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Wiles draws on memories of her childhood summers in Mississippi in her first picture book, a slice-of-life story about Joe, a Caucasian boy, and his best friend, John Henry, an African-American boy whose mother works as a housekeeper for Joe’s family. The setting is the Deep South in the summer of 1964, the period called Freedom Summer for its wide-ranging social changes following passage of the Civil Rights Act. Joe and John Henry have spent all their summers together, working around the rampant prejudice of the era and maintaining their friendship even though they can’t swim in the public pool together or walk into the local store to buy a pair of ice pops. When the new law takes effect, the boys race together to the public pool only to find it being filled in with asphalt by city workers. John Henry’s hurt and shame ring true in the text, but Joe’s precocious understanding of the situation outstrips his age. (“I want to see this town with John Henry’s eyes.”) An author’s note at the beginning of the book describes her experiences and the atmosphere in her own hometown during this era, when some white business owners preferred to close down rather than open their doors to African-Americans. Younger children will need this background explanation to understand the story’s underlying layers of meaning, or the filling-in of the swimming pool will seem like a mindless bureaucratic blunder rather than concrete prejudice in action. Teachers and parents could use this book as a quiet but powerful introduction to the prejudice experienced by many Americans, and of course the book is a natural to pair with the story of another, more-famous John Henry. Vibrant full-page paintings by talented French-born artist Lagarrigue capture both the palpable heat of southern summer days and the warmth of the boys’ friendship. (Picture book. 6-12)

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-689-83016-5

Page Count: 32

Publisher: Atheneum

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2001

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From the Jake the Fake series , Vol. 1

A fast and funny alternative to the Wimpy Kid.

Black sixth-grader Jake Liston can only play one song on the piano. He can’t read music very well, and he can’t improvise. So how did Jake get accepted to the Music and Art Academy? He faked it.

Alongside an eclectic group of academy classmates, and with advice from his best friend, Jake tries to fit in at a school where things like garbage sculpting and writing art reviews of bird poop splatter are the norm. All is well until Jake discovers that the end-of-the-semester talent show is only two weeks away, and Jake is short one very important thing…talent. Or is he? It’s up to Jake to either find the talent that lies within or embarrass himself in front of the entire school. Light and humorous, with Knight’s illustrations adding to the fun, Jake’s story will likely appeal to many middle-grade readers, especially those who might otherwise be reluctant to pick up a book. While the artsy antics may be over-the-top at times, this is a story about something that most preteens can relate to: the struggle to find your authentic self. And in a world filled with books about wanting to fit in with the athletically gifted supercliques, this novel unabashedly celebrates the artsy crowd in all of its quirky, creative glory.

A fast and funny alternative to the Wimpy Kid. (Fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: March 28, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-553-52351-5

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2016

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Best for readers who have clearly indicated they would like to take their writing efforts to the next level.

A young white girl writes and illustrates a story, which is critiqued by the narrator as it is created.

The girl begins her story by drawing a Hero. Then she thinks maybe a Heroine would be better. Then she decides both will work. She places them in “a good town, filled with good people, called our Setting.” The narrator, an unseen editor who lurks over the artist’s shoulder, tells the storyteller she needs to put in some Conflict, make the Evil Overlord scarier, and give it better action. This tongue-in-cheek way of delivering the rules of creative writing is clever, and paired with Le Huche’s earnest, childlike illustrations, it seems to be aimed at giving helpful direction to aspiring young creators (although the illustrations are not critiqued). But the question needs to be asked: do very young writers really need to know the rules of writing as determined by adults? While the story appears to be about helping young readers learn writing—there is “A Friendly List of Words Used in this Book” at the end with such words as “protagonist” and “antagonist” (glossed as “Hero and Heroine” and “Evil Overlord,” respectively)—it also has a decidedly unhelpful whiff of judgment. Rules, the text seems to say, must be followed for the story to be a Good one. Ouch.

Best for readers who have clearly indicated they would like to take their writing efforts to the next level. (Picture book. 6-10)

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-4814-2935-1

Page Count: 40

Publisher: Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2017

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