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Janine. by Maryann Cocca-Leffler

JANINE.
Written and illustrated by Maryann Cocca-Leffler
(Albert Whitman & Company; $16.99, Ages 4-7)

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Janine “is one of a kind” and this delightful picture book full of expressive dialogue and artwork, about a special little girl, portrays her uniqueness thoughtfully and unabashedly. I’m so glad this book’s been written because, while there are a spate of books that deal with kids who feel different, Cocca-Leffler knows first hand about children with disabilities and their differences. Janine. is actually based on her experiences raising her special needs daughter, the titular Janine. While Janine certainly marches to the beat of her own drummer, and adults reading the story might find her quirkiness quite charming, one particular classmate in the book certainly does not. That lack of empathy, along with Janine’s authenticity, is the basis for this tale.

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Interior artwork from Janine. by Maryann Cocca-Leffler, Albert Whitman & Company, ©2015.

Here’s just a snippet from the book’s very brief description of Janine, because for the most part, Cocca-Leffler lets Janine’s words move the story forward and that works so well.

She reads the dictionary
when others are playing
and listens when no one
thinks she is.

That’s how Janine overhears that a private party is being planned by this self-proclaimed “cool kid” and she’s not on the list of guests.

“Janine. You are STRANGE!
You have to
CHANGE!”

Kids with NLD (nonverbal learning disorder/disability), Asperger’s or high functioning Autism, often may be hyper verbal with amazing memories as Janine is depicted, but can often be lacking in social skills. This can make it difficult fitting in with their typically developing peers. Plus, kids can be cruel and insensitive at this age, like the bully who tells Janine she’s not invited to her party. NOTE: I love the illustration that immediately follows the bully’s nasty pronouncement above. One classmate in a red baseball cap who seems to like Janine, tosses his invitation after witnessing the bully’s hurtful behavior.

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Interior artwork from Janine. by Maryann Cocca-Leffler, Albert Whitman & Company, ©2015.

Ever resourceful, Janine decides to throw her own party …

“and EVERYONE is invited!”

And guess, what? Everyone except the bully wants to go!  With a happy ending like that, it’s easy to see why this book about kindness, and inclusion should be in every classroom and school library. It’s important to note, however, that not all real life situations have such positive outcomes; all the more reason why making available picture books about children with disabilities should be the goal of every school district and school librarian. The sooner we start the conversation about the importance of diversity, whether it’s race, gender or differing abilities, the sooner that bullies will wield less power in the classroom and on the playground and a more tolerant, accepting generation will emerge.

Be sure to read the jacket flap of this book to learn more about Cocca-Leffler’s inspiration for the story and Janine’s commitment to being a “role model to children and adults, encouraging them to focus on abilities, not disabilities.”

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Visit www.JaninesParty.com, created by Cocca-Leffler and Janine as a resource for parents, teachers and students.

Click here to download a Janine. coloring page.

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A Most Special Sister

Just Because ($14.99, Lion Hudson, ages 5 and up), written and illustrated by Rebecca Elliott, is one of those picture books that quietly sneak up on you and then remain with you long after you have read the last page. I know because that’s exactly what happened to me. Why? Well, as the refrain repeated throughout the story says, “Just because.”

9780745962351Elliott, whose masterful artwork really needs no words, takes readers into the world of a doting younger brother who not only loves his big sister, but considers her his best friend. It wasn’t until my second read that I realized Clemmie, the older sibling, was in a wheelchair. My initial peruse engaged me enough to go back a second time and carefully study each page. I guess I liked the characters so much I didn’t pay attention to the fact that Clemmie had special needs which is exactly what the message is about.  When we get to know someone what we see is heart not handicap.

Clemmie, explains little brother, “can’t walk, talk, move around much…” but Elliott shows us that what Clemmie can do inspires her brother and makes him adore her even more. “Some sisters can be mean. They scream and shout, pull your hair, steal your chips and won’t play cowboys with you.”  For this young boy, older sister Clemmie’s smiles, laughter and companionship are what matters and it’s clear this sibling love and devotion will last a lifetime.

 Reviewed and recommended by Ronna Mandel, just because.

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Loyalty or Looks?

Wonder ($15.99, Knopf Books for Young Readers, ages 8-12) by R.J. Palacio is reviewed by Amanda Hogg.

For the first 10 years of his life, August Pullman was home-schooled due to a severe facial deformity that forced him to undergo multiple surgeries. But after being admitted to prestigious Beecher Prep, he decides to enroll in mainstream school. Being the new kid would give anyone the jitters, but August also has to deal with hundreds of eyes staring at him every day. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Julian, the leader of the popular group, wages war against August. Very quickly, all of the 5th grade boys have chosen sides – and not in August’s favor. Will plucky, earnest August let Julian win by being bullied out of Beecher Prep? Or will he stay and show himself and others what they’re made of?

Wonder is told in eight parts by six narrators – August, his sister Via, her boyfriend Justin, and August’s friends, Jack and Summer. This adds a layer of complexity and depth to each of the characters. Via’s and Jack’s sections in particular stand out as they sensitively explore the dynamics of being a sister and friend to someone who looks “different.”

August’s presence at Beecher Prep is the vehicle that speeds up the process of his classmates’ journeys to self discovery, ultimately leading them to choose kindness or cruelty. What makes Wonder a stand out book is how adeptly R.J. Palacio approaches the grey areas of human nature. Palacio teases out the reasons why even good people make bad choices, and the honesty with which she does so can be cringe inducing. Wonder will remind adult readers of the first time they had to grapple with being cool or being loyal, and the first time they had to stand up and fight for a person they loved. It will have readers laughing one minute and crying the next without ever really figuring out how they got there.

Although Wonder was written for ages 8 and up, R.J. Palacio’s poignant prose will keep adults interested as well. Wonder is a great book to read with kids, particularly if you want to have a discussion about friendship, loyalty or bullying.

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