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.

Fact or Fiction: A Review of What the Fact?: Finding the Truth in All the Noise

What the Fact?: Finding the Truth in All the Noise 
Dr. Seema Yasmin 
Simon & Schuster for Young Readers
September 20, 2022 
Ages 12 and up 

In What the Fact?, Dr. Seema Yasmin reveals how people interact with trillions of bytes of data every second and, depending on if it’s fact or fiction, can spark a viral information outbreak leading to fear or hatred. By using a virus as a metaphor for the spread of false information, Yasmin states why people fall for false information and biases, how news sources have changed over decades, and how social media has become the biggest influence on minds, both young and old. From beginning to end, Yasmin encourages readers to be freethinkers and be suspicious of information received from social media, social circles, or any supposedly credible source. 

Throughout the book, the author uses a humorous but down-to-earth tone that encourages readers to keep reading and provides small sidebars that give brain breaks between the chunks of information. Using graphs, pictures, and historical references all backed up by a thorough list of sources in the appendix, the novel is helpfully organized by topic, such as COVID-19, historical events, and governmental issues. Yasmin’s vast experience in fact-based fields—she attended medical school at Cambridge University, worked as a disease detective for the US government and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—has her well-versed in sorting through the noise for the facts beneath. Technical terminology is explained in a way that educates readers on how it is being used and defined, making it easy to follow along. Yasmin, very early in the book, states that this book is just a magnifying glass into how beliefs, thoughts, ideas, actions, etc. are influenced by approximately “1,099,511,627,776,000” (pg. 2) bytes processed and stored in the brain and that this is not a book that is going to tell readers how to think. This information-rich book describes the exhaustion and confusion of being aware of all information, yet bolsters all types of readers to gain skills in critical thinking, media, and digital literacy so they can thoughtfully navigate the information-rich world we live in. 

Be a Solution-Seeker: A Review of Girls Who Green the World: Thirty-four Rebel Women Out to Save Our Planet

Girls Who Green the World: Thirty-four Rebel Women Out to Save Our Planet
Diana Kapp
Illustrated by Ana Jarén
Penguin Random House, Delacorte Press
April 5, 2022
Ages 12 and up

In a news cycle (and world) seemingly full of climate disasters, we need stories of women stepping up to fight them more than ever. In Girls Who Green the World, journalist Diana Kapp profiles 34 problem-solvers engaged in this work. They are environmental superheroes and these are their origin stories. No two are the same, with women of all ages, backgrounds, and experience levels—from students to Fortune 500 executives—and their personal moments of bravery and inspiration. Mary Anne Hitt spends her time and passion fighting against new coal plants and closing existing ones. Komal Ahmad is tackling “the world’s biggest problem”—food waste at restaurants and facilities while neighbors fight hunger. And Jannice Newson and Nana Britwum, who combined their STEM know-how and conservationist drive to create braids with fiber extracted from invasive plant material. Through interviews with these problem solvers, Kapp uncovers their motivations, successes, and failures with hope, humor, and compassion for their struggles. Each profile begins with a “get to know you” Q&A before exploring each woman’s journey from problem to action. Facts about the associated issues and action-items are included throughout and provide both shock value (“… humans produce 320 lbs. of waste per person, per year.” (36)) and a way to channel outrage to outcomes. Spanish fashion illustrator Ana Jarén brings each woman to life with vibrant and detailed hand-drawn portraits that glow with personality. Her interstitial illustrations help to lighten the tone with color and whimsy. A final “Now What?” chapter encourages introspection before action, to move individuals from reader to changemaker. Kapp uses the chapter to offer inspiration and guidance toward a unique path rather than to preach.

A collected portrait of hope and motivation for tomorrow’s changemakers.

Revenge or Mercy?: A Review of The Secret Battles of Evan Pao

The Secret Battle of Evan Pao 
Wendy Wan-Long Shang 
Scholastic Press
Ages 8 to 12
June 7th, 2022 

Evan Pao and his family just want to start fresh, away from his father’s infamy and neighbors’ stares, and a small town in Virginia seems like the right place. But, Haddington, Virginia has its own Southern traditions and views that the Pao family and Evan don’t fit into, especially since Brady Griggs has it out for him as the only Chinese American boy in town. When Brady commits a hate crime against the Pao family but isn’t punished, Evan faces the choice of getting revenge or being a bigger person and having mercy.  

Told from multiple points of view from family, friends, and people around Haddington, these different perspectives reveal themes of racism, bullying, sexism, and their prevalence in the community. Shang treats grave and demeaning topics with realism and care, and a tone of hope that lends an uplifting feel to the weighty subjects. Although Evan knows he and his family don’t fit into the small town, he strives to show that some town traditions do relate to him and that Asian Americans have a legacy in the American South, just like everyone else. In the beginning, Evan struggles through many of the town’s prejudices that impact him and his family, and when it seems like he could give in to hate and subjugation, Evan overcomes these ‘secret battles’ within himself to reveal that forgiveness and mercy are vital for healing all wounds. Although the novel focuses on Evan as the main male protagonist, other characters are depicted as slowly adjusting their racially insensitive biases and worldview based on Evan’s influence. Evan proves that it only takes one brave person to break a cycle of hate and racial stereotyping in order to make a difference in the community. This deeply moving novel highlights the struggle young people have with self-identity, and how hard fitting into a new place can be, but that taking the initiative and being brave has its rewards.  

Be Bold, Be Brave: A Review of Epically Earnest

Epically Earnest–cover art

Epically Earnest
Molly Horan
Clarion Books
June 21, 2022
Ages 12+

At one-year-old, Jane Worthing was abandoned in the back of the Poughkeepsie train station. Despite this unlucky start, Jane’s led a happy life thanks to the generous and supportive man who found, and later adopted her. Now eighteen-years-old and in the final months of her senior year, Jane finds herself with all the typical high school drama and more. Her best friend Algie secretly, and high-handedly, sent her DNA to Ancestry.com. Jane has always avoided searching for her birth parents out of fear of what she might uncover. But now there’s a familial match in the form of an acorn, staring at her from the computer screen. On top of this, Gwendolyn Fairfax—Algie’s cousin and the girl Jane’s been in love with since she was 13—is visiting over school break. Jane has some big decisions to make. Should she click the acorn? Profess her love to Gwen? When the final decision is made, will chaos ensue, or will she finally find what she’s longing for?

Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Epically Earnest shares character names, loves, and the protagonist’s back story—left in an oversized handbag. Horan adds a contemporary twist to these plot lines with the discovery of baby Jane becoming a viral video and Jane’s bisexual identity. Epically Earnest centers themes of acceptance, believing in yourself, and what it means to be family. Jane comes to find that searching for her birth family isn’t a betrayal to her adoptive parents. Her birth family is an addition to the family she already loves. Throughout the story, Jane becomes more confident in herself. She gains the courage to pursue Gwen, believing that she deserves to be happy and that being honest with herself and others is the best way to get what she needs. Horan includes a further nod to Wilde by prefacing each chapter with a quote from one of his plays. A sweet and romantic comedy, this coming of age novel illustrates that happiness comes to those boldly open to it.

Some things are too important to be taken seriously. — Oscar Wilde.

Pass or Play?: A Review of The Passing Playbook

The Passing Playbook
Isaac Fitzsimons
Dial Books, Penguin Random House
June 1, 2021
Ages 12 and up

After transitioning at his old school leads to threats, Spencer Harris gets a second chance at a progressive, private (read: expensive) school. Thinking things will be easier if he can just pass; he plans to keep his head down and make his family’s sacrifice worth it. But when his teenage temper flares, an errant kickball to the head of the soccer team captain gets the attention of the head soccer coach. Spencer gets recruited for the team and develops a relationship with rival, turned boyfriend, Justice Cortes. All his under-the-radar plans may be for naught, when paperwork reveals the F (for female) on Spencer’s birth certificate. Sharing his identity risks his status on the team, his budding romance, and possibly his safety. But maybe being true to himself, and standing up for other trans kids in the process, is worth the risk.

This #OWNVOICES title by debut author (and soccer fan) Isaac Fitzsimons is a fun and complex illustration of a biracial, queer, trans boy who is also a soccer star, fantastic big brother, and irrational teenager (not always in that order). And an exploration of how he balances those identities with the consequences of not being himself. Spencer knows he’s “had it pretty easy, all things considered” with supportive family and friends who try, despite not always getting it right (265*). His support system stands in grave contrast to Justice’s ultra-religious and homophobic family. Secondary characters like sweet, but closeted Justice; snarky, but supportive best friend Arden; and tough, but tender Coach Schilling add balance and complexity to the cast and layers to the plot. But Fitzsimons truly let’s Spencer shine—as a soccer star, queer advocate, and thriving teenager.

*Quote from ARC.

The Power of Invulnerability: A Review of Quincredible

Quincredible Vol. 1: Quest to be the Best
Written by Rodney Barnes, illustrated by Selina Espiritu, colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick
Published by Oni Press
Available on February 23, 2021
Ages 13+

Quinton West may have invulnerability as a superpower, but he sure doesn’t feel invulnerable—not when he’s getting picked on by Caine and his buddies, or when he finds out his crush Brittany has a new boyfriend. But like it or not, Quin has a superpower, or “enhancement,” that he has worked hard to keep hidden from everyone, especially his parents, no matter how understanding and supportive they are. Ever since his hometown of New Orleans was struck by a meteor shower, he and other everyday folks have been blessed-or cursed-with superpowers. In the aftermath of the natural disaster, many new superheroes leaned into their new powers by fighting crime. After a chance encounter with superhero Glow, Quin learns to embrace his invulnerability superpower and becomes Quincredible. With Glow as a mentor, Quin uses his powers and joins his fellow superheroes in restoring justice to the community. However, not all community members support their efforts; Quin and his “enhanced” friends are the target of a sinister plot. As a marked young man, Quin will need to confide in his friends and family; he cannot fight injustice alone. Rodney Barnes’ new graphic novel is a powerful, heartwarming, and exciting read. Barnes’ savvy investigation into the tension between superheroes and the New Orleans Police Department correlates to current events, and invites readers to consider the real aim of justice. Quin’s strong relationship with his mother and father allow for conversations about goodness and perspective; these conversations surface again as Quin and Brittany discuss new ideals offered by a local organizer. Quin’s father asks his son to consider what good is. Barnes and illustrator Selina Espiritu do not shy away from tackling the institutional racism within the justice system. Espiritu’s images run the gamut of emotions: powerful and jarring panels of police brutality following a community rally to Quin’s amusing attempts to learn Parkour. During action scenes, the panels often shift to become more dynamic and reflect the energy of the encounter. Backstory concerning villain Alexandre Zelime’s rise to power is depicted in panels superimposed on Zelime himself, making for an eerie origin story. Colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick infuses images with vibrancy; the illustrations featuring Glow’s superpower are iridescent and spectacular. This #OwnVoices graphic novel mirrors reality and “enhances” it, making for a wonderful addition to any teen library. 

Butler Bookshelf

This week on the Butler Bookshelf, we’re pleased to meet Captain Swashby, a grouchy ocean lover who wants the beach to be quiet and serene. Too bad for him a cheerful, energetic young girl and her granny have come to the sea! This warmly illustrated and emotion-laden picture book is a true delight. Check out the list below for some more great reads!

Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America
Edited by Nora Shalaway Carpenter
Published by Candlewick
Available now!

Swashby and the Sea
Written by Beth Ferry and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers
Available now!

Cut Off
Written by Adrianne Finlay
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers
Available now!

Julián at the Wedding
Written and illustrated by Jessica Love
Published by Candlewick
Available now!

Stink and the Hairy, Scary Spider
Written by Megan McDonald and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
Published by Candlewick
Available now!

Condor Comeback
Written by Sy Montgomery and photographed by Dianne Strombeck
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers
Available now!

Election Year Titles for All Ages

We’re less than two months from election day, and it’s the perfect time for civic-minded students of all ages to understand that their voice and their vote matters. Publishers have provided a plethora of options; from picture books to YA novels, fiction and nonfiction, there is something for every kid and every lesson plan.

Pre-school—Kindergarten

Curious George Votes
Deidre Langland
Illustrated by Mary O’Keefe in the style of H. A. Rey
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
September 1, 2020

As per usual, Curious George causes well-intentioned chaos with an elementary school mascot election while passing out stickers, stuffing the ballot box, helping a write-in candidate get elected—a monkey! This silly introduction to voting will be a great introduction for little ones that might be curious about all this election-talk.

V is for Voting
Kate Farrell
Illustrated by Caitlin Kuhwald
Macmillan/Henry Holt
July 21, 2020

This civic-minded ABC book is a bright and optimistic look at why we vote—for Citizens’ rights, Onward progress, and Representation. A diverse cast of engaged voters (and kids), with cameo appearances by political and social figures past and present, represent 26 reasons why your vote is important. The back matter, including notes on how to contact elected officials, organizing a voter registration drive, and a voting rights timeline, is geared toward grown-up reading buddies.

Elementary

Vote for our Future
Margaret McNamara
Illustrated by Micah Player
Penguin Random House/Schwartz & Wade
February 18, 2020

They may not be old enough to vote yet, but these elementary school students will make their voices heard because “kids have to live with adult choices.” By passing out voting guides, talking about voting options, encouraging registration, and hosting a bake sale, they build enthusiasm and turn out in their community. Includes a list of Acts of Congress that were influenced by votes for a better future.

The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents
Kate Messner
Illustrated by Adam Rex
Chronicle Books
March 24, 2020

Everybody starts somewhere, even our presidents, who were politicians, soldiers, farmers, students, and regular kids. This timeline of U.S. presidents gives snippets of their histories and overlapping experiences to show how, even now, our future leaders are leading, learning, growing-up, and maybe even reading this book.

Middle-Grade

Act
Kayla Miller
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
July 21, 2020

Olive puts her sixth grade civics lessons to work when she runs for student council representative. Learning about protests, debates, and the issues important to her classmates will make her a great candidate, even if it means running against her friends. This bright and engaging graphic novel includes a recipe for Mint Chocolate Chip-Ins, notes on historic and modern day peaceful protests, and a suggested reading list.

The Kids’ Complete Guide to Elections
Cari Meister, Emma Carlson Berne, and Nel Yomtov
Capstone
January 1, 2020

This thorough nonfiction guide covers everything from vocabulary to in-depth, but age-appropriate explanations of democratic values, campaigns, the electoral college, political parties, and voting. Vibrant photography and relatable examples will both inform and inspire students to make a difference in their communities.

Young Adult

Running
Natalia Sylvester
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Clarion
July 14, 2020

When Mari Ruiz’s father runs for president; she isn’t prepared for the effects on her life—intense media scrutiny, questioning her family values, and her growing sense of political activism. As she evaluates her feelings and beliefs, Mari sets her own boundaries and finds her own voice. An intimate look at the way personal beliefs conflict with business as usual in U.S. politics.

Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy
Daniel G. Newman
Illustrated by George O’Connor
Roaring Brook/First Second
July 7, 2020

An accessible exploration of the connection between corporation, big money, and political power, and how breaking that connection is the needed to see genuine change in our country. The subtle turquoise and goldenrod color palette in this YA graphic novel puts the focus on specific examples, clearly-explained concepts, and what readers can do to affect change.

Faults and Aftershocks: A Review of Odessa

odessa-9781620107898_lg.jpgOdessa
Written and illustrated by Jonathan Hill
Published by Oni Press
Available November 10, 2020
Ages 13+

Eight years ago, Vietnamese-American Ginny Crane’s earth shattered—and not just because an earthquake ripped the West Coast apart, tearing apart the land and communities. No, Ginny’s world was shaken when her mother left her family, taking off without a word. In the years that followed, Ginny and her dad took care of her two kid brothers, acclimating to a new way of life. Now, on her eighteenth birthday, Ginny receives a package from her mother, Odessa. Ginny knows this is her chance to find her mother. Ginny takes off in the middle of the night, leaving her family behind. Her brothers, Harry and Wes, however, tag along on her journey; they miss their mother, too. As the trio bushwhack their way through a post-apocalyptic America, they struggle with who they can and cannot trust. They encounter rival gangs—all bent on keeping their territory intact—and join forces with an enigmatic man called Four Dollars. Jonathan Hill’s images in Odessa are salmon-saturated and filled with exquisite detail. The landscape is decimated, and the population is weary. Hill’s drawings capture the fatigue and manic energy that is integral to their survival. The Crane family is full of love and secrets: the mysterious Four Dollars is actually the siblings’ long-lost Uncle Hank. Uncle Hank, in turn, is deeply connected to the warring factions that plague the Crane’s journey. As family mysteries are unearthed, the Cranes encounter violence and death. Hill ends the story with a new beginning: the remaining Cranes must set forth into Middle America to find the truth. This new #OwnVoices graphic novel from Oni Press is a taut and exciting exploration of perseverance, truth, and unbreakable bonds.