A Thoughtful New Look at Bullying and Hunger

Lynn: Lunch every dayKids have dealt with bullying through the ages and many youth books involve that issue.  So while it is not unusual to address bullying, it is rare to find a new approach to an old but serious issue. Kathryn Otoshi does just that in her new book, Lunch Every Day (KO Kids Books, 2022)

Powerful and emotional, Otoshi’s remarkable picture book is told from a young bully’s point of view, providing readers with a glimpse of what may propel his actions targeting “skinny kid.” Without excusing the bullying, the story asks readers to consider the large issues of abuse, bullying, power, and empathy. That is a lot in one short picture book but Otoshi does it brilliantly and in a pitch-perfect voice for young readers.

The moving act of kindness by skinny boy’s mother moved me to tears and is all the more remarkable as this story is based on the real-life experience of Jim Perez, a well-known anti-bullying educator.

What a discussion starter this book is!!!! Perfect for story-hours and classrooms!

Cindy: The fall holiday food drives are upon us, and it was always hard to watch the homeroom competitions for highest contributions when I knew that more than half of our student population qualified for free or reduced lunches due to poverty level. I’m always reminded of a rant that singer-songwriter Harry Chapin did on a live album. “What are these kids going to eat the next day?” Solving world hunger is a bigger problem than one picture book can address, but the act of kindness here is a good start. And so is showing that bullying almost always stems from deeper problems.

In addition to the moving story, Otoshi’s illustrations are strikingly effective and create a feel of smudgy chalk. Bold lines and intense colors provide a sense of mood while the facial details are often indistinct. This changes abruptly in the scenes with the mother talking to the bully in a subtle choice that emphasizes the power of the moment.

I do hope that Otoshi and Perez’s story makes it into every school library and classroom. Every kid should have Lunch Every Day.

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. 

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.

Country Kids – City Kids

Cindy and Lynn: Moving is never easy, and it’s even harder when you are a child who loves nature and you learn you have to move to the city. We have two picture books that might help ease that move or make any big change a little easier.

Martin and the River (Groundwood, 2022) by Jon-Erik Lappano.

Martin and the River by Jon-Erik LappanoMartin has a river flowing through the fields behind his house and he spends his days catching frogs and “watching the great blue herons soar like dragons over the water.” When his mother takes a job in the city and Martin learns they will have to move, he is devastated. Promises of museum visits and subway rides do nothing to soothe him. Martin spends time at his river trying to scheme a plan but fails to come up with any good ideas. His parents wisely take him on some visits to the city before the big move. Martin’s imagination comes to his aid and he sees bits of nature and animals in the bustling city, but his heart melts when he sees the park…with a river.

Josée Bisaillon’s mixed media art contains beautiful scenes of the nature that Martin loves and is filled with small details of the plants, flowers, birds, and animals that Martin cherishes. It’s easy to see why he doesn’t want to leave.

Carmen and the House That Gaudi Built (Owl Kids, 2021) by Susan Hughes.

Carmen and the House that Gaudi BuiltLike Martin in the previous book, Carmen is a country child who loves the woods around her home. She spends hours there exploring with her invisible Salamander friend, Dragon. Carmen is devastated when she learns her father has commissioned a house in the city and that soon the family would move there. When the architect, Señor Gaudi, visits, Carmen refuses to come inside to meet him but Señor Gaudi, standing on the lawn somehow sees her AND Dragon. As the new house progresses, Carmen sees the beauty of nature reflected in the designs. After two years, the house is finished and Carmen must leave her friend behind. But the finished house has an amazing wild beauty. Most astonishing of all is the beautiful stone salamander wrapped around the roof. Carmen has found a home in the city.

Susan Hughes has created a fictional story about a very real house. The Casa Batllo was redesigned and renovated for the Batllo family in 1904. Situated on one of Barcelona’s most fashionable streets, the house featured a wavy exterior and curved interior walls. Tall windows, skylights and interior courts provided light. A mosaic made of pieces of glass decorated the front of the house and all was topped with a spiny ridge along the roof line resembling a salamander. The house was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its impact is just as stunning today as it was in 1906.

I have been lucky enough to visit the Casa Batllo and it remains one of my favorite buildings in the world. Hughes includes an Author’s Note that provides the historical facts about the Casa, the Batllo family, and her thoughts on the creation of this picture book. A full-color photograph of the Casa is included. My hat is off to the photographer as the image somehow avoids all the tram power lines, streetlights, and signs that marred my own photos! My hat is also off to Susan Hughes, illustrator Marianne Ferrer, and this book for bringing the remarkable Señor Gaudi to a new generation.

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!

Healer & Witch: Nancy Werlin steps into Middle Grade Books

Lynn: Healer & Witch If you think of Nancy Werlin as a YA author, think again. Werlin has just released her first middle grade book, Healer & Witch (Candlewick, 2022) and it is a winner! Her compelling story is a mesmerizing blend of adventure and magic with a medieval France setting and appealing characters. Almost fifteen-year-old Sylvie has grown up in a small French village with her healer grandmother and mother. Sylvie has been especially close to her namesake grandmother and shares her extraordinary gifts. Sylvie’s mother, Jeanne, is a competent caring healer but lacks the others’ powers. When Sylvie’s grandmother dies, the two women struggle with their grief.

Despite her grandmother’s warnings about the use of her power, Sylvie misuses her gift in a misguided attempt to heal. Horrified, Sylvie realizes she desperately needs guidance and sets out to find a teacher who can help. A little boy from her village, Martin, attaches himself to the journey in order to see the world and becomes an ally. In a world where healers and witches are in mortal danger, Sylvie must learn who to trust and how to be herself.

There is lovely writing here with a wonderful storytelling cadence that kept me turning the pages—no small feat in my current lack-of-reading-focus state. The characters are layered and engaging and the adventure kept me captivated. Sylvie’s internal journey is as compelling as her physical one as she grapples with questions about the use and misuse of power and her own place in the world. An outstanding choice for young readers looking for something with a classic feel and modern thoughtful themes.

Cindy: This is hands down my favorite Nancy Werlin book. Sylvie and Martin are both characters that young readers will worry over, laugh with, and root for as they set off on their quest. Sylvie is not seeking her fortune, just the knowledge that she needs to control her out-of-the-ordinary healing powers, and then she just wants to return to her humble home in her very small village. Martin, while young and small, fears little, having endured a lot in his few years. He is ready to seek adventure and new sights. Together, they make a formidable duo. They also both grow and change over the course of the novel. Sylvie’s struggles over the ethics of her magic, her feelings for Monsieur Chouinard, and her definition of her true self will give readers much to ponder and debate. I can’t wait to hear members of our middle school book club discuss this one.

Learning that Werlin wrote the first draft of this book in 1996 was a shock. I’m grateful that she opened that file cabinet and revisited that rejected manuscript. You can read the full story about the genesis of this story at this John Scalzi blog post. I sure hope we see more of Sylvie, Robert, and Martin and their world….and I wouldn’t mind some more relived memories of Grand-mère Sylvie. She has more wisdom to impart, I’m sure.