By Elizabeth Wroten
On 10, Sep 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Nine-year-old Sofia Diaz’s world is coming apart. So is the rickety old boat that carries her far up the Rio Negro river in Brazil. Crocodiles swim in the dark waters. Spiders scurry up the twisted tree trunks. And a crazy toucan screeches a warning. It chases Sofia and Júlia, her new friend, deep into the steamy rainforest. There they stumble upon a shocking discovery.
Heads up! Not all of these feature diverse settings and girls. Some are set in Austria. That being said the Pack-n-Go Girls adventures are a lot of fun. The main character, in this book, travels to Brazil with her dad. Her parents are getting a divorce and it’s a trip for her father to get away and spend some time with Sofia. As in all the books in the series I’ve read, Sofia quickly makes a friend when she arrives at the hotel they’ll be staying in. Together the two girls uncover a poacher trapping pink dolphins and they decide to try and discover who it is and bring them to justice.
These are definitely wish-fulfillment books to some extent. The girls get themselves into situations that, in real life, would be incredibly dangerous and difficult for them to resolve. But that’s okay! I think girls are looking for those types of stories, the ones where they can be the heroes even though they are young and female. I think it also encourages girls to stand up when they see things that are not right. Often the girls are scared and eventually they loop adults into what they’re doing to get back up when needed.
Libraries should absolutely have these books on their shelves. They’re quick chapter book reads, not to easy and not too difficult, great transitional reads. If kids like the conservation efforts in this book they can move on to Manatee Rescue and Carl Hiassen. There are several different places visited by different girls including Mexico, Thailand, and Austria so if readers aren’t ready to move on they can stay with the series. I will say proceed with caution with the others. I haven’t read them and cannot vouch for how well they handle other cultures and countries. Still, they are well worth looking into if you would like to build up your chapter book collection.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, Sep 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Ilyas and Duck search for Allah is an adorable storybook for kids about a boy’s quest to find God. “Where is God?” is a question that any muslim parent teaching their kids will one day have to answer. This book helps parents answer that question from an Islamic perspective while conveying the profound mystery of it all in a fun way. In this story, lovable Ilyas pairs up with Duck to ask the one question repeatedly in different scenarios. With whimsical and poetic replies, Ilyas slowly begins to realize what his question truly means.
This was a beautiful book gifted to us by some friends. I saw it at their house and was amazed at how simply and beautifully it took a very deep and complex idea and distilled it down into something children can easily understand without taking away the majesty of the concept. Plus the illustrations are adorable.
Ilyas and Duck wonder exactly where they can find God and they head out on a rather silly search. In every place they look the pair encounters an animal who clearly knows, but is rather cryptic about answering their question. Slowly, Ilyas comes to realize that God is all around, reflected back in the places and things they meet, and not person to be found in one place.
Children will really appreciate this book for not speaking down to them. It merely puts the idea of God into a form they can grasp. They’ll be drawn in and kept entertained by the silliness of the hunt, especially once they’ve read through it once and heard the punchline (so to speak). The pictures, with darling little Ilyas and cute Duck, will also keep them interested in turning the pages and returning to them.
You should definitely include this in your collection if one of two things is true for your library or classroom. One, if you have Muslim children or families that you serve. This book is written for them to help families explain a complex and abstract concept that is fundamental to monotheistic religions, but can be incredibly difficult for children to grasp. Two, if you have Christian themed books on your shelf. Now be aware these books can be subtle and you may have a blindspot for them in you were raised Christian or are white. Remember, although highly commercialized and nationalized respectively, Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day are Christian holidays. Chances are good you have books that take a Christian perspective, so balance that out by having books available for your non-Christian families to use.
I’ll admit school libraries may have a harder time making the case to add this kind of book to their collection, but I think it’s also important to point out that while the book uses the Arabic word for God, it doesn’t feel exclusive to Islam. If you have families wanting to explain the concept of God or god or a higher power this book does a phenomenal job of doing just that. The book is probably meant for younger preschool/Kindergarten age kids, but I think because it does such an incredibly job explaining a difficult subject you should consider it for collections that serve older students and children as well, say up into third grade.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 05, Sep 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: When her village is raided, a teenage girl finds herself on a brutal journey to the coast of Africa and across the Atlantic. Her only comfort is a small child who clings to her for protection. But once they board the slave ship, the child reveals her rebellious nature and warns that her mother—a fierce warrior—is coming to claim them all.
While I love all books by Zetta Elliott, the cover alone on this one would have convinced me to buy it if I hadn’t known who she was. It is gorgeous. You will draw readers in just by placing it cover out on the shelf (you do do that, right?).
This is the kind of book that should be read in history classes and English classes. Elliott is a world class author and her language is beautiful. There is no reason not to study the book from that angle. There is also an important perspective and piece of history that is not typically studied in social studies curriculums. The slave trade is mentioned in history class, but in a very clinical, sterile kind of way. A way that ignores the humanity of the people captured and forcibly brought here. That’s probably to make white students, families, teachers, and text book authors more comfortable with their white guilt, but it is neither fair nor wise. White students need to look at their own complicity in a system that was built on that trade and students of color, particularly black students, need to see people like them in books depicted as human. Elliott does that here in a way that we don’t often see in traditional publishing or school.
The subject matter is difficult here and rape is referenced in an oblique way. Mother of the Sea brought to mind two other books, one a picture book and the other another YA novel. In the Time of the Drums by Kim Siegelson deals with slaves drawn into the water to return home. Sharon Draper’s Copper Sun begins in the same brutal way with the Middle Passage.
While you could hand this to just about anyone who enjoys historical novels or magical realism, Mother of the Sea is perfect for reluctant readers. Suspense, beautiful language that draws you in, short, and captivating readers won’t want to put it down. High school libraries or libraries with high school age populations absolutely must have this on their shelves. These stories are important and Elliott is a top-notch writer. While a brutal story, she lulls you with the beauty of her words and her craft as a storyteller. Middle school libraries, well, your mileage will vary. I personally don’t see a problem with having this on your shelves. Most middle school American history classes discuss slavery and the slave trade, so clearly it isn’t a taboo subject (and it shouldn’t be anyway, preserving innocence of students only protects white privileged students, no one else). But I also recognize that it could be an uphill battle if this book gets challenged by a disgruntled parent. You as a librarian will have to make that call.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 03, Sep 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Life isn’t easy when your big sister is an annoying cat and your moms can’t understand a word you say. But that doesn’t stop Rumplepimple from saving the day in a most unusual way. Find out how a car ride transforms a naughty terrier into a grocery store hero.
I bought this earlier in the year to put in my Read-T0-A-Dog basket in the library. I bought my own copy a week or two ago and my daughter has been asking to read it frequenly ever since.
I love that this book has a lot to talk about in it. The most obvious is how Rumplepimple stands up to a bully. When a little boy has snatched his sister’s blanket from her in the grocery store, Rumplepimple hears her cry and rushes in to give the blanket back. When I read this with my daughter we talked about how Rumplepimple saved the day and did a good thing by intervening when something wrong was happening.
Of course this is not what his mom sees. After he slips out the car door and rushes into the store he loses his mom. She ultimately finds him peering in the meat department case licking his lips and assumes he has been up to no good. This is also a great conversation starter about doing the right thing even when no one is looking and even if you don’t get recognized for it. It can also lead to discussing doing the right thing even if you get in trouble for it.
While all this is well and good, my daughter and students loved it because Rumplepimple is a cute dog. The story sounds like the thoughts that go through a dog’s head and are quite funny. Or at least what I imagine does. 🙂 I love the nod to The Farside comics with the “Blah, blah, blah, Rumplepimple” line when he’s being scolded in the car after being recaptured.
I have a few design issues, but they’re minor and neither my students nor my daughter noticed them. I wish more of the illustrations filled the page instead of the spot illustrations. There’s a lot of white space in the book and it feels sparse. I think it could have been a couple pages shorter too, but again it’s all minor.
If you want a cute dog story (don’t all kids?), then this book is well worth adding to your collection. It’s paperback so get the book tape out. Rumplepimple has two moms and, while their relationship is not specified, I think it’s implied that they are in a relationship. This is a great book to get some incidental diversity into your storytimes and collections!
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 31, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Farah enjoyed her private girls’ school and fun with her friends. Then an assignment meant she had to talk about her mother for “International Woman’s Day” in front of the whole class. Compared to her friends’ glamorous actress, make-up artist, and tap-dancing mothers, what can her modest mother possibly have that is worth sharing with her classmates? To Farah’s surprise, her mother was quite the business woman before putting her career on hold to care for her daughter.
I love the mother-daughter relationship here. What kid hasn’t looked at their parent and been only able to see a boring/uncool/conventional person, especially when compared to the parents of your peers. Farrah isn’t necessarily embarrassed by her mom, nor does she think the other girls in her class have better parents, but her mother seems so other to her for a time. Thankfully the book shows how that is not the case as Farrah begins to see her mother build a new life for them.
Which leads me to the other part of the book I thought made it stand out. The theme of letting go. Farrah’s father was killed in a drunk driving accident several years before the book takes place. She and her mother have been financially and emotionally stable since then, but they are still stuck in the past to some extent. Farrah’s mother, unbeknownst to Farrah, has decided that while they loved the life they had in their expensive, prestigious neighborhood it’s time for her to let go of that and make a new life of meaning for herself and her daughter. She and Farrah talk about this and agree that they aren’t forgetting her father, they are letting go and moving on in a very healthy way.
In some ways this book may have a hard time finding its place on library shelves, but not in the collection. It’s slim and unassuming, but the language, particularly the vocabulary, make this higher level. My first instinct was to consider it a chapter book and it certainly could be a good transition from the chapter book section into the middle grade section. But it would also be at home in the middle grade section based on the age of the characters and vocabulary. Just be sure it doesn’t get lost on the shelf. I think the author must be Canadian? Some of the slang sounds Canadian despite the Los Angeles setting.
This book should be on your shelves despite it being tricky to categorize, though. It shows a beautiful mother-daughter relationship between two strong Muslim women. It’s also wonderful to see a book about hijab and women who wear hijab that isn’t focused on explaining the religious aspect of it. Sure, hijab has to do with faith, but Muslim girls (and boys!) know this already. They don’t need convincing that women who choose to wear it for any reason are not necessarily oppressed. It feels like a lot of those books exist to explain hijab to non-Muslim audiences and make them more comfortable, but books like this and My Own Special Way are clearly for families who are Muslim and will take it in stride or for families who don’t feel like they need to have other people’s religious choices defended so they can accept them.
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 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 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.