A Sweet Story to Tackle a Tough Topic: A Review of The Remember Balloons

The Remember BalloonsThe Remember Balloons
Jessie Oliveros
Illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte
Simon and Schuster, August 2018
Ages 5-9

James has a handful of colorful balloons, reminders of his most important days. His parents and grandfather have even more balloons. His dog has one! Each bright balloon holds a special memory—birthdays, weddings, fishing trips—a lifetime of extraordinary moments. As Grandpa’s balloons begin to float away, Mom and Dad help James understand memory loss and how he can help keep Grandpa’s stories alive.

A gentle metaphor for aging, memory loss, and dementia to help young readers process what’s happening to a loved one. Oliveros doesn’t shy away from the anxiety, confusion, and anger in James’ reactions; validating those feelings in young and old alike. The black and white pencil drawings of this close-knit, mixed-race family provide an understated counterpoint to the vibrant balloons and the memories within. The subtly in both text and art work well to together in handling such an emotional topic and put the focus on the joy of remembering shared experiences.

New Children’s Fiction Alert!: Tight by Torrey Maldonado

Tight by Torrey Maldonado

Tight
Torrey Maldonado
Nancy Paulsen Books, September 2018
Ages 8-12/Grades 3-7

If Bryan could be any superhero, he’d be Batman. Or Black Panther. They’re smart, they think 10 steps ahead, and they’re tough. Bryan’s dad and his older sister, Ava, both say he should be tough: “don’t be soft” they tell him, but his mom keeps him cool and level-headed. She also introduces him to Mike, who is in 7th grade – one year older than him in school – and Bryan thinks he’s pretty tight. Mike loves comics and drawing superheroes just like Bryan, and he doesn’t let school get in the way of having fun.

Slowly, Mike starts asking Bryan to take more and more risks: climbing up to the rooftop of a neighborhood building, ducking the subway turnstiles to take the train for free, skipping school to get the newest Luke Cage comic. Bryan doesn’t feel so good about lying to his parents, especially his mom, but he loves the feeling of freedom that comes with hanging out with Mike.

Bryan’s internal struggle to make the right choices is grounded in Tight’s contemporary Brooklyn setting and in his genuine interactions with strong secondary characters. He genuinely wants to do the right thing, while also wanting to give his friend a chance to choose better as well. Maldonado’s dialogues present a variety of perspectives on peer pressure and the difficulties of navigating friendships as a young person, making it easy to empathize with Bryan.

Women and Wealth Redistribution: A Review of The Forest Queen

The Forest Queen by Betsy CornwellThe Forest Queen
Betsy Cornwell
HMH/Clarion Books, August 2018

“Steal from the rich, give to the poor” gets a fresh take in this gender-swapped retelling of the classic Robin Hood tale. Sylvie, sixteen and lady of Loughsley Abbey, begins to question her family’s treatment of the people of Loughsley – especially now that her brother, John, is the unforgiving sheriff. With her childhood friend, Bird, she runs away and lives in hiding in the nearby woods. Slowly, others from Loughsley join them in their new community, including a young woman named Little Jane, the midwife Mae Tuck, and others who feared otherwise being jailed for their inability to pay egregious taxes. Sylvie must eventually confront her brother, along with her own complicity in the evils done by her family, and she comes to realize that the changes required for economic justice mean she must take “radical action” and put herself in potential danger for the greater good.
Sylvie and her mission to redistribute wealth among the people of Loughsley are easy to root for, but the additional focus on gender roles, womanhood, and the idea of community as family are what set this retelling apart. Strong secondary characters help to challenge Sylvie and force her to take a strong stand against a system that she would otherwise benefit from, and parallels can be drawn from the injustices in the story to those of today’s world. As Little Jane, who becomes a dear friend to Sylvie says, “If someone doesn’t care whether you live or die, then living itself is rebellion” (p 241). This thoughtful narrative of what can happen when the privileged few horde wealth while the majority struggles to make do with less and less shows the power in a united band of concerned citizens.

Back to School with Historical Fiction: A Review of Finding Langston

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Finding Langston
Lesa Cline-Ransome
Holiday House, August 2018

Langston doesn’t like much about his new life in Chicago – not the small apartment he shares with his father, or the noisy streets and sidewalks, and definitely not his new school, where classmates call him “country boy” and make fun of how he speaks. Langston misses Alabama, where his mother died and where his Grandma still lives, though his father sends her part of his paycheck each week in the hopes of helping her move up north with them. It’s only when Langston discovers George Cleveland Hall Library, open to all Chicago residents, that he starts to feel at home.

In the safety of the library, Langston also discovers his namesake, a poet who seems to have inspired a few of the love letters written by young Langston’s mother to his father. Reading the poetry of Hughes helps Langston work through his grief at losing his mother, but it’s a new friend who recognizes that reading poetry “is a way of putting all the things you feel inside on the outside” (p 99).

Cline-Ransome mixes poetry and history in this slim fiction novel for elementary and middle school children. The post World War II era of the Great Migration is explored through the story of one family, and Langston (the character) also learns a great deal about Langston Hughes and other African American poets and writers of the time. Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and Chicago Public Library’s Hall Branch are both highlighted and given extra detail in an Author’s Note at the end of the book. Told with heart and thoughtfulness, Finding Langston belongs in personal libraries and on classroom shelves alike.

Valuable Reminders: A Review of The Dollar Kids

dollar kids

The Dollar Kids
Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Illustrations by Ryan Andrews
Candlewick (August, 2018)
Ages 10-14

When his family wins the chance to buy a house for just $1, twelve-year-old Lowen sees it as a chance to hit the reset button — Mum can open her own restaurant, Dad can follow his dream of working in a clinic in an underserved community, his brother Clem can finally be the star athlete, and his sister Anneth — well, she’ll need convincing. And sensitive, artistic Lowen can work through his grief over the death of a friend and guilt over believing he caused it. But moving to a small town isn’t easy on any of them, leading everyone to question whether the Dollar House program was such a good idea after all. Dubbed the “Dollar Kids” by hostile new neighbors skeptical of the program and “whether it’s a help or drain on the town” (p. 328), Lowen and the other new kids in town struggle to make a place for themselves, rehab houses, and rebuild community.

The idea of home, be it a building, a community, a family, or a feeling creates a strong backbone for this plot, helping to pull the reader through the slightly slow start to the one year the book covers. By mid-book, the pace picks up in both action and time (the progress noted with each new chapter). While slightly awkward, the change of pacing mirrors the changes Lowen experiences as he processes his grief and settles into life in Millville. Scenes from Lowen’s comic book drawing layer in additional elements of his grieving process, questions of faith, and ultimately his healing.

Diversity (of age, gender, and cultures) among the characters in this story provide a varied range of coping mechanisms for dealing with uncertainty, insecurity, and change by both the new families settling in and Millville residents dealing with the decline of their small, but proud town. The inclusion of parents and other community members as active players in the story is a refreshing change from books that often leave you wondering “What happened to all the adults?” and provides a subtle reminder that communities need all types of diversity to thrive.

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay: A Review of Darius the Great is Not Okay

 

Darius the Great is Not Okay

Darius the Great is Not Okay
Adib Khorram
Dial Books, August 2018
Ages 14 and up

Darius Kellner, named after Darius the Great, doesn’t always feel great, and he and his family know that. Darius’s father also has Depression, and while he struggles to vocalize his love for Darius, does not shy away from tougher conversations about his own mental health and the importance of both therapy and medication. These conversations happen against the backdrop of a rough patch for Darius – he is bullied at school, not appreciated at his part time job at Tea Haven, and feels distance growing between himself and all of his family members: dad, mom, and younger sister, Lelah, who he sees as a replacement for himself.

As a narrator, Darius is not without faults – he routinely gets in his own way, and many times would rather remove himself from a situation or conversation with an “Um” and redirection towards the nearest tea kettle – but his character does learn and grow in his own way. During a family trip to Iran, where his mother grew up, Darius begins to recognize and find his place in his family as son, brother, and friend, though not without mistakes, painful conversations, and learning how to advocate for himself. This young adult novel, told from the perspective of an awkward but earnest narrator, is a testament to the importance of open and honest conversations around mental health. Aspects of daily life in Iran, from religious customs to food preparation rituals, add depth and interest to the characters and give the story a firm sense of place and nuanced secondary characters allow for a reader to see multiple facets of Darius as a protagonist.

Picture Book Review: Geraldine

 

Geraldine by Elizabeth Lilly

Geraldine
Elizabeth Lilly
Roaring Brook Press, June 2018

Sometimes being yourself is difficult, especially when there doesn’t seem to be anyone who looks like you. Geraldine the giraffe can relate to this feeling: her family is moving and it is the Worst Thing Ever. She has no friends at her new school, and worse, she is the only giraffe there. Now everyone knows her as That Giraffe Girl. Then Cassie comes along – Cassie is that girl who wears glasses – and she and Geraldine become friends who fit in by standing out. Whimsical pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations add humor to this charming story about boldly being who you are.