By Elizabeth Wroten
On 29, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Can you hold onto someone with your heart instead of your hand? When it’s time to start school, a little girl must let go of her father’s hand in order to reach out and grab hold of something new.
THANKS A LOT, ZETTA ELLIOTT. I AM NOW WEEPING INTO MY COFFEE CUP. You pretty much nailed what it’s like trying to take my daughter anywhere. And what I hope she will be able to do when she sees another child having a hard time, too. Add to that the special relationship fathers and daughters can have. I can’t even.
A little girl goes all sorts of places holding her father’s hand- the library, crossing the street, etc. It’s a comforting gesture that makes her feel safe and protected. But one day she finds herself holding his hand at school and he’s telling her it’s time to let go. He’ll be back later and that is HARD. He explains that although they are not holding hands, she can hold him in her heart until he returns. Still the little girl is scared and upset until the teacher brings over another little girl who is having an equally hard time. Just then the little girl knows just what to do. She grabs the other girl’s hand, says a few comforting words, and the two head off to play together as dad slips out the door.
Although the book packs an emotional punch that gets at how hard it is for many kids to separate from their parents (and speaks to the parent who has mixed emotions about that step their child is taking away from them), it never feels saccharine. Yes, even despite my misty (okay, teary!) eyes. It reminds me of The Kissing Hand which I find just too sappy. I don’t know why, but I do. With the twist of the little girl helping another girl, a new friend, feel better the story feels more genuine and less about separating from the father and more about the girl finding her way into the world.
Every library who serves young children needs this book. Particularly school libraries. We always, always, always have a few kids each year that have a hard time saying goodbye to mom or dad. Ones who are a little bit scared and just need a little push in the right direction. Talk about a perfect book for story time in those first few days of school.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 27, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: For Bixby Alexander Tam (nicknamed Bat), life tends to be full of surprises—some of them good, some not so good. Today, though, is a good-surprise day. Bat’s mom, a veterinarian, has brought home a baby skunk, which she needs to take care of until she can hand him over to a wild-animal shelter.
But the minute Bat meets the kit, he knows they belong together. And he’s got one month to show his mom that a baby skunk might just make a pretty terrific pet.
I actually think this one is on the cusp of middle grade and chapter book. It looked a lot longer than it actually was because it had large spacing between the lines and larger font size, but the content wasn’t predictable in the way that chapter books usually are. Which, of course, makes it a good fit for kids moving out of chapter books and into the regular middle grade section of the library.
The story itself will be familiar to nearly all kids. Bat wants to keep the animal his mom has found (it just so happens to be a skunk) and he needs to figure out how to convince her to let him keep it. The fact that Bat loves animals will also resonate with many readers. Bat is lucky enough to have a veterinarian for a mom and she is able to keep the skunk kit for a little while. Bat knows he’ll have an uphill battle getting his mom to come around to at least letting him raise the skunk until it’s ready for release back into the wild, let alone allowing him to keep it as a pet. The book moves not slowly, but it’s a slice-of-life type story so there aren’t any fast paced scenes or major excitement.
Bat’s sister gets a shout out (or call out) here. She has her moments of being a fine human being, but most of the time she was kind of a jerk. Maybe it’s her age? Maybe it’s because I’m an only child and don’t get the sibling dynamic? She’s just sort of an all around twit and she wasn’t overly kind to Bat. Sometimes she seems to barely tolerate him. I don’t expect her to be a saint, but on the other hand she was just a straight up mean. I suspect that family dynamic will resonate with a lot of readers, though.
It also bears mentioning that Bat’s parents are divorced. They don’t share equal custody, but Bat and his sister do spend a weekend with their dad. There isn’t any drama around the parents or the divorce or the custody. It was refreshing to see a split family like that in a book. At some point families do get on the with the business of living after a divorce and not all families have drama around new spouses or children (a common trope of divorced families I’ve noticed in children’s literature). As a kid from a divorced family I can say my own experience matched this much more closely than most depictions I have seen in kidlit.
Bat is supposed to be nonneurotypical. He isn’t great at reading social cues and facial expressions. He can be pretty literal and he stims sometimes. To me he outwardly seemed like a handful of nonneurotypical children I have worked with over the years. Does that mean he’s a perfect representation of someone who is? No. I felt like it was fairly nuanced, more so than other books I’ve read, but I don’t feel comfortable speaking directly to that representation. Especially since the book is narrated by and seen from the perspective of Bat. Certainly we need representation, but not at the expense of accurate representation. I can say it didn’t seem to veer into the inspiration porn kind of narrative that books like Wonder do.*
The story itself is a lot of fun and will be recognizable to many a pet-desperate kid, but if it doesn’t give a full and correct picture of autistic kids then it doesn’t matter how good the story is. I would cautiously recommend this to libraries.
*The blog Disability in Kidlit reviewed the book with an eye toward the representation of ASD. You can and should read that here.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Sixteen-year-old Portia White is used to being overlooked—after all, her twin sister Alex is a literal genius. But when Portia holds an Egyptian scarab beetle during history class, she takes center stage in a way she never expected: she faints. Upon waking, she is stronger, faster, and braver than before. And when she accidentally touches the scarab again? She wakes up in ancient Egypt—her sister and an unwitting freshman in tow. Great. Mysterious and beautiful, Egypt is more than they could have ever imagined from their days in the classroom. History comes alive as the three teens realize that getting back to the present will be the most difficult thing they’ve ever done. Stalked by vicious monsters called Scorpions, every step in the right direction means a step closer to danger. As Portia and the girls discover that they’re linked to the past by more than just chance, they have to decide what it truly means to be yourself, to love your sister, and to find your way home.
I am a sucker for books with Ancient Egypt. I fell in love with Ancient Egypt in sixth grade and pursued Egyptology in my undergraduate years going to far as to spend a semester abroad in Cairo. I’ve even taken Middle Egyptian and learned to read and write hieroglyphics. I’ve been to the Pyramids, to the Valley of the Kings…you get the point. Before I could get there and study Ancient Egypt, though, I read about it. And to be honest a lot of what’s out there is ridiculously inaccurate, silly, colonial, or some combination of those. And yet I still have a soft spot for all those books and when I come across new ones I’ll still read them. Call me sentimental.
One thing I only recently realized about all these books I devoured as a kid, though, is that all the main characters are white. Either those existing in Ancient Egypt or those looking back at it (or even traveling back to it), which of course would not be the case at all. Call that prewoke reading if you will.
I think I found The Blazing Star through following the author on Twitter and however I found it, I am so glad I did. The book features a black girl going back in time with her twin sister and another black girl. And the people they meet are not white. They’re given appropriate skin colors and heritages. It was eye opening to contrast it with everything else I have read (and loved, as problematic as it all is). For all those kids, and girls in particular, who are not white and have fallen in love with Ancient Egypt they deserve to see that they are more closely linked with Ancient Egypt than people that look like me are. This is a book for them.
I appreciated that Josey appears to have done her research. The clothes, activities, and places are much more reflective of what Ancient Egypt would have looked and felt like than a lot of other books out there. The story follows the Ancient Egyptian calendar. They speak another language. Even the weather gets a mention. Sure, it ends up diverging from the reality of what Ancient Egypt would have been for the sake of a plot, but in the context of the book that’s okay. She kept what she could and embellished it in a fun and suspenseful way.
This one is definitely worth having on your shelves, especially if you have Egypt fanatics. While I would call it YA because it features some very light romance and because the girls are 16 years old, there’s nothing in it that would make it inappropriate for younger audiences (seven and eight grade). The reading level and length might deter some kids, but don’t rule it out simply because you serve a middle school population.
One complaint about the cover. Two actually. First are the Pyramids silhouetted in Portia’s head. Everyone thinks of those when they think of Egyptian history, but by the time most Egyptian history people know about (Ramses, Tut, etc.) and by the time this book takes place, they were already very, very old. Yes, they’re iconically Egyptian, but it’s not historically accurate. I know, I know. Nit-picky. Also the menes forming around Portia’s head was not a headdress worn by just anyone. It’s something worn by male pharaohs. Again, nit-picky. Otherwise, this cover is going to suck in readers. It’s lovely and screams Egyptian adventure.
Be sure to purchase The Blazing Star and keep your eye out for sequels. I know I will be.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: In this multicultural and educational series from Bollywood Groove, join Maya, Neel and their pet squirrel, Chintu, as they visit a Muslim family in India to celebrate Ramadan & Eid! Kids will learn about history, food, language and cultural elements of Ramadan & Eid… all while making two new best friends!
Since it is currently Ramadan, we got out our holiday books. I decided to purchase this one to review and add to our collection. It’s a mix of nonfiction and fiction where Maya and Neel (and their pet squirrel Chintu) have traveled to India to celebrate the month with family. Through the month they learn about how Ramadan and Eid are celebrated.
Interestingly, there is no mention of why the month is so special to Muslims which seemed strange at first. Then I remembered the four shelves of Christmas books in the library that are bursting with books that make no mention of the reason for that holiday. Why hold books about Muslim holidays to higher standards or expect them to be everything to everyone? Maya and Neel do learn about fasting, reading the Quran, children’s options for celebrating (instead of fasting), and, importantly, that there are two Eids in Islam. They are also taught about the importance of helping those less fortunate. On their final day they meet a number of Muslims from other places and are exposed to customs from those countries.
I really appreciate that Maya and Neel are in India celebrating Ramadan and Eid. It’s not the typical picture of Muslim holidays we see in kids books and that is incredibly important right now. Islam is not a monolith and neither are Muslims (although you would think they are with the current media coverage). Sure, some of the celebrations and certainly the meaning of the holiday is the same no matter who is celebrating, but you see them out wearing more traditionally Indian/Pakistani clothing and eating foods from that region.
The illustrations are a bit static and they aren’t as rich in detail and texture as hand-drawn illustrations are, but they’re just fine. My daughter makes no distinction between these illustrations and those by Caldecott winners. I think more importantly this is another paperback. I’m sorry! I know those are hard in libraries where books circulate a lot. I highly recommend this one to broaden Muslim holiday book collections.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 20, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Sarah is sad because she cannot find an Eid gift for her mother, so she takes a walk along the secret path in the woods that always makes her feel better. There she finds the first flower of spring—God’s perfect gift to the world. Leaving her gift in its place to share with her entire family, Sarah grows in her understanding and appreciation of nature and what it means to live in submission to God.
This is such a sweet story about a little girl worrying about finding the perfect thing to give her mother. Her siblings have all found something they know she will like, but Sarah hasn’t hit on the right thing yet. It is also the perfect book for the holiday season when people stress over choosing just the right thing to give. Gift giving can be difficult for children who do not have money of their own to purchase things. Sarah proves that some of the most valuable and beautiful gifts do not need to be purchased nor do they need to last forever.
The story reminds me a little bit of The Day it Rained Hearts by Felicia Bond. In that book Cornelia Augusta finds hearts on the ground during a rainstorm and uses them to make her friends Valentine’s Day cards. It never rains hearts again, but that one day was all she needed to continue to inspire her in the years to come. In the same way Sarah discovers a stunning flower in the snow. She shares it with her family and instead of plucking it she builds a tiny fence around it. She then invites her family out to appreciate it. Every Eid after, they come back to the spot where the flower was, and even though there is never a flower there again, they remember it and appreciate the woods around them instead. They begin looking for “perfect gifts” all around them.
I think the illustrations are totally perfect in this. They show a Muslim family in the way we always see “typical” American families pictured, only this family has hijabs. This isn’t to say I don’t want picture books with Muslim families that look Arab or live in an Arab country. And it isn’t to say that I want to whitewash Muslim families. I just want a mix of books that shows Muslim families around the world and many of the Muslim families in my community look and live like this one.
A word about Eid. There are two Eids in Islam, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Eid al-Fitr is the celebration that comes at the end of Ramadan and is the time when Muslims tend to visit family and exchange gifts in the way Christians do at Christmas. The Perfect Gift is about Eid al-Adha. This is the time when many Muslims perform hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. So, be sure you don’t put it out with your Ramadan books!
I highly recommend this book for libraries with holiday collections. Eid al-Adha is an important holiday in Islam and should be represented.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 17, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Gabby McGee is a 12-year-old girl trying to shed her “bad hair,” her parent’s strict rules, and her insecurities—all at the same time. If only she could change her hair from nappy, kinky, and unruly, to straight, long, and flowing, she could finally fit in. But she soon learns that going behind her mother’s back to get a chemical hair relaxer isn’t the way to do it. After a failed trip to the hair salon leaves her in debt, she devises a hair-brained scheme to pay it off, which involves her crush, a French kiss, and a bake-off. Is it just crazy enough to work? Is changing her hair really what she wants? Or, could the money troubles of a classmate at her snooty private school cause her to change her attitude instead?
So hair and hair angst is a theme I see a fair amount of in books written for black girls and it unfortunately stems from girls feeling a need to conform to white beauty standards. A lot of picture books tackling this issue work hard to show girls that their hair is fine exactly as it is. But that’s not going to work in a chapter book. It’s not nuanced enough.
Bad Hair Day was an incredibly fun read and added that nuance needed to flesh out a middle grade novel dealing with how girls feel about natural hair. I had a hard time putting it down as Gabby worked herself deeper and deeper into a silly, and poorly thought out, plan to straighten her hair. It rang so true for the shenanigans that middle schoolers get themselves into as they try to act more adult than they are.
I enjoyed reading a book that featured primarily black characters with a black girl as the main character that was funny, not tragic. While I think Gabby is clearly black, I also think we see stories like these featuring white girls all the time. As always, it’s refreshing to see black girls taking the lead in a light-hearted, fun read.
I do have two complaints about the book. There are a fair number of typos in it. They’re minor, but they’re there. The other is that, while I like the idea behind the design on the cover, the font in the hair is kind of hard to read which might deter readers who are choosing purely on seeing the cover. I think these are minor and shouldn’t deter you from putting this one on your shelves.
A final thoughts, before you write this off as a book for black girls only (I see you librarians and teachers out there skimming over on this review!), it’s not. Besides giving non-black girls a window into this particular issue their peers are struggling with, it also gives them a mirror. The beauty standard doesn’t fit most girls, black or not. And even girls who technically do fit the narrow standard often have a lot of hatred for their own hair and looks. Everyone will enjoy the book for its message of self acceptance and for the hilarity that ensues when Gabby makes a mistake and has to find a way out. Be sure to purchase this one for girls who like light reads about funny social situations.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: One day, Mikis’s grandfather has a surprise for him: a new donkey waiting! Mikis falls in love with the creature, but his grandparents tell him that the donkey is a working animal, not a pet. However, they still let Mikis choose her name — Tsaki — and allow the two of them to spend their Sundays together. Mikis and Tsaki soon become fast friends, and together the two have some grand adventures. Eventually, both Mikis and his grandfather learn a bit more about what exactly it means to care for another creature.
Mikis and the Donkey is such a sweet gentle story. Mikis is completely captivated with the donkey his grandparents buy to help with some work around their property.
Mikis seems to understand the donkey and loves her from the start. He speaks up for her health and her happiness. His grandparents are rather baffled by his affinity for the animal, but with some cajoling from Mikis, they support his doting on her. The funniest part is Mikis and his friend’s idea to introduce Tsaki to another donkey who lives just outside their small village. Adults will see what comes next, but Mikis’ total and utter surprise at the baby donkey who results from this donkey friendship is hilarious and sweet.
In addition to the story line about Mikis and Tsaki, there is a friendship story between humans too. One of Mikis’ classmates, a quite girl, is captivated with Tsaki. Over their love of the donkey Mikis and this little girl become close friends. Mikis discovers that though she is quiet the little girl has a lot to offer.
I think the book would make a great read aloud and it’s certainly one for any animal lover. The book does have a slow pace which might make it less popular. I see it as one you would book talk to specific kids instead of one that will fly off the shelf at every opportunity. The book isn’t too long, but I suspect the reading level is a little bit higher. It would probably go in our tiny “mellow yellow” section which is a transition from our red chapter books to our higher yellow fiction books (things that are usually called middle grade). I still think it would be fine for kids who are working their way up through chapter books.
Updated 7/10/2016: I forgot to note, since the summary from Goodreads doesn’t say, the book is set in a small village on the Greek island of Corfu. In someways I think this might be an interesting way to make the connection between the Syrian (and others) migrant crisis, as many of them are washing up and landing on the Greek islands. It might be a little contrived, but you could certainly talk about other events in this part of the world in conjunction with looking at the story of Mikis.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Wolf & Vampire written by Ellie Ann, illustrated by MJ Erickson
From the publisher: Wolf likes pie, fish, mud, singing to the moon, and most of all her family. On the other hill lives a vampire family, whom she’s taught to fear. One day, silver rain attacks Wolf’s house, and she runs, injured. Wolf meets Vampire, who has also been injured. She must decide if she should help someone she’s afraid of. Can they team up in order to save their families?
This is the third Castor Tales easy reader I got and it was as good as the others. There is both family diversity as well as racial diversity. Wolf is a biracial werewolf. Her father is white (he looks like a hipster werewolf, which made me laugh) and her mother is a woman of color (it’s not stated what she is and it isn’t obvious from the illustrations). Vampire is a girl of color (again it is not specified) who has two dads, one of whom is black.
One day while out and about Wolf’s family is overtaken by a silver storm. They scramble into a cave where they run into their rival, Vampire’s family. Vampire’s family has been chased out of their house by the garlic people. Just try not to laugh at the garlic people when you finally see them. They are hilarious and I think give an otherwise serious story a hit of levity. The story is about how initially the two families distrust each other, but after their concurrent tragedies the two girls bring them together. The werewolf family cleans up the garlic people and the vampire family sweeps up the debris the silver rain left. In the end they have changed their minds about each other and share some tea together.
There were two things that, to me, set this one apart. First, the language seemed a little harder. It still has the great repetition of the others, the list of sight words, and small word count per page. For whatever reason, though, some of the words used seemed just slightly harder. That’s perfect, the series grows with the reader. Second, it will take some background knowledge about vampires and werewolves for kids to understand what exactly is going on in the story. Nothing a little explanation from a parent or teacher couldn’t provide.
This whole series has been incredibly refreshing. Between the diverse casts of characters to the fantasy genre of the books they are really different from the usual early easy reader fare.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 10, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: A rhyming children’s poem book for little girls to uplift and encourage them to be great despite their insecurities. Author Nastashia Roach encourages children everywhere to recognize their own beauty – inside and out.
I’m seeing a trend in picture books. Positive, uplifting books that affirm how beautiful, whole, and worthy kids of color are. Admittedly I’m seeing more of them in the self published/small press market more than from major publishers, but even they’re jumping on the affirmation bandwagon.
I know from raising two white children and having looked back at my own childhood, books that make white kids feel worthy are a dime a dozen. The sheer quantity of books that feature white children points to the value society places on them and on their whiteness. But what about kids of color? Where are their mirrors? Where is the value that society places on them? (Hint: look at all the news stories of black and brown children being killed by law enforcement or separated from their families at the border.) Quite frankly the publishing industry has some reparations to make to those kids (and other aspects of diversity that are lacking in traditional publishing). I wish that the traditional publishing industry would step up on being inclusive both in terms of what they publish and who they publish, but until then it’s up to small presses and self publishing to fill the gap. Thank goodness for companies like Melanin Origins who sees this need and is stepping up to produce content that is so desperately needed.
Dear Queens is a stand out title in the trend of uplifting books. One of the best aspects of this book is its ability to function either as a picture book or an easy reader. The text is simple and short and rhymed making it easy for new readers to tackle on their own or with a little help. The trim size of the book makes it fit perfectly alongside your Mo Willems’ Piggy and Elephant books. The fact that the text is not repetitive or stilted makes it a good read aloud at bedtime or storytime and it will leave kids feeling all fuzzy and warm inside.
I am in love with the rainbow hues of the illustrations. It’s all cotton candy, sunshine, and frills. Not what I would normally go for, but it’s so inviting, especially for the target demographic- little girls. My daughter picked it up just as I set it down out of the package freshly delivered by our mailman. She’s not overly girly in her tastes, either, so it appeals even to girls who don’t normally go for princesses and pink.
As parents, librarians, and teachers we need to recognize that traditional publishing is failing many of our kids. We need to seek out the books that fill the gap and ensure that we have positive, multifaceted, and affirming representation on our shelves. And we need it in our picture books, in our easy readers, in our chapter books, and in our nonfiction sections. Be sure to add this delicious confection of a book to your shelves for those princess girls who aren’t used to seeing themselves there.
Disclosure: I was sent a review copy by the publisher, Melanin Origins, in exchange for an honest review.
Purchase the book here (not affiliate links):
On Amazon as an ebook.
Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 08, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Spend the day picking wild blueberries with Clarence and his grandmother. Meet ant, spider, and fox in a beautiful woodland landscape, the ancestral home of author and illustrator Julie Flett. This book is written in both English and Cree, in particular the n-dialect, also known as Swampy Cree from the Cumberland House area.
Wild Berries is such a charming story about a little boy and his grandmother going out to collect blueberries. The two enjoy nature, each other’s company, and of course blueberries. Grandma likes soft sweet ones, while Clarence likes large sour ones.
Flett’s illustrations have this very modern quality to them that is just beautiful. They are simple but not simplistic and there is always plenty to look at. I love her use of a muted, natural palette. It fits well with the wild berry picking story. She also employs textures very effectively. They seem to draw your eye around the page and to important details.
The typography in the book is also incredibly stunning. It stuck out to me in a way few other books have. Certain key words are pulled out of the text and placed on their own line in a more fanciful font. This is then echoed with the word written in the Swampy Cree dialect in the same font, but this time in red. (There is a very interesting note at the beginning and end about the Cree dialect used in the book.)
The book is, at least to American audiences, akin to Blueberries for Sal and if you are looking for diverse books to incorporate into your curriculum you could certainly use this one in place of Blueberries or in tandem with it. I would recommend this to parents looking to diversify their bookshelves too. Make space in your budget and on your shelves for this one.