Many trade books in different genres can enrich content area learning in classrooms at all grade levels. The books in this week’s column provide unique perspectives on topics in science and social studies. We were excited by the lively, vigorous, and imaginative approaches of the books, which evoke wonder and discovery and invite discussion and further exploration of the topics they introduce.
Animal Ark: Celebrating Our Wild World in Poetry and Pictures. Kwame Alexander (with Mary Rand Hess & Deanna Nikaido). Ill. Joel Sartore. 2017. National Geographic Kids.
This collaboration celebrating the diversity of our wild world presents large-format photographs of animals from around the world such as the St. Andrews beach mouse, bobtail squid, African leopard, and Bengal slow loris. Photographs, common names, locations, and endangered status of the featured animals and other animals in Sartore’s Photo Ark project appear in a foldout in the back matter. The book has two additional foldouts of animal portraits. The center double-page foldout features a longer poem, “The Chorus of Creatures,” that celebrates connections between humans and the world’s wild animals, ending with “Listen to the earth. / That sound you hear / is hope with wings.” The arresting photographs show some animals seeming to be as curious about the reader as readers will be about the animals. Back matter includes notes from Sartore and Alexander.
Rivers of Sunlight: How the Sun Moves Water Around the Earth. (The Sunlight Series). Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm. Ill. Molly Bang. 2017. Blue Sky/Scholastic.
With the same combination of expressive text and stunning illustrations used in the first four books in the Sunlight Series, Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm present an accessible scientific explanation of “how the sun moves water around the earth.” The sun is the narrator. Key points in the sun’s explanation, highlighted in yellow print, include statements such as “Almost all of Earth’s water is in your salty seas” and “This is the Gulf Stream—part of the enormous ocean river.” The text ends with the sun’s promise to do its part to keep Earth’s water clean and flowing and a call for readers to do their part to use water sparingly and keep it clean. Extensive endnotes provide more details.
Thirsty, Thirsty Elephants. Sandra Markle. Ill. Fabricio VandenBroeck. 2017. Charlesbridge.
When a severe drought in Tanzania dries up their local water holes, Grandma Elephant sets out with her herd in search of a plentiful source of water. Little Calf suffers greatly from the heat and lack of water during the long trek before Grandma’s trumpeting signals that she has found the watering hole remembered from a “thirsty, thirsty time long ago” when she was the size of Little Calf. VandenBroeck’s mixed-media illustrations beautifully detail the setting and express the close and caring relationships of the elephants. Back matter includes an author’s note on the inspiration for the book—the true story of an older elephant (named Big Mama by researchers) who saved her herd during a long drought in 1994; a list of amazing elephant facts; and a list of resources.
The Tree. Neal Layton. 2017. Candlewick.
A few large-type words on verso pages—“A tree / a birds’ nest / a squirrels’ nest, an owls’ hollow / and a rabbits’ burrow”—and pen-and-watercolor wash illustrations on the recto pages set the scene of a lone evergreen standing on a small, fenced-in plot and introduce the animals for whom the tree is home. New arrivals, a man and a woman, come with blueprints and building materials. As they saw down the tree, a falling birds’ nest and fleeing creatures surprise them. The couple makes a change of plans that results in “a happy home” for all. Layton’s fable offers a simple, thought-provoking message on humans sharing the natural environment with other species.
Gorilla Dawn. Gill Lewis. Ill. Susan Meyer. 2017. Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum/Simon & Schuster.
A baby gorilla is captured by rebel soldiers and taken to their illegal mining camp within the boundaries of a national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two children set out to free the gorilla after learning that he is to be sold and smuggled out of the country. Imara is an enslaved girl who has survived by convincing Black Mamba, the leader of the rebel guerillas, that she is a Spirit Child with supernatural powers to protect him. Bobo is the son of a wildlife ranger accused of killing the leader of the gorilla troop, who has joined the rebels to find proof of his father’s innocence. An author’s note provides information on the endangered status of the eastern lowland gorilla and conservation efforts to protect the gorilla and rainforest of the Congo.
Lesser Spotted Animals: The Coolest Creatures You’ve Never Heard Of. Martin Brown. 2017. David Fickling/Scholastic.
In the introduction, Brown sets the tone for this book with his “good-bye to the gnu and cherrio to the cheetah.” Each mammal (zorilla, long-tailed dunnart, onager, gaur, zebra duiker, and 16 more) is given a double spread: a heading with common name and an interest-catching identification (e.g., “CUBON SOLENODON Shaggy Caribbean insectivore with a toxic bite”), a realistic portrait, and information about its characteristics and behavior. An inset provides information about the animal’s size, what it eats, where it lives, its status, and a bit of trivia. Backmatter includes a glossary and a chart on the grading of status from least concern (no need to worry at present) to extinct (gone) as well as data deficient (not enough is known to judge).
The Secret Project. Jonah Winter. Ill. Jeanette Winter. 2017. Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster.
Jonah Winter’s spare text—“In the beginning, there was just a peaceful desert mountain landscape….”— and Jeanette Winter’s flat folk art–style acrylic paintings present a picture-book history of the secret project that brought scientists to a remote site in New Mexico in 1943 to develop an atomic bomb. The deep secrecy of the project is expressed in the contrast between the detailed and richly colored desert landscape and the gray-black silhouettes of the “shadowy figures” (the researchers) working day and night. Following the countdown for the testing of the bomb are four wordless pages showing stages of the explosion—and a startling black final double spread. An author’s note provides additional information answering some of the questions that reading The Secret Project will raise.
Soldier Song: A True Story of the Civil War. Debbie Levy. Ill. Gilbert Ford. 2017. Disney Hyperion.
At the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1863, after being defeated by the Confederate Army, the Union Army stole across the river and both armies settled in to nurse the wounded and regroup. Illustrations, in the style of silkscreen and woodblock prints in soft hues of blue, purple, and green, depict the following days in which pipers and buglers played songs heard on both sides of the river, reminding the soldiers of their common culture in music. The singing in unison of a song of longing and hope, “Home Sweet Home,” buoyed their spirits through cold, rainy days. Orange flourishes show the music wafting between the two sides. Excerpts from primary sources, including letters and diaries, add detail to the pages. The extensive backmatter includes a timeline, historical notes, short biographies of individuals at Fredericksburg, a history and score of “Home Sweet Home,” source notes, and references.
Me and Marvin Gardens. Amy Sarig King. 2017. Scholastic.
Eleven-year-old Obe Devlin loves the creek that runs through the small bit of land still owned by his family after his alcoholic great-great-grandfather mortgaged and lost most of the Devlin farmland over 100 years ago. The once-Devlin acreage has become a huge housing development. While collecting trash along the creek, Obe comes across a strange creature that eats plastic. Has he discovered a new species of animal? Could its plastic-eating habit be a solution to the pollution problems associated with nonbiodegradable plastic? He wants to keep Marvin Gardens (named after the Monopoly property) a secret, but when he discovers that Marvin’s poop is toxic and that he has a family near the river, Obe realizes that he needs help in protecting Marvin and confides in his science teacher. This is a coming-of-age story and thought-provoking fantasy about a boy with a strong sense of responsibility for the environment.
Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls. Tonya Bolden. 2017. Abrams.
Readers are introduced chronologically to black men and women who will surprise and engage them, including a race car driver, a movie director, a concert singer, a banker, an architect, an economist and attorney who served on President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights, and a NASA mathematician. All rose from modest backgrounds and, equipped with determination, vision, and passion for learning, made contributions to culture, commerce, and society. Each biography, written in Bolden’s engaging voice, includes sidebars, archival photographs with extensive captions, bullet points on details of their lives and families, notes on other people who had similar dreams and made similar contributions, and inserts describing the times in which they lived. Backmatter includes a glossary, source notes, bibliography, credits, and an index.
Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time. Tanya Lee Stone. 2017. Wendy Lamb/Random House.
In a collection of stories of young women from around the world, Stone explores the reality of teenaged girls longing for education. Stone explores video and interviews compiled for the film Girl Rising to reveal stories of individual girls from Afghanistan, Cambodia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Nepal, Peru, and Sierra Leone. In text accompanied by beautiful full-page photographs, she presents the voices of the girls who experienced slavery, rape, and forced marriage when they were not yet teenagers. The girls tell how they survived, in some cases fleeing again and again back to their families. Stone includes statistics and details about the status of millions of young women around the world and addresses resources for social action in the last section. Backmatter includes an author’s note, bibliography, source notes, and resources.
Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case. Patricia Hruby Powell. Ill. Shadra Strickland. 2017. Chronicle.
Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving grew up in Virginia. Their families were friends. Richard liked the energetic, smart, visionary Mildred. She loved her family and school and came to love him. Their story, told in verse in alternate voices, recounts their growing happiness together in the community of their families. In 1958 the interracial couple married in Washington, DC, because of Virginia’s antimiscegenation law. Upon returning to Virginia they were arrested, and so began their journey of nine years of separation from their families, during which the ACLU took up their case. This resulted in the overturning of the Lovings’ conviction by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 12, 1967. With illustrations painted in muted hues, the novel is set against events of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Back matter includes a note on Loving and Jeter; a timeline; a bibliography that includes interviews conducted by the author, written material, and credits and sources; an artist’s note; and acknowledgments.
Tonya Bolden will be at ILA 2017 Conference & Exhibits as part of the Young Adult Putting Books to Work workshop, which takes place Monday, July 17, from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.
Tanya Lee Stone will be one of our cohosts for the #ILAchat “Empowering Girls Through Education” on Tuesday, March 14, at 8:00 p.m. ET. Stone will also appear at ILA 2017 Conference & Exhibits, where she’ll be taking part in the Young Adult Author Meetup on Saturday, July 15, 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
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.
Sandip Wilson serves as associate professor in the College of Health and Education of Husson University in Bangor, ME. Carolyn Angus is former Director of the George G. Stone Center for Children's Books, Claremont Graduate University, CA.
Families. By turns they leave us feeling loved and cherished as well as sometimes frustrated and confused, but love them or loathe them, there is no denying that the members of our families have great importance in our lives and keep us grounded and feeling supported. Open the cover of many books for children or teens, and you will find that family matters in many ways—no matter what form that family may take. This week’s reviews explore family and might prompt some readers to craft a gratitude list for their family.
Bat Count: A Citizen Science Story. Anna Forrester. Ill. Susan Detwiler. 2017. Arbordale.
JoJo’s family share an interest in helping an endangered species survive by counting the bats that fly from their barn at dusk. After JoJo’s mother becomes worried about the species whose numbers are dropping due to white-nose syndrome, she enlists her family in counting them and sharing the data with scientists. From a high of thirty-nine one summer to a low of one in the last year, the numbers have dwindled. As JoJo’s family keep an eye on the sky, they spot three bats, a mother and two offspring. JoJo becomes hopeful that more bats will be born in future years, and perhaps the species will rebound. Back matter includes information about white-nose syndrome, a fungal infection which is killing bats, and an illustration of a diseased bat; bat facts; and background on how citizen scientists can become involved in helping researchers as they work to save bats. JoJo’s family is just one of many families who share an interest in solving environmental problems.
A Cat Named Swan. Holly Hobbie. 2017. Random House.
After his mother and siblings disappear from their cardboard box in an alley, a kitten is left to fend for himself. It isn't easy, but he manages to survive. The illustrations show just how small he is and how much danger surrounds him on the city streets. An animal control officer rescues the kitten and takes him to a shelter, from which he is adopted. As he grows accustomed to his new name—Swan—and his new family and their daily routines, he realizes that he is safe in his forever home. Although he lost one family at the start of the book, he finds another one at its conclusion. All members of Swan’s new family, including Woody the dog, integrate him into their lives. Reading this picture book, with pencil-and-watercolor illustrations which contain many details and rich colors featuring the cute kitten, may prompt readers to make a trip to a shelter to find their own purring machine to add to their family. Swan’s adoption changed his life as well as the lives of his human companions.
Molly & Pim and the Millions of Stars. Martine Murray. 2017. Alfred A. Knopf/Random House.
Unaware of the disadvantages, ten-year-old Molly desperately wants to blend in and be just like everyone else. But her mother, who is an herbalist and concocts various potions for what ails her family and neighbors, is clearly different from the other mothers. When her mother accidentally turns herself into a beautiful tree, Molly is left to her own devices. Alone and desperate, Molly enlists the help of Pim Wilder, a classmate who is interested in things that are different and doesn't question her story about her mother’s potions. Together, they come up with some possible solutions to her mother's plight, and along with another classmate, face down a threat from her grouchy neighbors to cut down the tree. This gently told story will have readers believing in the magic that surrounds Molly’s mother. By the book's conclusion, Molly has come to terms with her own uniqueness. Like the stars that shine above Molly and her mother, each person has something worth noticing and something that makes them stand out. Why would we ever want to hide that light or change that person to a dimmer wattage? The book offers readers important life lessons about self-acceptance.
Town Is by the Sea. Joanne Schwartz. 2017. Groundwood/House of Anansi.
Not all parents enjoy the jobs they have that support their families economically, but they perform the necessary tasks because they must be done. In this moving picture book, set in the coal mining town of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, in the 1950s, a young boy spends his day in a most satisfactory fashion, enjoying the scenery, hanging out with a friend, doing errands for his mother, and stopping by his grandfather's grave. While he enjoys the carefree moments of his childhood, his father is working beneath the surface of the sea digging for coal. For the boy and the man, the best moments of the day are when the father returns to the surface and trudges home where he enjoys dinner with his family and gazes at the sea near their home. The last lines and the author's note let readers know that the boy realizes that his carefree life is soon going to change as he, too, must begin working in the mine. The illustrations, created in ink, watercolor, and gouache, effectively contrast the beauty of the ocean and the boy's town with the bleakness of the dark spaces in which his father labors. Concluding the book on a note of acceptance of his fate because "in my town, that's the way it goes" leaves readers thinking about life choices and the expectations and limitations placed on us by our environment, our upbringing, and the options that are available. The simple yet eloquent text and powerful visual images tug relentlessly at readers' hearts.
Addie Bell’s Shortcut to Growing Up. Jessica Brody. 2017. Delacorte/Random House.
Ah, to be sixteen and to have the world at your feet! Desperate to be sixteen like her older sister, Rory, who wears makeup, is popular, and has a boyfriend, Adeline (Addie) Bell is sure that life will be perfect when she’s older. After she and her best friend, Grace, have a fight on her twelfth birthday, Addie makes a wish using a special jewelry box given to her by an elderly neighbor, and everything changes. She awakens the next morning to find that her wish to be sixteen has been granted. However, having missed out on those four years between twelve and sixteen leaves her at a serious disadvantage. Not only does she not know how to drive her car or put on makeup or even pull together an outfit, but she doesn't understand how to deal with boys or how to flirt. And the trigonometry and French she should know after studying the subjects for years? Forget it! Adeline is completely lost. She may look sixteen, but at heart Adeline is still an innocent twelve-year-old. She comes to realize that many things have changed in her family, and she barely recognizes herself or her parents. And where is her sister, Rory, and her friend Grace? The story is amusing, serving as a cautionary tale about wanting to grow up too fast. After all, once those early teen years are gone, they're gone forever.
Falling Over Sideways. Jordan Sonnenblick. 2016. Scholastic.
Eighth-grader Claire is fed up with her life. Nothing is going right—at school, in dance class, or at home. Her science teacher seems unstable, constantly comparing her current students to her daughter, the incomparable Meredith. Her lunch companions steal her Skittles, and Ryder, her band nemesis, leaves her in the dust in playing the alto saxophone. Two of her closest friends have moved up in an advanced dance group while she remains with the younger ones. But these issues pale in significance after her father, who is a writer, has a stroke in front of Claire. Although her quick thinking saves his life, the recovery process is painstakingly slow, and she worries that he will never be the same. As the family adjusts to the changes in their lives while supporting his needs, Claire is embarrassed about her father’s appearance and physical and intellectual struggles and worries that her classmates will tease her. This is a great novel to share with middle graders trying to come to terms with an unexpected family event.
Every Hidden Thing. Kenneth Oppel. 2016. Simon & Schuster.
Inspired by a real-life rivalry between two paleontologists, this book takes readers into the Dakota badlands after the Civil War as whites continue to intrude on the land of Native Americans. The patriarchs of two families—the Bolts and the Cartlands—have tried to outdo each other in finding the best fossils, and now both have mounted separate expeditions to locate and unearth an enormous one, based on the information of a man who digs bones as a hobby. Both paleontologists are willing to go to any lengths to claim that fossil. These are imperfect men, with tempers, slippery moral compasses, and hubris. Their offspring, Rachel Cartland and Samuel Bolt, are reluctantly attracted to one another. Rachel, who has always considered herself plain but adept with fossils, wrangles a spot on her father's expedition with the intent of persuading him to support her dreams of attending college. Samuel is attracted to Rachel because of her intelligence and their shared passion for fossils. The relationship flounders on trust issues amid rich descriptions of the vast landscape in which their families’ drama plays out. There are philosophical bits threaded throughout the book as Rachel ponders what remains behind after we die, just as she considers how paleontologists conjecture the actual size, shape, appearance, and habits of dinosaurs from their remains. The complexity of the characters and their family dynamics is revealed in their actions, as they sometimes act against their own best interests.
Piper Perish. Kayla Cagan. 2017. Chronicle.
Art will surely provide the escape route senior Piper Perish needs to leave her Houston, Texas, home far behind. She and her best friend, Kit, and boyfriend, Enzo, have always planned to head to New York City and take the art world by storm. But even with the support and guidance of her art teacher, Ms. Adams, life might have other plans for Piper. In between constant battles with her older sister, Marli, whose emotional grip on the family is daunting, and odd behavior from Kit as well as Enzo's very public break-up with Piper as he realizes he prefers guys, Piper still finds the energy and motivation to create. Can her art truly save her or will it just lead to heartbreak and disappointment? The author folds in inspiring quotes from Andy Warhol and others, and splashes paint and paintings throughout the text as would be likely in journal entries of someone like Piper. The dynamics at work within her family and daily life will have readers wondering how Piper manages to create anything, and yet out of all that drama comes artwork that is memorable, even if not everyone in her family understands it.
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.
Read-alouds are for everyone. Reading aloud a picture book, a short story, a poem, or a passage from a chapter book is an effective way for teachers, librarians, and parents to introduce young people to new topics. At all ages, read-alouds can be starting points for discussions, including difficult ones that require safe environments. The sense of community that comes with the experience of sharing a good story is more important than ever. Keeping in mind the joy that comes from the reading of a well-crafted story, this week’s column includes some stories that are fun to read aloud, and to listen to, because of their playful language and inspiring messages.
Antoinette. Kelly DiPucchio. Ill. Christian Robinson. 2017. Atheneum/Simon & Schuster.
Antoinette, a poodle, has three bulldog brothers, each with a special talent: Rocky isclever, Ricky is fast, and Bruno is strong. Antoinette, however, still hasn’t discovered what makes her extra special. One day Ooh-La-La, the sister of her best friend, Gaston, goes missing while the two doggy families play in the park; Rocky, Ricky, and Bruno put their special talents to work but fail to find the missing poodle. Then Antoinette, who “felt a tug in her heart and a twitch in her nose,” sets out through the street of Paris, tracking Ooh-La-la to the Louvre. Evading the guard, who loudly proclaims, “No dog allowed,” Antoinette runs through the galleries and arrives just in time to save Ooh-La-La from a perilous fall. She’s discovered her special talent: bravery. Robinson’s flat, childlike, warmly colored acrylic paintings beautifully detail the Parisian setting. For a perfect read-aloud session, you’ll want to read DiPucchio and Robinson’s Gaston (2014), too.
Everybunny Dance! Ellie Sandall. 2017. Margaret K. McElderry/Simon & Schuster.
“EVERYBUNNY DANCE! / And clap your paws, / and twist and twirl, and shake your tail, / and wiggle and whirl.” And that’s just what a large bunch of colorful bunnies do across double-page spreads. They also play musical instruments and merrily sing “Fa-la-la-la, tra-la-la-lee, doo-dooby-doo, fiddle-de” until they notice a fox watching them. “EVERYBUNNY RUN!” Unaware of his hidden audience, the fox dances, plays a clarinet, takes a graceful bow, sighs, and tears up—until “EVERYBUNNY CLAP!” Then they all run and jump and dance and play, “all together, every day” as new friendships are made. Young children will enjoy counting bunnies and spotting the ones that wear bowties, tutus, and ballet shoes in the illustrations—and will be eager to get up and frolic along with everybunny and the fox.
I Am (Not) Scared. Anna Kang. Ill. Christopher Weyant. 2017. Two Lions.
The big orange-brown bear and the small purple bear from You Are (Not) Small (2014) and That’s (Not) Mine (2015) are back for another discussion. Expressive watercolor-and-ink cartoon illustrations on expansive white backgrounds keep the focus on the two friends in their back-and-forth debate. “You are scared. / I am not scared. Are you? / No, I am brave. This will be fun! / You look scared.” There are visual clues as to what has them worried, and they are really scared as the rollercoaster approaches with a huge green snake in one of the cars. They bravely decide to be scared together, and by the end of the thrilling ride, they are ready for another one. This time the “WE ARE SCARED!!!” cries of the two bears and the snake are gleeful. This is a fun book with a gentle lesson on acknowledging fears and facing them with friends.
The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! Carmen Agra Deedy. Ill. Eugene Yelchin. 2017. Scholastic.
Everyone and everything in La Paz had a song to sing, making the village a happy but very noisy place, where it was hard to hear, sleep, and think. The solution: Elect a mayor who promises peace and quiet. Once in office, Don Pepe’s restrictive laws make La Paz as silent as a tomb—until the rooster who would not be quiet defies the laws. After repeated efforts to silence the rooster’s Kee-kee-ree-Kee! fail, Don Pepe threatens to make soup of him. Hearing the rooster’s declaration that he sings for those who dare not sing or have forgotten how to sing, the villagers take up his song and their chorus of Kee-kee-ree-Kee! drives Don Pepe out of town. Once again, the village is a very noisy and happy place. Yelchin’s sunny mixed-media illustrations are joyful and humorous. Deedy’s appended note provides a context for the allegorical tale: “There are always those who resist being silenced, who will crow out their truth, without regard to consequence. Foolhardy or wise, they are the ones who give us the courage to sing.”
The Alphabet Thief. Bill Richardson. Ill. Roxanna Bikadoroff. 2017. Groundwood/House of Anansi.
In the dark of night, the Alphabet Thief creeps through the city, creating havoc as she steals letters from words in alphabetical order. As a’s are stolen, coats became cots, fairs turned into firs, and boats became bots—and so on through the alphabet. The clever Alphabet Thief handles the q-with-u problem by removing them as a pair, so that queasy was easy and squash became sash. Having nearly reached the end of the alphabet, the Alphabet Thief seems unstoppable until the red-headed narrator, who has been following her, turns y’s into slingshots and fires z’s at the thief, forcing the thief to release the stolen letters: “When I open her sack, the letters spring back / And hurry on home to their words.” The clever and silly story in rhyme and playful ink-and-watercolor illustrations of word transformations may inspire readers to try some letter thievery of their own.
A Trio of Tolerable Tales. Margaret Atwood. Ill. Dušan Petričić. 2017. Groundwood/House of Anansi.
“Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes,” “Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda,” and “Wandering Wendy and Widow Wallop’s Wunderground Washery” are a trio of tolerable—and tantalizing— tales about intriguing characters who find themselves in incredible situations. Margaret Atwood imaginatively tells these short stories with nonstop tongue-twisting alliterative wordplay. For example, Wenda, a waif who is taken by the Widow Wallop to work in her Wunderground Washery, is “a willowy child with wispy hair and wistful eyes,” whose “wise and watchful parents were whisked away by a weird whirlwind” when she was just a wee one. All three stories are ridiculously silly and totally entertaining. They are fun to read independently but even more fun when read aloud.
Scar Island. Dan Gemeinhart. 2017. Scholastic.
Twelve-year-old Jonathan Grisby has been sent to Slabhenge Reformatory School for Troubled Boys, a remote island fortress-like facility that was once an asylum for the criminally insane. Under the direction of the sadistic Admiral, the fifteen boys (ages 10 to 14) at the reform institution are subjected to hard work; horrible living conditions in dark, dank cells; starvation diets; and the constant threat of torturous punishment on a horrible device called the Sinner’s Sorrow. On the day after Jonathan’s arrival, the Admiral and all his staff are killed by lightning in a freak accident. Jonathan, who willingly accepted his ten-month sentence as just punishment, dreads the thought of returning home and proposes that the boys remain on the island for a few days to enjoy freedom from adult supervision. However, one of the older boys, as dictatorial as the Admiral, declares himself leader, and as a severe storm brews that may sink the island, Jonathan must come to terms with events in his past and assume leadership if he and the other boys are to survive. The short, action-packed chapters of this suspenseful and unusual adventure/survival story make it a good choice for a chapter-a-day read-aloud.
The Witch’s Vacuum Cleaner and Other Stories. Terry Pratchett. 2017. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins.
In an introduction written in 2015 (the year in which he died), Terry Pratchett tells of the origin of the collection’s 14 short stories, written when he was 17 and originally published in a local newspaper when he was a junior reporter. Pratchett states, “I tinkered here and there with a few details, added a few lines or notes, just because I can—and because as I’ve got older my imagination has got even bigger so I can’t stop myself from adding bits and bobs.” Pratchett’s stories take readers to strange and quirky places, where colorful people and creatures have wildly imaginative adventures. Pratchett fans will enjoy these tales as the beginning of his popular body of work; for others, they are the perfect introduction to a master writer of imaginative and humorous fantasy.
The Legendary Miss Lena Horne. Carole Boston Weatherford. Ill. Elizabeth Zunon. 2017. Atheneum/Simon & Schuster.
This picture-book celebration of Lena Horne, one of the most popular entertainers of the 20th century, begins with a quote from Horne herself, “You have to be taught to be second class; you’re not born that way.” Weatherford clearly shows how this belief was important throughout Horne’s life as a singer, actress, and civil rights activist in which she was, literally, a voice for African Americans. Zunon’s expressive oil paint and cut-paper collage illustrations put Horne in the spotlight whether she is performing as a vocalist for an all-white big band, singing at President Truman’s inaugural ball despite being blacklisted from movies and television, or singing the spiritual “This Little Light of Mine” at a 1963 rally with civil rights leader Medgar Evans. Back matter includes an author’s note, bibliography, and a “Further Reading, Listening, and Viewing” list. Also included is The Essential Lena Horne: The RCA Years (2010), an excellent CD for sharing some of Horne’s songs with students as a follow-up to the read-aloud.
Carolyn Angus is former Director of the George G. Stone Center for Children's Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California.
The need to belong somewhere and to be accepted by others is universal. All of us have faced the challenges of fitting in or will face them in the future. This week, we explore a variety of titles highlighting the theme of fitting in and finding a place to belong.
Leaping Lemmings! John Briggs. Ill. Nicola Slater. 2016. Sterling.
The adage “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?” comes to life in this story of Larry, a lemming who doesn’t fit in with other lemmings. He eats pizza with hot sauce and wears hula skirts and top hats when he pleases. He tries fitting in with seals, puffins, and polar bears, but he doesn’t belong with them, either. When Larry returns home, he is horrified to see lemmings about to jump off a cliff! Larry’s quick actions save the lemmings from a terrible fate and make him a hero. Themes of thinking for oneself and bucking conformity are presented in a whimsical and humorous way. The illustrations feature shades of blue and green, fitting the story’s polar setting, and the use of gold as an accent color matches Larry’s sunny outlook. Short, rhythmic sentences make this book a perfect read-aloud.
North, South, East, West. Margaret Wise Brown. Ill. Greg Pizzoli. 2017. Harper/HarperCollins.
In this previously unpublished story from the celebrated Margaret Wise Brown, the time has come for a little bird to make her own way from her mother’s nest. She travels to the north, south, and west, yet none of these places feels quite right. But when she flies back home to the east, the little bird realizes that this is where she has belonged all along. She builds a nest and starts a family of her own, and it isn’t long before her baby birds wonder which direction they should fly. The story has a quiet, calm tone, making it well suited for bedtime reading and offering a reassuring message that one will always belong at home. It can also be enjoyed on another level by young adults leaving home for the first time. The illustrations by Geisel Award winner Greg Pizzoli incorporate pastels and warm tones that add to the story’s soothing qualities.
Confessions From the Principal’s Kid. Robin Mellom. 2017. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Fifth grader Allie doesn’t know where she fits in. During the school day, she feels alone and friendless. After all, no one wants to hang out with the principal’s daughter, especially one with a reputation for snitching—and worse, her ex–best friend, Chloe, won’t speak to her. But after school, Allie is an insider, a friend to the staff and a member of the Afters, a secret club for teachers’ kids. Allie wants nothing more than to feel like she belongs in both worlds. When she has the chance to rekindle her friendship with Chloe, Allie risks betraying the Afters and must make a choice of where she wants to belong. The plot is simplistic and predictable, yet it has a lighthearted, engaging tone. Allie is a realistic, immediately likable character with a strong voice. This story will resonate with teachers’ children and anyone who has ever wondered what really happens after school is dismissed.
Forever, or a Long, Long Time. Caela Carter. 2017. HarperCollins.
Flora and her brother, Julian, have never known where they belong. Shuffled from foster home to foster home for as long as she can remember, Flora wonders if she and Julian were born or if they simply just appeared one day. After two years of living with Person (her secret nickname for her adoptive mom), the trauma of Flora’s early years still haunts her. Her words stick in her “lung filter” and come out wrong when she speaks. She sabotages her chances of passing fourth grade and constantly worries whether she will be a good big sister to the baby growing inside Person. Flora and Julian must confront the painful realities of their troubled past before they can truly understand what it means to belong to a family forever. The plot is sometimes slow-moving, but the emphasis on Flora’s worries and fears makes it a good choice for exploring the inner lives and motivations of individuals. Readers will appreciate this story’s gritty realism and melancholy beauty.
Let’s Pretend We Never Met. Melissa Walker. 2017. Harper/HarperCollins.
Mattie is distraught when her parents move their family from North Carolina to Philadelphia in the middle of sixth grade. It means leaving behind her best friends, Lilly and Jo, and the only home she has ever known. Mattie worries about fitting in at her new school and hopes she will become just a little bit popular. When Mattie meets Agnes, the girl next door, who happens to be in Mattie’s class, things begin looking up. Although Agnes is odd and kind of immature for a sixth grader, she hatches some fun ideas. But when winter break is over and Mattie starts at her new school, she realizes the other kids think Agnes is a freak. Mattie fears their relationship will jeopardize new friendships, especially with Finn, a cute boy who seems to like her. Caught between her friendships with Agnes and more popular students, Mattie must decide where her loyalties lie. In this fast-paced story, Mattie’s problems are realistic, and her decisions may be instructive for young people navigating the complexities of the middle school social scene.
In a Perfect World. Trish Doller. 2017. Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster.
Just as Caroline is poised to become captain of the soccer team and start her first job at Cedar Point, an amusement park, her mother lands a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity and moves the family to Egypt. Living in an apartment building overlooking the Nile and the bustling streets of Cairo is nothing at all like Caroline’s life back in small-town Ohio, and she wonders if Egypt will ever feel like home. Things begin to change for Caroline when she meets Adam Elhadad, a handsome Muslim boy hired to drive her family around Cairo. As Caroline and Adam’s hesitant friendship blossoms into romance, Caroline must confront the sharp differences between Adam’s culture and her own and decide whether their relationship is worth the disapproval of his family, friends, and Cairo society, especially as reports of violence against foreigners in the Middle East pepper the daily news. The story demonstrates the differences between Adam’s culture and religion and Caroline’s identity as a Catholic from America’s heartland, but it also highlights common human values and the possibility of forming genuine, lasting friendships across cultural boundaries. Readers will enjoy the tenderness of Caroline and Adam’s romance and may learn a thing or two about Egyptian history from the history-rich Cairo setting.
Blood Family. Anne Fine. 2017. Simon & Schuster.
Until Eddie is discovered at age 7, much of his childhood is spent locked in a room where he is forced to witness the abuse of his mother at the hands of her partner, Harris. Eddie is taken to a loving foster family and later adopted by a well-to-do couple. Although he seems remarkably well-adjusted, Eddie often feels like an outsider and is picked on by other children. The adults in his life wonder if the trauma of his past will catch up with him, and Eddie’s turning point occurs when he is a teenager and learns that Harris is his biological father. Eddie begins to fear he will become a monster like Harris, and his fear spirals out of control as he turns to drugs and alcohol and destroys his relationships with the people who love him. Not until Eddie hits rock bottom does he realize that he—not his blood family—is in control of his choices. Eddie’s early circumstances will pull at the reader’s emotions, evoking empathy and outrage. At times, the motivations of characters are difficult to discern, yet readers may enjoy piecing together inferences from facts shared by multiple, alternating narrators. The story is dark, but the theme of finding strength in oneself offers a hopeful message.
City of Saints & Thieves. Natalie C. Anderson. 2017. Putnam/Penguin.
Tina, a self-described thief and member of the notorious Goondas gang, doesn’t belong to anyone but herself. After her mother was murdered, Tina lived alone on the streets, nursing a grudge against Mr. Greyhill, her mother’s former employer and one of the richest, most corrupt businessmen in the Kenyan city she calls home. When Tina and the Goondas hatch a plan to steal data from Mr. Greyhill’s hard drive, Tina can’t wait. She has long suspected Mr. Greyhill of murdering her mother, leaving her orphaned and separated from her beloved sister, Kiki. But on the night of the burglary, inside the seemingly empty Greyhill mansion, Tina’s plan is foiled by Michael, Mr. Greyhill’s son and her estranged childhood friend. Tina and Michael cut a deal: She will return the data if he helps her prove his father murdered her mother. Soon Tina and Michael, along with Tina’s business partner Boyboy, embark on a dangerous journey taking them deep into war-ravaged Congo. As Tina, Michael, and Boyboy uncover the dark secrets leading up to the murder, the loyalty of her friends and unexpected help from a figure in her mother’s past teach Tina what it means to be loved and to belong. Riveting, action-packed, and with a touch of romance, this story will hold the reader’s attention until the final page.
Noteworthy. Riley Redgate. 2017. Amulet/Abrams.
Jordan begins her junior year at the prestigious, hypercompetitive Kensington-Blaine Academy for the Performing Arts while still reeling from an unexpected breakup. To add to her troubles, she isn’t cast in the school musical yet again, and money and health problems plague her family back home in San Francisco. When a spot opens in the Sharpshooters, Kensington’s most-lauded a cappella group, Jordan sees a chance for redemption. But the Sharpshooters are an all-male group. Undeterred, Jordan dresses in drag and auditions. No one is more surprised than Jordan when the Sharpshooters select her as a tenor. Now she must be one person belonging to two worlds: Jordan Sun to her classmates and Julian Zhang to the Sharpshooters. When the Sharpshooters have the chance to win a spot on an international, career-changing tour, Jordan becomes even more desperate to keep her identity a secret. Her problems catch up with her and threaten her future at Kensington just when triumph is within her reach. Although copious descriptions of the setting occasionally slow down the pace, Jordan is a dynamic and believable character. An enjoyable read for fans of Glee and Pitch Perfect, the story is thought-provoking in its examination of the fluidity of gender boundaries and identities.
Danielle Hartsfield is an assistant professor in the Teacher Education Department at the University of North Georgia in Oakwood.
Getting into the mind of a character is one of the greatest parts of reading, whether you’re finding a new one or rediscovering an old favorite. The books in this week’s column include a story about the further adventures of Edward Lear’s Owl and Pussy-cat, a retelling of the Arthurian legend The Sword in the Stone, and enticing stories with memorable characters in realistic or fantastical worlds.
The Further Adventures of the Owl and the Pussy-cat. Julia Donaldson. Ill. Charlotte Voake. 2017. Candlewick.
While the newlyweds from Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussy-cat slumber in a Bong-Tree, a crow steals the wedding ring tied with a bow to Pussy-cat’s tail. Their adventurous voyage in a beautiful blue balloon to recover the ring is filled with references to places, things, and characters from Lear’s nonsense poems. In Chankly Bore they find the crow, who has sold the ring to the Pobble who has no toes: “So they crossed the sea, and the Jelly Bo Lee, / To the Pobble’s improbable land.” The Pobble is reluctant to part with the ring, so the resourceful couple visit the Calico Doves, “[w]ho flapped in the air while they knitted a pair / Of impeccable gossamer gloves, / Two gloves, / Two gloves, / Two impeccable gossamer gloves.” A swap is made, and the Owl and the Pussy-cat return home to celebrate with friends, including the Jumblies and the Dong with a luminous nose. Extend the fun of this adventure with a reading of The Owl and the Pussy-cat (simultaneously published with Charlotte Voake’s whimsical watercolor-and-ink illustration) and more of Lear’s classic nonsense verses.
A Greyhound, a Groundhog. Emily Jenkins. Ill. Chris Appelhans. 2017. Schwartz & Wade/Random House.
“A hound. / A round hound. / A greyhound. / A hog. / A round hog. / A groundhog.” As the round little greyhound awakes from a nap and the brown little groundhog pops out of his hole, the two begin a romp “around and around and around / and around!” The playfully rhythmic mix-up of words in this tongue-twister of a tale starts out quietly, then speeds up as the greyhound and the groundhog whirl across the pages. “A round hound, / a grey dog, / a round little hound dog. / A greyhog, / a round dog, / a hog little hound dog.” Following a chase of colorful butterflies and a run through a bog, the exhausted new friends settle down side by side for a rest. Chris Applelhans’s full-of-motion watercolor paintings featuring the greyhound and the groundhog at play against expansive white backgrounds perfectly match Emily Jenkins’s clever text in this joyful picture book, which is best shared as a read-aloud.
Tidy. Emily Gravett. 2017. Simon & Schuster.
With rhyming text and colorful mixed-media illustrations filled with humorous details, Emily Gravett tells a story with a gentle environmental message about Pete, a badger, whose tidying up of the fauna and flora of his forest home goes too far. He grooms the fox’s fur (using a hedgehog for a brush), spruces up the birds (having them use toothbrushes for beak cleaning and giving them sponge baths), vacuums up fall leaves (creating mountains of black plastic trash bags), and digs up all the trees. Following a flood that leaves a muddy mess, he paves over the forest floor. Not a good solution. Realizing he’s made a mistake, Pete enlists the animals’ help in a forest restoration project: “They put everything back, as it always had been. / (But maybe less ordered and not quite as clean.)” Pete promises to tidy up less, but the final two-page illustration, which shows the animals enjoying a spring picnic, includes a detail suggesting that Pete might not be cured of his tidying-up habit.
Uncle Holland. JonArno Lawson. Ill. Natalie Nelson. 2017. Groundwood/House of Anansi.
Holland, the eldest of the three Lawson boys, was always getting into trouble. Unable to resist pretty things, he couldn’t help stuffing them into his pockets. When he is caught for the 37th time, the police give him a choice: go to jail or join the army. Holland opts for the army and is sent to a very pretty place in the south, which is full of pretty things—“but not the kinds of things you can put in your pocket.” Holland takes up painting them instead and soon finds he’s making money selling pictures of the extraordinary fish he sees. Natalie Nelson’s digital collage artwork is the perfect match for JonArno Lawson’s story of a choice well made, which is based on a true story about his Uncle Holland.
Harry Miller’s Run. David Almond. Ill. Salvatore Rubbino. 2017. Candlewick.
Eleven-year-old Liam just received his official T-shirt for his entry in the Junior Great North Run and is eager for a Saturday morning of training with best friend, Jacksie. His mother, however, wants him to help her clear out elderly neighbor Harry Miller’s house in preparation for his move into a nursing home. Seeing Liam’s T-shirt, Harry begins to relate memories of the 13-mile run he and two mates made from Newcastle to the seaside in South Shields on a hot summer day in 1938, when he was 11. Looking through an old box of photographs helps Harry recall details of the memorable run. David Almond uses a regional British accent in the narration as Harry shares memories and imparts words of wisdom regarding a life well lived—“Me great achievement is that I’ve been happy, that I’ve never been nowt but happy”—before falling asleep in his big chair. Salvatore Rubbino’s expressive mixed-media artwork, with gray-toned paintings for Harry’s day with Liam and his mother and full-color paintings for Harry’s remembrances, perfectly complements this intergenerational story.
The Wizard’s Dog. Eric Kahn Gale. Ill. Dave Phillips. 2017. Crown/Random House.
Nosewise, a stray dog rescued by wizard Merlin, is eager to increase his repertoire of tricks beyond Sit! Shake! and Lie down! When Merlin’s apprentice, Morgana, places her magic Asteria stone around his neck, Nosewise is delighted to find that he can Speak! This new trick becomes important when he sets out on a rescue mission after Merlin is kidnapped by Lord Destrian (Oberon, king of the Fae, in a glamour state), who intends to use the wizard to obtain Excalibur. Using his nose, Nosewise, joined by a young Arthur, the “poop boy” (the cleaner of chamber pots in Destrian’s castle), tracks Merlin’s scent from the castle into the Haunted Forest, through a portal into the Otherworld, and eventually to Avalon, where they do battle with Oberon (in his Destrian disguise) and the Fae’s magic-eating worms. In this retelling of the Arthurian legend of the Sword in the Stone, readers learn how Arthur became the rightful king of the human world. A hint: Excalibur can only be taken by “a worthy soul who loves man and would never do him harm.”
An Eagle in the Snow. Michael Morpurgo. 2017. Feiwel and Friends.
In 1940, 10-year-old Barney and his mother, whose home has just been destroyed in the Coventry blitz, are aboard a London-bound train on the first leg of their journey to Aunt Mavis’s in Cornwall when a stranger enters their compartment. As German planes attack, the train enters a tunnel, abruptly stops, and plunges into darkness. During the long wait for their journey to continue, the stranger calms Barney’s fears of the darkness by telling stories about his friend Billy Byron’s experiences as a soldier in World War I. This courageous young British soldier’s decision not to kill a German soldier with whom he had a face-to-face encounter near the end of the war comes to make him feel responsible, 20 years later, “for whatever Adolf Hitler had done or might do in the future.” He could have stopped him, but hadn’t, at the Battle of Marcoing. In an afterword, Morpurgo provides a brief history of Private Henry Tandey VC, to whom An Eagle in the Snow is dedicated and whose personal story of service in World War I was the inspiration for the book.
Flying Lessons & Other Stories. Ellen Oh (Ed.). 2017. Crown/Random House.
We all need diverse stories, and the short stories in this anthology, written by 10 talented authors (Kwame Alexander, Kelly J. Baptist, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña, Tim Federle, Grace Lin, Meg Medina, Walter Dean Myers, Tim Tingle, and Jaqueline Woodson), introduce middle graders to memorable characters who all want to belong and be accepted for who they are. Although the stories stand alone, readers will find that each story draws them to read another. Reading the stories aloud in classrooms and libraries is an excellent way to introduce young people to the We Need Diverse Books movement. The back matter includes an “About We Need Diverse Books” section by Ellen Oh, cofounder and president of WNDB, and brief biographies of the 10 contributors.
Poison’s Kiss. Breeana Shields. 2017. Random House.
Seventeen-year-old Marinda is an assassin—a visha kanya, or poison maiden—who can kill with a kiss. As a baby, she was repeatedly subjected to being bitten by snakes until she was immune to their venom. Gopal, her handler, has led Miranda to believe that she is using her poisonous kisses as a weapon in service to the Raja by killing the enemies of the kingdom of Sundari. Marinda feels guilty about what she does, and when she is instructed to kiss Deven, a young man who is kind to her and Mani, her sickly 7-year-old brother, she is determined to save Deven's life. Breeana Shields's complex fantasy, which incorporates aspects of Indian culture and mythology, is intriguing. As Marinda learns who turned her into a killer and why, she is eager to destroy them—and readers are set up for a sequel.
Carolyn Angus is former director of the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA.