiles: Scrabble Slays

Queen of the TilesLynn: REGICIDE is the first ominous clue in Hanna Alkaf’s unusual mystery, Queen of the Tiles (S&S/Salaam, 2022).  Trina Lowe was the reigning “Queen of the Tiles” when she suddenly keeled over the Scrabble Board and died just one year ago. Still struggling to recover from the trauma of that event, Trina’s best friend Najwa Bakri is making her first appearance at a tournament since that event. Najwa is determined to win the championship to honor Trina and figure out the mystery of her death. Was it a tragic accident or was it murder? As Najwa begins to work with her friends and fellow competitors, she is horrified to see cryptic messages appearing on Trina’s Instagram account. Each message includes a series of Scrabble tile letters as a clue. Who is sending the messages and can anyone be trusted?

Set in Kuala Lampur, Alkaf skillfully weaves Malaysian culture and the fascinating details of competitive Scrabble into the story. And, yes, there IS such a thing as competitive Scrabble. Each chapter begins with a word spelled out in Scrabble tiles, its definition and point value. Enough background is provided so that even Scrabble newbies won’t feel like they’ve drawn a terrible rack. The tension ratchets up as the competition and Najwa’s investigations move along. There is bagful of red herrings and Najwa, her friends and fellow competitors slowly begin to put together all the tiles to spell out the surprising answers.

Graphic Novels with Girl Power

Cindy and Lynn: We love graphic novels and we especially love graphic novels with girl power! Here are three new ones that differ widely in location and time but all three discover how to find their skills and rock their worlds.

Enola Holmes: the Graphic Novels: Book One ( Andrews McNeal, 2022) by Serena Blasco.

Enola HolmesWe love the original Enola Holmes books by Nancy Springer! If you haven’t found them or the Netflix series, Enola is the much younger sister of the famous Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes. On her 14th birthday, Enola awakens to discover that her mother, a woman of very eccentric beliefs for her time, has disappeared. When her brothers arrive, they decide they must send Enola away to boarding school to become a proper lady. Enola has very different ideas and runs away to London where she sets shop as a private investigator while also searching for her mother.

Blasco’s graphic novel adaptations of the first three cases is absolutely terrific! These are faithful to the books for those of us who care about that and the illustrations are not only inviting but filled with delicious details that reward careful perusing. The language of flowers which plays a big part in the books is included and well explained and the inclusion of them in messages and codes is wonderfully done. Enola is a spunky, smart heroine, and a dab hand at disguise, detecting and outwitting both her brothers and villains.

Blasco captures the tone of the Springer novels perfectly and we absolutely loved reading these versions. This will be terrific both for fans of the originals and for newcomers to the series. Delightful!!!

Swim Team: Small Waves, Big Changes. (Harper Alley, 2022) by Johnnie Christmas.

Swim Team by Johnnie ChristmasWith four starred reviews, you may have already heard about this sports-themed graphic novel, but if not, you’ll need to get on your starting block and race to get a copy. Bree is starting middle school in a new state and is dismayed to learn that swimming is a big deal at her new Florida school. When the only elective that fits her schedule is not Math Games as she’d hoped, but Swim 101, she’s unnerved. Bree never learned to swim.  A neighbor at her apartment, who is an alumnus of Bree’s school and its swim team, jumps in the deep end to help Bree not only learn to swim but to be good enough to be tapped for the struggling swim team. 

Bree’s public school lacks the resources of the local private school that usually wins most of the medals and the meets, but the girls and their coach have other resources under their swim caps and the race is on.

Middle school friendships and fights and rude rivals threaten to sink some of the progress of the team until the girls learn to work together. Additional subplots with the coaches and the history of segregated swimming pools and the lack of swimming instruction and access to pools for blacks are woven into the important story. Readers will cheer for Bree as she overcomes her fears and they will learn from her perseverance and commitment as she excels in her sport. 

Squire (HarperCollins/Quill Tree, 2022) by Sara Alfageeh.

SquireAiza dreams of becoming a Squire and then a Knight in the powerful Bayt-Sajii army that controls a vast area. Aiza is poor and of a despised minority, the Ornu, and the army is her only route to citizenship. Aiza conceals her cultural tattoos with wrappings and, with the help of a motley array of allies and enemies survives the intense training, reaching her goal of becoming a Squire. But along the way, Aiza begins to understand the true nature of the country she serves and begins to question where her loyalty and her heart lie.

Set in an alternative Middle East, the illustrations are bold and gorgeously inked. Each expression is wonderfully detailed, providing a depth of understanding of each character. A sweeping tale of understanding the nature of power and true loyalty.

Planting a Love for Nature: Park and Garden Picture Books

Lynn and Cindy: We have gardens and parks on our minds! Who doesn’t in these sweet early days of summer when the world is green and inviting? A lovely bouquet of picture books has landed on our doorsteps that will delight any budding gardener. Enjoy and share!

Uncle John's city gardenUncle John’s City Garden (Holiday House, 2022) by Bernette G. Ford

Little Sissie and her brothers work with their Uncle John to plant a garden in the middle of the city. Each child chooses seeds and carefully tends the plants with the goal of a glorious succotash at the season’s end. A bounty crop means a neighborhood celebration and lots of sharing. Frank Morrison’s vibrant oil illustrations make every page delicious. Succotash recipe included!

Celia Planted a Garden: the Story of Celia Thaxter and HerCelia planted a garden Island Garden (Candlewick, 2022) by Phyllis Root and Gary D. Schmidt.

Celia Thaxter loved flowers from the time she was a young child. She especially loved the color they brought to her gray, white, and black life on the island where her father tended a lighthouse. Her love for gardening bloomed as gloriously as the flowers she tended and the nature writing she nurtured. Melissa Sweet’s colorful illustrations are perfect for this picture book biography, and you’ll be inspired to plant some seeds of your own.

Park connects usA Park Connects Us (Owl Kids, 2022) by Sarah Nelson.

This lovely picture book celebrates all the ways parks benefit us. Simple sentences and charming illustrations by Ellen Rooney make this a joyous choice for a summer read aloud. Back matter provides information on the history and creation of Central Park in New York City.

Cress Watercress: A Perfect Read-Aloud–Make Note!

Lynn: I Cress watercressam a skeptical audience for animal fantasies. Some I love and some I dislike intensely. I may be the only person on the planet to loathe Watership Down but I adored the Brian Jacques books. I also am a fan of Gregory Maguire’s adult fantasies and was unsure how his sharp clever style would translate into a middle-grade book. After a bit of a slow start in his new book, Cress Watercress (Candlewick, 2022), Maguire settles into a masterful style and pace that brings something new to the genre and is perfectly attuned to the young audience.

Cress Watercress and her hardworking mother and baby brother must leave their home for new quarters after her Papa fails to come home from a honey-gathering trip. The Broken Arms apartment is small and crowded and Cress grieves her father and misses her home and friends. Her contrary feelings are exacerbated by a leap into adolescence and her mood is as if she “ate thorns for breakfast.” Real dangers, a very sick little brother, and a mix of new friends— both good and bad—add to Cress’s struggles and her path forward is skillfully woven into the adventure. Cress yearns to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance and as she learns to handle her grief, she also begins to discover what home and family are. She also learns a lot about her own strength. Never saccharine, this rabbit’s tale is beautifully told.

The book is illuminated by David Litchfield’s glowing digital illustrations that make the book a visual treat. The book production by this Candlewick team is absolutely outstanding!!

This is a perfect choice for a bedtime or a classroom read-aloud!! Make note!

Cindy: There are at least two people who aren’t fans of Watership Down. You’re not alone, Lynn. What I am a fan of is intelligent stories that are as fun for the adult reading them aloud as for the child listening to them. This one has great characters, like a skunk named Lady Agatha Cabbage dressed for the opera peering through a lorgnette and uttering phrases like “Oh, my pearls and pistols.” Independent readers ready for interesting vocabulary and humor will enjoy reading this story, too. For instance, when Cress and Finny are headed over a waterfall on their raft, Cress hangs on by “strength of will and overbite.” Many unexpected little gems had me chuckling aloud. At other times, as when Cress’s mother uses the waxing and waning of the moon as an analogy for grief that comes and goes but is always there, the storytelling left me brushing away some tears.

Room for Everyone: A Wild Inclusive Ride

Lynn:room for everyone In Zanzibar on a day “hotter than peppers”, Musa and his sister get aboard the daladala for an excursion to the beach. In the delightful Room for Everyone (S&S/Atheneum, 2021) by Naaz Khan, the bus keeps stopping and each stop adds more and more hilarious passengers. Musa is sure they will be squished.  First, there is a boy and his goats, then an old man and his bicycle, and a diving team and all their equipment! With each addition, Musa gets more and more worried but his sister assures him there always room for everyone. And of course, she is right. By the time they arrive at the beach, Musa, too, is joining the bouncy refrain that there is always room for everyone.

Joyful and buoyant repeating verse makes this cumulative tale a delight to read aloud. Merce Lopez’s vibrant illustrations are brightly colored and exuberant with lots of humorous touches that will delight young readers. Giggles abound!

Always Room for One More by Sorche Nic LeodhasCindy: This story is a fun twist on the Scottish folktale, Always Room for One More, perhaps best remembered in the version by Sorche Nic Leodhas, which won the 1966 Caldecott Medal for Nonny Hogrogrian’s wonderful illustrations.

In this East African spin on the motif, each additional set of riders (from one to ten) adds an element of culture, arts, sports, food, or occupation to the bus painting a community as colorful and energetic as the mixed-media illustrations. The theme of including all is especially appreciated. A short glossary of Swahili and Arabic terms is included as well as an author’s note about her own book-inspiring fun ride on a daladala. Don’t miss this literary ride!