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Friends and Families

By Barbara A. Ward
 | Jun 19, 2019

Books that focus on friends and families are popular with young readers, possibly because they remind them of their own supportive networks. The books on this list illustrate the positive power of community.

Ages 4–8

The Lost Sloths (Peter & Ernesto #2). Graham Annable. 2019. First Second/Roaring Brook.

The Lost SlothsReturning to the same characters and territory featured in Peter & Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths (2018), Graham Annable follows Peter and Ernesto and their sloth friends as they search for a new home after their favorite tree is destroyed in a hurricane. Their requirements are simple: They want to be safe from predators and relax in comfort. They try various spots, but nothing seems ideal. After a bird suggests a perfect tree near the river, the sloths blunder toward where they think it might be. Eventually, they find a new home, but their journey is not without its challenges, including an encounter with a jaguar. As they settle into their leafy home, it’s not clear how long this new living situation will last, but they’re all safe for now. Annable tells this humorous adventure story for beginning readers through dialogue balloons in colorful graphic novel panels.

Make a Wish, Henry Bear. Liam Francis Walsh. 2019. Neal Porter/Roaring Brook.

Make a Wish, Henry BearAlthough Henry Bear’s birthday wish from last year came true, it hasn’t turned out well. Having permissive parents has resulted in a steady diet of chocolate cake, late night hours, and tardiness to school. Henry is sick of his parents’ behavior and ready to go back to normal as he reveals to Marjani, a new classmate. When he invites her to his birthday celebration, she brings him a cupcake with a candle for wishing, which comes in handy since Henry's parents are serving only candy, not a traditional birthday cake with candles. The colorful mixed-media cartoon artwork features charming village street scenes and humorously depicts Henry Bear’s parents behaving like children. By the end of the book, it’s clear what Henry’s new birthday wish will be.

Old Man of the Sea. Stella Elia. Ill. Weberson Santiago. 2019. Lantana.

Old Man of the SeaIn this picture book, a young boy and his grandfather grow closer through storytelling. Grandpa’s tales of adventures at sea, as he fell in love with one continent after another, thrill the boy and make him eager for his own adventures. Although the stories and illustrations, created with watercolor and finished digitally, are exciting and charming in their own way, the book gains power from the boy's observations about his grandfather’s increasing frailty and growing understanding of his advice about life, calling it “a sailor's knot: simple, resistant and easy to untie.” Youngsters will relate to the idea of listening to someone else’s stories and dreaming of their own adventures. Older readers may ponder over how elderly people look back on their life journeys, knowing that there isn’t much time left for future stories.

A Squirrely Situation (Calpurnia Tate, Girl Vet # 5). Jacqueline Kelly. Ill. Jennifer L. Meyer. 2019. Henry Holt/Macmillan.

A Squirrelly SituationWhen Callie Vee’s brother Travis brings home an orphaned baby squirrel, the whole household is disrupted by its arrival. Fortunately, the family cat, Idabelle, nurses the squirrel (named Fluffy by Travis) alongside her kitten, Thud. Thud and Fluffy wreak havoc in the kitchen getting in the way of the family’s cook, Viola. Callie puts her veterinary skills to use when Fluffy's tail needs surgery after an accident with a door. When a contest is held at the local fair to determine who killed the most squirrels and who has bagged the biggest squirrel, Travis enters Fluffy in the biggest squirrel category since there is nothing in the rules that says the squirrel must be dead. Life lessons are woven in among humorous childhood adventures in rural Texas at the turn of the century in this engaging, illustrated chapter book.

Ages 9–11

Battle of Champions (Peasprout Chen #2). Henry Lien. 2019. Henry Holt/Macmillan.

Battle of the ChampionsIn her second year at the Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword, Peasprout Chen is determined to make the most of her opportunities. Her friendship with Doi, her former adversary, is on firm footing, and she continues to have romantic feelings toward Doi’s brother, Hisashi. When Hisahi arrives in Pearl with Yinmei, the heir to the Shinian throne, who is seeking asylum in Pearl, things get complicated. Peasprout, jealous of the possible relationship between the two, doesn’t trust the girl. As her new homeland faces attacks, Peasprout and the other students are sorted in battlebands to practice competitive skating and defensive maneuvers. Even though she becomes captain of her group, Peasprout struggles with making decisions and dealing with self-pride and impulsivity. Amid the exciting skating and battle scenes, Peasprout realizes her character weaknesses and how she has hurt others. Because of all the intrigue and layers of betrayal, readers won’t want to leave Peasprout’s world.

The Epic Story (Cilla Lee-Jenkins #3) . Susan Tan. Ill. Dana Wulfekotte. 2019. Roaring Brook.

The Epic StoryBecause she views the world through the lens of a writer, Cilla Lee-Jenkins provides readers with a unique perspective on life. The challenges she faces as part of a mixed-race family and as a preteen are relatable. Having already written a “bestseller” and a “classic,” Cilla decides to write an epic, an apt choice since her fifth-grade year has the types of challenges that might be found in one. Cilla feels unsure about transitioning to middle school, doesn't get along with her teacher, Ms. Paradise, and almost forsakes playing the tuba and silly games with her friend Melissa because of the dismissive remarks of classmates. Her beloved Ye Ye, who has always guided her about being true to herself, can no longer speak English because of a stroke, but Cilla soldiers on, supported by her family and librarian friend, Ms. Clutter. Cilla is not only writing an epic, she and those around her also seem to be living one—and she’s hoping for a happy ending.

Ages 12–14

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise. Dan Gemeinhart. 2019. Henry Holt/Macmillan.

The Remarkable JourneyTwelve-year-old Coyote and her father, Rodeo, have been crisscrossing the country in a repurposed school bus since her mother and two sisters were killed in a car accident. Coyote has had no problem with this lifestyle until she learns that Poplin Springs, Washington, plans to destroy the park where her family left a memory box. She concocts a plan to persuade her father to take her back home, and as they make their way across the country from Florida, they pick up various passengers, including Lester, who plans to forsake his music career for his lady love; Salvador, who is fleeing with his mother from an abusive father; Val, a girl whose parents won't accept her sexual identity; and a feisty goat named Gladys. Readers will come to care about Coyote, who is dealing with loss and grief, as well as those who become a family for her.

Ages 15+

Girls on the Verge.  Sharon Biggs Waller. 2019. Henry Holt/Macmillan.

Girls on the VergeThis timely novel about women’s reproductive rights focuses on three girls, one of whom is pregnant, on a road trip from rural Texas to Mexico and then New Mexico. When her best friend, Bea, lets her down, Camille arranges for Annabelle Ponsonby, an older theater friend, to drive her where she needs to go to find a way to terminate the pregnancy. The author captures Camille’s confusion, frustration, and disappointment in herself as well as the conflicted emotions of Bea, who decides to go along despite her belief that abortion is wrong. The solidarity of sisterhood is threaded through this story while the book raises important questions about the judgmental attitudes that surround the sexual behavior of women but not men. Important and relevant, this book should provoke much discussion.

Heroine. Mindy McGinnis. 2019. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins.

HeroineSenior Mickey Catalan has the world on a string, and everything that matters is going her way—until suddenly it isn't. After the talented softball catcher and her best friend, Carolina, a pitcher, are injured in a car wreck, OxyContin eases Mickey’s pain as she faces months of recovery. When her doctor balks at prescribing more OxyContin, Mickey, who is desperate to be ready for the softball season, behaves in ways she’d never have dreamed she would, stealing from her family and a stranger and hanging out with others using the drug for recreational purposes. Things quickly spiral out of control, and Mickey looks for cheaper and more efficient ways to ease her feelings and stave off withdrawal symptoms. Through it all, she lies to everyone around her and comforts herself with the assertion that she isn’t an addict. For anyone trying to understand the opioid crisis in our country, Mindy McGinnis’ story provides a good starting point.

How to Make Friends With the Dark. Kathleen Glasgow. 2019. Delacorte/Random House.

How to Make Friends With the DarkSixteen-year-old Grace (Tiger) Tolliver is close to her mother, the only parent she’s ever known. Her mother somehow manages to pay the bills, and they scrape by. Lately, Tiger has been chaffing at her mother’s overprotective ways, and she unhappy when her mother buys a dress she considers inappropriate for the dance she’s attending with her long-time crush. She blasts her mother, and then spends a blissful few hours kissing Kai. The first 38 pages are devoted to Before—before her mother's death, that is—and are followed by what comes afterward as Tiger is placed in a series of foster homes near Tucson, where she learns that things can be much, much worse. Ultimately, Tiger saves herself with help from friends, some old, some new, and some having gone through similar experiences. The title is fitting since that is exactly what someone with a life-changing loss must do. Kathleen Glasgow takes an unflinching look at a topic that many avoid and includes resources about grief, loss, and suicide.

Barbara A. Ward teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in literacy at Washington State University, Pullman. She spent 25 years teaching in the public schools of New Orleans, where she worked with students at every grade level, from kindergarten through high school as well as several ability levels. She is certified in elementary education, English education, and gifted education. She holds a bachelor's in communications, a master's in English education from the University of Tennessee, and a PhD in curriculum and instruction from the University of New Orleans.

These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) and are published weekly on Literacy Daily.

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