Yoo’s controlled text in this Confetti Kids entry is appropriately divided into short chapters that will support emergent readers’ success. It also celebrates cultural specificity by centering Mei’s character and her Chinese-American family’s party to celebrate that her baby brother, Ming, is 100 days old. A diverse group of friends, whom readers may recognize from earlier titles, attends the party: Henry, Lily, Pablo, and Padma, who, between naming conventions and Ng-Benitez’s appealing watercolor and digital illustrations, are cued as white, black, Latinx, and South Asian, respectively. The tension in the story stems from Mei’s struggle to determine the titular “perfect gift” for the baby. Illustrations provide context for how her friends try to help, such as when Padma points to a little boy with a truck and says “Boys like trucks,” to suggest a gift for Ming. Henry, playing a drum on the front stoop, contradicts her: “I don’t like trucks…I like to play music,” and suggests that Mei should buy a drum. Grandma, whose character integrates information about traditions for the 100-days party, advises Mei that “The perfect gift comes from the heart,” and this inspires Mei to make a special book for her little brother.
A perfect package of early-reader accessibility, culturally-conscious story, and inclusivity.
(Early reader. 5-8)
Narrator Raphael “loves Jerome”—saying it is “easy.” Raphael doesn’t understand why his mother dismisses Jerome as “charming” or why his father says “it’s ‘a pity’ that Jerome doesn’t play soccer.” Jerome “always sees” Raphael, shares snacks, defends Raphael against bullies, and tells great stories. Spending a day with Jerome is pure nourishment for Raphael: “By lunch, we’ve laughed so hard our stomachs hurt. And by dinner, I’ve stocked up enough of Jerome to last me the whole night.” Tallec’s loose line-and-watercolor paintings use gentle humor to introduce them, placing the two boys on bikes, side by side and hand in hand, in front of a line of clearly slowly moving cars: So happy are they that they do not notice. He situates the two boys in scenes suffused in warm colors, their body language mirroring each other’s, as do their pale skin and round, red heads. But when Raphael’s parents get uptight about this bond, the palette darkens to cold, lonely blues. The text is open enough that readers will take what they need from the story. Some children will see simply two very good friends, while others will see validation of feelings they may not know how to express, particularly if their parents are as hostile as Raphael’s. Raphael gives them the language they need: “I say—yes. Raphael loves Jerome. I say it. It’s easy.”
A trio of Latin American folktales are given a makeover in the children’s-book debut of one of the brothers behind famed graphic-novel series Love and Rockets.
In the three stories, a young girl proves her smarts and bravery, not to mention her skills as a dragon slayer; a woman named Martina Martínez marries a mouse, which leads to an unexpected tragedy; and a boy named Tup considered lazy by his family finds a way to feed them all. In his six-panel pages, Hernandez flexes his considerable storytelling skills, his deceptively simple art conveying all the detail, nuance, and expression of character each story needs. The protagonist of the first tale is unnamed, which becomes ironic given how much agency she employs to get to the future her selfless acts should earn her. In the second piece, an older woman turns out to be the hero by simply practicing common sense that everyone else has forgotten. And in the final story, it’s cleverness that saves the day. In addition to the tales themselves, the book opens with an on-point essay by author F. Isabel Campoy putting the mix of Spanish and Native American influences in context. It closes with brief histories and art influences for each story as well as English- and Spanish-language phrases to help readers start telling their own. María E. Santana’s simultaneously publishing Spanish-language translation is identical in look but far from dry, flawlessly employing its own language quirks.
Rousing tales, spirited artwork, and rich backmatter ensure that this slim graphic novel for kids becomes a rich resource for all caregivers, not just those of Latinx children.
(Graphic folktales. 4-10)
Born during a storm, Caroline Murphy, a 12-year-old black girl, is convinced that she has been cursed with bad luck.
The old ladies around her way say this is the fate of any child born during a hurricane. Recent events in her life seem to confirm this. Feeling unwanted by everyone, especially since the abrupt departure of her mom, Caroline leads a difficult life. She is bullied by those at her school in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, including her teacher, for her skin, which is darker than theirs. She is also followed around by a spirit—the woman in black—that she is sure only she can see. The arrival of a new student from Barbados changes Caroline’s life significantly. Also bullied, the exuberantly dreadlocked Kalinda becomes Caroline’s first and only friend, and soon Caroline’s feelings blossom into something more than platonic. This spells problems for Caroline, since feelings like these are considered sinful in Catholic school. Caroline now must deal with growing up without a mother and her feelings for Kalinda, all while trying to figure out why the woman in black will not leave her alone. Her journey to the answers to her most burning questions finds her discovering much about herself and those around her. Writing in Caroline’s present-tense voice, Callender draws readers in and makes them identify with Caroline’s angst and sorrow and joy and pain.
Embedding her appealing protagonist in a fully realized Caribbean setting, Callender has readers rooting for Caroline the whole way.
Twelve-year-old Ivy Aberdeen finds comfort in drawing; she keeps a private sketchbook the way other kids her age keep written diaries.
After a tornado destroys her home, her notebook, filled with things Ivy isn’t ready to talk about or trust with anyone, goes missing, and she feels the last bit of her world drop out from under her. The images are telling; there can be no doubt that the white girl with the “coiling mane” of wild strawberry-blonde hair is 12-year-old Ivy or that she’s holding hands with a dark-haired white girl in every picture. When her drawings begin turning up in her school locker, Ivy’s biggest fear comes true: someone knows her secret. The mystery person encourages Ivy to come out, but whom can she trust? Is she even ready? Blake’s (Suffer Love, 2016) first middle-grade novel is characterized by rich, descriptive prose. The tornado scene is filled with breathtaking urgency as Ivy and her family run for safety, and the descriptions of Ivy’s contradictory and confusing feelings capture the heartbreaking difficulty of a non-normative early adolescence filled with questions of identity and belonging. Most characters are assumed white; the black lesbian who owns the inn where the Aberdeens stay after the storm and who steps in as a surrogate mother while Ivy’s own is occupied with insurance and a sick baby, is engaged to a brown-skinned Latina.
Ivy’s story is no mere niche-filler in LGBTQ middle-grade realism—it’s a standard-setter.
Twelve-year-old twins discover that they have opposing elemental powers that could change the fate of the entire realm.
Homeless, orphan twins Rayna and Anders have spent most of their lives stealing and picking the pockets of rich tourists to survive. Pickings are good at the Trial of the Staff, when the entire village of Holbard gathers to see which of its 12-year-old members have the elemental power to shape-shift into an ice wolf and qualify for the Ulfar Academy. At this event, both twins discover elemental powers: Anders has ice wolf blood and Rayna, dragon blood—but dragon and wolf are enemies. They are separated when Rayna, in dragon form, flees the Wolf Guard, later to be captured by other dragons. Now Anders has no choice but to join Ulfar Academy in order to learn what the Wolf Guard teaches about dragons, as it is imperative that he locate and save his twin sister. As Anders grows close to the members of the Wolf Guard, he discovers secrets about the true relationship between dragons and wolves. Both twins have brown skin and black, curly hair, and Holbard is a genuinely diverse community. What a treat to have a magical world full of diverse characters in which any young person can imagine themselves as powerful shape-shifters. This engaging page-turner honestly earns its forthcoming sequel.
An engaging world and cliffhanger ending leave readers wanting more
. (Fantasy. 10-14)
A middle school story in which parental depression manifests itself in absence.
Natalie’s vivacious botanist mother (who’s white) has retreated from life, leaving her therapist husband (who’s biracial) and daughter to fill the gaping hole she has left. With the help of an egg-drop contest and a scientific-method project, Natalie explores breakable things and the nurturing of hope. Narrating in first-person, the mixed-race seventh-grader (1/4 Korean and 3/4 white) is drawn to her mother’s book, titled How to Grow A Miracle. It reminds her of when her mother was excited by science and questions and life. With a STEM-inspired chapter framework and illustrated with Neonakis’ scientific drawings, Keller’s debut novel uses the scientific method to unpack the complex emotions depression can cause. Momentum builds over nine months as Natalie observes, questions, researches, experiments, and analyzes clues to her mother’s state of mind. Providing support and some comic relief are her two sidekicks, Dari (a smart Indian immigrant boy) and Twig (Natalie’s wealthy, white best friend). The diversity of the characters provides identity and interest, not issue or plotline. Tension peaks at the egg-drop contest, as the three friends plan to use the prize winnings to bring Natalie’s mother back to life with a gift of a rare cobalt blue orchid. Paralleling their scientific progress, Natalie reluctantly experiences her first visits to talk therapy, slowly opening like a tight bloom.
A compassionate glimpse of mental illness accessible to a broad audience. (Fiction. 10-14)
Middle schooler Stanley Fortinbras has a sensory-processing disorder and experiences anxiety, both of which make the principal’s many emergency preparedness drills difficult for him to handle. When he passes out at a safety assembly, he’s sent to school counselor Mrs. Ngozo, an African-American woman, who creates a Ready Room for him: a quiet place where he can go when school becomes too chaotic. It’s here that John Lockdown, hero of the underdog, is born. Stanley, son of a “dark,” Morocco-born French father and white mother, is no superhero, but he does have a superpower: comic-book trivia. When his best friend, Joon (who is Korean), suggests they enter Trivia Quest, a comics treasure hunt that takes place all over San Diego, Stanley’s mind reels with both possible and unlikely worse-case scenarios. After Stanley and Joon have a disagreement, Stanley asks his new neighbor, confident white girl Liberty, to go with him instead. To get through the stress of the day, Stanley creates his own way to manage his out-of-control thoughts and the resultant paralyzing fear: What would Lockdown do? The story never dumbs down or oversimplifies Stanley; he’s a multidimensional character of great depth who gradually learns how to calm his worried mind, and the book avoids patronizing readers with a false sense of everything’s-right-with-the-world.
Add to the growing list of intelligent books about kids whose brains operate outside the norm.
A stellar board book—one of four—about pretend play that subverts gender stereotypes.
Clive is a little boy with dark, straight hair and light skin. His diverse group of playmates interacts with him as he pretends to be a nurse: light-brown–skinned Anisa drives an ambulance toting baby dolls and a stuffed animal, white Wilfred is another nurse, and black Amy is a patient and later caregiver to an ill stuffed-animal crocodile. Clive demonstrates gentleness, compassion, and imagination as he bandages Amy’s arm, gives water to a thirsty teddy bear, bathes Penguin with a sponge, and so on. The soft color palette matches the book’s quiet tone, while the illustrations highlight characters and action described in the text, shunning complex detail and backgrounds. The result is an accessible, engaging board-book depiction of young children’s play that offers a matter-of-fact rebuff to strict gender norms. Other books in the Clive’s Jobs series similarly cast Clive in the pretend-play roles of librarian, teacher, and waiter and echo this title’s success.
A young, aspiring mechanic tries to get a grip on her anger at school before it reveals her worries at home.
Eleven-year-old Robinson Hart can handle just about anything on her own, whether it’s fixing cars, boiling Vermont maple sap into syrup, or playing baseball. The only thing she can’t seem to get a handle on is her temper. She tries to do as her grandpa asks and be calm like her namesake, Jackie Robinson, under pressure, and she tries to do as the school guidance counselor has suggested and run through her favorite baseball stats in hot moments. But some moments push Robbie over the edge, like when the school bully calls her a “motherless Robin” or when adults question her family just because her grandpa is black and she is white-presenting. Family is a sore spot for Robbie in general, not only because she knows so little about hers, but because she doesn’t want anyone to know that her grandpa—the only person who does know her family history—seems to be losing himself, forgetting which key opens the door or the end of his sentences or even Robbie’s name. Stoddard debuts with a quiet but powerful narrative that gently unpacks Alzheimer’s, centers mental health, and moves through the intimate and intense emotional landscape of family—what seems to break one and what can remake it.
Validating, heart-rending, and a deft blend of suffering and inspiration.
In this sequel to Furthermore (2016), kindhearted Alice and friend Oliver travel from Ferenwood to wintery Whichwood with the assigned task of saving “a very strange” girl from a terrible fate.
Since her mother’s death and her father’s departure, 13-year-old Laylee has become Whichwood’s only mordeshoor with magical skills to “wash and package the dead destined for the Otherwhere,” a ghastly, grueling, unappreciated task, sapping her body and soul. Watching her bronze skin, amber eyes, and chestnut hair turn silver, Laylee hopelessly realizes she’s “irrevocably ill.” Shocked and offended when Alice arrives suddenly and announces she’s come to “fix” Laylee’s “problem,” Laylee spurns her well-meaning visitors who try to help her launder the dead. When it becomes obvious that Laylee’s dying, Alice applies her own special magic in an effort to save her. Meanwhile, unattended ghosts of Whichwood’s dead avenge Laylee by wreaking havoc on the town, igniting terrible repercussions. Initially failing in her task, Alice eventually relies on her heart to “fix” her new friend. In deliciously descriptive prose, the confiding, familiar narrator directly engages the “dear reader” with witty asides, explanatory footnotes, and cautionary warnings as Laylee’s woeful tale unfolds. As she did in Furthermore, Mafi uses her built world to interrogate norms and relationships in our own while never losing sight of her story.
Memorable new characters experience the restorative power of friendship in this darkly fascinating, somewhat ghoulish sequel to Furthermore
. (Fantasy. 10-14)
It is not very often one comes across a fantasy novel for young readers in which the protagonist is both Indian and an interdimensional demon slayer.
Kiranmala is a regular sixth-grader in Parsippany, New Jersey, until her life is thrown out of whack when her parents are cast into another dimension as the result of an imploding spell. To make matters worse, a drooling rakkhosh slams into her kitchen, ready to eat her. Kiran leaves on a quest to save her parents; she’s accompanied by two handsome Indian princes—Lal and Neel—and their flying pakkhiraj horses. What follows is a roller-coaster adventure into The Kingdom Beyond the Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers, where Kiran and her friends seek help from a bird who enjoys bad jokes, flee from demon groupies, and face the formidable Serpent King. Writing in smart and likable Kiran’s first-person voice, DasGupta successfully blends together American popular culture, Bengali folk tales, and witty dialogue in her hilarious debut. (The banter among Kiran and the bickering Lal and Neel alone will have readers in stitches.) A refreshing take on the hero’s quest in which almost all the characters are Indian (or are of Indian origin), this series opener explores both the pains of growing up and what it means to be a second-generation Indian-American.
This original fantasy is laugh-out-loud funny and extremely engaging.