The need to belong somewhere and to be accepted by others is universal. All of us have faced the challenges of fitting in or will face them in the future. This week, we explore a variety of titles highlighting the theme of fitting in and finding a place to belong.
Leaping Lemmings! John Briggs. Ill. Nicola Slater. 2016. Sterling.
The adage “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?” comes to life in this story of Larry, a lemming who doesn’t fit in with other lemmings. He eats pizza with hot sauce and wears hula skirts and top hats when he pleases. He tries fitting in with seals, puffins, and polar bears, but he doesn’t belong with them, either. When Larry returns home, he is horrified to see lemmings about to jump off a cliff! Larry’s quick actions save the lemmings from a terrible fate and make him a hero. Themes of thinking for oneself and bucking conformity are presented in a whimsical and humorous way. The illustrations feature shades of blue and green, fitting the story’s polar setting, and the use of gold as an accent color matches Larry’s sunny outlook. Short, rhythmic sentences make this book a perfect read-aloud.
North, South, East, West. Margaret Wise Brown. Ill. Greg Pizzoli. 2017. Harper/HarperCollins.
In this previously unpublished story from the celebrated Margaret Wise Brown, the time has come for a little bird to make her own way from her mother’s nest. She travels to the north, south, and west, yet none of these places feels quite right. But when she flies back home to the east, the little bird realizes that this is where she has belonged all along. She builds a nest and starts a family of her own, and it isn’t long before her baby birds wonder which direction they should fly. The story has a quiet, calm tone, making it well suited for bedtime reading and offering a reassuring message that one will always belong at home. It can also be enjoyed on another level by young adults leaving home for the first time. The illustrations by Geisel Award winner Greg Pizzoli incorporate pastels and warm tones that add to the story’s soothing qualities.
Confessions From the Principal’s Kid. Robin Mellom. 2017. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Fifth grader Allie doesn’t know where she fits in. During the school day, she feels alone and friendless. After all, no one wants to hang out with the principal’s daughter, especially one with a reputation for snitching—and worse, her ex–best friend, Chloe, won’t speak to her. But after school, Allie is an insider, a friend to the staff and a member of the Afters, a secret club for teachers’ kids. Allie wants nothing more than to feel like she belongs in both worlds. When she has the chance to rekindle her friendship with Chloe, Allie risks betraying the Afters and must make a choice of where she wants to belong. The plot is simplistic and predictable, yet it has a lighthearted, engaging tone. Allie is a realistic, immediately likable character with a strong voice. This story will resonate with teachers’ children and anyone who has ever wondered what really happens after school is dismissed.
Forever, or a Long, Long Time. Caela Carter. 2017. HarperCollins.
Flora and her brother, Julian, have never known where they belong. Shuffled from foster home to foster home for as long as she can remember, Flora wonders if she and Julian were born or if they simply just appeared one day. After two years of living with Person (her secret nickname for her adoptive mom), the trauma of Flora’s early years still haunts her. Her words stick in her “lung filter” and come out wrong when she speaks. She sabotages her chances of passing fourth grade and constantly worries whether she will be a good big sister to the baby growing inside Person. Flora and Julian must confront the painful realities of their troubled past before they can truly understand what it means to belong to a family forever. The plot is sometimes slow-moving, but the emphasis on Flora’s worries and fears makes it a good choice for exploring the inner lives and motivations of individuals. Readers will appreciate this story’s gritty realism and melancholy beauty.
Let’s Pretend We Never Met. Melissa Walker. 2017. Harper/HarperCollins.
Mattie is distraught when her parents move their family from North Carolina to Philadelphia in the middle of sixth grade. It means leaving behind her best friends, Lilly and Jo, and the only home she has ever known. Mattie worries about fitting in at her new school and hopes she will become just a little bit popular. When Mattie meets Agnes, the girl next door, who happens to be in Mattie’s class, things begin looking up. Although Agnes is odd and kind of immature for a sixth grader, she hatches some fun ideas. But when winter break is over and Mattie starts at her new school, she realizes the other kids think Agnes is a freak. Mattie fears their relationship will jeopardize new friendships, especially with Finn, a cute boy who seems to like her. Caught between her friendships with Agnes and more popular students, Mattie must decide where her loyalties lie. In this fast-paced story, Mattie’s problems are realistic, and her decisions may be instructive for young people navigating the complexities of the middle school social scene.
In a Perfect World. Trish Doller. 2017. Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster.
Just as Caroline is poised to become captain of the soccer team and start her first job at Cedar Point, an amusement park, her mother lands a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity and moves the family to Egypt. Living in an apartment building overlooking the Nile and the bustling streets of Cairo is nothing at all like Caroline’s life back in small-town Ohio, and she wonders if Egypt will ever feel like home. Things begin to change for Caroline when she meets Adam Elhadad, a handsome Muslim boy hired to drive her family around Cairo. As Caroline and Adam’s hesitant friendship blossoms into romance, Caroline must confront the sharp differences between Adam’s culture and her own and decide whether their relationship is worth the disapproval of his family, friends, and Cairo society, especially as reports of violence against foreigners in the Middle East pepper the daily news. The story demonstrates the differences between Adam’s culture and religion and Caroline’s identity as a Catholic from America’s heartland, but it also highlights common human values and the possibility of forming genuine, lasting friendships across cultural boundaries. Readers will enjoy the tenderness of Caroline and Adam’s romance and may learn a thing or two about Egyptian history from the history-rich Cairo setting.
Blood Family. Anne Fine. 2017. Simon & Schuster.
Until Eddie is discovered at age 7, much of his childhood is spent locked in a room where he is forced to witness the abuse of his mother at the hands of her partner, Harris. Eddie is taken to a loving foster family and later adopted by a well-to-do couple. Although he seems remarkably well-adjusted, Eddie often feels like an outsider and is picked on by other children. The adults in his life wonder if the trauma of his past will catch up with him, and Eddie’s turning point occurs when he is a teenager and learns that Harris is his biological father. Eddie begins to fear he will become a monster like Harris, and his fear spirals out of control as he turns to drugs and alcohol and destroys his relationships with the people who love him. Not until Eddie hits rock bottom does he realize that he—not his blood family—is in control of his choices. Eddie’s early circumstances will pull at the reader’s emotions, evoking empathy and outrage. At times, the motivations of characters are difficult to discern, yet readers may enjoy piecing together inferences from facts shared by multiple, alternating narrators. The story is dark, but the theme of finding strength in oneself offers a hopeful message.
City of Saints & Thieves. Natalie C. Anderson. 2017. Putnam/Penguin.
Tina, a self-described thief and member of the notorious Goondas gang, doesn’t belong to anyone but herself. After her mother was murdered, Tina lived alone on the streets, nursing a grudge against Mr. Greyhill, her mother’s former employer and one of the richest, most corrupt businessmen in the Kenyan city she calls home. When Tina and the Goondas hatch a plan to steal data from Mr. Greyhill’s hard drive, Tina can’t wait. She has long suspected Mr. Greyhill of murdering her mother, leaving her orphaned and separated from her beloved sister, Kiki. But on the night of the burglary, inside the seemingly empty Greyhill mansion, Tina’s plan is foiled by Michael, Mr. Greyhill’s son and her estranged childhood friend. Tina and Michael cut a deal: She will return the data if he helps her prove his father murdered her mother. Soon Tina and Michael, along with Tina’s business partner Boyboy, embark on a dangerous journey taking them deep into war-ravaged Congo. As Tina, Michael, and Boyboy uncover the dark secrets leading up to the murder, the loyalty of her friends and unexpected help from a figure in her mother’s past teach Tina what it means to be loved and to belong. Riveting, action-packed, and with a touch of romance, this story will holdthe reader’s attention until the final page.
Noteworthy. Riley Redgate. 2017. Amulet/Abrams.
Jordan begins her junior year at the prestigious, hypercompetitive Kensington-Blaine Academy for the Performing Arts while still reeling from an unexpected breakup. To add to her troubles, she isn’t cast in the school musical yet again, and money and health problems plague her family back home in San Francisco. When a spot opens in the Sharpshooters, Kensington’s most-lauded a cappella group, Jordan sees a chance for redemption. But the Sharpshooters are an all-male group. Undeterred, Jordan dresses in drag and auditions. No one is more surprised than Jordan when the Sharpshooters select her as a tenor. Now she must be one person belonging to two worlds: Jordan Sun to her classmates and Julian Zhang to the Sharpshooters. When the Sharpshooters have the chance to win a spot on an international, career-changing tour, Jordan becomes even more desperate to keep her identity a secret. Her problems catch up with her and threaten her future at Kensington just when triumph is within her reach. Although copious descriptions of the setting occasionally slow down the pace, Jordan is a dynamic and believable character. An enjoyable read for fans of Glee and Pitch Perfect, the story is thought-provoking in its examination of the fluidity of gender boundaries and identities.
Danielle Hartsfield is an assistant professor in the Teacher Education Department at the University of North Georgia in Oakwood.
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) and are published weekly on Literacy Daily.
Getting into the mind of a character is one of the greatest parts of reading, whether you’re finding a new one or rediscovering an old favorite. The books in this week’s column include a story about the further adventures of Edward Lear’s Owl and Pussy-cat, a retelling of the Arthurian legend The Sword in the Stone, and enticing stories with memorable characters in realistic or fantastical worlds.
The Further Adventures of the Owl and the Pussy-cat. Julia Donaldson. Ill. Charlotte Voake. 2017. Candlewick.
While the newlyweds from Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussy-cat slumber in a Bong-Tree, a crow steals the wedding ring tied with a bow to Pussy-cat’s tail. Their adventurous voyage in a beautiful blue balloon to recover the ring is filled with references to places, things, and characters from Lear’s nonsense poems. In Chankly Bore they find the crow, who has sold the ring to the Pobble who has no toes: “So they crossed the sea, and the Jelly Bo Lee, / To the Pobble’s improbable land.” The Pobble is reluctant to part with the ring, so the resourceful couple visit the Calico Doves, “[w]ho flapped in the air while they knitted a pair / Of impeccable gossamer gloves, / Two gloves, / Two gloves, / Two impeccable gossamer gloves.” A swap is made, and the Owl and the Pussy-cat return home to celebrate with friends, including the Jumblies and the Dong with a luminous nose. Extend the fun of this adventure with a reading of The Owl and the Pussy-cat (simultaneously published with Charlotte Voake’s whimsical watercolor-and-ink illustration) and more of Lear’s classic nonsense verses.
A Greyhound, a Groundhog. Emily Jenkins. Ill. Chris Appelhans. 2017. Schwartz & Wade/Random House.
“A hound. / A round hound. / A greyhound. / A hog. / A round hog. / A groundhog.” As the round little greyhound awakes from a nap and the brown little groundhog pops out of his hole, the two begin a romp “around and around and around / and around!” The playfully rhythmic mix-up of words in this tongue-twister of a tale starts out quietly, then speeds up as the greyhound and the groundhog whirl across the pages. “A round hound, / a grey dog, / a round little hound dog. / A greyhog, / a round dog, / a hog little hound dog.” Following a chase of colorful butterflies and a run through a bog, the exhausted new friends settle down side by side for a rest. Chris Applelhans’s full-of-motion watercolor paintings featuring the greyhound and the groundhog at play against expansive white backgrounds perfectly match Emily Jenkins’s clever text in this joyful picture book, which is best shared as a read-aloud.
Tidy. Emily Gravett. 2017. Simon & Schuster.
With rhyming text and colorful mixed-media illustrations filled with humorous details, Emily Gravett tells a story with a gentle environmental message about Pete, a badger, whose tidying up of the fauna and flora of his forest home goes too far. He grooms the fox’s fur (using a hedgehog for a brush), spruces up the birds (having them use toothbrushes for beak cleaning and giving them sponge baths), vacuums up fall leaves (creating mountains of black plastic trash bags), and digs up all the trees. Following a flood that leaves a muddy mess, he paves over the forest floor. Not a good solution. Realizing he’s made a mistake, Pete enlists the animals’ help in a forest restoration project: “They put everything back, as it always had been. / (But maybe less ordered and not quite as clean.)” Pete promises to tidy up less, but the final two-page illustration, which shows the animals enjoying a spring picnic, includes a detail suggesting that Pete might not be cured of his tidying-up habit.
Uncle Holland. JonArno Lawson. Ill. Natalie Nelson. 2017. Groundwood/House of Anansi.
Holland, the eldest of the three Lawson boys, was always getting into trouble. Unable to resist pretty things, he couldn’t help stuffing them into his pockets. When he is caught for the 37th time, the police give him a choice: go to jail or join the army. Holland opts for the army and is sent to a very pretty place in the south, which is full of pretty things—“but not the kinds of things you can put in your pocket.” Holland takes up painting them instead and soon finds he’s making money selling pictures of the extraordinary fish he sees. Natalie Nelson’s digital collage artwork is the perfect match for JonArno Lawson’s story of a choice well made, which is based on a true story about his Uncle Holland.
Harry Miller’s Run. David Almond. Ill. Salvatore Rubbino. 2017. Candlewick.
Eleven-year-old Liam just received his official T-shirt for his entry in the Junior Great North Run and is eager for a Saturday morning of training with best friend, Jacksie. His mother, however, wants him to help her clear out elderly neighbor Harry Miller’s house in preparation for his move into a nursing home. Seeing Liam’s T-shirt, Harry begins to relate memories of the 13-mile run he and two mates made from Newcastle to the seaside in South Shields on a hot summer day in 1938, when he was 11. Looking through an old box of photographs helps Harry recall details of the memorable run. David Almond uses a regional British accent in the narration as Harry shares memories and imparts words of wisdom regarding a life well lived—“Me great achievement is that I’ve been happy, that I’ve never been nowt but happy”—before falling asleep in his big chair. Salvatore Rubbino’s expressive mixed-media artwork, with gray-toned paintings for Harry’s day with Liam and his mother and full-color paintings for Harry’s remembrances, perfectly complements this intergenerational story.
The Wizard’s Dog. Eric Kahn Gale. Ill. Dave Phillips. 2017. Crown/Random House.
Nosewise, a stray dog rescued by wizard Merlin, is eager to increase his repertoire of tricks beyond Sit! Shake! and Lie down! When Merlin’s apprentice, Morgana, places her magic Asteria stone around his neck, Nosewise is delighted to find that he can Speak! This new trick becomes important when he sets out on a rescue mission after Merlin is kidnapped by Lord Destrian (Oberon, king of the Fae, in a glamour state), who intends to use the wizard to obtain Excalibur. Using his nose, Nosewise, joined by a young Arthur, the “poop boy” (the cleaner of chamber pots in Destrian’s castle), tracks Merlin’s scent from the castle into the Haunted Forest, through a portal into the Otherworld, and eventually to Avalon, where they do battle with Oberon (in his Destrian disguise) and the Fae’s magic-eating worms. In this retelling of the Arthurian legend of the Sword in the Stone, readers learn how Arthur became the rightful king of the human world. A hint: Excalibur can only be taken by “a worthy soul who loves man and would never do him harm.”
An Eagle in the Snow. Michael Morpurgo. 2017. Feiwel and Friends.
In 1940, 10-year-old Barney and his mother, whose home has just been destroyed in the Coventry blitz, are aboard a London-bound train on the first leg of their journey to Aunt Mavis’s in Cornwall when a stranger enters their compartment. As German planes attack, the train enters a tunnel, abruptly stops, and plunges into darkness. During the long wait for their journey to continue, the stranger calms Barney’s fears of the darkness by telling stories about his friend Billy Byron’s experiences as a soldier in World War I. This courageous young British soldier’s decision not to kill a German soldier with whom he had a face-to-face encounter near the end of the war comes to make him feel responsible, 20 years later, “for whatever Adolf Hitler had done or might do in the future.” He could have stopped him, but hadn’t, at the Battle of Marcoing. In an afterword, Morpurgo provides a brief history of Private Henry Tandey VC, to whom An Eagle in the Snow is dedicated and whose personal story of service in World War I was the inspiration for the book.
Flying Lessons & Other Stories. Ellen Oh (Ed.). 2017. Crown/Random House.
We all need diverse stories, and the short stories in this anthology, written by 10 talented authors (Kwame Alexander, Kelly J. Baptist, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña, Tim Federle, Grace Lin, Meg Medina, Walter Dean Myers, Tim Tingle, and Jaqueline Woodson), introduce middle graders to memorable characters who all want to belong and be accepted for who they are. Although the stories stand alone, readers will find that each story draws them to read another. Reading the stories aloud in classrooms and libraries is an excellent way to introduce young people to the We Need Diverse Books movement. The back matter includes an “About We Need Diverse Books” section by Ellen Oh, cofounder and president of WNDB, and brief biographies of the 10 contributors.
Poison’s Kiss. Breeana Shields. 2017. Random House.
Seventeen-year-old Marinda is an assassin—a visha kanya, or poison maiden—who can kill with a kiss. As a baby, she was repeatedly subjected to being bitten by snakes until she was immune to their venom. Gopal, her handler, has led Miranda to believe that she is using her poisonous kisses as a weapon in service to the Raja by killing the enemies of the kingdom of Sundari. Marinda feels guilty about what she does, and when she is instructed to kiss Deven, a young man who is kind to her and Mani, her sickly 7-year-old brother, she is determined to save Deven's life. Breeana Shields's complex fantasy, which incorporates aspects of Indian culture and mythology, is intriguing. As Marinda learns who turned her into a killer and why, she is eager to destroy them—and readers are set up for a sequel.
Carolyn Angus is former director of the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA.
School librarians should not be surprised by two of the largest gaps identified by ILA’s 2017 What’s Hot in Literacy Report. These gaps present an opportunity for educators to work together to address both students’ access to books and content and literacy in resource-limited settings.
The 2017 What’s Hot survey responses were gathered from 1,600 respondents from 89 countries and territories. Using a Likert scale ranging from not at all hot/important to extremely hot/important, respondents identified gaps between what educators recognize as hot (or trendy) and what they believe should be hot (or more important). Two of the largest gaps in this year’s survey should be of particular interest to administrators, school librarians, and their classroom teacher and specialist instructional partners.
Second largest gap: access to books and content
In the report summary, access to books and content was an area respondents thought should be more important. One way ILA literacy educators and leaders can think about addressing this gap is to better understand the role school librarians and school librarians play in providing access. Research shows that in schools with state-certified school librarians facilitating library services students’ access to materials and their reading proficiency increases. In addition to classroom libraries, readers need well-stocked school libraries that provide students, educators, and families with the widest possible array of reading materials across content areas at all reading levels and in multiple formats.
Third largest gap: literacy in resource-limited settings
Equitable access for readers from all socioeconomic backgrounds is another area where school librarians and libraries can help close the gap. When schools and school districts make a commitment to hiring full-time state-certified school librarians and providing funding for school library collections, all students, including those in high-poverty and rural locations, can access resources and technology tools. In these schools, librarians partner with classroom teachers to provide equitable access to reading materials and coteach resource-rich literacy learning experiences.
Equity of opportunity
Literacy leaders have a shared responsibility and commitment to an equitable education for all students. We know access to resources increases learners’ opportunities for choice, voice, and empowerment through literacy. In the United States, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) contains specific language related to how school librarians and libraries ensure equitable access to resources for all students (ESSA, 2015, “Title IV, Part A”).
If you are a U.S. classroom teacher, specialist, school administrator, or educational decision maker concerned about the quality of students’ access to reading materials, please find out how you can ensure that school librarians’ work is specified in your state- or district-level ESSA Plan. By incorporating language related to school librarians and libraries in ESSA, we can collaborate to close the gaps identified by the ILA survey and support all students and educators in having access to the print and electronic resources and the instructional support they need to succeed.
Judi Moreillon, MLS, PhD, is a literacies and libraries consultant, former school librarian, and retired school librarian educator. She tweets at CactusWoman and blogs at Building a Culture of Collaboration. She is the chair of the American Association of School Librarians Innovative Approaches to Literacy Task Force.
February sees the celebration of the Feast of St. Valentine, often represented by pink and red hearts, a burst of greeting cards, and sweet treats. But perhaps the best starting place for finding love is inside ourselves, where that feeling is sure to be noticeable and have a ripple effect in the world around us. Here, we celebrate love in myriad ways.
Love Monster and the Scary Something. Rachel Bright. 2016. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
In the fourth title featuring her signature solar etchings and the adorably fetching Love Monster, this author-illustrator from England shares a story of love found amid fear. Ready for a sound sleep, Love Monster is frightened because of the terrible “crunch-crunch-crunchety-crunch” sounds he hears after heading for bed, and he imagines fierce creatures on the way to his room. Eventually, Love Monster can’t stand not knowing what is out there hiding in the dark, and he shines a flashlight on his fears. As it turns out, someone else is sleepless and nervous about being all alone. Two new friends cuddle up and face the unknown together. This is a perfect read-aloud to chase fears away. Love Monster will surely steal every reader’s heart while still leaving room for the not-so-scary Scary Something, who slips into his bed as well.
Samson in the Snow. Philip C. Stead. 2016. Roaring Brook.
A tender story of a most unlikely friendship and how love can bloom in the most unexpected places and in the worst kind of weather is complemented by lovely illustrations rendered with oil pastels, charcoal, and cardboard printing. As he rests in a field, Samson, a woolly mammoth, watches a friendly red bird gather yellow dandelions for a special friend. Although their encounter is brief, Samson worries about the bird when snow starts to fall. When he looks for her, Samson stumbles upon a mouse almost buried in the snow, and together they continue the search. Thanks to the bright flowers the bird plucked earlier for her friend, they spot her. Had it not been for that red bird’s initial friendly gesture to Samson—or the love that prompted her to gather a bouquet—she most likely would have escaped his notice and perished in the snow.
Everyone Loves Cupcake. Kelly DiPucchio. Ill. Eric Wight. 2016. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
In the same stylish fashion in which this creative duo delivered Everyone Loves Bacon (2015), this picture book explores the dark side of the seemingly irrepressible Cupcake. Although everyone seems to love Cupcake, her focus on perfection becomes annoying, and several of the other baked goods get tired of her. Eventually, she confesses her honest feelings about birthday parties and the true nature of her frosting. Honesty about her imperfections encourages the others to share their feelings as well, setting up an oh-so-sweet ending. The digital illustrations are filled with yummy depictions of food, and several of the food-related lines are clever: a loaf of bread blames being “an early riser” for its reluctance to spend time with Cupcake, and a tea bag demurs because it has to “take a bath.” Readers should take care when reading this book because its images and descriptions are likely to send them scavenging for their own sweet treats, possibly even a chocolate cupcake with sprinkles that has plenty of love to go around.
The Rat Prince. Bridget Hodder. 2016. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Told in alternating chapters by Prince Char, a royal rat, and the human he has grown to love, Cinderella or Rose de Lancastyr, a beautiful girl whose feeble-minded father’s remarriage to a cruel woman bent on bleeding him dry reduces her to a servant state, this Cinderella story with a twist features extreme cruelty and greed, leavened by acts of kindness. When the father of the prince of the kingdom hosts a ball for the prince to find a marriageable woman, Cinderella regards the ball as a possible chance to reach out to her father’s friends and persuade them to help him get away from his new wife. But Cinderella may be in danger from deranged, violent Prince Geoffrey. Although it might be odd to conceive of a girl and a rat falling in love, the two had bonded long before Cinderella had any idea Prince Char was royalty. In the end, Geoffrey is less princely than Cinderella’s rat friend.
The Warden’s Daughter. Jerry Spinelli. 2017. Alfred A. Knopf/Random House.
Twelve-year-old Cammie O’Reilly loves the notoriety that comes her way due to her proximity to the inmates of Two Mills, Pennsylvania’s Hancock County Prison, where she lives in an apartment with her father, the warden. Cammie is something of a pistol, though, engaged in a desperate search for someone who can love her like her own mother, who died saving Cammie’s life when she was a baby. Her quest for a mother sends Cammie in self-destructive directions and causes her to be blind to her father’s love and the affection of many of the inmates, especially Eloda Pupko, the trustee caregiver who keeps an eye on her. In his sure-handed way, blending pathos and humor, Spinelli weaves an enticing story that shows how an unexpected love saves one girl with a broken heart.
100 Days. Nicole McInnes. 2016. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Fifteen-year-old Agnes has progeria, a disease that speeds up the aging process in her body, and as her final 100 days wind down, life is viewed through the lenses of Agnes and two friends: Moira, Agnes’s best friend and protector, and Boone, who has been forced to shoulder much more responsibility than one teen should ever have to face. Because the book alternates these three perspectives, readers learn the characters’ personal secrets as well as their turbulent history together, which at times led to mistrust instead of friendship. Through the poignant stories of these three teens, the author raises questions about friendship, taking risks, and living life to the fullest. Although Agnes realizes that she will never grow up and experience romance, she desperately wants her companions to fall in love with each other while also knowing that they both love her as well.
Lucky Strikes. Louis Bayard. 2016. Henry Holt.
Fourteen-year-old Amelia Hoyle comes up with a desperate plan to keep her family together after her mother, Brenda, dies during the Great Depression. She and her two siblings are living in a little house with a gas station in Walnut Ridge, Virginia, when a vagabond named Hiram Watts literally rolls off a truck and Amelia pretends he is her father. Readers’ hearts will ache for all the responsibilities this young woman must bear, the deceitfulness of her enemy, Blevins, and the lengths to which Blevins is willing to go to have what he wants. When it looks as though all is lost, it turns out that the townspeople have big hearts and more love for Amelia and the memory of her mother than she could ever have imagined, and they save the day. Readers will be reminded that family and love come in different shapes and sizes that may have nothing to do with being related.
The Secret Diary of Lydia Bennet. Natasha Farrant. 2016. Chicken House/Scholastic.
Fans of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice will be thoroughly amused by this book, which gives youngest sister Lydia’s version of the story. Readers will still encounter all the familiar characters and events from the classic, but Lydia so obviously longs to be out from under the control of her older sisters, even as she admires their grace and beauty. Farrant remains faithful to the original story, offering an explanation for how Wickham, the attractive villain who is determined to marry an heiress, and Lydia end up together. Lydia is refreshingly honest and open—and incredibly naïve about Wickham and affairs of the heart. The diary format enables readers to see inside Lydia’s head and smile at her foolishness. Although love comes to Lydia in a very different form than she expected, it comes.
Because of the Sun. Jenny Torres Sanchez. 2017. Delacorte/Random House.
After her mother is mauled to death by a bear in the backyard of their suburban Florida home, Dani Falls moves to New Mexico to live with Shelly, her maternal aunt, a woman she hadn’t even known existed. As she deals with the past that continues to haunt her and tries to make sense of her unsatisfactory relationship with her mother, Dani basks in the desert heat, reads Albert Camus’s The Stranger, and finds acceptance by opening herself up to others, including a young man who is coping with his own losses.
It’s Not Me, It’s You. Stephanie Kate Strohm. 2016. Point/Scholastic.
When popular senior Avery Dennis is dumped by her boyfriend right before the school prom in San Anselmo, California, she is understandably shocked. But, being a take-charge young woman, she examines her life and dating history for clues as to why this happened and ends up submitting her findings as a lengthy oral history project for her grade in an American history class. Through the observations of her best friend, Coco Kim, and comments from other friends, foes, and scorned boyfriends, Avery presses on to uncover why so many of her romantic entanglements have ended. Her lab partner, James “Hutch” Hutchinson, also helps her mine the data she’s collecting. Because the book is told in a series of interviews, readers must sort out facts from fallacies, but it’s clear from the start that Avery had overlooked someone who’s had her back all along. It is neat to have some perspective on Avery’s actions from those who know her best (or think they do), including some of her romantic victims. Watching Hutch get more upset and protective as the project unfolds is particularly entertaining. This might be the perfect book to read for Valentine’s Day because it demonstrates that true love does find a way—even if it takes four years for the couple to realize that they are perfect for each other.
Barbara A. Ward teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in literacy at Washington State University, Pullman. She spent 25 years teaching in the public schools of New Orleans, where she worked with students at every grade level, from kindergarten through high school, as well as several ability levels. She is certified in elementary education, English education, and gifted education. She holds a bachelor's degree in Communications, a master's degree in English Education from the University of Tennessee, and a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of New Orleans.
Getting the first look at January releases is one of the most exciting times of the year for book reviewers. The selection of hot-off-the-press books so far suggest 2017 will be a terrific year for children’s and young adult literature and readers can look forward to a year of great books from which to choose. Happy reading to all in this new year!
Mighty, Mighty Construction Site. Sherri Duskey Rinker. Ill. Tom Lichtenheld. 2017. Chronicle.
After the five hard-working construction vehicles from Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site (2011), Excavator, Bulldozer, Crane Truck, Dump Truck, and Cement Mixer, review plans for a supersized, complex building, they know they’ll need help to get the job done. Fortunately, they have five good friends to call on. “Rolling, rumbling, revving hard, / ten big trucks meet in the yard. / A mighty, massive SUPERCREW— / there is nothing they can’t do!” The rhyming text and sunny, earth-toned illustrations on double-page spreads playfully show the teamwork of the new machines (Skid Steer, Backhoe, Flatbed, Front-End Loader, and Pumper) and the original crew. “Cooperation got it done; / teamwork made it fast—and fun!” Project completed. Young fans will hope a new construction site project is being planned.
Rabbit Magic. Meg McLaren. 2017. Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Houdini the Rabbit, the most perfect assistant of all, and a gang of backstage chubby bunnies work hard to help “Monsieur Lapin Presents Heads or Tails…Feeling Lucky?” succeed. When M. Lapin injures himself onstage by slipping on a banana peel, Houdini makes sure that the show goes on—and accidentally transforms M. Lapin into a rabbit. Now the boss, Houdini creates a daring show (with allusions to feats performed by the legendary Houdini) with M. Lapin as his assistant, but it isn’t long before he realizes M. Lapin is the one who needs the spotlight more. During the grand finale of his sold-out tour, Houdini restores Monsieur Lapin to his human status. A lesson on generosity and teamwork is acknowledged by M. Lapin when his new billboard reads “Monsieur Lapin & Friends Present EVERYONE IS MAGIC featuring Houdini and the Hoppers.” The softly colored digitally created illustrations featuring portly, mustached Monsieur Lapin and Houdini, a white rabbit outlined in blue (which makes him clearly distinguishable from the large supporting cast of cute rabbits) extend the humor of this role-reversal story. Compare the front and back endpapers to visually capture the gentle moral of this magical picture book.
Short Stories for Little Monsters. Marie-Louise Gay. 2017. Groundwood/House of Anansi.
This collection of 19 short stories, presented in paneled cartoon format, invites young children to consider all sorts of things that their imaginations might lead them to ponder as they explore the world about them. What do cats see? What nightmares do snails have? Do rabbits have a secret life in their underground tunnels? The text is presented primarily in speech bubbles. Although most of the text involves conversations among children, there are also clever comments from nonhumans, such as witty banter among various species of trees in “What Do Trees Talk About?” The brightly colored, detailed artwork (done in watercolor, colored pencil, and collage) is childlike. The stories, which vary from silly to whimsical to wry, make this an engaging, thought-provoking picture book to read again and again.
Matylda, Bright & Tender. Holly M. McGhee. 2017. Candlewick.
Sussy and Guy, best friends since kindergarten and now in fourth grade, buy a leopard gecko they name Matylda, who immediately bonds with Guy. At the end of the school year, Guy dies when he heroically saves Sussy from a dog attack. Staggering through a summer of grief, Sussy makes a deal with Matylda to keep Guy’s memory alive by finding better ways to love her. That’s when Sussy hears a voice in her head (“the stealing girl”) directing her to shoplift worms, mealies, and toys from the pet store for Matylda. After the already-ailing gecko rejects a load of stolen toys, Sussy goes into a rage, scaring the gecko so much that her tail falls off. Sussy finally realizes that Guy is truly gone and that she might also lose Matylda. When her crimes are uncovered, Sussy finds herself loved and understood by her mother and father as well as Mike, the owner of the pet store. In a brave move forward, Sussy begins fifth grade and discovers she can have a new life with new friends and a new relationship with Matylda.
Revenge of the Green Banana. Jim Murphy. 2017. Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
It is the 1950s, and sixth grader Jimmy Murphy is determined to turn over a new leaf. Within a few minutes of his entry into Sister Angelica Rose’s class, his plans are dashed. He’s sure his teacher, who has a red folder detailing his past crimes, is out to get him when he is sent to the second grade to help students prepare for a production of the Green Banana play. After Jimmy reveals a plan of revenge to his friends (to murderlate his teacher at the school production where she will be introducing a new bowling alley for girls), they jump in with enthusiasm to build a weapon of destruction. In the meantime, Sister Angelica Rose enlists Jimmy to help teach her basketball skills so she can begin a girls’ team, and he realizes that she is more than just a stern teacher and nun—she is a caring person, too. Is it too late to derail the plan? Readers are bound to chuckle throughout their madcap ride with a rollercoaster turn of events at the end, in this story told from Jimmy’s point of view. A warning on the opening page states that events in the story actually happened to the author as a child.
Factory Girl. Josanne La Valley. 2017. Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
To save her family’s farm from government seizure, 16-year-old Roshen leaves her Muslim Uyghur family in East Turkestan to work as an indentured servant for one year in a factory that makes uniforms in south China. The restrictive nature of life at the Hubel Workwear Company, where the Uyghur girls are not permitted to wear headscarves and must speak only Mandarin, and the harshness of conditions at the factory (long hours, starvation diets, no privacy, severe punishment for breaking rules enforced by a cruel matron, and bosses who exploit them) are physically, psychologically, and culturally damaging. Roshen, who becomes a leader among the other Uyghur girls, finds solace in writing poetry secretly and resisting the injustices they face in any way she can. An author’s note on the government of the People’s Republic of China’s suppression of the Uyghurs’ culture and Muslim religion and silencing of dissent in East Turkestan provides a context for the novel.
Midnight Without a Moon. Linda Williams Jackson. 2017. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Thirteen-year-old African American sharecropper Rose Lee Carter toils long days in the fields during the summer of 1955 in the Mississippi Delta, where she lives with her grandparents (hardworking Papa and stern Ma Pearl), who are beholden to the Robinsons’ plantation for their measly wages and nicer-than-usual home. Life isn’t fair for Rose, as her lazy and light-skinned 15-year-old cousin, Queen, spends her days lounging around, and not much is expected of Rose’s not-so-bright younger brother, Fred Lee, either. Deserted years earlier by her mother and aware of the increasing numbers of racist-related murders, Rose is no stranger to hardship and death. At the same time, changes are on the horizon, and not everyone embraces them (including Ma Pearl), but Rose, who is at the top of her class, has dreams of moving up north and graduating from college one day. In August, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy, is murdered in Mississippi for reportedly whistling at a white woman. When his white assailants are acquitted by an all-white jury, the community is split between fear and activism. Rose, forbidden by Ma Pearl to return to school, is assigned permanently to the fields. When she has the opportunity to move up north, however, the consequences could be costly. For all middle school readers this historical novel can be a window for learning about the lives of those who struggled before them through segregation and Jim Crow laws and a mirror for reflecting on their own family histories during the pre–Civil Rights period of the 1950s.
The Truth of Right Now. Kara Lee Corthron. 2017. Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster.
Privileged Jewish girl Lily, who is back at school after a suicide attempt following an affair with a teacher, and Dariomauritius (“Dari”), a mysterious transfer student whose Trinidadian father is a domineering and cruel tyrant, are drawn together by their love of the arts, cynicism against the hypocrisy of their privileged high school, and repercussions of broken families. An unlikely friendship during their junior year blooms into something more while each of them fights to find meaning and truth. Lily’s and Dari’s personal stories are told in alternating chapters. Lily (speaking in first person), once popular but now shunned by friends, has cut herself off from the music she once couldn’t stay away from. With the help of her therapist, she may finally be able to journal about the disastrous events of the previous year and begin to heal. Dari (whose story is delivered in third person), who carries a sketchpad everywhere he goes and has issues with authority and institutional racism, faces a disaster that may be too big to surmount. After a horrific misunderstanding triggers a series of events that lead to tragedy, Lily and Dari must figure out if their friendship can survive.
Under Rose-Tainted Skies. Louise Gornall. 2017. Clarion/Houghton Mifflin.
Seventeen-year-old Norah suffers from agoraphobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and she hasn’t been out of her home for four years. Her only face-to-face interactions are with her mother and a therapist. She attends online school and lives life vicariously (on social network) through friends who have forgotten her. When she accidentally meets the cute new neighbor, Luke, while she is literally reeling in a bag of groceries from the porch—and he brings them into her home—she bravely invites him into her world. Slowly, they develop a relationship, which is difficult considering that she can’t leave her home, is terrified of germs, has no control over panic attacks, doesn’t like anyone touching her, and shoulders constant self-doubt like a palpable weight. Luke is kind, sensitive, and patient as their friendship blossoms ever-so-slowly into romance. When Norah must escape from her home during an emergency, she draws on her strength to get to Luke’s home for help and, in the aftermath, decides to finally seek alternative remedies to her conditions that she had previously turned down. A realistic portrayal of mental health and illness, this poignant novel will resonate not only with readers who suffer from some of Norah’s symptoms but also those simply wanting to understand more about them.
Nancy Brashear is Professor Emeritus of English from Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, CA. Carolyn Angus is former director of the George G. Stone Center for Children's Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, CA.