Small & Mighty: A Review of Front Desk by Kelly Yang

front deskFront Desk by Kelly Yang
Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books
May, 2018

Mia and her parents, recent immigrants from China, are managing a California motel in the early 1990s. It’s a family affair, as ten-year-old Mia finds herself responsible for checking in motel guests while her parents tend to the rooms and motel maintenance – though it sometimes feels like it’s Mia against the world. After a rough start including washing machine mishaps, bad grades, and arguments with her mother (who wants Mia to stick to math, something she considers Mia to be a “native” in), Mia hits her stride when she realizes the power of using her ever-improving English to help others, especially the motel guests she considers family.

Adventurous subplots and dynamic secondary characters add to the appeal of this compelling middle grade novel. Mia believes in herself and wants what is best for her friends and family, and though her quick thinking sometimes gets her in trouble, at the end of the day she is a force for good in her community. This book is fun, yet thoughtful, and shows that there’s no age requirement for taking action against injustice.

We’ve been accepted to the Explorer Academy!

nebula secret coverI was fortunate to spend my Wednesday afternoon with a lovely group of fellow book-lovers; professors, lit experts, book-sellers, and publishing industry insiders (oh, my!) at the lunch and launch of the new National Geographic Kids series Explorer Academy. The series will include seven fact-based fiction adventures for middle-grade readers that are inspired by the real scientists and explorers at the National Geographic Society. The first title in the series, The Nebula Secret, follows 12-year old Cruz Coronado and his fellow students as they travel the globe to become the next generation of explorers and possibly solve the mysterious death of Cruz’s mother. The blend of adventure, STEM topics, and world cultures is sure to appeal to a wide audience.

exp acceptance 2

trueitTrudi Trueit, the series author, is a weather forecaster turned writer that couldn’t help sharing her love for science with young readers. In our brief conversation, she proved to be a passionate advocate for readers, libraries, and scientists! She has tapped the knowledge of National Geographic Explorers (they are like the rock stars of the National Geographic Society) for the series to bring their real life discoveries, research, and innovations into the action-packed plots. Nizar Ibrahim, paleontologist and National Geographic Explorer, joined us to share his experiences with the NGS and a top-secret (sorry!) hint at some new discoveries.

Stop by the BCLC to check out the ARC in our signed books collection (as soon as I finish reading it) and keep your eye out for publication this fall by Under the Stars, the new fiction imprint of National Geographic.

Two of a Kind: Fiction in Verse

With National Poetry Month coming to an end, here are two new novels in verse featuring young teens navigating difficult situations:

ebbandflow

Ebb & Flow – Heather Smith
Kids Can Press
April, 2018

Jett has not had a great year – after his father goes to jail for his involvement in a drunk driving accident, he and his mother move away for a “fresh start” that doesn’t go the way either of them wanted. Now, Jett is back on the Eastern coast to spend the summer with his Grandma Jo, who speaks in puns and tells him stories about herself at his age, a young Joanna. Slowly, Jett tells his own story, and struggles with wanting things to go back to how they were while also hoping the summer will help him move on from the mistakes of the past year.

As Grandma Jo says:
“…life is like the tides.
In, out.
Back, forth.
Push, pull.
High, low.
You just have to go with the flow, you know?” (p. 177)

Told in verse from Jett’s perspective, Ebb & Flow mimics the tides it refers to – swelling with emotion, pulling back, and surging again as Jett reveals his truths and secrets.

 

knockout

Knockout – K. A. Holt
Chronicle Books
March, 2018

Levi was born prematurely, and as a result he’s smaller than most of his classmates. And while sometimes he needs an inhaler or gets tired easily, he’s still mighty, and wants to prove he’s not as weak as his mom and brother think. When his dad offers to pay for a sport – any sport – he chooses boxing. That will show everyone how strong he is, right?

Shape poetry and Levi’s quick and punchy voice give this novel in verse plenty of heart. Readers will cheer for Levi as he makes his way through seventh grade, trying to avoid drama, keep his friendship with Tam, and impress everyone with his boxing.

2018 Picture Book Poetry

April is National Poetry Month – celebrate with us by checking out new collections and illustrated poems. You can find these titles, novels in verse for older readers, and other lyrical picture books for children here at Butler Children’s Literature Center!

blackgirlmagic

Black Girl Magic (Macmillan/Roaring Brook Press, January 2018)
Written by Mahogany Browne
Illustrated by Jess X. Snow

With a dedication stating “This book is for you,” this spirited poem of strength and finding beauty in yourself despite what the world expects of you lifts up black women, acknowledging their accomplishments and struggles, and gives young black girls an anthem of support. The text is accompanied by striking black, white, and red illustrations that amplify the empowering message of the poem.

 

In the Past (Candlewick Press, March 2018)
inthepastWritten by David Elliott
Illustrated by Matthew Trueman

This collection of poems about ancient creatures ranges from the humble Trilobite to the mighty Quetzacoatlus and proves that anything can be poetic. Perfect for dinosaur fans of any age, In the Past includes a geologic timeline and notes for each ancient creature along with realistic mixed media images. The poetry is light-hearted and informative and plays on the illustrations on each page.

 

martinrisingMartin Rising: Requiem for a King (Scholastic Press, January 2018)
Written by Andrea Davis Pinkney
Illustrated by Brian Pinkney

In this collection of “docu-poems,” author Andrea Davis Pinkney presents the final months of Dr. King’s life. With a musicality of language and along with Brian Pinkney’s illuminating and spiritual paintings, each poem carries a different emotional tone and honors multiple facets of King’s life – his work, his family, and his ministry. This selection works on its own as a memorial of Dr. King’s life, but would also be a powerful read aloud in a classroom or theater setting, or as a part of a larger program for students at any age.

 

The Horse’s Haiku (Candlewick Press, March 2018)horseshaiku
Written by Michael J. Rosen
Illustrated by Stan Fellows

This collection of haiku about horses is organized into three sections: In the Field, At the Barn, and Under Saddle. Watercolor illustrations on each page allow the reader’s eye to graze while the mind contemplates the sparse verse. A note on haiku concludes the collection and teaches the reader how to enjoy haiku in everyday life. The Horse’s Haiku would be suitable for a read aloud for younger children, or as a read along as part of a larger poetry unit for older elementary students.

 

withmyhandsWith My Hands: Poems About Making Things (HMH/Clarion Books, March 2018)
Written by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater
Illustrated by Lou Fancher & Steve Johnson

This collection celebrates the “joy of making” with over 20 poems about different creative activities, each written in unique styles. The illustrations are also varied, ranging from crayon and colored pencil sketches to mixed media collages and paintings. With My Hands would pair well with an arts and crafts session, or as inspiration for creative pursuits of all types.

 

Earth Verse: Haiku from the Ground Up (Candlewick Press, February 2018)earthverse
Written by Sally M. Walker
Illustrated by William Grill

Geographical concepts and natural events like minerals, fossils, earthquakes, and volcanoes are explored in this collection of haiku, accompanied by impressionistic and muted colored pencil illustrations. Each concept is explained in further detail at the end of the book, and a suggested reading list is also included, making this a perfect poetic tie-in or an added “layer” of a geology curriculum.

 

didyouhear

Did You Hear What I Heard? Poems About School (Penguin Random House/Dial Books, February 2018)
Written by Kay Winters
Illustrated by Patrice Barton

Over 30 poems fill this colorful collection – all about bus rides, fire drills, recess, field trips, tests, and teachers. Stylistically, the poems range from structured stanzas to free verse to singsong rhymes. Bright and playful illustrations make this collection suitable for younger students and perfect for classroom read-alouds or as a starting point for students to write their own school-themed poems.

Finding Their Way Home: A Review of Refugee by Alan Gratz

Told in three separate yet connected stories, Refugee is a novel of perseverance and commitment to who you are in the face of persecution.

refugeeJosef is fleeing from 1930s Nazi Germany and the threat of concentration camps with his parents and sister. Isabel, her parents, and her neighbors use a makeshift raft to escape Cuba in 1994, during the unrest of Castro’s regime. Mahmoud, along with his parents and younger siblings, leave the violence of war in Syria in 2015, traveling through Europe as they search for a safer place to live. Though the details of their stories are unique, Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud share more similarities than just their situations.

The attention given to creating characters with heart and conviction is engaging, while the conflicts each protagonist faces ensure none of their individual stories get stuck in the emotion of the book as a whole. Refugee tells an important story, and does so without preaching or sensationalizing the experiences of refugees past and present. Maps and an author’s note highlight the reality of Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud’s stories and show the readers how they can help with relief efforts.

A Review of The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street by Lindsay Currie

Just in time for the changing season and upcoming Halloween celebrations comes Lindsay Currie’s first book for middle grades.

peculiar incident

Tessa Woodward is less than thrilled about her family’s move from Florida to Chicago, and their house doesn’t seem to be too pleased either, based on the moving items, flickering lights, and eerie drawings appearing in Tessa’s sketchbook. When Tessa reveals to her classmates that her house is haunted on her first day at her new school, she is afraid her social life is over, but a group of unlikely friends decides to help Tessa solve the mystery of who used to live in her house – and who is making it difficult for the Woodwards to live there now.

Lindsay Currie’s in-depth research on the haunted settings and ghost stories featured in The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street shows in the details of this mystery, and makes for a satisfying read. Tessa is a smart, sensitive, and curious protagonist, and her relationship with her parents and younger brother is genuine. Readers will want to cheer her on as she works to solve her own problems, with the help of her peers, who are proud to explore their interests. The pacing adds to the spook-factor without being too dramatic and makes you want to keep reading (preferably with the lights on!).

A Review of Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say

This is one of the most remarkably affecting books I have ever read. When a baby is born, he or she doesn’t know s/he is deaf, autistic, or any different from anyone else; it is positively heartbreaking to read about this one’s introduction to a world that was almost unfailingly cruel.

Born in in 1899 in rural Idaho, James Castle was deaf, unable to speak, and autistic. Through straightforward narration, his nephew attempts to show the world through baby James’ eyes: “James opened his eyes to the world and saw things that moved and things that were still. Anything that moved seemed to scare him. He cried as his parents bobbed around him with darting eyes and flapping mouths. But James couldn’t hear himself shrieking. For him the world would always be silent.” It is truly the stuff of nightmares, interpreted hauntingly by Say’s mixed-media art, some in smudgy grayscale and some in color. Images of young James engaged by various scraps of paper, charcoal, and other “found” art materials are almost peaceful; they are juxtaposed by harrowing scenes of him holding his arms around his ears while other children scream taunts at him.

SilentDaysSilentDreams

Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, 2017)

James’ own parents were no doubt as terrified and perplexed by their son as he was by the world; unfortunately, they were ill-equipped, or unable or unwilling, to figure out how best to rear him. At first, they gave him old paper or other throwaway items, since those things seemed to keep him entertained or at least occupied. They sent him to a school where he appears to have found some level of engagement: looking books and printed materials in the library, although he could not read; watching teachers sew books together; and doing “well in shoe repair class.” But the school considered him a failure because he could not learn to speak. There is no judgement made explicit in the text on the principal who advised James’ parents “…not to give James and drawing materials at home. He said James should learn to read and write and not waste time on drawings.” Readers will come to their own conclusions about the humanity, or lack thereof, in this approach.

As an adult, James became extremely isolated, essentially living in a barn where he had his “studio” and a mattress on the floor. Continually tormented by kids stealing his artwork, and called names such as “Dummy” and “Crazy Jimmy,” he nonetheless persisted in doing the only thing that seemed to give him any pleasure: using whatever he could find (soot with spit, charred sticks, and the like) to create art. Say’s portrayal of the type of illustrations James was creating at this time show eerie pictures of people with boxes or blank circles where faces should be, as well as quotidian images of small wooden houses and little puppets of dolls, farm animals and birds. We’ll never really know, but it’s possible James was expressing his wishes, desires, and silent dreams for home and companionship in the only way he knew how.

There is some redemption to James’ story with an art show organized by his nephew’s teacher in art school, and an eventual trailer in which he could live that was a big step up from the shacks he’d inhabited for most of his life. Nowadays, “found” or “naïve” art is a recognized genre, and James Castle is a respected contributor to it. Say’s closing portrait shows James as an adult, standing in front of his “Dream House,” with what might be a hint of a smile. The text reads “I think he was happy.”

An author’s note, bibliography, and photos of some of the found materials Say used to create the art round out this haunting picture book biography for older readers.