Who Wants to Be Normal?: A Review of Good Different

Good Different
Meg Eden Kuyatt
Scholastic Press
March 7, 2023
Age 8-12

Always follow the rules for “normal” people: no crying in public, smile and nod, tell people you’re “fine.” But Selah doesn’t always want to be normal. In fact, she wants to be a dragon—escaping to fly free above the chaotic world below. She is pretty good at hiding her feelings in order to fit in, until an outburst at school pits Selah against her classmates, the school administration, and her mom. This leaves poetry (and her grandfather) as her only avenues to explore her feelings when speech fails her. A chance encounter with an understanding vendor at FantasyCon opens her eyes to a new definition for her experience—autism.

Kuyatt’s novel in verse follows Selah’s journey as a burgeoning poet and her exploration of neurodivergence as an explanation for the feeling and reactions she has always thought of as weird. Selah’s perspective shifts through the novel from a longing to hide, to self-discovery, to a desire to advocate for her needs, her loved ones, and her place in the world. Harsh treatment by teachers and school administrators, and her mother’s denial of any differences, paint a lonely picture of Selah’s experience. Other caring adults in her life help lighten the tone of this story, which focuses primarily on her struggles. As narrator, Selah’s typical seventh-grade self-centeredness leaves secondary characters like her mother, grandfather, and best friend less well-defined than they could be and add to the sense of isolation. Through her own determination, Selah finds her voice and a way to work with her world instead of against it. A thoughtful endnote, detailing the author’s own autism diagnosis as an adult, places the text as both a mirror for undiagnosed kids and a potential tool for adult readers, and provides an uplifting interpretation of neurodivergence as a strength rather than problem.

Road Trip Gone Wrong: A Book Review of EXIT 13: The Whispering Pines

EXIT 13: The Whispering Pines
James Preller
Illustrated by Kevin Keele
Scholastic
February 7, 2023
Ages 8 to 12

Stopping at the EXIT 13 Motel was the worst decision the McGinns could have made. Lost in the fog, the McGinns decide to stop when the shadowy motel appears out of nowhere when they needed it most. Dealing with suspicious hotel staff, the mysterious wolf that appears and disappears just as quickly, and the haunting voice that keeps talking to Ash, the youngest McGinn, was not what they were looking for on a road trip. Ash and his sister, Willow, must solve the mystery of the motel for their family, or else they may never have the chance to check out.

Told in the third-person to gain the perspective of all characters involved, the book mainly focuses on Ash and Willow as they search for answers. Written primarily in prose, black and white comic panels are used to expose new secrets the children find out about EXIT 13 and provide an in-depth view of the emotions on the characters’ faces. Although Willow and Ash don’t get along at the beginning of the book, as they face each secret and obstacle of the motel and its creepy forest, their concern for one another and familial bond grows stronger. Humor, lighthearted moments, and a new friend balance out the sense of doom that the children and readers feel is coming. Left on a giant cliffhanger, young readers who enjoy thrilling mysteries will want to continue to explore the secrets of EXIT 13 with Ash and Willow as they try to leave.

An Everglades-inspired Fantasy Adventure: A Review of Into the Glades

Into the Glades
Laura Sebastian
Delacorte Press
October 25th, 2022
Ages 8 to 12

The Glades—a peaceful but magical swamp-like area filled with magical creatures—has been the home to best friends, Cecilia and Larkin, since they were young. But with the unexpected death of Cecilia’s father, Oziris, the leader of the village, the Glades has turned maliciously towards the townspeople like never before. Wrapped in anger and grief but determined to resurrect Oziris and break the curse on the Glades, Cecilia and Larkin, along with their two younger brothers, embark upon a journey through the Glades to find a powerful witch. But the potential price of such dark magic may be too much for the children to handle, along with the grief and fury threatening to consume them.

As the girls and their brothers’ journey through the Glades, Sebastian weaves in how each handles their grief, from simmering anger to calm acceptance. Tested throughout their journey, Cecilia and Larkin are challenged by their emotions, magical ability, and fear of losing each other. In the end, they have to accept each other for their bonds of friendship to endure. Sebastian uses the journey though the Glade as a metaphor for moving through the stages of grief. Details of Oziris’s death introduce a darker tone, but Sebastian balances it with subtle humor and lightheartedness from the brothers. She firmly places them as emotional support for Cecilia and Larkin while away from the rest of their grieving family members. The characters and location of the story are inspired by the author’s childhood, making it a personal story that still allows readers to immerse themselves in her experience. Into the Glades is a fantasy adventure encouraging social-emotional learning by bringing to life real issues surrounding loss and grief along with accepting change and enjoying each moment, providing a silver lining to even the darkest events.

More Than “Goode” Enough: A Review of The Glass Witch

The Glass Witch cover art

The Glass Witch
Lindsay Puckett
Scholastic Press
October 18, 2022
Age 8-12

Adelaide Goode is the youngest in a family of cursed and complicated witches, doomed to feel she is not magic enough, thin enough, or “Goode enough.” About to be left with her grandma for the summer, Addie clings to her mother in a snap decision that unleashes the curse, turns her bones to glass, and makes her the target of a witch-hunting spirit. Only by accepting herself and connecting with her family’s magic, or kindred, can she save herself, her family, and her town from shattering.

Challenged by low self-esteem and fear of abandonment, Addie uses tween snark and extraordinary baking skills as a shield against her fears. Puckett weaves heavy themes of body image, bullying, and family tension with more whimsical notes of a Halloween Pageant, delicious food imagery, and brave rescue rabbits to keep the tone light and the pace lively. And the addition of a fearless and monster-obsessed new friend, Fatima, makes for the perfect foil for Addie and her ideal companion in a magical crisis. Secondary adult characters begin in a less-defined manner but shine in a conclusion that sees Addie find her self-worth while learning about her family and her place in it.

Friendship, family, and magic combine in this lighthearted story of self-discovery and acceptance.

Paving the Way For Future Generations: A Review of Bessie the Motorcycle Queen

Bessie the Motorcycle Queen
Charles R. Smith, Jr.
Illustrated by Charlot Kristensen
Scholastic Inc. / Orchard Books
September 20, 2022
Ages 6 to 8

Through rhyming verse, Bessie the Motorcycle Queen tells the story of little-known adventurer, Bessie Stringfield. A Black motorcyclist, she was known for her spontaneous, cross-country motorcycle rides, flair for the dramatic, and ability to cruise easily past her white, male competitors. Fighting against conditions in the Jim Crow-era South, Bessie was often forced to sleep under the stars when motels rejected her, was chased by Klan members, and cheated out of her race winnings. The impulsive, determined, and highly skilled Bessie gives author Charles Smith, Jr. plenty of tales for an action-packed ride. His verse maintains a quick pace and fun tone, despite some heavy content, even if some lines are a bit clunky. The sherbet-flavored color palette, laid over the modern digital paintings, immediately places the story in the 1920s. Elements like her wheat penny, which she flipped to decide her next location, add to the period details and her legend. The rough, lineless illustrations feel cartoon-like and energetic, with Bessie and her motorcycle significantly more detailed than everything else, keeping the reader’s eyes always on her. The backmatter includes an author’s note explaining his discovery of Bessie’s story, and the inspiration he found in her bravery, as well as a bibliography with books and online articles for additional reading on Bessie.

With races, car chases, and daring motorcycle stunts, this tall tale of an overlooked historical figure shines a spotlight on her bravery and spirit in a story of empowerment.

A Review of Bibbidi Bobbidy Academy: Rory and the Magical Mix-Ups

Bibbidi Bobbidi Academy: Rory and the Magical Mix-Ups
Kallie George
Illustrated by Lorena Alvarez Gómez
Disney Hyperion
October 11,2022
Ages 5-8

Living as a non-magical being her whole life, Rory Spellington enrolls in Bibbidi Bobbidi Academy so she can achieve her dream of becoming a fairy godmother. Her excitement about finally attending the Academy fades when all of her spells turn into disasters. Only with the help of her new friend, Mai, and her experience living in the non-magical world does Rory learn that having magic doesn’t make all wishes come true; listening and being there for someone is the best way to grant any wish.

This imaginative and magical tale starts by providing a map of Bibbidi Bobbidi Academy so readers can visually follow along on Rory’s adventures. Including a map of the academy encourages readers creativity as they delve into the story and adds to the adventure. Bright, vivid colors and attention to detail in the illustrations make each chapter a magical tale on its own*. Although the academy name and characters within the story have references to Disney movies, familiarity isn’t necessary to follow along. To adjust to the age-appropriate reading level, George spells out complex words, using word play to complement Rory’s magical spell-casting challenges, and normalizes learning differences for the reader. George’s tone follows Rory’s time at the academy from excited and animated in the beginning, then slowly dwindles to discouraged as Rory’s spells end in disaster, and back to festive as Rory completes her first magical assignment with flying colors, helping a child with his first wish. With an overtmoral, the author makes it clear to young readers that nobody can be a perfect fairy or non-magical person, but if you are motivated to fulfill your dream, then try your hardest, even when there might be magical disasters.

* Review based on ARC

Bedtime for Creatures Great and Small: A Review of Sleep

Sleep cover art

Sleep
Barbara Herkert
Illustrated by Daniel Long
Albert Whitman & Co.
October 1, 2022
Ages 4-8

Humans require less sleep as they grow older. Grey whales float on the water’s surface to breathe while they sleep. Most mammals and birds exhibit signs of REM sleep, which means they may dream like humans. All living things with a nervous system need sleep, from dogs to insects to sharks to us; sleep specifics just depend on the type of animal and its habitat. Sleep, written by Barbara Herkert and illustrated by Daniel Long, dives deep into the world of slumber with detailed facts about sleep patterns, cycles, and the differences between sleep needs and experiences in humans and animals.

Filled with a lush color scheme and vivid images, the book resonates calm, perfect for this topic of sleep and making it a relaxing bedtime read. Each image is digitally illustrated, in a similar style to mixed media collages, but shaded to bring out depth and textures, which brings each animal to life. Long’s images are vibrant, but simply detailed, keeping them from distracting from the information provided on each page. Sedate pacing prevents the fact-heavy text from overwhelming readers. With a background in biology and fine arts, Barbara Herkert provides facts in a tone filled with admiration for the natural world that complements the extraordinary details she provides. The author also includes a glossary and additional resources as backmatter for those who would like to continue researching the world of sleep. Working through interesting information on humans and animals, the book takes young readers on a mind-opening adventure into the world of sleep and the extraordinary world we live in.


Should Revenge Be Served at All?: A Review of Sweet and Sour

Sweet and Sour cover art

Sweet and Sour
Debbi Michiko Florence
Scholastic
July 26, 2022
Age: 8-12

Mai, budding birder and BTS stan, and her parents have always spent idyllic summers with family friends in small-town Mystic, Connecticut. Until two summers ago, when their son and Mai’s BFF, Zach, betrayed her and the friends suddenly moved to Japan. Now the trip is back on and Mai is unhappily headed from west coast to east with a new BFF, Lila, and years of built up anger. When Zach, so changed from two years away, wants to pick up their friendship right where he thinks they left it, Mai must decide how to handle her hurt feelings (not well), whether to hang onto a grudge she may have outgrown (not fun), and how to be a better friend to new friends and old.

Told from Mai’s point of view, Debbi Michiko Florence perfectly captures the 13-year-old voice with swings from light to moody, petulant to kind. The text is sprinkled with good and bad memory flashbacks, labeled sweet or sour, providing the backstory of Mai and Zach’s childhood and the racist incident that fractured their bond. Mai’s journey from sadness to anger to letting go is choppy and full of tween uncertainty. But her moments of introspection and insistence on standing up for yourself and your friends, whether it be from anti-Asian hate, bullying, or on matters of consent, keep her character from verging into the self-centered and vengeful. With wise words from friends, she learns to process her feelings rather than bury them and how to both forgive and ask for forgiveness. The relationships between Mai and Lila, Zach, and a new friend Celeste provide powerful examples of different types of friendships and illustrate the value of each. A secondary storyline, featuring Mai’s parents and their perceived inability to handle her big emotions, could have been better developed, but lends import to the central theme of communicating one’s feelings. Mai’s complicated emotions add both sweet and sour notes to the narrative of this summer adventure exploring the complexities of friendship, memory, growing up.

Growing a Reader: Garden Pictures Books for Spring 2022

Spring has sprung! Or I’m sure it will any time now. And with it comes the chance to get outside (finally!) and enjoy nature, feel the sunshine, and play in the garden. This spring the publishing world has supplied us with a bumper crop of titles to inspire gardeners of all ages. With picture books and board books, fiction and nonfiction, there is something to inspire all of us to grab our garden tools and start digging. Happy reading (and planting)!

BOARD BOOKS:

My Garden: My World in 100 Words
Happy Yak, illustrated by Marijke Buurlage
Quarto
Published April 12, 2022
Ages Birth to 3

This bright and bouncy vocab primer explores the seasons and fun to be had in nature with simple word to illustration connections. Broken into easy to interpret categories, each spread includes object, action, and emotion words, and with a nod to social emotional learning, color-coded dots indicate actions and emotions.

PICTURE BOOKS:

Behold Our Magical Garden: Poems Fresh from the School Garden
Allen Wolf, illustrated by Daniel Duncan
Candlewick
Published March 8, 2022
Ages 8-12

Part poetry collection, part gardening guide, and all fun. Wolf’s poetry and thoughtful end notes weave English language arts lessons, with STEM topics in verses full of curiosity, wonder, and interesting biology facts. The diverse class groups and detailed digital drawings are an engaging combination sure to inspire garden clubs to start planning.

The Fairy Garden
Georgia Buckthorn, illustrated by Isabella Mazzanti
Quarto
Published April 5, 2022
Ages 4-7

Mimi dreams of a fairy garden and works diligently to plant, prune, and tidy her garden until it’s perfect—for people, not fairies. With a little encouragement from its former inhabitants, she lets go and grows a beautiful and wild garden for the fairies to thrive. Lovely, soft-focused, colored pencil illustrations evoke a magical setting for dreaming of fairy-folk. Illustrated endnotes include rules for creating a fairy-friendly garden, adorable housing included.

NONFICTION PICTURE BOOKS:

Little Homesteader: A Spring Treasury of Recipes, Crafts, and Wisdom
Angela Ferraro-Fanning, illustrated by AnneliesDraws
Quarto
Published March 22, 2022
Ages 6-8

A fun and fact-filled celebration of spring’s natural wonders. Full of wholesome, hands-on ways to enjoy the foods, plants, and holidays that make spring so lovely, including crafts, recipes, and gardening tips. Vibrant colored pencil illustrations of veggies, bugs, and animals also include two rosy-cheeked children enjoying all the fun.

The Gardener of Alcatraz: A True Story
Emma Bland Smith, illustrated by Jenn Ely
Charlesbridge
Published April 5, 2022
Ages 7-10

Elliott Michener, sent to Alcatraz as a convicted counterfeiter, changed both his life and the island prison when he discovered a passion for gardening. Without white-washing Michener’s crimes or intentions, Bland Smith treats his story with empathy and his transformation from criminal to landscaper with dignity. Ely’s thoughtful use of color swings from dreary to cheerful (and back) in attentive accordance to the mood of the text. Back matter includes a dual timeline for Alcatraz Island and Michener, extensive notes on both, and a bibliography and author’s note.

Planting a Garden in Room 6: From Seeds to Salad
Caroline Arnold
Charlesbridge
Published March 15, 2022
Ages 3-7

With a little help from their teacher, the students in room 6 will learn how to plant and tend a garden. Step-by-step explanations and photos cover everything from seed sprouting to planting to harvesting and taste-testing. A tool guide, Q&A, vocabulary terms, and both digital and hard copy resources complement the extremely detailed text. Planting a Garden in Room 6 is the third book in the collaborative series between Arnold and kindergarten teacher, Jennifer Best.


Which titles would you add to this list?

Queen Quest: A Review of The Queen in the Cave

Queen in the Cave
Júlia Sardá
Candlewick Studio
May 24, 2022
Ages 5 to 9

Franca dreams of a queen in a cave. Feeling a strange need to abandon all she once enjoyed, Franca recruits her younger sisters, Carmela and Tomasina, to journey with her on her quest through the dark forest to find the queen. Although her sisters become afraid of the forest and the creatures they meet, Franca motivates them with her own blooming confidence to continue. When Franca, Carmela, and Tomasina finally reach the cave, they are given the most unexpected surprise in discovering the identity of the queen.

This imaginative picture book explores themes of overcoming one’s fears, being curious about the unknown, and being brave enough to keep going through life. Although Franca recruits her sisters in the beginning of the quest to travel with her, she learns that it’s okay to drift apart from the people and activities she once enjoyed, indicating the transition from childhood to adulthood. The illustrations and tone of the story also exhibit the shift, starting with a lighthearted tone and clean portrayal of the sisters and moving to a heavier tone and a darker color scheme focused on Franca. The fantastical illustration of the forest and the creatures fill each page with hidden objects that catch the attention of any reader and make them want to look again to see new objects that one might have missed. The fairytale-like tone of this picture book for older children, emphasizes the reality of growing up and learning to embrace your individuality, couched within a whimsical adventure.