★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal
Sometimes I just want to read something different. I was in that kind of mood when coming acrossNina LaCour’s YA, Watch Over Me. The striking cover caught my attention: a photo of a girl with downcast eyes and floating hair. When I opened the book, the image had altered slightly, showing her eyes and evoking an unsettling feeling. I couldn’t wait to get reading!
The story begins with Mila leaving her kind (but, having-their-own-baby-now) foster home. She’s found a job on an unconventional farm in Northern California. The couple running it has, over the years, adopted dozens of kids and taken in teens, like Mila, who aged-out of the system, assigning them as teachers for the little ones. Mila’s first student, Lee, is also a troubled outcast. Mila wants to reach him, but struggles to understand her new environment which is both welcoming and excluding.
Along with this self-chosen family comes a land filled with ghosts who dance and play in the distance when Mila returns to her cabin at night. The foggy, rocky coast’s strong atmospheric presence wraps around Mila’s pain. Flashback chapters give glimpses of her life before foster care as the loneliness, trauma, and guilt of Mila’s past escalate into inevitable confrontation.
LaCour’s spare, beautifully written, first-person chapters infuse flashbacks, allowing the reader’s immersion to slowly build in this moving, cerebral story. The dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, revealed in fragments, is emotionally jarring. Yet, Mila’s resilience provides promise for redemption. Conventional lines of reality bend, perfectly suiting the blurred mindset of the plot.
This year choosing books to include in our Recommended Reads for Kids – Black History Month Roundup has been more difficult than ever because there are dozens of excellent ones being published and more on the way. Here is just a small sample of great reads, from picture book to graphic novel to young adult fantasy that are available for kids and teens to enjoy.
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER ★Starred Review – Kirkus
The ABCs of Black History is the kind of inspiring book children and adults will want to return to again and again because there is so much to absorb. In other words, it’s not your mother’s ABC book. Written in uplifting rhyme by Pushcart Prize-nominated poet Rio Cortez, this gorgeous 60-page picture book is at once a look back in time and a look to the future for young Black children. However it is recommended reading for children of all races and their families.
Cortez has shined a lyrical light on places, events and figures familiar and less familiar from Black history with comprehensive back matter going more in depth. Take H for example: “H is for Harlem—those big city streets! / We walked and we danced to our own jazzy beat. / When Louis and Bessie and Duke owned the stage, / and Langston and Zora Neale Hurston, the page.” J is for Juneteenth and S, which gets double coverage, is for scientists and for soul. Adding to the hopeful tone of Cortez’s rhyme are Semmer’s bold and vibrant graphics which jump off the page. The dazzling colors pull you in and the variety of composition keep you hooked.
The ABCs of Black History is a book you’ll want to read together with your young ones and let your older children discover and savor on their own. It’s not only a visual and aural treat, it’s a sweeping celebration and exploration of Black culture and history that is beautiful, compelling, thought provoking and thoroughly unputdownable! • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly
Adapted from the final chapter of Dovey Johnson Roundtree’s autobiography Mighty Justice, We Wait for the Sun is an intimate look at a tender moment in Dovey’s childhood. The book opens with a preface about the main character, Dovey, who grew up to be a legendary figure in the fight for racial equality-all through the influence of her beloved grandmother, Rachel Bryant Graham. Dovey loved to share stories of Grandmother Rachel; this book is the story she loved best.
In “the midsummer night” when it’s “dark and cool,” Dovey and her grandmother walk “through the darkness toward the woods” to pick blackberries. Lyrical language and textural illustrations awaken the senses and draw us into their adventure.
Other women join in and the trip goes deeper still into the forest. Staring at Grandma’s shoes, Dovey is literally following her grandmother’s steps into the darkness. But Grandma Rachel provides comfort and reassurance. “If you wait just a little, your eyes will learn to see, and you can find your way.”
Through such examples of wisdom and encouragement, it’s clear to see why Grandma Rachel was such an inspiration to Dovey and her later work as a civil rights lawyer. As they sit in the forest and listen to its “thousand sounds,” a double page spread shows an aerial view of their meditative moment, immersed in the magic of their surroundings.
And when they reach the berries, they’re every bit worth the wait-plump, juicy, and sweet-like the lush layers of purple, blue, and pink illustrations that display a beautiful berry-colored world as dawn, bit by bit, turns to day. Wrapped in each other’s arms, Grandma and Dovey watch the sun rise in its golden splendor. Grandma’s steadfast waiting for the light, despite the present darkness, is a moving message of hope, resilience, and bravery.
Back matter includes an in-depth note from co-author Katie McCabe chronicling Dovey’s fight against barriers in the law, military, and ministry. For anyone interested in the powerful ways family and history intersect, We Wait for the Sun is a must-have in every library. • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
While white Americans eagerly embarked on carefree car travel around the country, in 1930s Jim Crow America the road was not a safe or welcoming place for Black people. In Opening the Road: Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book, Keila V. Dawson explores the entrepreneur Victor Green and his successful The Negro Motorist Green Book which was borne out of dire need.
Young readers will learn about the limitations that were in place restricting the freedoms of Black Americans to have access to the same conveniences whites did due to segregation laws. For instance, a road trip for a Black family meant bringing food, pillows, and even a portable toilet since most establishments along a route were for whites only. The same applied to hotels, service stations, auto-mechanics and even hospitals. And in “Sundown” towns, where Blacks could work but not live, those individuals had to be gone by sunset or risk jail or worse.
In this fascinating 40-page nonfiction picture book, Dawson explains in easy-to-understand prose exactly what obstacles faced Black travelers and why Green, a mail carrier, together with his wife Alma, decided to publish a directory. Inspired by a Kosher guide for Jews who also faced discrimination, Green began collecting information from people on his postal route about where safe places were in New York.
Eventually, with word-of-mouth expanding interest in Green’s book, he began corresponding with mail carriers nationwide to gather more recommendations for The Negro Motorist Green Book on more cities. Soon everyone from day-trippers to celebrities were using the Green Book. Green even made a deal with Standard Oil for the book to be sold in Esso gas stations where it “flew off the shelves.” Harris’s illustrations take readers back in time with colorful, realistic looking scenes of big old cars, uniformed service station attendants and locations in Black communities that opened their doors to Black travelers. Apart from a break during WWII, the book was sold until the need for it finally ended with the last edition in 1966-67.
Equality both on and off the road was the ultimate goal for Black Americans. That may have improved somewhat from when the first Green Book was published in 1936, but Victor did not live to see the Civil Rights Act of 1964 enacted, having passed away in 1960. However there is still a long road ahead because, unlike Victor’s Green Book, racism has not disappeared and being Black while driving can still be dangerous, even deadly.
Dawson dives into this in her five pages of back matter that include a clever roadway timeline graphic from the beginning of Green’s life in 1892 until the Green Book ceased publication. This is a helpful, thoughtfully written book to share with children to discuss racism, and a good way to begin a discussion about self-advocacy, ingenuity, and how to treat one another with respect. It’s also a welcome example of how Green channeled his frustration and dissatisfaction into a guide that ultimately changed people’s lives for the better. Click herefor an essential Educator’s Guide. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Kadir Nelson, in his interesting introduction to James Otis Smith’s graphic novel Black Heroes of the Wild Westpoints out that cowboys, ranchers, homesteaders and other people from the Old West (west of the Mississippi River “during and after the American Civil War”) were historically portrayed in books, movies and TV through a white lens. In reality up to “a third of the settler population was African American.” I couldn’t wait to find out more about Mary Fields, known as “Stagecoach Mary” in her day, Bass Reeves, the first black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi, and “mustanger” Bob Lemmons, perhaps the original Texas horse whisperer.
All three individuals were forces to be reckoned with. First there’s Mary Fields, born into slavery in Tennessee. In her lifetime, she maintained fierce loyalty to friends, loved children, was generous to a fault, and had strength and energy second to none. She’s most noted, however, for her reputation as a banjo strumming, card playing, first African American female stagecoach driver who never missed a delivery and was not easily thwarted by wolves or bad weather.
I was blown away learning about Bass Reeves’s bravery in outwitting some murderous outlaws on the Most Wanted List. In the account Smith shares, Reeves single-handedly put himself into a dangerous situation by turning up as an impoverished loner looking for any kind of work to earn his keep. By cleverly offering up his services to the mother of the villains, earning her trust, and ultimately that of the bad guys too, he was able to capture them completely off guard. This plus thousands of other arrests cemented his place in history. The best part was how Smith’s illustrations conveyed Reeves in the particular scenario of capturing the outlaws by surprise which in turn surprised and satisfied me immensely.
Last but definitely not least is Bob Lemmons who was hired to corral wild mustangs and whose humane technique was not deadly to any of the horses, something other mustangers had not been able to manage. Smith takes readers on a journey of the senses along with Lemmons as he follows a group of mustangs he intends to wrangle, and details in both art and text how eventually Lemmons becomes one with the stallion leading the “manada” (mares and colts). “Bob knew their habits, their body language, their sounds. Like them, he flared his nostrils sniffing for danger.” You don’t have to be a horse lover to be impressed how Bob’s slow and steady approach made the mustangs think he was one of them.
Eight comprehensive pages of fascinating back matter round off this excellent middle grade read that will no doubt have tweens eager to find out more about these and other Black heroes. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
★Starred Review – Booklist A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
The Gilded Ones is book one of a West African-inspired epic fantasy series that will grab you from its first page. When girls turn sixteen, they must undergo The Ritual of Purity where they are bled to see if they can become a member of their village. However, if a girl’s blood runs gold, then she’s found impure and faces a fate worse than death. If Deka’s father had the money, he would have sent her to the House of Purity the year before the ritual, keeping her protected from sharp objects. Instead, Deka must be careful while she worries and prepares.
When Deka fails, she’s tortured until a mysterious woman she names White Hands offers an option out. The empire’s being attacked by seemingly invincible Deathshriek creatures. Deka becomes an alkali soldier fighting alongside other girls like her with powers that make them nearly immortal.
Namina Forna says, “The Gilded Ones is a book about my anger at being a woman. Sierra Leone was is very patriarchal. There were things I was expected to do as a girl because I was a girl.” This emotion is harnessed into the story, revealing societal inequities in an intricately woven plot that will surprise and enflame you.
Deka has the best “sidekick” ever—a shapeshifter called Ixa. Though there are elements of romance, it’s strong females who rule the plot. This book provides a fresh look at the “gods and goddesses” trope. The Gilded Ones is fierce, brutal, and relevant. Read it. • 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 Black History Month review. e
Coriolanus Snow: Anyone who has read or seen The Hunger Games knows this man. Yet, who was he before becoming the evil overload of Panem? In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, we meet Snow at age eighteen. His cousin, Tigris—yes, that Tigris—and his Grandma’am are all he’s got. They haven’t had enough food in ages and aren’t far from losing their once-luxurious housing. Facing an uncertain future upon graduation, Snow must achieve personal recognition at school, in hopes of being awarded funds toward University tuition.
It’s reaping day again and this year the kids from Snow’s class are assigned tributes to mentor as their final project. His District 12 girl is quite a letdown at first. Yet, once she’s in the spotlight, Lucy Gray proves to be a charmer and that may get her through for a while. Snow, at first, sees Gray’s performance in the Games merely as an assignment to score highly on but, soon, a complex relationship builds.
Suzanne Collinsreveals the surprising origin of the Games. The book, as expected, is fast-paced with many plot twists. Snow and his classmates who are also assigned tributes are drilled by Dr. Gaul, the wonderfully creepy Head Gamemaker (who may just lock you in a cage in her lab for fun). She prods kids with questions such as what the Capitol’s strategy should be now that the war is over but may never truly never be won. When questioned whether there is a point to the neon colors of her snakes, she answers, “There is a point to everything or nothing at all, depending on your worldview.” These moments with Gaul reveal the book’s deeper messages about power, whether wielded with a weapon or a rose.
I’m a fan of the trilogy and very much enjoyed this glimpse into what happened decades before the girl on fire burst onto the scene and the screen. I would be happy to continue along with Snow, filling the gap, until the day he sees Katniss Everdeen become District 12’s first volunteer for the 74th Annual Hunger Games. The folk tune, “The Hanging Tree,” reaches across the years, uniting the stories.
This seven-book roundup covers wickedly wonderful Halloween season reads. From a gentle book about the fall season to spooky ghouls, goblin-witches, ghosts, vampires, a witch’s hut, and a haunted house, we’ve got you covered.
With whimsical art in blacks, whites, and grays offset with oranges and foil accents, The Little Kittenembodies the spirit of autumn. Leaves blow across the pages, bringing movement that propels Ollie on her adventure. As promised by the title, there is a little kitten, but also Ollie’s cat, Pumpkin. Nicola Killen’s art and storyline
beautifully convey the playful, loving spirit of this book. It’s a pleasure to see a gentle story that’s engaging and fulfilling—it even has a surprise ending, shh!
I’m a sucker for a great book title and just had to read Marcus Ewert’s She Wanted to Be Haunted—plus, what a great idea! As promised, Clarissa, an “adorable and pink” cottage finds herself disappointed with her appearance. Her father is a castle and her mother a witch’s hut, but Clarissa got the short end of the broomstick with her undeniable cuteness. “Daisies grew around her, / squirrels scampered on her lawn. / Life was just delightful! / —and it made Clarissa yawn.”
What kid hasn’t felt bored when things were mellow and nice? Susie Ghahremani’s hand-painted artwork brings Clarissa to life in (dreaded!) upbeat colors. Inside, on Clarissa’s fuchsia, wallpapered walls, we sneak a peek at her family’s photos and, yes, she’s surely the oddball of the bunch. My favorite scenes involve the surprise ending. If you want to know if Clarissa’s attempts to gloom-down her appearance work, you’ll have to read the book. Trust me, the ending is awesome! Click here for a coloring page.
Scritch Scratch—the title of this middle-grade novel by Lindsay Currie will get under your skin as all good spooky books should. Because, of course, this sound is made by the ghost haunting Claire. Prior to this, science-minded Claire absolutely did not believe in ghosts and found her Dad’s ghost-themed bus tour and book embarrassing. So why did this ghost choose her? Claire’s too afraid to sleep and should have plenty of time to solve this mystery. However, since her BFF’s hanging around with the new girl, Claire may need to figure it out alone.
I’ve never been on a haunted bus tour, but, after reading this book I want to if they’re all as interesting as the one in this story. “Forgotten” facts about Chicago are cleverly woven in—what a great way to sneak in a history lesson! Click here for a discussion guide.
This book opens with a warning from the Embassy that “[b]y signing, you hereby accept all responsibility for any death, dismemberment, or condemnation to the Eternal Void that results from reading.” How irresistible! When Jake Green receives a kind of creepy package in error, a fun adventure ensues dodging bonewulfs and their master Mawkins (a grim reaper). Accompanied by ghosts Stiffkey, Cora, and, an adorable fox named Zorro, the unlikely group tries to avoid being sent into the Eternal Void—a fate worse than death.
Will Mabbitt’s well-developed characters are very likable and Taryn Knight’s art plays up the humor. I appreciate the Embassy of the Dead’snew ideas about ghosts and their companions such as Undoers (someone who helps a ghost trapped on the Earthly Plane move on to the Afterworld). Mabbitt nails a perfectly written ending. I’ll gladly follow Jake and his friends onto the next book in the series. Click here to read a sample chapter.
Fans of the beautifully made Ologies series won’t be disappointed in the latest addition, Ghostology. Packed full of stories, this book will keep you haunting its pages because there’s so much information from psychics and mediums, to fakes and frauds. Want to know what’s in a ghostologist’s field kit (sketchbook, accurate timepiece, and, of course, a ghost-detecting device, just to name a few items), or how to hunt ghosts? You’ve come to the right place. Pay attention to the “Types of Ghosts” chapters.
Beyond reading, the book is a sensory experience with its sealed pages, official documents envelope, flaps, and textures. If there’s such a thing as a coffee table kid’s book, this is it. The icy blue color scheme of the cover is offset by a large faceted red “gem.” Raised letters just beg you to run your hand over them and invite you to look inside. The thought and detail in this book are phantom-astic!
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal
In Aliza Layne’s middle-grade graphic novel, Beetle & the Hollowbones, Beetle is a twelve-year-old goblin-witch being homeschooled by her gran. Beetle, however, would rather hang out with her current BFF Blob Ghost at the old mall (where they are inexplicably trapped). When Beetle’s previous BFF, Kat Hollowbones, returns home after completing her sorcery apprenticeship at a fast-track school, their friendship isn’t the same. Kat’s aunt Marla is the wonderfully drawn skeletal antagonist.
With well-developed characters and plenty of action, this fast-paced book will bewitch you. The struggles of moving through school and friendships falling apart are accurately depicted. The panels, grouped into chapters, capture your attention with their fantastic illustrations, engaging colors, and lively text. I like how Layne includes some concept art at the end, inspiring other artists with a behind-the-scenes peek.
Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite is a YA short story anthology with the goal to “expand on and reinvent traditional tellings.” How awesome is that?? Editrixes Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Porter’s story, “Vampires Never Say Die,” is a suspenseful, modern tale about a teen and vampire who meet online. They also provide the introduction and insightful commentary after each piece, delving into the many areas of the vampire myth. There are so many wonderful things in this collection; I’ll give you a few nibbles to whet your appetite.
“Bestiary” by Laura Ruby is set in a near dystopian future; Jude works at the zoo and has a special connection with animals. This story stood out for me because the reader must piece together the truth. It’s quite a different twist on thirst and the theft of blood and humanity.
“Seven Nights for Dying” by Tessa Gratton opens with the line, “Esmael told me that teenage girls make the best vampires” (because they’re “both highly pissed and highly adaptable, and that’s what it takes to survive the centuries”). We follow Esmael’s chosen girl through a week of uncertainty as she considers joining the undead. This cleverly layered story demands to be reread to truly appreciate Gratton’s well-crafted words.
Weaving in old superstitions, “The Boy and the Bell” by Heidi Heilig expands upon the Victorian tradition of burying their loved ones with a bell (allowing them to call for help if mistakenly buried alive). Set at the turn of the century, Will is a graverobber for all the right reasons—he wants to become a doctor, and “acquiring” freshly buried bodies allows him to trade for a spot at the back of the amphitheater where dissections take place. With only a few glimpses at Will’s thoughts, we find out volumes about his struggles.
This anthology breathes life into the short story and lets readers appreciate the many perspectives and styles from a very talented array of writers. My favorites tend to have unexpected endings. There’s something for everyone. Just read it already!
ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READS FROM RONNA e IT’S HALLOWEEN, LITTLE MONSTER Written by Helen Ketteman Illustrated by Bonnie Leick (Two Lions; $17.99, Ages 3-7) e When I began reading It’s Halloween, Little Monster, one of the Little Monster series of picture books, I thought I was reading about the first time I took my son out trick-or-treating 15 years ago. All he had to do was see one or two kids in scary costumes and he hightailed it home before anyone could say boo! I’m so glad Helen Ketteman wrote this picture book because I’m sure it’s going to help make the first Halloween experience for reluctant little ones a lot easier.
In this gentle rhyming story, Little Monster heads out for Halloween accompanied by his dad. The reassuring presence of a parent sets the tone. Dad will be right there to calm Little Monster’s fears no matter who or what they encounter. “Don’t fret Little Monster. / See there in the street? / That’s not really a ghost— / it’s a kid in a sheet!” e Together the pair see all kinds of spooky creatures while trick-or-treating, but the dad anticipates what might frighten his child and is always one step ahead. I like how the papa monster not only comments on assorted pirates, witches, and vampires but scary sounds, too. Leick’s muted blue and purple toned palette of the detailed illustrations will only add to the enjoyment of this charming Halloween read. It’s an enjoyable pairing of prose and art. By the time the surprise ending happens, Little Monster’s smiling just like the children having this story read to them. e e
OTHER RECOMMENDED HALLOWEEN SEASON READS: e CHRISTOPHER PUMPKIN by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet with art by Nick East (Board Book for Ages 0-3, Little Brown BYR) e THAT MONSTER ON THE BLOCKby Sue Ganz-Schmitt with art by Luke Flowers (Picture Book Ages 4-8, Two Lions) e THE REVENGE OF THE WEREPENGUINby Allan Woodrow with art by Scott Brown (Middle Grade illustrated novel for Ages 8-12, Viking BYR)
Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks! e Recommended Reads for the Week of 10/26/20
★Starred Reviews – Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly
The young adult novel Deeplight grabbed me when I read it described as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea meets Frankenstein. Frances Hardinge does not disappoint. Fifteen-year-old Hark lives in the island chain of Myriad on Lady’s Crave where the Hidden Lady was once their god, before the gods inexplicably killed each other off. Hark and his friend Jelt—both unwanted children their destinies seemingly “cojoined against their wills”—get by together on the rough streets. Jelt leads Hark to increasingly perilous transgressions until Hark is caught and given a three-year sentence of servitude. The woman who buys him at auction brings him to the island of Sanctuary where he’s assigned various chores but is also asked to spy on the aging priests, seeking their secrets about the gods. Hark finally has the chance to think about who he is and what he wants out of life. However, he’s once again a pawn but this time the stakes include everything.
Frances Hardinge’s beautifully written story will sweep you away in this coming-of-age fantasy adventure to remember. It was refreshing to read a book that felt new in many ways, illuminating light into areas of what could have seemed like familiar tales. Instead, Hardinge kept me guessing with the story’s twists. While the thrills were fun, I appreciated the undercurrent, reminding us that we all carry stories and that when someone dies, a world of knowledge dies along with them. To understand and remember the past, we must recall and retell it and we must listen to the stories that lie inside of others.
Click here to order a copy of Deeplight or visit your local indie bookstore. e Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks!
Laura Lee Gulledge’s YA graphic novel, The Dark Matter of Mona Starr, opens with Mona Starr’s best friend, Nash, moving to Hawaii. Mona must now tackle high school alone and, though her family cares about her, she feels like the “creative oddball” in their midst. Mona struggles with depression, calling it the “Matter.” Through the help of a therapist and a new girl, Hailey, Mona begins to notice what starts her spiraling downward and how to catch herself before it becomes all-consuming. Chapter titles such as “Notice Your Patterns,” “Break Your Cycles,” and “Replace What You Can’t Erase” reinforce the steps Mona needs to take to cope.
The book presents depression in a realistic manner, showing the back-and-forth struggle that isn’t solved but, rather, managed. While the insightful text tells a compelling story, Gulledge’s art is a showstopper. In a scene where Mona’s overwhelmed by too many choices, her Matter has a hold of her arms and legs, pulling her to the edges of the page while whispering such things as, “You have nothing to offer” and “You are not good for ANYTHING,” inciting our universal search for meaning in our lives.
I’m blown away by the depth in the images (the art is black and white with hints of yellow) throughout the book. After Nash encourages Mona to write about her confusion, the full-page illustration features Mona as a shadowy outline with little Monas picking away (literally) at her brain, digging deep until she reaches her deepest thoughts. Eventually, with the help of friends, therapy, her art, and writing, Mona finds her way toward a hopeful future.
Make this powerful book an addition to your high school’s library and provide a helping hand to someone battling with their own dark matter. The insightful and heartfelt advice is based in part onGulledge’sown struggles.
Click here to order a copy of The Dark Matter of Mona Starr or visit your local indie bookstore. e Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks!
InWhat I Like About Me, sixteen-year-old Maisie Martin’s teacher requires students to keep a journal jotting down three things they discover about themselves each day of winter break and provide evidence. Maisie’s first entry is easy: her teacher is evil, the evidence is the dreaded journal. After Mum catches Maisie writing “blah blah blah” to fill the daily allotment, Maisie settles down, nicknames her journal “DJ,” and more heartfelt confessions begin.
Maisie frets her parents are divorcing because, for the first time, Maisie’s dad hasn’t accompanied them on their annual vacation retreat. To make up for his absence, Mum lets Maisie bring her along BFF. Anna is everything you want in a girlfriend plus she’s gorgeous—a fact Maisie’s years-long crush, Sebastian, soon notices. He’s brought his annoying pal, Beamer, again. The four teens hang together at the beach, except Maisie’s too body-conscious to wear a bathing suit or get in the ocean. It comes as a surprise to everyone (even Maisie) when Maisie decides to face her fears and enter the local beauty pageant following in the footsteps of a beautifully slim mother and older sister. Figuring she won’t be selected because of her weight, she’s amazed when they not only accept her entry but also want to feature her in an interview. But all is not as it seems.
I like how this book goes beyond typical beach fun delving into complications such as when your BFF and love of your life seem destined to get together, how to deal with being stuck with an annoying sidekick, and the reality of people being unable to see past your size. Maisie vents in her journal: “Imagine having a body you’re always uncomfortable in. Always. That moves when you want it to be still, and makes you want to be still even when you long to move.”
Such heartbreaking moments are offset with heaps of humor. Jenna Guillaume kept me laughing from the book’s first lines. When a bunch of boys go skinny-dipping, Maisie muses, “soon the pool was a veritable sausage soup.” The chapters open with Maisie’s “discoveries” running a gamut of emotions, many of them hilarious. Eventually, journaling leads to self-reflection and Maisie catalogues things she likes about herself.
Books are about characters and Maisie is awesome. I’d gladly follow her on to another book or two. Guillaume has a gift for capturing our fears and seeing a way past them. Family, romance, and friendship all play out in their levels of complexity. Learning how to accept and love yourself are the book’s most powerful messages. Get this YA debut for the teen in your life or for yourself. It’ll make you laugh, but I hope it also makes you pause a moment to consider at least one thing you like about yourself.
Find Jenna Guillaume on Facebook here. Get a discussion guide here. Click herefor an excerpt. Read a Q+A with Jenna Guillaume here.
Author-illustrator Hanna Cha’s debut picture book, Tiny Feet Between the Mountains, tells the tale of Soe-In, the smallest child in a Korean village. But, being little doesn’t slow her down. Soe-In manages burdensome chores using wit and perseverance. When the sun disappears and the chieftain needs a volunteer, only Soe-in steps forward.
In the forest, she finds the spirit tiger is real, and in really big trouble—he’s swallowed the sun! Like the villagers, the spirit tiger first discounts Soe-In’s ability to help. However, brave, imaginative Soe-In saves the day.
Cha’s art shows the movement and mood of this powerful story. I enjoyed the images of the tiger because feline fluidity is difficult to capture. Her Author’s Note explains tigers are revered by Koreans; their country is shaped like one. The tiger as their spirit animal appears in countless Korean stories as a symbol of respect, strength, and dignity, both as a deity and a threat.
A Kirkus Reviews Best Picture Book of 2019 ★Starred Review – Kirkus An Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature Honor Book 2019
Bilal Cooks Daalby Aisha Saeed is an upbeat picture book about friendship and cooking. When Bilal’s friends wonder why it takes his Pakistani family all day to make daal, he introduces them to the process, letting them choose the color of lentils for the stew they will enjoy together at dinnertime. As the day goes by, Bilal worries a bit that his friends won’t like the taste, but the delicious dish pleases everyone, demonstrating how food brings people together.
Anoosha Syed’s art focuses on the kids enjoying their day of play, a variety of emotions clearly captured. The daal’s vivid descriptions (“small like pebbles, but shaped like pancakes”) come to life through the illustrations. Close your eyes and let the simmering daal awaken your senses.
The Author’s Note explains daal is a staple food in South Asia, but lentils are enjoyed in many other places. Saeed’s recipe for Chana Daal is similar to what I grew up with in my household, bringing back warm memories. In these months of the pandemic where many of us are cooking wholesome meals, this hearty and healthy dish will please while filling the house with amazing aromas all day long.
A Junior Library Guild Selection A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year ★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal
Summer Bird Blueby Akemi Dawn Bowman opens with a car crash. Seventeen-year-old Rumi Seto loses her only sister Lea, who’s also her best friend. Their mother, unable to deal, puts Rumi on a plane to Hawaii for an indefinite stay with Aunty Ani, their Japanese-Hawaiian side of the family.
Lea, two years younger, was the outgoing, happy-go-lucky sister. Rumi, the opposite personality type fits her “ruminating” name; often, she’s stuck in her head, turning things over, unable to step forward into everyday life. Though quite different, the sisters, shared a love of music, playing instruments together. They would randomly come up with three words, then write a song about it. (Summer Bird Blue, refers to the unwritten song that haunts Rumi after Lea dies.)
Rumi suffers in the angry and depressive stages of grief, vacillating between lashing out and crawling into bed for days on end. Her new surroundings include neighbors Mr. Watanabe (a grumpy octogenarian who becomes an unlikely companion) and Kai (the too-handsome, too-cheerful boy next door). As Rumi becomes closer to Kai, they go on a date, but kissing surfaces her confusion over her possible asexuality. Believing other teens have easy crushes and romance, Rumi’s self-doubt compounds after losing Lea.
The story’s lovely scenes centering around Rumi’s deep bond with music resonated with me. The moving descriptions include Rumi’s regard for Lea’s guitar, and Mr. Watanabe’s piano and ukulele. When transported into this world, Rumi’s passion ignites. However, anything musical involves Lea, and Rumi cannot process what to do without her sister, which furthers the painful introspection and turmoil.
I appreciate Bowman’s choice to spotlight a troubled, roughhewn protagonist struggling with a complexity of issues. Writing about grief, sexuality, and trying to understand life itself are ambitious undertakings, yet Bowman succeeds in weaving a truthful, heartfelt story that includes both honestly bitter moments and lyrically beautiful ones.
Find out more about Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month hereand here.
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons BYR; $17.99 HC, available in Ebook, Audio, Ages 12+)
★Starred Reviews – Horn Book, School Library Journal
Sherri L. Smith’sYA book,The Blossom and the Firefly, depicts an interesting slice of Japanese World War II history. Hana, assigned fieldwork is, one day, buried alive during an air attack. After she is dug out, Hana feels a part of her died in that bombing. Adding to her despair, she is reassigned as a Nadeshiko Tai girl—a handmaiden to the dead—serving tokkō, the special attack pilots also known as kamikaze. When each group readies to leaves, she must smile and wave as they take their last flight hoping to honorably body-crash into enemy battleships.
I appreciate the unique story structure, based on the Eastern style of storytelling called kishōtenketsu. Instead of a plot with conflict, kishōtenketsu revolves around contrast or juxtaposition. In The Blossom and the Firefly, Hana’s first-person chapters are in the “now,” while Taro’s (her love interest) third-person chapters begin in 1928 during his childhood. About halfway in, the narratives synchronize. Utilizing these time lines, we are shown Taro’s backstory without relying on flashbacks.
The story questions whether it’s possible to live and love during wartime. Hana keeps coolly distant until stumbling upon a special connection with Taro. After the war ends, rebuilding entails mending emotionally and moving forward to embrace what’s left. Readers will feel what it was like to be a teen caught in a war-torn land, where it’s not whether you have lost a loved one, but, rather, how many. This young adult novel about a little known aspect of the war is both heartbreaking and uplifting.
CURSED 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.
In the YA book, The Lovely and the Lost, teen Kira was found alone in the woods years ago by Cady (the woman who is now her stepmom). Since then Kira has been training with Cady’s elite search-and-rescue dogs. When a young girl goes missing in the immense Sierra Glades National Park, they are called in to the search. Kira needs to help this girl but becomes entangled with flashbacks of who she once was; regression into suppressed memories begins to overwhelm her.
Cady’s easygoing biological son, Jude, and their wild neighbor, Free, comprise a group the three teens call The Miscreants. Eclectic and passionate, they love one another and their dogs fiercely. When asked to put their tracking skills to use, they’re in.
With The Lovely and the Lost, Barnes has written a page-turner just perfect for summer or anytime reading. Short chapters race forward through layers of mysteries. Finding the lost girl is just as important as self-discovery. The flawed characters have dark pasts, yet find hope in one another. Even the dogs have well-developed personalities.
This story about family, secrets, and canine companions will tug at your heart and raise your pulse as you feel the clock ticking in the 750,000-acre wilderness area where the search takes place. Once you get to the end, you’ll want to read this clever book again to see what you missed the first time through. I like that some tangents are left open for interpretation or, possibly, a sequel.
Today Good Reads With Ronna features a guest post by the North Oak series author, Ann Hunter, because the first eBook in her series, Born to Run, is available this week on BookBub for 99 cents! Get hooked on the first book then enjoy six more books in the series.
GUEST POST BY ANN HUNTER:
Alexandra Anderson, heroine of the contemporary YA North Oak series (recommended for ages 12 and up*), is an orphan who has endured trauma in the foster care system. She’s running from a dark past.
As a teacher, I regard the interception of children at a young age to be pivotal in their approach to and success in the world. When a child knows they’re loved and is given boundaries, they can then grow and flourish.
This young runaway doesn’t believe she’ll be worthy of love when the people at North Oak—good, honest people who have taken her in—find out what she’s done. She suspects she’s better off being alone forever.
It’s important that children have a strong support system around them. There’s no better example than family.
Family isn’t always who you expect them to be. One hopes their parents will love them, but sometimes things happen. Family can extend to those who support you no matter what. They might be colorful, and crazy, and eccentric, but they put their trust in your greatness. They support you in your desire to do good in the world.
They help you find your true self. Alex discovers this through the people at North Oak, and horse racing. Her first real friend is a horse. He becomes a brother to her. She senses his spirit and desire to be great. Meanwhile, Alex’s new guardian isn’t so sure about the situation they’ve been thrown into, but she gradually falls in love with Alex as a mother should. However, she discovers her boss is keeping a secret that will change Alex’s life forever.
What kind of support system do you surround yourself with? Do they lift you up? Do they empower you and recognize your greatness?
Everyone deserves a family. Every child deserves to be loved.
That is North Oak’s goal (as a book series). Kids today need a support system. They are going through things we never really dealt to such a great extent in our own childhood days; scary topics such as bullying, suicide, and sexuality. We can’t raise them exactly the same way our parents raised us. That world doesn‘t exist anymore. We have to prepare them for a new one.
Love these children with all your fierceness. They need the sword and shield we can provide them with by enabling their confidence and giving them safe places to land.
* The series starts out middle grade, but ages up to YA with the reader as the main character ages. We follow Alex from the age of thirteen into her twenties.
Children as young as ten can enjoy the first few books which presents a great opportunity to open up discussions with their parents on the topics presented. The North Oak series is linear so it is best to read them in order.
ABOUT NORTH OAK:
North Oak champions tough issues kids and teens are facing today, such as bullying, suicide, and sexuality, all set against the exciting fast-paced world of horse racing.
BORN TO RUN (book 1)
He lost a sister. She lost a child. Alex lost everything.
Alexandra Anderson is on the run from the law. When the thirteen-year-old orphan can run no further, she collapses at the gates of the prestigious racing and breeding farm, North Oak. Horse racing strikes a deep chord in her. She hears a higher calling in the jingle jangle of bit and stirrup and in the thunder of hooves on the turn for home. It tells her she has a place in the world. But when the racing headlines find her on the front of every sports page, she realizes North Oak is no longer a safe haven. Money can’t buy love, but it just might secure Alex’s future. Will everyone at North Oak still want to offer her a home when they learn of her unspeakable crime?On the heels of Joanna Campbell’s beloved Thoroughbred Series, and Walter Farley’s Black Stallion, comes a brand new young adult horse racing series that will sweep you away like a runaway Thoroughbred.
Click here to watch this cool paperback book animation:
Ann Hunter is awesome and hilarious. She loves mentoring other writers and has a soft spot for kids and teens. She is often told it must be a blast living in her brain. She argues that the voices in her head never shut up. The only way to get relief is to let them out on to the page.
She lives in a cozy Utah home with her two awesome kids and epic husband.
NOTE: Guests posts are not an endorsement by Good Reads With Ronna
FIVE FEET APART Written by Rachael Lippincott With Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (Simon & Schuster BYR; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)
In Rachel Lippincott’s superb novel, Five Feet Apart, with its PG13 film version releasing in March (starring Cole Sprouse and Haley Lu Richardson), we’re introduced to the growing love story of two teen cystic fibrosis (CF) patients. Stella has been a CF patient for most of her life. She seems complacent and at ease from knowing all the nurses, every corner of the hospital, and having a precise routine and arrangement for her medical cart. Her habits at the hospital seem invulnerable to change until she meets Will, a reckless newcomer who also has CF.
As is the rule, CFers must stay six feet apart from each other to avoid contamination. For Stella, being close to Will could cost her the new set of lungs she’s awaiting on the transplant list and the promise of a new life. However, with the couple spending more time together, the six-foot apart rule becomes challenging to maintain, even for rigid, routine follower Stella. But if they can never touch, can they still love each other from a set distance? Or can they safely bend the rules, take away one foot but maybe tread in dangerous territory? Will it make a difference?
Lippincott’s novel is an exciting emotional rollercoaster with elements of hope, fear, and love that intertwine seamlessly. Lippincott does a great job conveying the longing between the two patients. She also includes diverse characters and family relationships that are not usually portrayed in novels that I read. If you loved books like The Fault in Our Stars or Everything, Everything, then you will want to read Five Feet Apart. Maybe, like the main characters, you too will find it hard to remain five feet apart from this great read.
Reviewed by Rachel Kaufman
Rachel Kaufman is a current sophomore studying communications at the University of Southern California. She’s passionate about books and hiking with her dog, Scout. Rachel enjoys how books reshape her imagination of the world around her. Rachel knows firsthand how important books are in aiding children’s futures, working with a reading program, Reach Out and Read, by reading, organizing, and donating over 200 children’s books. In her free time you can find her either reading or thinking about what she might read next.
The much-awaited fourth Ransom Riggs YA novel in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series, A Map of Days, picks up where book three ended, in current-time Florida. Immediately we are reintroduced to Jacob Portman, Miss Peregrine, and her wards. Yet, for those of us who read the trilogy, then saw Tim Burton’s 2016 feature film adaptation, we need to reorient ourselves. In the film, Grandfather Abe ends up alive and the two main female characters’ powers are reversed. Remember, it’s Emma who can make fire with her hands and Olive who’s lighter than air. The clan arrives to stop Jacob’s family from committing him to a mental-health institution.
I like that A Map of Days explores the confusing romance between teen-aged Jacob and Emma (who was Jacob’s grandfather’s time-arrested ex-girlfriend). What a bizarre love triangle with Emma trapped in a loop for fifty years, pining after Abe as he traveled the globe, aged, and had a family of his own. Will Jacob—even with powers similar to Abe’s—ever fill his grandfather’s hollowgast monster-hunting shoes?
The book’s title refers to the temporal atlas that pinpoints the location of time loops in the peculiar (supernormal) world. In the US, these loops are largely unmapped and unknown. Finding or creating an American Map of Days is a priority for Miss Peregrine and the other ymbryines (shape-shifting matriarchs of peculiardom) because the country is fractured by feuding clans and lacks centralized peculiar authority. Jacob, after his prior successes, feels ready to take on an important role, not fully understanding the awaiting dangers—and that’s where this adventure leads.
Fans will enjoy the array of vintage photos scattered throughout the novel and should find the addition of full-color photos appealing as well. With over ten million copies in print of the first three novels, the popularity of this series cannot be overstated. Collectively, the books have spent 100 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
Here’sa link to A Map of Days Book Tour. Start reading A Map of Dayshere. See a trailer here.
LOVE & OTHER TRAIN WRECKS Written by Leah Konen (Katherine Tegen Books; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)
★Starred Review – Kirkus,School Library Journal
This twenty-four-hour whirlwind journey in Love & Other Train Wrecks begins with Amarantha “Ammy” West and Noah Adler seated in the same Amtrak car. Their first impressions of one another are stiff and uncomfortable. Noah, eighteen, travels, pink roses in hand, to surprise his ex-girlfriend with fancy dinner reservations and a heartfelt poem. An optimistic, good-looking guy, he attempts to engage Ammy in conversation, but she bristles against his easy-going personality.
Seventeen-year-old Ammy is escaping from the mess her life has become since her father left and her mother plunged into anger and anxiety attacks. Though Ammy’s trying to be supportive of her mother, she seems to hit it off with her new stepsister Kat. Attending her father’s commitment ceremony (before the divorce is even final) tests Ammy’s allegiance to Team Mom. Ammy surely doesn’t want to share any of her personal drama with an annoyingly friendly stranger like Noah.
When the Amtrak train stops due to mechanical error, Noah and Ammy, determined to reach their respective destinations on time, disembark into a snowstorm. GPS makes a bus station seem an easy walk, but, instead, the frozen trek filled with mishaps turns into an adventure of a lifetime.
All the while, Ammy and Noah contemplate their places in the world including what it means to make your own decisions and then face those consequences. Konen’s choice to write alternating viewpoint chapters works well to show what each character shares or conceals. The chapters are also fast-paced and consistently satisfying. As the attraction between the main characters builds, Ammy struggles to come to terms with how romantic relationships can hurt friends and family and how to handle those conflicts of interest. Falling (and staying) in love, while wonderful, isn’t necessarily easy.