HAVE A LITTLE FAITH IN ME
Written by Sonia Hartl
(Page Street Kids; $17.99, Ages 14 and up)
★Starred review – BookPage
Have a Little Faith in Me, the YA debut from Sonia Hartl, hooked me with its opening line: “If I hadn’t made such a big deal about my virginity, I might not have spent a valuable portion of my summer checking nosebleed tissues for images of Jesus.” Have a Little Faith in Me is a funny, honest YA romance. Soon-to-be-senior CeCe was recently dumped by Ethan, her nice Christian boyfriend, because he must restore his virginal heart. To bridge the religious gap between them, CeCe secretly signs up for the same three-week Jesus camp, knowing their love will conquer all. Her best friend and next-door neighbor, Paul, thinks otherwise so he accompanies CeCe to this “faraway land, a dark place with no Wi-Fi.”
Though CeCe is out of her element, she finds that questions and uncertainty about sex unite her with the other girls. At the same time, CeCe’s relationships with her ex-boyfriend and her best friend take unexpected turns.
Have a Little Faith in Me is ideal for a teen who wants real-world advice about navigating the sexual and emotional aspects of relationships—a book I’ll set aside for our daughter. While scenarios of intense moments not quite going as planned are humorous, the story seriously examines what consent means. I like that LGBT sex is also addressed as a viable option. Reading this book felt like confiding with close friends who don’t hesitate to share intimacies. The bottom line: figure yourself out before you hookup with someone else.
- Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com
Click here to read another YA book review from Christine.
THIS IS A SEA COW
Written and illustrated by Cassandra Federman
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)
This Is a Sea Cow, the debut picture book by Cassandra Federman, will have kids laughing out loud at story time especially at the lines about how much a sea cow weighs, how her milk “squirts out of her armpits!” and the size of their brains. Federman knows how to quickly pull her readers into this funny and informative story about the popular underwater mammal perhaps better known as a manatee. The titular sea cow actually prefers to be called a manatee for multiple reasons kids will learn about. Fact: Happy faces plastered with huge grins will appear throughout the duration of this book.
One thing I particularly adore about This Is a Sea Cow is the format Federman uses. The story unfolds as a child’s school book report about sea cows. Soon, however, the sea cow, who is the subject of the report, begins responding to the facts presented. This interactive approach is certain to engage young readers. I’m guessing they’ll start talking back to the book much like the audience does in an English pantomime.
At first the adorable blue-crayon-colored sea cow disputes most of what the student writes when it’s not complimentary. Fact: weight of 1,000 pounds. Response: “Hey! That’s personal information.” With each eagerly awaited page turn, youngsters will note how the student author highlights a fact or two the sea cow cannot disagree with. There’s the small size of its brain (see bottom illustration) and how small-brained explorers thought sea cows were mermaids. The report’s flattered blue subject basks in being considered the mythical water nymph. Those irresistible illustrations are some of my faves.
The book’s colorful, kid-like artwork cleverly incorporates a variety of features guaranteed to keep a child’s interest. There are speech bubbles (just some of the bubbles they’ll read about … the others being gassy ones), hand lettering, hand drawings, and paper cutouts. Interspersed with these are photos of real objects such as scissors, crayons, shells, staples, paper clips and a backpack.
The pleasing twist at the end will charm children who, like the second grade writer, easily fall for the sea cow, small brain, gassiness, toenails and all! And if that’s not sweet and silly enough, several other cute creatures chime in after being mentioned. Federman’s adept use of kid-friendly prose in this light-hearted look at the much-loved manatee will make this a regularly requested read for animal lovers.
Helpful back matter provides kids, parents and teachers with additional interesting info about sea cows like where they live and how fast they can swim. The names of several websites where readers can adopt a manatee or help injured ones are also included. Head over to your local independent bookseller to pick up a copy today and make a manatee (and me) happy.
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Find This Is a Sea Cow activities for children on the Albert Whitman website here.
Read a review about more sea creatures here.
MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH!
Written by Chana Stiefel
Illustrated by Mary Sullivan
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $17.99, Ages 4-7)
With My Name is Wakawakaloch!, Chana Stiefel has written a story that will resonate with so many children as it has with yours truly, someone with a name that people rarely pronounce correctly. I’ve been called Ronnie, Rhoda, Rona and Rhonda (always sung back with the Beach Boys’ “Help Me” for effect), and Ronald. It means so much to me when people actually hear my name and repeat it correctly. So when I received my review copy of Stiefel’s new picture book I was eager to read what the main character, plucky, pig-tailed Wakawakaloch, had to deal with. And when I did, it cracked me up.
Even readers who have an easy name to pronounce should get their hands on a copy of My Name is Wakawakaloch! because it’s a great way to step into someone else’s shoes (although everyone’s barefoot in this picture book!) to understand the frustration that this adorable main character feels. Set in the Stone Age featuring funny “Flintstones”-like artistic touches from illustrator Mary Sullivan, this charming picture book also invites read-aloud opportunities, especially when it comes to saying the hysterical names that Stiefel’s made up.
When classmate Boog in Sabertooth Safety Class hollers “Look out, Wammabammaslamma!” Wakawakaloch shouts back, as she constantly has to, “That NOT my name!” I relate to the young Neanderthal’s rage, remembering all the different things kids called me in school. Also worth noting – these are cave kids conversing so the grammar or lack thereof really adds to the read-aloud experience. Sullivan’s illustrations of the characters wonderfully and whimsically portray a full range of emotions and actions at play throughout the story (and don’t miss her endpapers, too).
When the exasperated Wakawakaloch expresses to her parents how much she wishes she had a different name, one that could be found on a T-shirt, they don’t even get what a T-shirt is which I totally love. So will young readers. Stiefel doesn’t mention key chains, but that’s another unusual name story!
Wakawakaloch’s folks send her to the local Elder called Mooch who has a sharp sense of humor despite stinking “like rotting mammoth poop.” She tells him her troubles and he in turn tells her she needs to be a backwards seer in addition to a forward thinker. She leaves Elder Mooch more annoyed than satisfied but as she tosses and turns in bed that night, a vision on her cave’s walls sheds light on what the Elder was talking about. Her ancestor and namesake was brave and heroic and now it’s time for Wakawakaloch to follow in her footsteps. What her newfound wisdom leads to will be a spoiler if I spell it out, but suffice it to say it fits this entertaining story to a T! Kids will laugh along with Wakawakaloch, not at her, while also appreciating that while a simple name may be nice, sometimes something special can be found in one that’s a bit more complicated and uncommon, or maybe I should say both on the (cave) wall as well as off the wall?
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Click here for a review of another book illustrated by Mary Sullivan on this blog.
By Ishta Mercurio
Illustrated by Jen Corace
(Abrams BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
★Starred Review – School Library Journal
When Nanda is born, the whole of her world is the circle of her mother’s arms, but as she grows the world grows too. Small World, the debut picture book by writer Ishta Mercurio, takes the reader on a journey into Nanda’s world through shapes and structures, with out-of-this world illustrations by Jen Corace that are STEM themed “geometric meditations on wonder.”
This picture book’s colorful and stunning art, created with the matte finish of gouache, ink and pencil, introduces the young reader to the circle of Nanda’s loving South Asian family. Mom is seated dressed in a beautiful sari and scarf, while the siblings sit around the table with Nanda on her father’s lap. The round plates and faces are the first introduction to the various geometric shapes introduced to the reader. Page after page brings us into Nanda’s growing life from “slide and swings and whirligigs and tumbles through grass” as she plays with her playmates, until ultimately she goes off to college on her own, “But as she grew, the world grew, too.”
We visually watch as the world grows from the ground up as Nanda rises closer to the sky in “a human-powered helicopter lifting toward the sky.” Corace’s drawings depict girls playing inside on a basketball court, while Nanda “spooled through spirals of wire and foam: a human-powered helicopter lifting toward the sky.”
The deep blue sea outlines the town of square houses, boxes of farmland and round shaped trees, while our main character is seen soaring solo in a small airplane from above. “Nanda got bigger and bigger and BIGGER. But as she grew, the world grew, too.”
Soon new faces are seen looking up towards the sky as a space shuttle blasts off and we discover that Nanda is as high above the sky as one can be—Nanda has grown up to become an astronaut. Her “feet have touched foreign soil.” Wearing a space helmet surrounded by “A sea of stars, moonless and deep, distant suns twinkling … Marbled planets orbiting, speck-small in the distant night …”
Small World offers young readers the opportunity to think big and expand their horizons. They can see that Earth’s size varies based on perspective—large under little feet, but when you go into space, it’s easier to see how small our planet is compared to the size of the universe. Mercurio says, “children can see the Earth being as big and small at the same time in the same way that you are big and small at the same time.” Just like Nanda, if you stick with your ideas as you grow older, you will see more of our world and maybe even more of the universe.
In an Author’s Note, the reader is asked where they would go if they were Nanda and what places they have visited. Small World encourages young children to reach for the stars and to know that anything is possible. Beautifully written and illustrated, it’s both a positive and encouraging read with its “You can do this” message. Mercurio actually named her main character, Nanda, joy in Hindu Sanskrit, in honor of five women photographed celebrating at the Indian Space Research Organization after they had helped put a satellite into orbit around Mars.
- Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
Read a review of another STEM picture book here.
This charming picture book hit all the right notes with me. The cleverness of the prose and the gorgeous watercolor illustrations that were rendered digitally work together to make Grandpa’s Top Threes an easy-to-read and share, gentle approach to grief (in this case the grandpa’s) and the loss of a grandparent.
Henry is frustrated by his grandpa’s seemingly ignoring him, but his mom tells him to give it time. Parent and caregivers will immediately understand why. When Mom suggests Henry ask his grandpa “if he’d like a sandwich,” Henry puts the perfect spin on the question and engages his grandfather. “Grandpa, what are your top three sandwiches?” As Henry succeeds at getting his grandfather out of himself by continuing to ask for Grandpa’s Top Three, the two return to their loving relationship that existed before Henry’s grandmother’s death. The beautiful ending will tug at your heartstrings in the best possible way.
★Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Shelf Awareness
This moving story is meaningful in so many ways. It’s at once a book that will help youngsters discuss and process the loss of a beloved grandparent as well as a beautiful and poetic tribute to the grandparent grandchild relationship.
The picture book aptly unfolds in seasons where the young main character compares her grandpa to things in the world as varied as springtime, deep space, dreams and stories. “If all the world were springtime, I would replant my grandpa’s birthdays so that he would never get old.” Her other wishes convey to readers that this bright little girl knows her grandfather is ill and while the loss may come as no surprise, the overwhelming feelings of grief will. But thankfully she has special memories from Grandpa and a new journal handmade by him in which she can “write and draw” to express her sadness along with the worlds of love she shared with her grandfather.
Despite the subject of losing a beloved grandparent, the cheerful illustrations rich with expression help this picture book focus on happy times the grandfather and granddaughter have spent together. The terrific takeaway definitely comes from the subtitle, A Book of Remembering, which Grandpa’s Stories does perfectly.
I had a smile on my face the entire time I was reading My Grandma and Me. While I never had this close relationship with my grandmother, I enjoyed reading about Javaherbin’s deep abiding love for hers. This picture book, autobiographical and irresistible, takes readers to Iran where the author’s grandmother lived with her family. “When she cooked, I cooked. When she prayed, I prayed like her, too.” Mina’s grandmother welcomed her sweet shadow.
Like me, I’m sure you’ll fly through the pages and read again and again about how young Mina adored her grandmother and spent as much time with her as possible whether at home, next door at her friend Annette’s house or at the mosque. As Mina grows, so does her love and respect for her grandmother who was obviously a wonderful role model for the young girl.
What will also resonate with readers, in addition to the lovely recollections, are the simple moments of grandma and grandchild quality time. In the beginning of the book Yankey shows little Mina lying on her grandmother’s back during namaz, early morning prayer time. From that moment on the love between grandchild and grandparent emanates from every page during playtime, Ramadan and social visits. This enchanting celebration of the bond between generations is a rewarding and recommended read.
- Reviews by Ronna Mandel
Other new recommended reads for Grandparents Day
Our Favorite Day by Joowon Oh – a not-to-miss debut about special time together that will leave your heart full. It’s pure happiness in your hands.
Looking for Yesterday by Alison Jay – this charming picture book about looking forward is a STEMish story with breathtaking illustrations you’ll want to look at over and over again and a grandparent grandson relationship that’s full of wisdom and wit.
You can also find a previous Grandparents Day book review here.
HOW WE BECAME WICKED
By Alexander Yates
(Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)
In the dystopian YA novel, How We Became Wicked by Alexander Yates, an insect-borne plague called the Wickedness has swept the planet. The people who remain are either wicked (infected), true (untouched), or vexed (immune). Three sixteen-year-olds survive the devastation.
Astrid and Hank reside in Goldsport, an enclosed community of elderly inhabitants; their world exists within its walls, a sanctuary founded by Astrid’s Grandpa Gold (now dead for twenty years). When the lighthouse on Puffin Island inexplicably turns on again, Astrid’s unanswered questions push her to find out all she can from the wealthy investors who built this safe place and now spend their days sporting their finery, comfortable with their stockpiled supplies.
On Puffin Island, Natalie’s life seems as barren and rocky as the island itself. Her mischievous and malicious grandfather remains locked away for safety’s sake. When Natalie and her pregnant mother have to deal with his shenanigans, their days ahead take an alarming turn.
I liked How We Became Wicked’s dual-perspective story from the insinuating title to the thoughtful story line. The wicked are an interesting lot, seemingly normal and almost childlike until their murderous intentions arise, reminding me a bit of zombies (when zombies are depicted with comical elements yet remaining relentlessly lethal). This book kept me hooked through its fast-paced chapters. My favorite part was the clever conclusion.
I AM A THIEF!
Written by Abigail Rayner
Illustrated by Molly Ruttan
(NorthSouth Books; $17.95, Ages 4-8)
I enjoyed hearing about this picture book’s artistic evolution when Molly was working on the illustrations (NOTE: We’re in the same picture book study group), but I hadn’t read the story or seen any sample spreads. What a thrill it’s been to finally read I Am a Thief! It’s a humorous, thoughtful, much needed tale about taking things, okay, STEALING things then facing the uncomfortable feeling of having done something wrong. Please read my review then get the inside scoop on illustrating the book by the artist herself, Molly Ruttan.
★Starred Review – Kirkus
The main character in I Am a Thief, Eliza Jane Murphy, is a star student having racked up all kinds of achievements and accolades at school. But when temptation in the form of a “brilliant green” stone on display in her classroom shouts her name, she heeds the call and swipes said item. Regret and guilt set in immediately and Raynor does a great job in her prose by conveying how these feelings overwhelm Eliza. Molly’s images wonderfully depict how riddled with remorse poor Eliza is. It’s not easy to capture the raw emotion of guilt but Molly succeeds especially in the scene where the menacing gemstone weighs heavy on Eliza’s conscience as she tries to swing with her friends. The challenge now is that while it was easy to nick the stone without anyone seeing her, Eliza worries that she’ll get caught trying to put it back.
The awful feelings follow her home. She proceeds to ask everyone if they’ve ever stolen anything. Her dad exclaims, “Never!” though his facial expression says otherwise as it appears he’s about to take a slice of cake from the fridge. Eliza’s mom says she took a magnet once, and even Grandpa George, Nana Iris and her dog James, the sausage thief, admit they’re not completely innocent.
Molly’s hilarious WANTED posters depicting all the guilty family members begin to get crowded with each page turn as Eliza realizes that almost everyone at one time or another has taken something whether it’s as small as a sugar packet or as big in Eliza’s mind as her theft of the stone.
The part that will especially please readers is when Eliza returns the stone to her teacher and, rather than chastising her student, tells her she’s brave. Owning up to her misdeed and its possible consequences takes guts. Here Eliza realizes that this one bad thing doesn’t define who she is nor should it. Her unburdening heals her and her “heart started singing again.”
I Am a Thief provides parents, caregivers and teachers an opportunity to explore with children the ramifications of taking things when they don’t belong to you, who ends up hurting the most when something is stolen, and how to right the wrongs we may do. I’m glad this book is out in the universe because it’s going to help a lot of families comfortably and honestly approach this important topic in a really relatable way. In fact, this clever and creative pairing of prose and pictures is likely to get you thinking about the behavior you’re modeling for kids the next time you go to grab a few packets of sugar at the coffee shop.
- Review by Ronna Mandel
∼ A ROUNDUP ∼
When I was the target age for a book like The Pigeon HAS to Go to School!, if I scraped my knee or bumped my head, my dad would examine the injury and say, “Oh no. We’re going to have to amputate!” It worked every time, turning my tears to belly laughs. Similarly, in this most recent addition to the popular series kicked off by Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Mo Willems tackles first day of school fears with Pigeon’s slightly subversive wit and my dad’s effective approach: identify the worst-case scenario and demonstrate how silly and ridiculous it is.
Pigeon hints he’s worried even before the title page, ordering the reader, “WAIT! Don’t read that title!” After all, why should Pigeon have to go to school? He already knows everything. Also, he’s not a morning person. And if he learns too much — his head might pop off! Looking and feeling very small on the page, he finally admits he’s scared. “The unknown stresses me out, dude.” What is he worried about? “Why does the alphabet have so many letters … Will FINGER PAINT stick to my feathers?” Or the one that really gets me: “What if the teacher doesn’t like pigeons?”
Like other books in the series, the illustrations are spare, with large blocks of pastel colors. All the words belong to Pigeon and are delivered in prominent speech bubbles in a large hand-lettered Courier-style font. There are opportunities for interaction; I can already picture my favorite two-year-old responding to Pigeon’s command, “Go on — ask me a question. Any question!” and then giggling proudly when the next page shows Pigeon is stumped. Pigeon eventually reasons out why school will be okay, but in a fun finish, he really feels it when he realizes how he’s going to get to school: a bright yellow … bus!
“Enough!” says Mr. Paul. “It’s clear —
these animals should not be here.
Now, why would someone change this rule?
Pets do NOT belong in school!”
If the music teacher, the art teacher, the school librarian, and even the principal of Maple View School didn’t change the rule to allow pets in class, who did? Author Linda Ashman answers that question in Take Your Pet to School Day, but only after chronicling the rowdy behavior of the animal visitors. The lively, easy-to-read verse can be a fun way to start a conversation about why we need rules at school.
Suzanne Kaufman depicts both the human and animal populations at Maple View in colors that feel vibrant, soft, and warm at the same time. The illustrations are full of variety and detail. Kids will find children of every skin and hair color and enjoy inspecting their clothes in pastel solids and rainbow stripes, their high tops and cowboy boots and sneakers. The pets include the expected cat, dog, and bunny, as well as the unexpected: a turtle, a hedgehog, and even an entire ant farm. It’s an adventure just to find the hamster, who rolls somewhere new in its wheel on each page. I can’t recommend taking your pet horse to school, but I heartily recommend Take Your Pet to School Day.
I’M TRYING TO LOVE MATH
Written and illustrated by Bethany Barton
(Viking Books for Young Readers; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
As someone who loves math and wants kids to love it, too, I approach I’m Trying to Love Math with caution. Is math going to get a bum rap in this book? The narrator starts off by saying, “If you ask me, math is not very lovable. I know I’m not alone here either. 4 in 10 Americans hate math.” Worried, I study the pie chart right beneath the dreaded “H” word. Sixty percent of the pie is a bright wash of green labeled “YAY MATH!” and adorned with hearts. Forty percent is lemon yellow with “BOO MATH!” above a broken heart. Meanwhile, an adorable purple alien pops up in the corner and asks, “Did you just use math to explain how much you don’t like it?”
What a relief! I can see we’re in good hands here. I’m Trying to Love Math provides a variety of awesome answers to the age-old question: “When will I ever use math in real life?” Baking cookies? Check. Making music? Check. Exploring Earth and other parts of the universe? Check and check. After fun illustrations of ice cream and ships and electric guitars and cash registers—and a whole page of pi—the narrator comes to the conclusion that “math is a part of so many things I already love … I guess I don’t need to try to love it at all. It turns out … I already do.” I recommend this book to all math lovers, especially the ones who think they are haters.
∼ A ROUNDUP ∼
★Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly
The King of Kindergarten written by Newberry honoree Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, transforms the average day at kindergarten into an extraordinary, royal adventure.
It’s fun to read Barnes’ regal language. As Mom says, “today” her little boy is going to be the “King” and, with this encouragement, he prepares to venture out confidently. Brushing his “Royal Chiclets,” he dresses himself and “wolf[s] down a tower of pancakes.” I love the emphasis here on growth, maturity, and independence. Being “deliver[ed] … to a grand fortress” (a.k.a. school), he joins the “round table” where he cheerfully exchanges greetings with his classmates. The royal theme continues during circle time, recess, lunchtime, and beyond, each opportunity allowing him to exercise his noble code of honor by braving playground politics, sharing his royal bounty (in the form of an extra cup of chocolate pudding), and showing kindness to his friends. Vibrant colors invite us readers to participate in the little boy’s “Kindergarten Kingdom;” flowing shapes excite us with anticipation of what’s next on his adventure.
A great way to introduce the school day to budding kindergartners, The King of Kindergarten shows us how a little change of perspective can rewrite a potentially scary event into a magical tale.
See Derrick Barnes on August 31 at Little Shop of Stories, LLC in Decatur, GA
Written by Jean Reidy
Illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins
(Atheneum Books for Young Readers; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
★Starred Reviews – Kirkus, School Library Journal
Written by Jean Reidy and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins, Truman is a heartwarming story of the loving relationship between a pet and his owner. But it can also be read as a tale about the challenges a younger sibling faces as his older sister starts school.
There is no doubt readers of all ages will fall in love with Truman. How could you not? He’s “the size of a donut—a small donut—and every bit as sweet.” In simple yet powerful ways, Reidy and Cummins express the affection Truman and Sarah share. Sarah isn’t merely Truman’s owner; she’s “his Sarah” (my emphasis) who shares the same “peaceful and pensive” personality as her adorable tortoise. Humble shapes and bursts of yellow throughout paint a happy home with decor that brings back memories of my own childhood, notably, the Felix the Cat look-a-like clock on the wall.
This particular day, though, is “truly unsettling” because Sarah is acting different. She eats a “big banana” at breakfast, “clip[s] on a blue bow in her hair,” “strap[s] on a backpack SOOOOOO big thirty-two tortoises [can] ride along in it,” and leaves extra food for Truman. Most shockingly, she boards the number 11 bus, that mysterious bus he can see from his window riding in the “honking,” “growling” city below. Truman spends the day in worrisome wonder as to where Sarah could possibly be and why it’s taking her so long to return.
Through Reidy’s funny tone and Cummins’ artistic perspective, Truman’s journey out of the safety of his tank, and his determination to find his beloved owner is as endearing as it is humorous. Of all the challenges Truman faces, my favorite is his crossing of the living room rug—“That glorious … ENDLESS rug” made all the more imposing by the mean looking toys along his path we see through Truman’s eyes. When he hears the number 11 bus, he’s ready to cross the threshold, but Sarah is back in time to reunite with her pet and congratulate him on his bravery.
Truman encourages all of us facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge with the message cleverly written on city bus #11: See New Sights! Hear New Sounds! Think New Thoughts!
Can an honorable pirate be loyal to more than one captain? This is the question posed in Pirates Don’t Go to Kindergarten! written by Lisa Robinson and illustrated by Eda Kaban.
Equipped with the pirate basics (treasure map, spyglass, and cutlass), Emma storms into school, this first day of kindergarten, determined to set sail once again in last year’s ship commanded by “the roughest, toughest, awesomest preschool pirate cap’n ever”—Cap’n Chu. Yet, it’s a new year and, as Ms. Chu gently reminds Emma, Cap’n Chu has “‘a new band of pirates” to lead. Despite attempts by Cap’ns Chu and Hayes (Emma’s new teacher) to interest Emma in her outer-space-themed kindergarten classroom, Emma sails back to Cap’n Chu’s ship, fiercely allegiant to her pirate roots.
When Ms. Hayes’ class pet needs feeding, Emma shows interest and discovers all the fun activities in the kindergarten class: a nature center, an art studio, a reading nook, and science station. What’s the one thing missing? “NO CAP’N CHU!” Back in Ms. Chu’s classroom, everything blows out into a full mutiny. This is where the book provides a great opportunity for caregivers to talk about just how confusing and conflicting emotions can be. At the heart of Emma’s protest is feelings of fear and loss at having to accept this major childhood transition and perhaps, even, feelings of guilt as devotion to one person may feel like betraying another. With heartwarming affirmation from Ms. Chu, Emma is ready to “‘open the shuttle hatch’” of her new classroom, bringing her own pirate spin to the kindergarten space station.
A great picture book for talking about transitions, Pirates Don’t Go To Kindergarten! will draw in seafarers and landlubbers alike.
- Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
Read more back-to-school book reviews here.
by Karol Ruth Silverstein
(Charlesbridge Teen; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)
I loved Cursed, the debut YA novel by Karol Ruth Silverstein, even before I read it because the cover spoke to me, and was perfect. Now, having finished the book, I can confirm how well this cover works. Its dual-meaning title presented in a bold red printer’s-block-style lettering, the warning on the bottom, along with the emojis capture the entire essence of the story. I think you’ll agree once you’ve read Cursed, too.
When I attended the book launch and heard Karol read from the opening chapter I couldn’t wait to find a chunk of time to finally read the novel undisturbed. In so many ways this is Karol’s story, an #ownvoices novel not only in that Karol authored it, but she has also lived with the chronic illness she writes about honestly and creatively using spot on “sarcasm, and bouts of profanity” that you will sorely miss when the novel ends. To give you an idea of what to expect, Karol recently tweeted this:
“Hi, I’m Karol. My book, #Cursed from @CharlesbridgeYA is about 14 year-old Erica (aka Ricky), who’s newly diagnosed with a painful chronic illness and seriously pissed off about it. It’s funny, frank and full of f-bombs.”
With that in mind, join me in Rickyville where the journey of Erica (aka Ricky and annoyingly Ricky Raccoon to her dad) Bloom is presented in 62 brief chapters with teasing titles that will add to your reading pleasure. I know that may sound semi-snarky but it’s so Ricky-like and snarkiness is one of her secret weapons, well not so secret. Six months prior to the story’s beginning, Ricky was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an illness of the joints, although she doesn’t immediately share that information with readers. She simply describes the excruciating pain and major inconveniences she has to deal with on a daily basis and that’s a big part of what’s fueling her f-bombs.
The cursing is also what gets Ricky into trouble at school, when she eventually goes. Early on in the novel, written in first person-present tense, Ricky explains how she’s actually been cutting school while hiding it primarily from her father, Dr. Dad (a dentist-doctor), and mother and sister. There’s tons of stuff she can’t deal with at glorious Grant Middle School, one being that as a ninth grader she has to attend a middle school and not a high school. Another reason is that it’s a new school because she’s moved into her divorced dad’s Batch Pad—Ricky gives everything neat nick names including The-Disaster-Formerly-Known-as-my-Parents—in a different part of Philadelphia from her family home. Add to that how difficult it is getting to school and then having to navigate the building when any part of her body can hurt at any given moment with the dagger-like or burning pain usually in her knees, feet and ankles. It doesn’t help matters that when she finally does return to Grant she feels humiliated by the things typical girls her age do “when their biggest worry is looking their best all day.”
There’s a strong cinematic sense conveyed in Cursed because Karol not only hails from Philly where the story is based, but she also has a screenwriting background. It’s easy to picture every place described in the novel. From the city itself and Dr. Bloom’s Batch Pad, the school with its grueling long corridors to the nurse’s office where she spends a lot of time and becomes friends with Oliver. From the waiting room outside the principal’s office, her speech teacher, Mr. Jenkins’ classroom, to the music room where her crush Julio practices, and the doctor’s office where she gets her intravenous medication. Add these strong visuals to the already compelling, engrossing and downright funny storytelling and at once you are totally in Ricky’s head as she tries to cope emotionally and physically with her disability as she approaches age 15.
Once Ricky’s Charade (skipping school) is discovered, she’s got to work her butt off to graduate with her class or risk being held back aka Operation Catch-Up-So-I-Can-Get-The-Hell-Out-of-This-Crap-Ass-School. Helping her accomplish this is the friendship she’s cautiously allowing to blossom with Oliver, a childhood cancer survivor who has such a can-do attitude that some of it has to rub off on Ricky, right? I felt hopeful when Ricky met Oliver. At her old school after having been diagnosed with Juvenile Arthritis and telling her friends “… they all abandoned me. I can’t risk that again.” Oliver is not the abandoning type. But is Ricky?
Some of my favorite scenes in Cursed are the ones where Ricky’s vulnerabilities and strengths are exposed like when I learned how much she dislikes her current arthritis specialist, Dr. Blickstein (aka Dr. Blech-stein) because he never speaks to her and treats her like she’s invisible, choosing instead to relay info to her mom. When she finally decides to change doctors and finds one who’s caring and truly interested in her feelings, I wanted to cheer out loud. Another time, when she comes to the aid of a girl who’s part of a clique, I felt her compassion. She may try hiding that side of herself, but as a reader I knew she had a lot of it just by her observations about the people around her. And wait until her final project, the speech in Mr. Jenkins’ class. That’s all I’ll say or I may start sobbing.
Watching Ricky grow from being a teen who feels cursed, “Like you did something horrible in a past life,” and unable to be comfortable in her own skin to one who is more willing to come to terms with her illness and more open to letting people get close to her is what kept me turning the pages. I mean that’s in addition to the dynamite dialogue, witty asides and meaningful insights into living with arthritis. It was a privilege to get to know Ricky. The changes in her arrive slowly and are sometimes subtle, but they do happen making it all the more worthwhile to be on her team. Stick with Ricky and you’ll be rewarded with this read.
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Click here to read an interview with Karol by author Lee Wind on The Official SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Blog.
Click here to read more on “How Stories about Disability Help Create Empathy” at We Need Diverse Books.
Read another YA novel review here.