Sprite’s Secret

Eight-year-old Violet didn’t expect to find a portal to the fairy world in her backyard. And she certainly didn’t think she would have to defend the human world from trickster pixies! With the help of her new fairy friend Sprite, Violet sets out to catch Pix, a lively fairy who just wants everybody to have fun – all the time. When Pix’s playfulness starts to cause serious trouble, it’s up to Violet and Sprite to put an end to his fun and send him back to the fairy world! 

When Violet meets Sprite, her whole world changes. Instead of being a normal eight-year-old, Violet has to help Sprite trick the escaped fairies and send them back to the Otherworld. Violet is a likable character who worries about breaking rules. However, once she sees the dangers the fairies will cause, she jumps in to help Sprite. This gets her into some silly situations. For example, Sprite accidentally transports Violet to the mall, “right in the middle of the wishing fountain! She was standing knee-deep in water. A big statue of a fish squirted water on top of her head.” 

Sprite is new at his job as a Royal Pixie Tricker, which adds suspense since readers never know what Sprite will accidentally do. Even though Sprite hasn’t learned all of the ways to stop fairy magic, Violet is patient with him and she never gets angry. Instead, she does everything in her power to help Sprite. For example, to keep Sprite safe, she hides him in her pocket.  

Newly independent readers who love fairies and magic will enjoy Sprite’s Secret. The story uses easy-to-read text and a fast-paced plot with lots of fairy mischief. Black and white illustrations appear on every page, which will help readers visualize the characters and understand the plot. To help readers know when characters are under Pix’s spell, the characters’ eyes turn into swirls and they have silly facial expressions. 

Sprite’s Secret is a fun story that will keep readers interested until the end. Readers will enjoy learning about the fairies’ magic and the different ways to break the fairies’ spells. Both Sprite and Violet are interesting characters who learn to work together to send the trouble-making fairies back to the Otherworld. While the story isn’t unique, readers will cheer when Sprite and Violet trick Pix and send him back to his world. Readers who love fairies and want to add a little magic to their lives will enjoy the Pixie Tricks Series 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Pix throws balls at Sprite. “Sprite flew all around the yard, trying to dodge the balls. He looked exhausted.”  
  • Pix goes to the city park and taps kids on the head, putting the kids under his spell. “Pix jumped up to pat Violet on the head. She swatted him away. When his feet touched the ground, he pushed Violet. She magically flew through the air and across the playground. She landed on the seesaw.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • None

Supernatural 

  • Fairies find their way into Violet’s world. One fairy, named Pix, loves to play. Pix traps Violet in a fairy ring when “he threw the dust into the air. The dust whirled around. It formed a big circle and then surrounded Violet.”  
  • To break the fairy ring magic, Violet “quickly took off her hoodie and turned it inside out. Then she put it back on.” 
  • Pix uses fairy dust to make a jump rope magically appear. “The rope was turning by itself!” When Sprite refuses to play, “Pix made the jump rope twirl like a lasso. . . Then Pix pulled Sprite to the ground.” 
  • If Pix “taps you on the head. Then you’re under his spell. You’ll want to play with him all the time.” Even when it’s no longer fun, you cannot stop playing. 
  • To get somewhere fast, Sprite blew pixie dust over himself and Violet. “Then she felt her body tingle like a million tiny feathers were tickling her skin. Then the lights faded and the tingling stopped.” Violent ends up in a water fountain at the mall. 
  • A fairy named Hinky Pink can control the weather. He makes fog to keep Sprite and Violet from finding Pix. In order to break Hinky Pink’s spell, Violet and Sprite have to say his name backward. They say, “Kniop Yknih. Knip Yknih. Ynip Yknih.” Then “a strong wind came. It blew the fog away.” 
  • To send Pix back to the fairy world, Sprite, and Violet trick him into doing work. “Suddenly, a cold wind kicked up. The wind blew all over the playground. . . The wind formed a tunnel in the air. Right behind Pix. The tunnel closed up. Then it disappeared. Pix was gone!’ 
  • Hinky Pink makes a cloud over Violet’s head. “Cold raindrops fell from the cloud.”  

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Rocket Says Speak Up!

When Rocket finds out that her town’s library is closing, she knows something must be done. Inspired by the activism of Rosa Parks, Rocket rallies support from her peers, and together they lead a peaceful protest that spreads awareness and raises enough money to save their beloved library. 

The story begins with Rocket explaining why she loves the library. She also talks about reading a book about Rosa Parks and gives a brief description of Rosa’s famous protest. Because of Rosa, Rocket decides to help the library by having a peaceful protest. However, Rocket doesn’t act alone. Instead, she gathers students, teachers, parents, and the librarian to all “get prepared and spread the word.”

After the protest, Rocket feels discouraged and wonders “What was the point?” But then the mayor shows up and explains that “people around the world were inspired by our protest, and lots of them have given money to save the library.” While the positive outcome of the protest may feel unrealistic, young readers will learn that their voice matters. 

Even though Rocket Says Speak Up! is a picture book, the story is intended to be read aloud to a child, rather than for a child to read it for the first time independently. Most pages contain one to four sentences, and some of the sentences are complex. The picture book’s bright illustrations are full of fun details. Readers will enjoy looking for Rocket’s cat, who appears on many of the pages. Another positive aspect is that scenes of the library and school show a diverse group of children, including one who is in a wheelchair. 

Rocket Says Speak Up! shows the importance of libraries and encourages readers to spend time at their local library. The book also includes many interesting facts about libraries and encourages children to check out different types of books. To further foster a love of learning at the library, Bunny’s Book Club by Annie Silvestro is the perfect book to read after Rocket Says Speak Up! 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Lupe Wong Won’t Dance

Lupe Wong wants to be the first female pitcher in the Major Leagues.   

She’s also championed causes her whole young life. Some worthy . . . like expanding the options for race on school tests beyond just a few bubbles. And some not so much . . . like complaining to the BBC about the length between Doctor Who seasons.

Lupe needs an A in all her classes in order to meet her favorite pitcher, Fu Li Hernandez, who’s Chinacan/Mexinese just like her. So when the horror that is square dancing rears its head in gym? Obviously, she’s not gonna let that slide.  

Lupe Wong Won’t Dance examines middle school drama by focusing on Lupe’s struggles. Middle-grade readers will empathize with Lupe as she tries to navigate the complexities of a middle school’s social hierarchy. Even though Lupe doesn’t mean to make enemies, she often does because she doesn’t always think about the consequences of her actions. For instance, Lupe gets upset and makes hurtful comments to her best friend, Andy. In response, Andy begins hanging out with the popular soccer girls and stops talking to Lupe. The two eventually work out their differences, and Lupe learns that she needs to “try to listen to people more instead of worrying about myself and my own goals.” 

Lupe’s family life is an integral part of the story. Lupe misses her father, who died in an accident. She also questions her father’s decision to quit playing baseball to care for his family. Lupe is desperate to meet Fu Li Hernandez because he reminds Lupe of her father, and many of Lupe’s actions are based on her need to earn straight A’s in order to meet Fu Li Hernandez. However, Lupe Wong Won’t Dance doesn’t include any baseball action other than one short practice and when Lupe finally meets Fu Li Hernandez. Still, meeting Fu Li Hernandez makes Lupe realize, “My dad was no quitter. Fu Li’s smile was like Dad’s the first time I whistled. The same smile when I finger-painted my entire face and body. . . And it’s the same smile he had when I hit my first baseball.”  

Lupe Wong Won’t Dance uses humor and middle school drama to highlight the importance of being inclusive. While the story explores the discrimination of the past, it does so in a nonjudgmental way that reminds readers that it’s important to take this advice: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” Another important lesson the story imparts is the importance of self-acceptance. As Lupe’s friend says, “I shouldn’t change just so people will like me.” 

Lupe’s story is perfect for middle schoolers, especially those who often feel out of place. Lupe Wong Won’t Dance acknowledges that others can be cruel while challenging readers to overcome their difficulties. In the end, the story encourages readers to be kind and inclusive to others, even those who are different than you. For more middle school reads featuring a protagonist who feels out of place, read Out of Place by Jennifer Blecher, Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros, and A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi. 

Sexual Content 

  • In order to get out of square dancing, Lupe researches the song “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and discovers the song’s origins. A YouTube video explains that the song refers “to a man making his rounds with the ladies. . . Why are his eyes white as cotton?. . . if one listens carefully to the words, poor ol’ Cotton-Eyed Joe’s eyes were whited out by chlamydia or syphilis—”  
  • After watching the YouTube video, Lupe looks up chlamydia and discovers it’s “a widespread, often asymptomatic sexually transmitted disease caused by chlamydia trachomatis” and syphilis is “a sexually transmitted disease caused by the spirochete bacterium treponema pallidum.” 
  • Lupe’s mom asks her if she’s gay. Lupe replies, “I don’t know. I’m only twelve. I thought I’d figure it out in a few years.” 
  • On an online forum discussing students being forced to learn how to square dance, someone writes, “Outrageous! Should we bring back petticoats and chastity belts?”  

Violence 

  • When Lupe was in second grade, she saw her classmate Zola picking her nose. Lupe began calling Zola “the Green Goblin” and the name stuck. “She eventually found out I was the one who started the Green Goblin nickname and hasn’t spoken a word to me since.” 
  • While practicing her pitching, Lupe’s brother Paolo “takes me out at the knees. The wind is knocked out of me a little. He hoisted me back up by the waist of my jeans, giving me a wedgie.”  
  • When Paolo learned how to square dance, he was partnered with a popular girl. And at the time, his mom was making the kids take “Crock-Pot leftovers for lunch” which caused Paolo to fart a lot. “It’s hard to hide a fart when you do-si-do and spin around. . . between hand sweats and farting. . . she told everyone. . . It’s taken two years for everyone to stop calling me Flutterbutt.” 
  • In the PE locker room, Lupe finds her locker decorated in shaving cream that reads Guadapoopy. When Coach Solden sees it, she goes to wipe it off the locker. “Coach spins back around and one foot slips on remnant shaving cream. Her foot flies up in the air, and she tries to catch herself with one arm. She falls to the floor with a thump and a small crack. Lips pursed together, noises burble from her mouth that sound like cusswords in an alien language.” The coach broke her arm in the fall. 
  • Lupe’s mom tells her about Coach Becky Solden’s square dancing experience. “One by one, as a joke, the boys approached her and then passed her by for other girls. She was the only girl left. . . Just like the rest, [Bruce] walked up to her, but he stopped and bowed. . . Just before Becky touched his hand, Bruce jumped back and ran towards the boys’ locker room screaming. . . For the entire two weeks, we danced, every time a boy danced with Becky, he made monkey noises under his breath. . . Even some of the girls made monkey noises and pretended to scratch their armpits.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • When researching the song Cotton-Eyed Joe, one article says “he could have gotten his cloudy eyes from alcohol poisoning.”  

Language 

  • Variations of crap are used frequently. 
  • Heck is used occasionally.  
  • There is frequent name-calling such as jerk, dorks, doofus, idiot, nimrod, whiner, klutz, and others. 
  • When Lupe shows the school principal pictures of a “cropped, magged-up version” of an eye, the principal says, “Oh, gawd.” 
  • Samantha, a mean girl, calls Lupe “Guadaloopy.” Samantha also calls Lupe’s friend Andy, “Anda-loser.” In return, Lupe calls Samantha “Sam-o-nella.” 
  • During PE, Samantha whispers loudly, “Word is [Lupe’s] parents found her at the dump. That’s why she smells like a blowout diaper.” 
  • Lupe comments on “Skanky Potato Head.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Before dinner, Lupe’s family prays. Her brother says, “Thank you God, for all that we have. Bless this interesting food to our bodies. And please help Lupe with her cleanliness so she can be next to you . . .” 
  • Before dinner, Paolo prays, “God, thank you for our grandparents who can cook. . . And thank you for giving Mr. Montgomery pinkeye so my algebra test is postponed. And help Lupe through puberty and bless this food.”  
  • Lupe thinks about her father. During Qingming, “the Chinese version of Dia de los Muertos . . . Grandma Wong takes us to the cemetery to burn paper things that represent what she thinks Dad needs in the afterlife. This year she burned a paper house and fake money. [Lupe] snuck in a paper baseball and bat.” 

The Magical Reality of Nadia

Nadia loves fun facts. Here are a few facts about her: 

  • She collects bobbleheads — she has 77 so far.
  • She moved from Egypt to America when she was six years old.
  • The hippo amulet she wears is ancient…as in it’s literally from ancient Egypt.
  • She’s going to win the contest to design a new exhibit at the local museum. Because how cool would that be?!

Okay, so that last one isn’t a fact just yet, but Nadia has plans to make it one. But then a new kid shows up and teases Nadia about her Egyptian heritage. It’s totally unexpected and totally throws her off her game. 

Then something else happens that Nadia can’t explain: Her amulet starts glowing! She soon discovers that the hippo is holding a hilarious — and helpful — secret. Can she use it to confront the new kid and win the contest? 

Nadia often acts like a know-it-all who loves telling people interesting facts about random subjects. Despite this, Nadia is a likable protagonist who learns that “being a leader didn’t mean telling people what to do or doing it all yourself. It was about guiding everyone else to come to a solution together.” Nadia’s quirky personality will draw readers into the story, but it is Titi who is the star of the story.  

While living in Ancient Egypt, a magician curses Titi by sending him into a hippo amulet. When Nadia purchases the amulet, she discovers the secret to breaking the curse—Titi can only be set free by helping Nadia six times. Titi is energetic, optimistic, and funny. And as a teacher, he has plenty of wisdom to impart. For instance, Nadia and Titi jump into the parable of “The Eloquent Peasant.” The parable comes to life in comic-style panels that educate about Egyptian history in a unique and entertaining way. While in the comic, Nadia learns a powerful lesson about how to deal with a bully. Even though Titi lived in a different time period, he is still able to help Nadia with her friendship problems.  

One of Nadia’s problems is that the new kid, Jason, is very vocal about his dislike of Nadia’s Egyptian heritage. For example, he makes fun of Nadia’s lunch because “it smells weird.” In addition, he says he only eats “American food. . . not desert people food.” However, Jason’s mean comments are not just confined to school. While at the fall fair, Jason asks the DJ to play the song “Walk Like an Egyptian.” Then, Jason “took a couple of staggering steps forward with his arms in the awkward position. He moved his head forward and back like a pigeon, too, a huge grin on his face.” In this situation, Nadia uses the parable of “The Eloquent Peasant” to find a solution, but not everything goes as she planned. 

At first, Jason’s behavior makes Nadia want to hide her Egyptian heritage, but her parents explain how they handle microaggressions. When a cashier at the local supermarket made rude comments, Nadia’s Mama began talking about things they had in common. Mama said, “It showed her that we aren’t so different after all. . . Getting to know me has allowed her view to shift.”  

The Magical Reality of Nadia uses humor to highlight the importance of finding common ground with others. Nadia points out that, “Unless you are Native American, we all have an immigrant story in our past. Each of us is here today because one of our ancestors came to America and started a life for their family.” While most of the story is in traditional text, the book includes sections of black-and-white comics as well as lively black-and-white illustrations throughout.  

While The Magical Reality of Nadia is humorous and entertaining, the story hits on topics of prejudice, friendship, and courage. Nadia’s story will help readers have empathy for people who are different from them and in the end, the lessons from The Magical Reality of Nadia will stay with readers long after they put the book down.  

Readers looking for another book about immigrating to another country should also read Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga and Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros. However, if you’d like to learn more about Ancient Egypt’s culture, check out the Kid Detective Zet Series by Scott Peters and the TombQuest Series by Michael Northrop. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • During summer vacation, one of Nadia’s friends went to London. Afterward, Nadia asks, “Did you know they used to display chopped-off heads on the original London Bridge?”  
  • Jason goes to the museum and destroys Nadia and her friends’ project. 
  • While at an ice cream shop, Jason starts making fun of Nadia’s heritage. Nadia gets upset with “her hands balling into fists. She’d never hit anyone before, but there was a first time for everything. She lunged at Jason . . . and tripped over her backpack. Jason laughed, but as Nadia fell, she knocked into him and he lost his balance falling backwards onto the table.” Jason falls onto an ice cream sundae. One of Jason’s friends says, “It looks like you pooped your pants!”  
  • Nadia’s parents left Egypt during the Arab Spring. Her mom says, “People who opposed the government were still being imprisoned, and tortured, and killed. We realized we did not want to raise you in that kind of environment.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • A teacher teases a magician. Afterwards, the magician calls the teacher a fool. 
  • Titi tells Nadia to “close your mouth. You look like Hatmehit’s hat! Hatmehit was an ancient Egyptian fish goddess.”  
  • Freakin’ and heck are both used once. 
  • After reading a parable, Nadia says one of the characters is a doofus and a fool. 
  • When Nadia tells her friend they “can’t toss a football in a museum,” her friend tells her to “Calm down, Grandma.” 
  • Jason calls one of his friends an idiot. 
  • Jason calls Nadia an “Egyptian Queen.” Then he says, “You don’t even belong here. Why don’t you just go back where you came from?!”  

Supernatural 

  • A teacher is cursed by an angry magician. “The next thing the teacher knew, there was a great wind and a loud sucking noise. Then everything turned black.” The teacher is confined to an Egyptian necklace.  
  • “Ancient Egyptians wore hippo amulets to ward off evil.” 
  • Nadia held her hippo amulet and asked for help. Then, “Nadia went over to the desk . . . There, on the college-ruled pages of what was to be her math notebook, a little animated man was jumping up and down, waving wildly at her.”  
  • At first, Nadia is confused when she discovers “a little animated man [Titi] haunting her math notebook!” But then she realizes that if she shuts the notebook, the man disappears. However, Titi and Nadia soon set boundaries that allow the two to communicate when appropriate.  

Spiritual Content  

  • One of Nadia’s fun facts revolves around the Ancient Egyptian’s beliefs about death. The Book of the Dead says “When a person died and was judged by the ancient gods, they had to swear to two things: that they had not lied, or cheated, or killed, or harmed others; and that they preserved the Nile River and kept it pure. . .” 

Heroes of the Water Monster

Edward isn’t sure about this whole “step-brother” thing, especially now that his dad is moving in with his girlfriend and her preteen son, Nathan. Their new place in Arizona may be nice, but relocating is already hard enough due to their family’s Navajo—also known as Diné—heritage. According to the Diné, children lose communication with the Holy Beings once they hit puberty, and Nathan’s already started the process of becoming a man. For most people, this is part of growing older, but Nathan has become the guardian of a young water monster named Dew. Nathan’s ability to see her is fading, so he quickly has to entrust Dew’s care to Edward.  

To make matters more complicated, Dew’s older sister, a powerful water monster named Yitoo, is coming to The Fourth World—Earth—to teach Dew the traditional songs of the water monsters. Having been away in the Third World for nearly 150 years, Yitoo’s return is ruined when she discovers that something is wrong in the Fourth World. The waters from her river are depleted and the environment is suffering. Alongside Dew, Edward, and Nathan, Yitoo travels the length of her river to find the source of the cutoff. To her dismay, the city of Pheonix, Arizona has redirected her river to service the population’s waterparks, golf courses, and sprinkler systems. This frivolous use of her precious resource prompts her to vow revenge on humankind. 

Together, Dew, Edward, and Nathan team up to stop Yitoo from using her water monster power to unleash a massive hurricane on the Phoenix area. They meet other creatures and people from Diné creation stories who give them advice and special gear for their final confrontation. Eventually, the team of friends is able to stop Yitoo before she can punish humanity. As Nathan sees Dew, Yitoo, and the other Holy Beings for the last time before growing up, he and Edward promise to keep their Diné heritage alive and work towards a future where humans treat the natural world with respect.  

Heroes of the Water Monster’s plot is a straightforward save-the-world type of story, but the traveling between different worlds and mythical creatures can be confusing at times. As for the narrators, the story switches between the perspectives of Nathan and Edward. Nathan’s point of view is more mature and forgiving towards others, while Edward is more impulsive and childish. Edward is also half Diné, half white, which creates interesting tension as he struggles with his mixed identity. The difference between the narrators gives a unique perspective on the events of the story, especially when Edward and Nathan disagree on whether or not to help Yitoo. Because Edward and Nathan are both likable and thoughtful narrators, the reader understands why each boy feels the way they do. Despite their different ages, both Edward and Nathan had valuable input and opinions on the story’s events. 

Heroes of the Water Monster is an interesting tale filled with many cultural references. If readers have no prior experience with Navajo/Diné culture, this story may be a bit difficult to read. However, in order to understand the story, some readers may need to use the glossary provided at the end of the book.  

The main theme of Heroes of the Water Monster is generational trauma, which is showcased through the water monster Yitoo. While Yitoo is the villain in the end of the story, she is also Edward and Nathan’s friend. She has lived for hundreds of years, which means that she lived through the forced relocation of the Diné. She exhibits the rage that displaced people experience when they are horribly mistreatment and the destruction of the sacred environment they once called home.  

At first, Edward and Nathan don’t know if they have a right to stop Yitoo, but they realize that they have a shared history, and a shared future, too. While they may not be the legendary Twin Heroes who defeated fearsome creatures of legend in Diné stories, they do have the power to impact the world their descendants will inherit. A Holy Being advises Nathan and Edward that, “It stands to reason that a Modern Enemy would surrender to Modern Heroes.” 

Thus, the modern heroes, Edward and Nathan, work to convince Yitoo and themselves that they can’t hold the current population responsible for what their ancestors did. A better future isn’t achieved through revenge, but by educating and making changes for the better. Edward, Nathan, Yitoo, and Dew all have to grapple with their identity and the painful past that comes with it. In order to heal, they have to accept the past as part of their identity and use their grief in constructive ways. Edward’s father says, “We Diné, like all Indigenous Nations, have a past filled with heartbreak and devastation. But we also have a brilliant, shining future.” 

Sexual Content 

  • Janet, Nathan’s Mom, and Ted, Edward’s Dad, greet each other. “Janet . . . walked into [Ted’s] arms. They kissed.”   

Violence 

  • Occasionally, the Diné’s forced relocation is discussed. These stories mention some of the abuse, murder, torture, and death of the Diné at the hands of the U.S. government. One story mentions two brothers whose parents were killed in front of them. “From the cornfield, the boys saw their dad arguing with a soldier. The other solider pointed their rifles at the mom and dad. . . [They] covered their eyes but still heard the loud shots.”  
  • After killing their parents, the soldiers kill all their livestock and force the boys to walk to Fort Defiance, Arizona where they are imprisoned. They were almost fed poison, but were saved by a handful of nurses who tossed their food on the ground. “[Those] who had eaten the rations became deathly ill. . . The sick were left to die. . . The rest were forced to march in many long lines eastward. . .” 
  • On the trail, there was more hardship and death. Those who fell behind were killed. Elderly, young kids, and even pregnant women. The Diné were also forced to swim across a river, and one of the brothers drowns. “The elderly and the young people around them struggled against the strong current. . . A sound more disturbing than the screaming of the drowning grew. It was silence. Many bodies sank beneath, did not rise again, and drifted downriver. Halfway across, the river took [the] younger brother.” 
  • Yitoo describes her perspective of the aforementioned story: the forced relocation of the Diné crossing her river. “One by one, the Diné walked down the hill and into the river. The elderly and youth struggled around the strong current. Blankets of water smothered them. I did my best to calm the waters. But I couldn’t sing. I was too shocked at everything around me. . . A curtain of bubbles arose from all the violent thrashing of the drowning. Their screams quieted. Their bodies became cold. When I’m alone, I still hear their screams. When I sleep, I dream of the faces of those who sank beneath the river and did not rise again.” 
  • When Nathan and Drew try to stop Yitto from attacking Phoenix, Yitoo attacks them with her water. “A rope of water wrapped around [Nathan’s] waist and Dew’s neck and pulled them into the crater. Warm water invaded every atom of Nathan’s being. . . He couldn’t stop the invisible force yanking his waist. . . Just then, Dew appeared in front of him. With a mighty jaw snap near his belly button, she severed the pull.”  
  • Edward, Nathan, and Dew are attacked by a Guardian when visiting a sacred mountain that takes the shape of a mountain lion. The Guardians are creatures meant to protect the mountains from intruders. “Edward yelled in horror as in seconds a mountain lion with velvet fur, the color of sunflower petals, had already snuck up on them. It leaped into the air and landed in front of them with an earthquaking thud. . .  Its tree-thick tail slammed into Nathan’s chest, sending him flying yards away from them. The Guardian lifted a paw and slapped Dew across her jaw. Dew dizzily walked forward and then was pinned under the Guardian’s other paw. . . Then the most horrifying thing happened. The Guardian bit down into the back of Dew’s neck. Dew squealed a blood-curdling wail that made Edward nauseous. Dew’s body went completely silent and limp.” Dew survives.  
  • The final fight between Edward, Dew, Nathan, and Yitoo lasts nearly 30 pages. Much of the confrontation is conversation, but it does get violent when Yitoo fights back against Edward, Nathan, and Dew. Yitoo has impenetrable armor that protects her for the majority of the fight, but the armor is weakened when the boys use one of the Sacred Arrows against her, and it breaks open a spot in Yitoo’s armor that Edward stabs. “Edward jabbed the tip of the knife against Yitoo. Immediately, ribbons of lightning raced across Yitoo’s body. They covered her entire body from head to tail, shoulders to toes, and entered her throat as she howled in pain. Even if she wasn’t his favorite Holy Being, [Edward] hated hearing how much pain she was in. Still, he held the knife on to her. More and more bolts of lightning raced from the tip of the knife throughout her massive body. But finally, after a few seconds that felt like an hour of seeing Yitoo squirm and spasm, the lightning disappeared and her entire body fell against the ocean, creating one last final wave. . . Yitoo lay limp, and smoke emerged from her mouth.” This does not kill Yitoo, and she is exiled to the Fifth World.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Nathan’s Uncle Jet, who is briefly mentioned, deals with PTSD which led to his alcoholism and depression. He is not shown drinking during the story. 

Language   

  • Yitoo calls the behavior of “The Pale People,” a term for white colonists, “damnable.” 

Supernatural 

  • Water monsters are a type of Holy Being that play a large role in the story. They are creatures of legend that inhabit bodies of water. They have many powers, including controlling water, turning it to ice, using it to travel long distances and more. They use these powers frequently, which is done by singing.  
  • Yitoo and Dew are both water monsters. Water monsters look like lizards. Edward describes Dew as “a tiny Komodo dragon” with “diamond designs like a Diné rug” on her back and stomach. They can also speak.  
  • Nathan learns water monster songs, which gives him some control over water. Water monsters are also able to control their size by taking in or expelling water, such as when Yitoo grows herself into a massive size to create the hurricane.  
  • Yitoo can keep her water as jewelry and unleash it at will.  
  • Nathan has a ring made of turquoise that allows him to communicate with all beings. He uses it to speak to the water monsters. Later, Edward gets one too. 
  • Two Holy Beings called Jet Stone Boy and Jet Stone Girl meet Nathan. They have crystal-like skin and travel on a rainbow. 

Spiritual Content 

  • There are countless references to Diné beliefs. The main ones include creation stories, Holy Beings, and the water monsters. The Diné language is also used frequently, which can be translated using a glossary in the back of the book.  
  • Some of the Holy Beings include Spider Woman, a legendary weaver, Father Sun, who created the universe, Mother Earth, Moon Lady, and Tall Woman. 
  • In addition to the Holy Beings, which are typically good or neutral beings, there are evil beings called Enemies who, in Diné legend, are defeated by the Twin Heroes, two Holy Being brothers who fought the Enemies. Edward gives examples of the Enemies: “Thunderbird, who could summon dangerous lightning storms; and Wild Boar, who could run at unheard-of speeds to hunt humans for hundreds of years.”  
  • One of the references in the story is to the Third World, Fourth World, Fifth World, and Celestial Realm. The Third World is a realm where Holy Beings, such as the water monsters, come from.  
  • Yitoo came from the Third World. She was the first water monster to come into the Fourth World, Earth. “Yitoo was the first one. She’s so powerful that she bit into the ocean of the Third World and brought that water [to the Fourth World].” The Fifth world is a mystical land beyond these worlds that Yitoo travels to when she is exiled. 
  • Diné Bikéyah is the term for the holy land of the Diné, located between the Four Sacred Mountains.  
  • Three times in the story, sweetgrass is discussed. The burning of sweetgrass is a native ritual practice used to purify the spirit. “Nathan asked Yitoo for some of her energizing sweetgrass. She happily provided some from her medicine bag. . . Nathan lit the tips of the sweetgrass and then immediately blew them out. A thin trail of smoke wafted in the air. Both Nathan and Edward inhaled. The delicious smoke flowed into their nostrils. . . The dark shadows underneath Edward’s eyelids disappear[ed] and his posture straighten[ed]” 
  • Edward and Nathan climb one of the sacred mountains, Tsoodził. After sprinkling corn pollen on the ground as a sign of respect, Edward says, “Ted had said that only medicine folk were allowed to set foot on the mountains to gather sacred medicine and sands. The medicine folk had to sing ceremonial songs the entire time they were on the mountain to protect themselves and as a gesture of respect.” Each of the scared mountains are protected by a Guardian, a powerful creature meant to kill intruders.  
  • Edward and Nathan obtain two objects when visiting the Celestial Realm, the Obsidian Armor and Sacred Arrows. The arrows can create various magical effects, such as a bright light or a rainbow, and the Obsidian Armor will protect the wearer against Holy Beings and fit them perfectly.  

Hot Cocoa Hearts

‘Tis the season. . . for heartbreak? Emery Mason is not a fan of the holidays. She’s so over the tinsel, the shopping, and all the other trappings of the season. Unfortunately, this year, Emery is forced to work — as an elf! — at her parents’ Santa photo booth at the mall. There, Emery meets Alejandro Perez, who works at the hot cocoa shop next door and is always full of holiday spirit. Alex is cute, but he’s nothing like Emery’s real crush — the brooding and artistic Sawyer Kade. 

But the more time Emery spends with Alex, the more she realizes that she may not be the Grinch she always thought she was. Soon a blizzard, a Secret Santa surprise, and a family disagreement throw Emery’s world upside down. Can Emery embrace the magic of the holidays and find the perfect boy to kiss under the mistletoe?

Like Scrooge, Emery doesn’t believe in Christmas and she isn’t afraid to kill other people’s Christmas joy. Because of Emery’s bah-humbug attitude, readers may find it difficult to connect to her. Emery’s hatred of all things Christmas is connected to her grandmother’s death. Despite this, it’s hard to sympathize with a character who makes young children cry. Like Scrooge, Emery eventually finds the true meaning of Christmas and the happy ending shows that the holidays are about “the magic of believing. The sheer fun of giving the gift of that to other people, of sharing it with them.” Even though the story has a happy ending, the book’s negative tone takes much of the joy out of reading it.

Emery’s bad attitude isn’t the book’s only negative aspect. Emery idolizes her crush Sawyer and is ecstatic when he finally notices her. However, she soon finds that it’s difficult to be honest with Sawyer. To make matters worse, Sawyer doesn’t seem to understand Emery at all. As Emery spends more time with Alex, she begins to question what she really believes. The love triangle adds suspense to the story, but Sawyer acts more like a confident adult than a preteen which makes some of the scenes unbelievable. However, the scenes between Emery and Alex are full of sweet moments that middle-grade readers will enjoy.

Unfortunately, readers may have a difficult time connecting with Emery. While her grief over her grandmother’s death is understandable, Emery’s bad attitude hurts others. Despite this, Hot Cocoa Hearts teaches the importance of not making assumptions about others. In addition, the conclusion is super sweet not only because Emery finds the joy of Christmas, but also because Emery finds an unexpected community that jumps in to help her when needed. Readers who are looking for a more joyful holiday book to curl up with should read the Celebrate the Season Series by Taylor Garland. However, if you’re feeling a bit like Scrooge, Young Scrooge: A Very Scary Christmas Story by R.L. Stine gives the typical Christmas story a new twist.

Sexual Content 

  • Emery and Alex are at a spice store and suddenly she “wasn’t focused on the beans. I was looking at Alex’s mouth, at how soft and full his lips looked. And then a thought flashed through my head. What might it be like to kiss Alex?”
  • Emery goes on a date with Sawyer. Afterward, “he leaned toward me, and my eyes closed instinctively as my heart pummeled my chest. . . But at the last second, when we were so close I felt the warmth of his breath, I panicked and turned my face to the side. His lips brushed against my cheek.”
  • While at a holiday party, Emery finds Alex and puts mistletoe over her head. Then, she “stood on my toes and kissed him. The kiss was breathtaking and sweet.”
  • While at the mall, Alex “leaned close and gave [Emery] another sweet, lingering kiss.”

Violence 

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • When Alex gets sick, his grandfather had him “take a temazcal herb steam treatment.”

Language 

  • Omigod is used occasionally. 
  • Crud and darn are each used once. 

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • While working at the mall, Emery prays that none of her friends see her.
  • Alex’s grandfather has a sign on the wall that says, “Oh divine chocolate. . . we beat it with our hands in prayer, and we drink it with our eyes lifted to the heavens.”

Truly, Madly, Royally

Zora Emerson’s summer plans are simple: to attend the pre-university program at Halstead U and continue her community work in her hometown of Appleton. Zora is Black and from a modest background, which doesn’t fit the typical picture of students at Halsted U nor the royal family of Landerel – a small country in Europe. Dodging reporters, dating a prince, and attending a royal wedding were not part of the plan.  

After meeting a mystery boy in the library, Zora falls for his charm, only to discover that she’s fallen for Owen Whittelsey, the son of the Queen of Landerel. Soon, Zora’s studies and volunteering is split between dates with Owen. However great Zora’s dates with her Prince Charming are in private, the royal life is not as glamorous as it seems. Owen is constantly monitored by his security team, and the budding relationship between Zora and Owen is investigated by the press. When Zora wins a grant to bolster her after-school program, the award is taken away when outsiders hint that her connections to the royal family give her an unfair advantage.  

Despite the setbacks and scrutiny, Zora persists in growing her after-school program through different means while managing her relationship with Owen. Eventually, he invites Zora to attend the wedding of his brother as a guest of honor. During the trip of a lifetime, Zora learns how to be confident in herself and embrace her heritage.  

Truly, Madly, Royally is a romance story mixed with a unique narrator whose heart lies with helping her community. Despite the majority of students at Halstead being from rich, white families, Zora is determined to embrace her African heritage and prove that she has a place among them by excelling in the classroom and her community work. Zora’s confidence is admirable even as she’s faced with large setbacks, such as grant money for her community work being taken away. Instead of giving up, Zora runs her own fundraiser, earning the money on her own. At the end of the story, African culture is highlighted as the royal wedding is between Owen’s brother and a Black woman named Sadie. However, the romance plot takes center stage, so the book doesn’t teach much about African culture beyond these basic issues. 

Truly, Madly, Royally is an easy, quick read. However, there’s not much to learn or gain from this story due to its simplistic and predictable plot. Readers who typically enjoy the romance genre will be disappointed by the development of Zora and Owen. While the romance is underwhelming, the story of Zora’s relationship she has with kids from her after-school program is heartwarming. Beyond that, however, the story highlights the importance of community. Zora truly wants to make a difference in her community and works hard to achieve her goals. Zora’s caring nature, confidence, and African heritage bring a unique element to this common romance trope.  

Sexual Content 

  • Skye, Zora’s friend, admits that she and Zora’s brother Zach kissed. 
  • Owen invites Zora to the royal ball. Then, “Owen bows his head and kisses my hand.” Afterwards, he asks, “Am I welcome to kiss you?” Zora says yes, and Owen kisses Zora for the first time. Zora describes, “Owen closes the distance between us and bows his head closer. It’s a kiss that starts with one soft, sweet peck, quickly followed by another. We look at each other and smile before taking a deeper dive with a tender kiss that lingers. We stay holding hands the whole time. A few seconds later, we pull back slowly.” 
  • Owen kisses Zora in a lecture hall at Halstead. “He pulls me in closer for a quick, wonderful kiss.”  
  • Owen hugs and kisses Zora while dancing in a friend’s dorm. “[Owen] lifts me off the floor. He lowers my feet with a quick kiss.”  
  • When Zora shows up at a wedding, Owen greets her. “[Owen] wraps his arms around me and kisses my forehead.”  

Violence 

  • Owen’s sister, Emily, committed suicide, which Zora learns from an article that provides the details of her death. “Apparently, when [Emily] was younger, a royal biographer dubbed her the ‘redheaded stepchild.’ Sadly, the unfortunate moniker stuck. . . [Emily] was considered chubby. The body shaming, the merciless trolling, the unflattering memes everywhere all threw her down a self-destructive path that ultimately led to her tragic death. Her body was found off a cliff in a mountain range along the southern coast of Landerel.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • When Owen’s sister died, there was “a high level of alcohol in her system.” 

Language 

  • Zora’s mother claims that her ex-husband, Zora’s dad, is always “showing his ass.”  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Zora’s mother is religious and occasionally mentions God and praying. She says, “I’m gonna pray you find a friend there you can relate to. You know God always listens to a mother’s prayer.”  
  • Zora’s father says “the only person ruling this house is Jesus.” 
  • Zora is at a community event where she feels like she has to keep standing up to greet people. “I stand up, sit down, and then stand up and sit down again. You would think I am at a Catholic church service.” 
  • The royal wedding is held in a chapel in Landerel. 

Squad Goals

Energetic seventh-grader Magic Poindexter wants nothing more than to join the cheerleading squad for the Valentine Middle School Honeybees. After all, cheerleading runs deep in her family’s blood, and Magic wants to continue her family’s legacy, especially since her Grammy Mae was the first Black cheerleader on the Honeybees squad.  

But Magic is different. She isn’t coordinated, has zero athletic ability, and she struggles to stay on beat. Her only chance lies with Planet Pom-Poms, the summer cheer camp where she’ll audition for a spot on the cheerleading squad. However, cheer camp brings more than strenuous practice routines, and Magic struggles to balance the interweaving plotlines of summer romances, friendship trouble, and mean bullies. Can Magic survive Planet Pom-Poms and earn herself a spot on the Valentine Middle School Honeybees? 

From the start, Magic’s bubbly, quirky personality enriches the story’s plot and surrounding characters. Readers will enjoy experiencing Planet Pom-Poms through Magic’s point of view, and her mixture of excitement and anxiety for the cheerleading audition makes her a very relatable character. Yet, Magic’s strength lies in her positive view of herself and others. Despite what others say about her, Magic remains upbeat and optimistic which is why she becomes an admirable figure for both the readers and the other characters. 

Magic is a dynamic character, who shows personal growth; at first, she fears her lack of cheerleading talent but she learns to love herself. This change highlights the book’s message of loving and believing in yourself. This message extends past Magic to her friends, who find beauty in their differences. Magic exemplifies this by saying, “With all of our differences . . . we’re like a cool bag of Skittles. Each of us has our own unique flavor. Without one of us, the rest of the bag would be boring.” While Squad Goals primarily focuses on Magic’s development, the book also includes plenty of cheerleading action. Readers can expect many action sequences with in-depth descriptions of real cheerleading moves. 

Overall, Squad Goals is a heartfelt story about a young girl learning to love herself and her differences. The combination of fast cheerleading scenes with slower introspection scenes mix well and provide an authentic experience for the characters to learn and grow from. The book pleasantly wraps up the different plotlines and leaves the readers with a satisfying conclusion. Although the characters may act overly cheesy, the book explodes with enough charm that it will elicit a smile from all readers who love positivity and cheerleading. Readers who want more cheerleading action should also read The Tryout by Christina Soontornvat. 

Sexual Content 

  • When Magic talks to her crush, Dallas Chase, Dallas’ “cheeks turn red when he smiles this time.” 
  • Whenever Magic thinks about Dallas, it “makes her heart turn into a drum major and beat against my chest. Then my hands get sweaty and I don’t want to touch anything.” 
  • When Magic talks about Dallas, she “swipe[s] at my brows and try to shake off the red. But when I glance in the mirror, my entire face is still flushed. I shake my head. Now it’s even redder. But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it . . . even though I can’t deny that he makes me feel like a hot cup of cocoa topped with squishy marshmallows, all caramel excitement and chocolate nerves.” 
  • Magic’s and Dallas’ eyes lock, and Magic loses “all focus, my mouth opening and closing like a fish as I try to figure out what to say.” 
  • Magic watches Dallas and Gia, the captain of the cheerleading squad, interact from afar, and she “can feel [her] legs turning to limp taffy” out of fear and disgust. This scene is described over three pages. 
  • Magic sees Dallas in a crowd and her “palms go sticky and I start losing my grip on my pom-poms.” 
  • Dallas meets up with Magic outside her cabin. Magic explains, “he looks up at me and a powerful surge of mushy feelings rushes through my nervous system, making me . . . nervous. They start in my toes and sizzle up to the ends of my big, long braids.” 
  • Magic and Dallas hold hands as they walk. “We turn to head back to the dorm, hand in hand, and I’m so content that I don’t even bother to count the Mississippis.” 
  • When Dallas invites Magic to a birthday party, she “can’t hold back the mega-blush that’s turning my face a solid Crayola red.” 

Violence 

  • Magic falls off the steps of the bus, and “an obnoxiously loud thud echoes behind my fall and everyone turns to look right at me and my face, which is now buried in the dirt.” Magic hurts her arm and has to go to the nurse’s station later on. 
  • Magic’s friend, Brooklyn, explains that the cheerleader captains “will be covered in that chalky calamine lotion” after she spreads poison ivy on Gia and Yves’ pillows. 
  • Gia and Yves, the two cheerleading captains, sabotage Magic’s introduction video during the Midsummer performances. They switch out Magic’s original video with a video of her professing her love for Dallas Chase for the entire audience to see: “The audio skips. I try to keep dancing to my background music, mainly because Coach force-fed us that the show must always go on, even if disaster strikes. The audio skips again. ‘—and I’m in love with Dallas Chase. And I’m in love with Dallas Chase. I’m—I’m—I’m in love with Dallas Chase.’” This scene is described over three pages. 
  • Gia and Yves sabotage Magic and her friends’ performance at the Finale by dropping a bucket of water on Magic’s friends during their performance. Magic decides to “cut the string” to save her friends’ performance, “but the bucket is still teetering back and forth, and while I’m looking up at the rafter, watching the bucket with my mouth wide open, I feel a few droplets just before the entire bucket of water splatters right over my head. And I’m soaked.” Magic sacrifices herself to allow her friends to finish their performance. This scene is described over three pages. 
  • Magic and her friends cover Gia and Yves bedsheets with poison ivy in revenge for the Midsummer disaster: “’I’ll do the honors,’ I say to Winnie, taking the tissue with the poison ivy in it from her. I lean over the other bed and follow Winnie’s fingertip as it guides me across and then down the pillowcase.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Magic mentions that her grandfather “takes medication” when his “heart is beating dangerously fast.” 
  • Magic’s mom mentions that “children’s Motrin will help” with Magic’s throbbing head. 

Language 

  • Magic exclaims “ohmahgawd” multiple times. 
  • Two cheerleaders regularly call Magic, “Tragic Magic.” They also call another cheerleader, Capricorn, “Kettle Corn.”  
  • Magic’s friend, Lulu, screams “ohmygosh” once. 
  • Magic repeatedly exclaims “fan-fricking-tastic.”   
  • A mean cheerleader taunts Capricorn by telling her that she “sucks.” 
  • A mean cheerleader tells Magic that “she looks like a raccoon.” 

Supernatural 

  • When Magic holds her Grammy Mae’s pom-poms before the Finale, she sees Grammy Mae encouraging her. “It’s Grammy Mae’s voice, and I’m not sure if I’m imagining it, because it feels so real. And when I open my eyes, I can see her, smiling sweetly, even though I know she’s not there.” 
  • Grammy Mae’s initials on her pom-poms change to Magic’s initials at the end of the story. “And when I do, Grammy’s initials aren’t there anymore. Instead, that same golden glow is swirling around the initials MOP.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • Magic’s big sister, Fortune, compliments Magic by saying, “God was having a good day when he made [you].” 

The Dragon’s Blood

The dense, steamy rainforests of Northern Borne are some of the oldest and most magical in the world. Under the shade of the towering tree canopies majestic elephants and orangutans roam. However, Cruz Coronado is more focused on a tiny leech with a surprisingly painful, slow-healing bite. As the leech inches closer and closer, Cruz wonders if what he discovered at the top-secret Archive is true.   

In The Dragon’s Blood, the sixth installment in the Explorer Academy series, Cruz is still reeling from an explosive revelation. But with Emmett, Sailor, and Lani by his side, he is more determined than ever to track down the next-to-last piece of his mother’s cipher. Nebula is close on their heels, though, and the global hunt for the world-changing serum is riskier than ever. The daring explorers follow clues to an emperor’s tomb, and their studies take them to a rugged island in search of a mysterious animal once thought to be extinct. Just as Cruz feels hopeful about the survival of the species—and his own survival—a voice threatens to make sure his mission hits a dead end. 

The explorers travel to Borneo’s Kinabatangan River Basin in Malaysia where they learn about proboscis monkeys and other animals. Soon after, the explorers travel to the Tasmanian wilderness to place cameras that will capture pictures of the wildlife. However, the wildlife adventures end quickly and the story shifts to focus on Cruz’s search for his mother’s cipher. While Cruz’s travels are full of suspense and surprises, some readers may miss learning more about animals and conservation efforts. 

To find the next piece of the cipher, Cruz and his friends travel to China to search the terracotta soldiers. Similar to the other book, in The Dragon’s Blood the episode with the terracotta soldiers happens too quickly to give readers an in-depth view of China or the history behind the terracotta soldiers. While the travel creates suspense and moves the plot forward, the fast pace doesn’t allow readers to soak up all the places Cruz and his friends travel to. 

The Dragon’s Blood pushes the limit on what readers will find believable. Most of the ciphers have been hidden in elaborate ways that have remarkably remained unfound despite their proximity to heavily visited tourist locations. Some of the ciphers have many layers of protection. Because of this, the speed with which Cruz and his friends find the hidden ciphers does not ring true.  

The Dragon’s Blood begins to reveal some of the pivotal pieces of the plot in an effort to bring the series to an end. Through Cruz’s experiences, the reader will learn valuable lessons. For example, when one of the spies is revealed, readers get a close look at how “hate destroys the hater.” In addition, as Cruz and the other explorers travel the world, their instructors encourage them to face their fears and push their limits. This allows them to work as a team, create new technology, and face difficult. While the Explorer Academy Series is not perfect, it is entertaining and encourages readers to risk making mistakes in the quest to learn. 

Sexual Content 

  • Bryndis “planted a kiss” on Cruz’s cheek. 

Violence 

  • Someone tampered with a rotating room, making it spin uncontrollably while Dr. Fanchon and Cruz were inside. “Cruz tried to get up but couldn’t get his feet under him on the slick floor. Stumbling, he hit his knee on the cabinet and went down. Pain shot down his leg.”  
  • As the room continues to spin, Dr Fanchon falls. “Cruz heard a sharp crack a second before he saw her crumple to the floor next to the wall. . . Cruz knew if he let go of the drawer, like Fanchon, he would be flung into the wall with a force violent enough to break bones. . . Everything was a blur. His ears hurt. His stomach churned.” The scene is described over seven pages. No one is seriously injured. 
  • Two men corner Cruz and his friends in a pit where there are terracotta soldiers. One man threatens them with a laser. “There was a cry. A burst of laser fire. . . Next to Cruz, Scorpion’s partner was out cold. Sailor stood over him, the clay arm of a warrior clutched in her hand.” The kids are able to escape.  
  • While in the lab, Dr. Vanderwick grabs Cruz from behind. “‘Don’t move,’ a digitized voice said into his left ear as icy fingers clamped on to him. . . His back was still to her. Next to his shoulder appeared the end of a metal poker, its rounded tip glowing scarlet. . . Suddenly, a jawbreaker-size orb of flames shot out! Cruz ducked as the fireball whizzed past his ear.” 
  • Dr. Vanderwick tries to shoot Cruz with the laser. Luckily, the lab contained sensotivia gel, which reacts to people’s emotions. When Dr. Vanderwick becomes upset “like two bear paws, the sensotivia gel stretched toward her. . . wrapping its gooey claws around her neck, the sensotivia gel began to cover Dr. Vanderwick.” 
  • Despite being captured by the sensotivia gel, Dr. Vanderwick shoots at Cruz. “Suddenly, a ball of flames was soaring toward him. . . Cruz dropped to the floor, and the fiery orb hit the corner of the wall. In a matter of seconds, the blaze spread. The cabinets were on fire.” The scene is described over seven pages. 
  • Another faculty member, Nyomie, appears to help Cruz. Dr. Vanderwick tells them she planted a “liquid compound I’ve been working on. A few drops did the trick. Once the detonator triggers, it’ll blow a hole in the ship big enough to sink her.”  
  • Nyomie finds the helmet containing the explosive and throws it overboard. “The helmet exploded mere seconds before it would have splashed into the sea. . . [Cruz] felt a wave of heat as the shock rocked the ship.” The scene with Dr. Vanderwick takes place over several chapters. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • A scientist is working on creating an emotion potion. “A cream to improve your mood. Say you’re feeling a bit sad, you rub a little of it into your skin and it’ll help cheer you up. If you’re scared, it’ll give you a boost of confidence.” 
  • Cruz’s mother (and others) use animal toxins to create medicine. 

Language   

  • One of the bad men calls Cruz and his friends “dumb kids.” 
  • Darn is used once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Jackpot

Meet Rico: high school senior and afternoon-shift cashier at the Gas ‘n’ Go who also takes care of her younger brother. Every. Single. Day. When Rico sells a jackpot-winning lotto ticket, she thinks maybe her luck will finally change, but only if she—with some assistance from her popular and wildly rich classmate Zan—can find the ticket holder, who still hasn’t claimed their prize. But what happens when have and have-nots collide? Will this investigative duo unite. . . or divide? 

Told from Rico’s point of view, Jackpot highlights the difficulties of living in poverty. Many readers will sympathize with Rico’s struggles and relate to her insecurities. Rico is an interesting, well-developed character who believes poverty has stolen all her opportunities. In contrast, Zan has never had to worry about money. Despite this, Zan feels his only option is to work for his family’s company.  

In the end, both characters realize, “Everyone has choices. Are some of them hard? Yes. But if you want something bad enough. . .” Rico and Zan’s relationship gives both of them a new perspective and the bravery to take control of their lives.  

Even though Rico and Zan are completely opposite from each other, they each have universal teen conflicts that readers will connect with. Neither character allows others to see their true selves. Zan has closed himself off because he is afraid others will take advantage of him due to his family’s wealth. On the other hand, Rico’s life has been so consumed with work — schoolwork, her job, and caring for her brother — that she has no friends. In addition, Rico feels inferior to her wealthy classmates. Being friends with Zan teaches Rico that not having money doesn’t mean you’re not as worthy as those who do. 

Many teen readers will connect with Jackpot because of the interesting characters and universal themes. While readers will sympathize with Rico’s situation, Zan is the real star because his quirky behavior is humorous and endearing. Even though Rico and Zan are realistic characters, the conclusion is not quite believable. Despite this, Jackpot’s focus on class will leave readers thinking about how one’s class affects every aspect of life. In the author’s note, Stone explains that Jackpot reinforces the idea that “there’s a whole lot more to people than how much — or how little — is in their bank account.” Readers who want another book that explores classism should check out I’m Not Dying with You Tonight by Kimberly Jones & Gilly Segal and Class Act by Jerry Craft.  

Sexual Content 

  • Zan goes to see Rico at work. As he’s leaving, he “yanks” her forward. Rico collides “with his chest—then he’s wrapping his arms around my waist and lifting me off my feet. . .” Afterwards, she is “legitimately hot all over.”  
  • Rico’s grandfather was “a white guy. . . he had a one-night stand with an . . . escort he’s pretty sure was black, then ten months later, my mom was left on his doorstep.”  
  • Rico’s mom got pregnant when she was in college. “She spent a month in Spain and came back pregnant. . . she didn’t know about his wife and kids. . .” 
  • Rico’s friend Jessica says, “Timberlake’s old news, but I’d totally have his babies if I weren’t so bent on having Ness’s [her boyfriend].” Later, it is revealed that Jessica and Ness are sexually active. 
  • Rico goes to a friend’s house where she’s surprised to see Zan. When Zan sees her, she describes how “he rushes over and scoops me up in what I can only describe as THE HUG. . . he holds me by the shoulders and basically eats every inch of my body.” 
  • After getting drunk, Rico wakes up next to Zan. Even though they are both fully dressed, Rico thinks that they hooked up and she just can’t remember it. An older woman tells Ric
  • o that after her first marriage broke up, she met Lionel. “Lionel really knew his way around a lady, if you catch my drift.” 
  • While Rico is working, an adult buys a Playboy magazine from the convenience store. 
  • Rico’s brother asks if she’s had a wet dream. He explains what he means. “They’re dreams where you’re doing it with somebody, duh. Mason’s big brother has them all the time and he pees out sticky stuff in the bed, so that’s why they’re called wet.” 
  • Jessica and her boyfriend are kissing when someone tells them to “get a room.” 
  • Rico and Zan pose as a couple in order to look at houses for rent. As part of the ruse, Zan tells the real estate agent that they “’had a little too much fun after winter homecoming, if you catch my drift.” Zan winks and pats Rico’s belly. 
  • Rico has an emotional moment and begins to cry. To comfort her, Zane “draws me in to him. The more I cry, the closer we get until I’m curled in his khaki’s lap like a toddler, sobbing into the neck of his perfectly pressed polo shirt.” After snuggling for a few minutes, Zane says, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you should probably get off my lap now.”  

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Zan thinks Rico is acting “high strung.” He tells her, “We need to get you some good weed or something.” 
  • Jessica’s mother “drinks away most of her paycheck.” 
  • Rico goes to a friend’s house. The teens there drink alcohol and get “a bit tipsy.” 
  • Jessica wonders which one of the cheerleaders is in “therapy and on anti-anxiety meds.”  
  • When Rico’s brother has a fever, she gives him ibuprofen. 

Language 

  • Profanity is used often. Profanity includes variations of ass, asshole, bitch, crap, dumbass, damn, hell, pissed, shit and motherfu–.  
  • Lord, God, Jesus, and other religious names are used as explanations often.  
  • When Rico wakes up next to Zan, she thinks, “Might as well have a red letter T for tramp tattooed on my cheek.” 
  • Rico thinks someone is a douche-jackass and a son-of-a-bitch. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Zan is Catholic and goes to mass “when [his] grandma makes [him].” 
  • Rico thinks about God. “The whole God thing has always been a little suspect to me.” Rico’s mom would listen to the “sermon station” but this just made Rico question God’s goodness. “But for as long as I can remember, Mama has prayed without ceasing, and . . . well, I find it tough to believe this God character is so great when we continue to barely scrape by despite how hard Mama works and prays.” 
  • At one point, Rico thinks that God will “smite us [her and Zan] for all these lies we’re telling.” 
  • While at a wedding, Rico looks at Zan and thanks “whatever God is worshipped in this church for the fact that I’m already sitting. 
  • Rico’s boss has heavy security on his computer. Rico explains, “He got new software just after the store was broken into and trashed by anti-Muslim douchefaces last August.”  
  • Rico goes to Zan’s house to eat dinner with his family. Zan’s father prays, thanking God for the food and his successful business. Then he says, “Lord, we thank you for our young Alejandro [Zan], and for the light that has recently graced his life, pulling him out of darkness—” Zan’s father was talking about Rico. 
  • Zan’s grandmother invites Rico to mass and then asks if Rico is a believer. The conversation gets interrupted before Rico can answer. 

Magical Imperfect

Etan is a twelve-year-old boy whose life is full of silence, earthquakes, and a bit of magic. He lives in a world that is both familiar and unfamiliar. The ground beneath his feet is constantly shaking, threatening to upend everything he knows. But despite the danger, Etan finds solace in the game of baseball, a sport that has been a part of his life since he was old enough to hold a bat.

However, Etan’s world is turned upside down when his mother is admitted to a mental institution. He suddenly finds himself unable to express his thoughts and feelings because his words are trapped inside his head. Without the ability to communicate, Etan feels isolated from the other kids his age since he is unable to reach out and connect with them.

But there is one person who understands him better than anyone else: his grandfather. Raised in a close-knit community of immigrants, Etan’s grandfather knows the value of acceptance and understanding. He doesn’t judge Etan for his silence, but instead offers him the comfort and support he needs to navigate this difficult time.

Not everyone in the community is as kind-hearted as Etan’s grandfather. When a local shopkeeper asks Etan to run an errand for him, this sets off a chain of events that will change Etan’s life forever. While running the errand, Ethan Meets Malia Agbayani, whom the boys at school have nicknamed “the creature.” At first, Etan is hesitant to approach her, but when he finally does, he discovers a kindred spirit. Despite her nickname, Malia’s voice is like music to Etan’s ears. She sees the world in a unique way, and her perspective helps Etan to find his own voice. As they spend time together, Etan realizes that outside of his community, there is a world full of people who are different but just as valuable. With this newfound understanding, Etan’s world begins to open in ways he never thought possible.

Etan is a truly endearing main character that will captivate the reader’s imagination. His journey through the obstacle of selective mutism is truly inspiring, as he learns how to overcome his personal struggles and create new friendships. As the reader follows his journey, they are taken on a fascinating exploration of his family’s rich Jewish history, with all of its intricate traditions and customs. Through Etan’s eyes, the reader is transported to a world full of magic and wonder, where anything is possible if you believe in yourself. With each passing chapter, the reader will feel more and more invested in Etan’s story, eagerly anticipating what will happen next and how he will continue to grow as a person.

Readers will also be captivated not only by the wisdom and mysticism displayed by Etan’s grandfather but also by the rich cultural context he provides. Through his tales from his homeland in Prague, the grandfather shares his deep knowledge of the Jewish religion and the Hebrew language. Moreover, his character serves as a powerful reminder that everyone has the ability to create magic in the world – all that is required is a strong belief and a heart full of love. The reader cannot help but be inspired by the grandfather’s teachings, and they will come away with a renewed appreciation for the beauty and diversity of world cultures.

The Magical Imperfect is a heartwarming tale that emphasizes the value of embracing diversity and the true meaning of unity. The author beautifully showcases the power of empathy and compassion, and how they have the ability to bring people together. Through vivid descriptions and relatable characters, The Magical Imperfect teaches us that our differences should be celebrated rather than feared and that we should strive to build bridges of understanding and respect. Overall, this book is an excellent reminder of the importance of kindness and acceptance in our increasingly diverse world. This is a rich, rewarding, and deeply moving story that is sure to touch the hearts of readers of all ages.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • None

Supernatural

  • Malia, Etan’s friend, introduces Etan to a spot that is full of magic. “These are the Sitting Stones. This is where the trees listen the most. The pool is magical . . . But this water is magic.”
  • During an earthquake, Ethan gets a small cut on his arm. His grandfather sees the cut and decides to show him the power of the clay. Grandfather pulls Ethan close “presses down his two clay fingers on the cut on my arm . . . The cut is gone. I search with my fingers, trace my skin up and down, and back and forth . . . Then it feels like the world starts to spin cold and warm all at once. . .” Ethan’s grandfather explains, “Your body, Etan, it’s experienced something from another time, an ancient thing giving its power to something new right now.”
  • Etan and Malia visit the Sitting Stones and he begins to wonder if the clay inside the pool could heal. He wonders if it would help heal Malia’s eczema issues.
  • Another object that is considered magical is a small green stone that Etan is given. The stone helps give him the strength to find words to speak. His grandfather explains,  “This, he says, is a bareket, an emerald, an ancient, powerful stone, like from the breastplate of Aaron . . . When you feel afraid to speak, hold the stone in your hand, tight tight tight, and it will bring you courage.” 
  • In order to heal Malia’s eczema, Etan and Malia combine his grandfather’s clay and the clay from the Sitting Stones pool. Ethan puts “clay on two fingers, dab it onto her face, around her eye. I [Ethan] pray, think of the trees, the pool, my green bareket, somewhere in the water . . . When most of the clay is off my hands, Malia starts humming, her voice like light. ‘Look!’ she cries. Her red, swollen arms are smooth, clear, like the red was never there.” To both of their amazement, the clay makes the redness disappear. 

Spiritual Content 

  • Etan’s family holds religion near and dear to their heart. His grandfather is a Jewish immigrant that uses his religion and the magic associated with it to teach Etan different lessons about life. He often reminds Etan how important it is to remember his heritage and the different objects that help represent them. When Etan’s grandfather leaves his workshop early, it is usually for a specific religious activity, like lighting the Shabbat Candles. “When he leaves extra early so he can be home to light the Shabbat candles. The candles, he says, they make us Jews.”
  • Etan’s grandfather has a small box full of valuables from his life in Prague. He believes that the objects within hold a magical power that each represents a different thing. The object most talked about in the book is the clay. “This is the last of the clay taken from the Vlata River by your ancestor, the Maharal himself . . . It’s the clay of the golem; it once made a terrible monster that defended the Jewish people in their time of great need.”
  • There are mentions of aspects of the Jewish religion throughout the text, but it isn’t until Etan begins to pray when using the clay on Malia, that there is a full string of Hebrew language used. “Baruch ata Adonaim Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.” This is the prayer that they say for bread at Shabbat.

Honeysmoke: A Story of Finding Your Color

Simone, a young biracial girl looks around her world for her color. She asks her parents and her classmates, “What color am I?” All of them have a different answer. The girl compares herself to different colors—the black of a tire, the color of chocolate, and finally her coloring pencils. By studying her parents, she finally chooses her own color, and creates a new word for herself―honeysmoke. 

Honeysmoke shows one young girl’s struggle to understand herself. Because she doesn’t look like the other kids at school, she tries to find the right word to describe her skin color. “Simone wants a color, one that shows who she is on the inside and the outside.” In the end, Simone realizes that she is a mix of both her mother and her father and she comes up with a word — honeysmoke — that reflects both of them. The last page of the story reads, “Colors are words. Words are colors. Discover your color word.” The page shows different colors and describes them with creative names such as bronze leaf, copper storm, sugar coal, etc.  

While many readers may not relate to Simone’s conflict, they will recognize the need to understand who they are and how they fit into this world. Honeysmoke encourages readers to embrace each person’s differences including their own. The story would be the perfect conversation starter about heredity as well as loving yourself. 

The illustrations have beautiful and vibrant colors that jump off the page. The students at Simone’s school are diverse and show how each student is unique. In addition, Simone’s skin tone is contrasted with everyday objects that young readers will be familiar with such as glue, teddy bears, and colored pencils. Each page has one to six sentences that use simple vocabulary that makes the message shine. 

Honeysmoke is a beautiful story that highlights the importance of accepting yourself. In addition, the story shows the importance of words and encourages readers to creatively play with words. Adults who are looking for a picture book with a positive message will find Honeysmoke an excellent addition to their library. If you’re looking for another picture book that encourages readers to love their differences, add Angus All Aglow by Heather Smith, Danbi Leads the School Parade by Anna Kim, and I Am Enough by Grace Byers to your reading list. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Sea in Winter

Maisie’s life has revolved around ballet since she was four. Her friends, life, and dream of becoming a ballerina all revolve around her love of dance. However, during the critical period when Maisie and her friends are preparing to audition to attend premier dance schools, Maisie injures her knee. Confined to crutches and physical therapy, her injury may prevent her from ever dancing again. Her only hope is to get better by summer. 

However, as her injury persists, Maisie’s family takes a road trip. During this time, she struggles to be happy for her friends who are preparing for their auditions. Maisie also feels disconnected from her family’s happiness. Desperate to prove she’s recovering, Maisie forces herself to go on hikes despite the pain in her knee. Maise’s frustration with her injury makes her feel irritable. She lashes out at her stepfather and her mother during their trip, straining their relationship. Even though she regrets her outbursts, Maisie struggles to find the strength to apologize. 

Eventually, Maisie’s injury worsens because she pushes herself too hard during a hike. Maisie is rushed to the hospital, unable to walk or move her leg without intense pain. With her dream of dancing out of reach, Maisie breaks down and admits that she’s having trouble managing her emotions. She knows she must give up dance, but she feels like she’s giving up on herself. Her stepdad tells her, “None of this means you’ve failed. It just means that you’re moving forward. Which is about the bravest thing any of us can do.”

The Sea in Winter is a story about learning to grow from setbacks. It is an easy read with a simple plot and only a few main characters. However, at times the text is very descriptive, such as long passages about the scenery on the family’s hikes or the food the family eats. Because of these detailed passages, the book moves slowly at times. The overall message—finding the strength to move on during setbacks—is a good lesson, but it can get lost in these descriptions. 

Dancers would enjoy this book because of the use of dancing terms and the occasional flashbacks to Maisie’s ballet classes. These events might be better understood by people with an interest or background in dance. However, familiarity with ballet isn’t necessary because the main story happens after Maisie’s injury.

The book references the Makah and Piscataway cultures, two Indigenous tribes in North America. Maisie’s mother is Makah and her father is Piscataway. Her parents refer to stories about their tribes’ hardships to show Maisie that relying on others during hard times and connecting with one’s culture can help you through major life changes. In a time of grief, Maisie’s mother “turned to the teachings of my ancestors, for one thing. I looked back at our history of resilience and survival. How the Makahs managed to bring their community together, despite horrible events.” 

The narrator, Maisie, is very honest with the reader about how she feels, even when she struggles to admit it out loud. Maisie is in middle school, a trying time for children as they discover who they are and make decisions about their future. Growing up can be confusing and stressful – especially when things don’t go according to plan. Maisie’s frustrations are relatable to anyone who feels like the world is moving on without them. However, no one has to face the world alone. This story emphasizes the power of family as a support structure. It encourages someone who is struggling, to depend on the people around them when they encounter things they cannot handle on their own.

The Sea in Winter ends on a positive note for Maisie as she branches out into new interests and rekindles her relationships with her friends. Though moving on from dance and re-discovering herself is not an easy task, Maisie finds strength in sharing her feelings with others. She relies on her family and stories of perseverance and allows herself to dream new dreams and set new goals. The book ends with Maisie declaring: “I choose onward.”

Sexual Content 

  • Two characters on a TV show kiss. “Phillipe huffs in frustration, takes [Catriona’s] face in both hands, and kisses her on the mouth.”

Violence 

  • The book discusses a protest against the Makah Native Americans, who were legally allowed to resume their tribal tradition of whale hunting. Some of the protestors had signs and bumper stickers that said: “Save a whale, kill a Makah.”
  • Maisie’s father died while serving in Afghanistan. Maisie says, “I know that [my father] was killed in action before my first birthday.”
  • Maisie says that her stepdad’s grandfather, who they called See-yah, was abused in school for speaking his native language. “His teachers tried to beat the Klallam language out of him.” 
  • Maisie’s mother admits that she hit one of the men who delivered the news of Maisie’s father’s death. Maisie’s mother, “hit one of the men square in the chest, and slapped him across the face, before [she] collapsed in a heap on the floor.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language   

  • Maisie calls a TV commercial “stupid.”
  • Maisie snaps at her mom and says, “Why are you always on your stupid phone?”
  • Maisie says her injury is the result of “a stupid decision.”

Supernatural 

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

She Persisted: Maria Tallchief

Maria “Betty” Tallchief was one of the most famous American ballerinas who trailblazed onto the international ballet scene, but her rise to prima ballerina did not come easy. As another installment in the She Persisted series, Maria’s story follows her from her early years through her rise to international stardom.

Maria Tallchief was raised as part of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma and moved to California as a child. Her mother signed Maria up for ballet, and she loved it. Although she faced adversity because of her mixed heritage, she persisted because she loved the sport. Desiring to be a professional ballerina, Maria worked hard and moved to New York City to pursue her dreams.

To help her stand out in the ballet world, “Betty” was encouraged to change her name. While she changed her first name to Maria, she adamantly refused to change her last name from Tallchief, as she was proud of her Osage heritage. Because of Maria’s hard work, she became one of the most famous American ballerinas, and she became the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet and work with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the famed Russian ballet company. Most famously, she performed the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker

Among her other notable achievements as a ballerina, her signature role Firebird helped launch her fame, and she became the first American to perform at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Even in retirement, Maria continued to dedicate her time to ballet, moving to Chicago and opening her own ballet studio. She also continued her work in fighting for Native American rights in the United States, proudly speaking of her Osage heritage. Many organizations in Oklahoma to this day have dance studios and awards in her honor, including the University of Oklahoma’s Maria Tallchief Endowed Scholarship, which provides financial assistance to college-level dance students.

Young readers will find Maria Tallchief’s story engaging even if they don’t understand the magnitude of her fame and the scope of her impact on the ballet world. To help keep readers engaged, the book has short chapters and black-and-white illustrations that appear every three to five pages. Maria’s perseverance shines throughout the book and will appeal to a wide audience. 

Readers who enjoyed Dancing in the Wings by Debbie Allen and other biographies will enjoy Maria’s story because both books show that dreams can come true. She Persisted: Maria Tallchief 

ends with a list of ways that readers can be like Maria and highlights the importance of working hard to achieve your dreams. She Persisted: Maria Tallchief will appeal to readers interested in dance; however, it is also a worthwhile book for all young girls to read because it encourages chasing your dreams through dedication and passion, even in the face of adversity. For more inspirational dance-inspired stories twirl to the library and check out Parker Shines On by Parker Curry & Jessica Curry and Tallulah’s Ice Skates by Marilyn Singer.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • To help readers understand Maria’s upbringing, the book gives a brief overview of the Osage Nation. The narrator describes, “In the 1800s, the Osages and other Native Nations suffered in the area known as Indian Territory, which got smaller and smaller until it made up only most of what is now the state of Oklahoma . . . many Osage children were sent to boarding schools, and Osage elders could only share their histories and traditions in secret.”

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Maria developed arthritis later in her life, and she treated it with “herbs and Tylenol.”

Language 

  • Maria was often bullied by classmates for being Osage. Classmates made “war whoops” whenever they saw her. They asked her why she didn’t wear feathers in her hair. In addition, they made racist, hurtful comments about her father. They made fun of her last name, pretending to be confused by whether it was Tall or Chief.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • Maria is part of the Osage nation in Oklahoma, and they have their own religious beliefs and practices. The book notes that her parents “took the family to powwows held in remote corners of the Osage reservation. If they had been caught, they could have gotten in trouble. At the time, Native American ceremonies and gatherings were illegal. (And they would remain illegal until Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978, when Betty was fifty-three years old!)”

The Tea Dragon Tapestry

The final installment in the Tea Dragon Trilogy, The Tea Dragon Tapestry, is a soothing synthesis of characters from the previous books who come together to celebrate their culture in a charming fantasy realm. In the opening pages, readers are reunited with Greta, a teenage villager training to be a blacksmith, and her love interest Minette, a young prophetess healing from traumatic memory loss.

When Minette receives an illustrious tapestry from the monastery she used to call home, she is reimmersed in a culture she left behind. She begins to have strange dreams about the Ancestor – the sacred creature depicted on the tapestry. Meanwhile, Greta is preparing to study under Kleitos, a master blacksmith. She also fosters pet tea dragons, one of whom is grieving over a former owner.

Greta and Minette meet Rinn and Aedhan, who have traveled from a mountain village to visit Rinn’s uncle, Erik, and his partner, Hesekiel. Readers will recognize these older characters from the previous books. Greta and Minette learn important life lessons from their role models, such as how to belong in a new place and reconnect with one’s origins and identity.

Greta completes a project to demonstrate her skill to Kleitos, and Minette weaves more details onto the tapestry to contribute to her culture. The graphic novel concludes with an epilogue in the form of a letter written by Hesekiel. The letter details how his generation has passed on their legacy to the younger generation, and how the cycle of life and death gives him hope for the future.

Nonbinary readers will likely identify with Rinn and Aedhan, as well as the elusive Ancestor, all of whom use they/them pronouns. Queerness is not called into question or judged in this world. The Tea Dragon Tapestry also provides positive representation for physically disabled people, as Erik lives a fulfilling life regardless of being confined to a wheelchair.

O’Neill’s endearing artistic style continues to immerse readers in a flourishing realm that values family, traditions, nature, and following one’s heart. Their choice of colors is more vibrant and pastel than the previous books. The Tea Dragon Tapestry brings satisfying closure and momentous hope to the series. Like previous installments, this book shows an impressive capacity for storytelling, art, and positive representation.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Erik and Kleitos playfully duel with swords in a field, but nobody is injured.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • When brewed into tea, leaves harvested from the small household pets known as tea dragons have the power to send the drinker into a trance and allow them to glimpse their own memories or past events experienced by those around them.

Language 

  • None

Supernatural

  • The book includes multiple fantasy creatures, such as shapeshifting dragons, anthropomorphic birds, and humans with features like tails, horns, furred ears, or goat legs.

Spiritual Content 

  • Minette’s culture performs rituals and prayers to a being known as the Ancestor. Minette formerly lived at a monastery dedicated to this primordial creature.

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow

During winter break, Moth Hush comes to terms with the revelation of her witch heritage and powers. Her mother, also a witch, helps Moth learn new spells and Moth gets happier with each one she picks up. Moth has a best friend in Carter, a boy from one of her classes, and Mr. Laszlo, a talking cat. Her life, friendships, and relationship with her mother couldn’t be better!

Unfortunately, Moth’s life doesn’t stay stress-free for long. At school, she runs into bullies that she wishes would leave her alone. After an incident in which she accidentally wears a similar outfit to a teacher, the bullies make Moth their latest victim and torment her for being the teacher’s “twin.” To make matters worse, Moth’s grandmother wants Moth to become a powerful witch and puts a lot of pressure on Moth to succeed in studying and practicing magic.

When Moth finds a solution to her problem — a magic charm that can bring out a confident and self-assured version of herself — things start out great. She gets praise from her grandmother and admiration from her classmates. With magic, Moth feels like she has a handle on how she presents herself to her family and classmates. But depending on magic to achieve her wildest dreams causes Moth’s life to spiral out of control.

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow expands upon Moth’s school life. Many students are ruthless bullies; they stop at nothing to terrorize someone, never letting a joke or prank run dry. Moth’s tormentors mock Moth for her old-fashioned clothing, crooked teeth, and dark skin. Moth stresses over her looks and wonders if she would fit in if she changed her appearance. Readers will relate to Moth’s self-esteem issues, her struggle to accept herself for who she is, and her desire to fit in with the rest of the student body.

Moth discovers more about discrimination and exclusion from her grandmother’s stories about her witch heritage. Most witches in the Hush order (Moth’s grandmother’s previous order) believed that Moth’s grandmother was undeserving of her high-ranking position due to her skin color and class. In one conversation, Moth’s grandmother states, “They refused to see me as an equal.” Discussions such as these call attention to mistreatment towards underrepresented communities, showing prejudice is still pervasive not just in Moth’s grandmother’s time but also in the modern era.

Steinkellner’s full use of the graphic novel format lends itself to dynamic paneling and excellent pacing. Thick outlines make characters stand out while vibrant colors and pastels will keep readers engaged. Reluctant readers may like that most pages do not have words but rather tell the story through illustrations. In addition, Moth’s perspective as the narrator makes The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow easy to follow.

To relate to today’s readers, The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow incorporates modern-day technology. Familiar technology, such as smartphones and social media, brings readers closer to Moth’s world and highlights Moth’s desire to fit in. Memes, texting, and pop culture references invite the reader to become involved in the story. The inclusion of diverse characters and family dynamics adds depth and promotes diversity and representation.

Through her experiences, Moth learns an important lesson about integrity and self-trust. She doesn’t need to take shortcuts for quicker results or use magic to change herself to fit in: she can become whoever she wants by her own means without destroying herself from the inside out. Readers who want to learn more about standing up to bullies should also read Out of Place by Jennifer Blecher and Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language   

  • None

Supernatural 

  • Witches perform magic spells in various ways: nonverbally, incantations, gestures, or a mix of the three. For example, Moth shrinks a bug by aiming her pinky at it, scrunching her nose, and twisting her arm to the right. Moth is surrounded by magic and magical occurrences every day. As such, not all instances are listed here. 
  • Moth finds the nyklum, a “powerful charm that may transform its wearer into a bolder, more self-assured version of themselves.” The charm requires a small item from the person the witch chooses to imitate and the following incantation: “Bring it forth that I may be the better half that waits in me.” Moth uses the nyklum to become popular. She becomes more confident in herself and gains the attention of her classmates.
  • The more a witch draws upon the nyklum, the more likely the ancient demon Shadriel Kannibalstisch will take over the witch, incapacitating her for good. As the story progresses, Moth risks being taken over by Shadriel Kannibalstisch. 
  • Shadriel Kannibalstisch, also known as the Hungry Shadow, is a demon that looks to take over a person. The demon makes the witch formidable, but it corrupts the witch at the same time. When Shadriel Kannibalstisch becomes more powerful than its host, Shadriel eclipses them, the witch dies, and Shadriel takes the witch’s body for itself. 
  • To be more confident in front of her classmates, Moth wants to use the nyklum at the Valentine’s Day school dance. Upon hearing about the consequences of using the nyklum, Moth removes the nyklum to destroy Shadriel Kannibalstisch before it eclipses her. 
  • Shadriel Kannibalstisch comes out of the nyklum to stop Moth from destroying both it and the nyklum. When Shadriel Kannibalstisch shows itself, it takes control of the other students. Shadriel Kannibalstisch’s magic doesn’t hurt the students. 
  • To repel the students that Shadriel Kannibalstisch controls, Moth’s mother and another witch use magic to throw a wall of light to shake the demon’s hold on the students. The students are unharmed. The wall of light restrains or startles the students. 
  • Moth defeats the demon by shrinking the nyklum to an imperceptibly miniscule size. In doing so, the students are freed from the demon’s control. 

Spiritual Content 

  • Professor Folks, a museum educator at the local museum, believes animals are like humans in some ways. When seeing Mr. Laszlo, Professor Folks states, “I’ve always felt that animals have a special soul inside them. Look into this cat’s eyes. So expressive. So human. Almost as if we’re old, dear friends.”

Tristan Strong Keeps Punching

In the final installment of Kwame Mbalia’s series, Tristan’s problems are greater than ever. The gods of Alke are scattered across his world and there are ghosts everywhere  —  good and bad, as it turns out. What a wonderful time to have a Strong family reunion in New Orleans, amidst all the chaos!

Tristan also has another issue: his powers are flaring with his mood swings, causing him to be covered in magical fire. And of course, Cotton, the main antagonist of the series and a powerful and evil spirit is back and ready to put up a fight. This time Cotton has brought even darker moments from American Black history. Tristan just hopes he can find his friends and the gods of Alke – and figure out how to control his temper – before Cotton can enact his plan on Tristan’s world. 

Tristan Strong Keeps Punching wraps up loose ends from the previous two books, includes familiar friends and foes, and introduces new characters in creative ways. For instance, Tristan and his friends encounter the Redliners, a barely disguised reference to the historic practice of redlining in the United States.  However, middle school students may who are not familiar with the historical practice of redlining may be confused by Mbalia’s dialogue. For example, the Redliners tell Tristan and his friends, “We, the Redliners, are the most tolerant and welcoming group you could find! We just don’t think you belong here.” The Tristan Strong Series deals heavily with the injustices that have occurred in American Black history, and Mbalia continues to handle the topic with grace and gravity, balancing historical facts with Tristan’s emotional stake in the issues at hand.

In this book, Tristan finds himself reckoning with his grief and anger, and he learns how to handle his emotions in a productive way. His emotions are validated, but he starts to understand how to conduct himself in a manner that accounts for other people involved. Previously, his actions previously endangered his friends. It is only when his magical animated sticky doll friend, Gum Baby, dies that he realizes his actions directly led to her being put in harm’s way. From that point forward, Tristan reckons with the consequences of his actions without losing the fire that keeps him fighting for justice.

Tristan Strong Keeps Punching is an excellent end to the trilogy. Readers should read the first two installments before tackling this one as this book makes many references to the previous books. Young readers will enjoy the fast-paced action plot and the balance between humor and grave historical fact. This book would appeal to fans of Riordan Reads mythology novels, like Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi or Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan himself. Tristan’s remarkable gift as a storyteller of the gods of Alke is made more perfect by his perseverance to keep telling these important stories. If these books teach readers anything, it’s to keep dreaming, create a better world, and never forget the stories of those who came before.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • Tristan must fight various magical and evil entities. In one sequence, Tristan fights a haint (an evil spirit). Tristan narrates, “But I was attacking, too. The shadow gloves flashed in and out, jabs and straights, hooks and uppercuts. Gum Baby flipped from my left shoulder to my right and back again, hurling sap balls and insults with equal intensity. I dodged a slicing strike, slipped a bull rush, and turned and fired three punches at the back of the haint.” This sequence lasts for a chapter.
  • There are descriptions of slavery as this series deals heavily with the history of Black Americans and Black American culture. Tristan recounts some of these details, saying, “I read about the barges that had hauled the shackled enslaved north, up the river, to a giant plantation. A free man’s protests were scrawled in the grass of Artillery Park, where he’d been kidnapped and sold into slavery. A family’s prayers were carved into the pillars lining the docks along the Mississippi, where they’d been separated, never to see each other again. These were the hidden narratives Folklore hero and god High John had been talking about. This is what he had meant.” These descriptions come up somewhat frequently throughout the book.
  • Tristan fights coffles (malicious spirits) that have trapped some kids. Tristan “swung again and again, trying to take out the coffle before it could rise. The monster wriggled and writhed on the ground, and I had to hop and dodge its flailing limbs or my legs would’ve been ripped to shreds.” This fight sequence lasts for several pages.
  • Tristan’s friend, Ayanna, tells Tristan about one of her former friends who died in a fight. She says, “He wanted to go out and kill [evil magical creatures, including the fetterlings], and I didn’t, and we argued about it. He flew into a rage, took his raft, and left. We heard fighting and went out after him, but by then it was too late. The fetterlings used his anger against him, and I lost a friend.” 
  • Gum Baby is loudly and badly playing music, and Tristan asks her to stop. Gum Baby responds, “Gum Baby’s gonna tune your face with some sweet chin music if you keep talking,” insinuating that she’d hit him with her banjo if he insulted her again. She does not actually hit him.
  • Tristan says he thinks Cotton is going to Fort Pillow as he’s “raiding places where Black people suffered in large groups…[Fort Pillow] was the site of one of the biggest massacres of Black soldiers in the entire Civil War. People fighting for their freedom were cut down by Confederate soldiers without remorse.”
  • Tristan goes into High John’s memories and sees a town being burned to the ground. “Flames exploded out of broken glass and spread everywhere. More shouts and screams…Flames shot fifteen feet into the air. Every house in the small neighborhood was on fire. I couldn’t see anyone, but the screams…I knew the screams would haunt me for the rest of my life. So many. Old, young. I heard them all.” The memory lasts for a few pages and it is clear that Tristan witnessed the “Memphis Race Riots of 1866. Nearly all of South Memphis was destroyed…Black-owned homes, businesses, restaurants. People were killed. Abused. Beaten. And yet no one was ever brought to justice.”
  • Another magical being, Granny Z, tells Tristan, “My children are kicked, beaten, harassed, stolen, abused, abandoned, forgotten and stripped of their rights every single day. And it’s a sad fact that their abusers are always gonna be afraid that their own sins will be revisited upon them.”
  • Tristan and his friends Gum Baby, Ayanna, and Thandiwe are attacked in a Wig Emporium. “Gum Baby flipped out of nowhere, her hands moving a blur as sap rocketed through the air. Breakers exploded into smoke five at a time. I limped forward to help her, but she disappeared in a crowd of foes. I tried fighting my way free, but there were too many. We were being overwhelmed.” This scene lasts for a page. Gum Baby dies but the death isn’t described. 
  • Tristan helps ghosts save their stories from Cotton, who wants them erased. Tristan hears one ghost say, “I moved here to get away from the lynchings.” This point is not elaborated upon.
  • Tristan fights with many Breakers, magical creatures that can strip people and gods of their spirits, thereby killing them. Tristan describes how the Breakers “rained blows on me, snarled at me, shrieked at me, roared at me, sent wave after wave after wave of pure hatred and malevolence, and it was all I could do to keep my arms raised and defend myself, because I was so tired, incredibly tired, of defending myself, but it wasn’t just me I was defending, now was it?” The scene lasts for several pages.
  • One of the old folk gods, John Henry, fights Cotton. John Henry gripped the ghostly tentacles, “lifted one foot, and then exploded into motion, charging Cotton like a linebacker and planting a shoulder squarely in the haint’s chest. Cotton flew back a dozen yards —  through the air! —  before landing and skipping across the sand like a stone across a pond.” This battle sequence lasts for several chapters.
  • Tristan has one final battle with Cotton that lasts for several pages. Tristan narrates, “Cotton’s momentum carried him past me, and he was off-balance. My right fist, my power fist, knifed through the air and connected flush against Cotton’s chin. Just my fist, not the shadow gloves, because I needed them for what came next…The black flames flared to life one more time, with as much energy as I could muster flowing through them. Just as I’d done on the barge, I willed the gloves together, merging six into two shining beacons of black in the light of the setting sun…I darted forward and grabbed Cotton. He twisted, turned, fought, and struggled, but I didn’t let go. The flames of the akofena [magic] spread to him, devouring the thorns and cotton as if they hungered for the hatred binding the haint together.” Tristan destroys Cotton by turning him to ash.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Tristan ends up at an outdoor strip mall. He says, “Shelves are stocked with products you’d never heard of, or weird stuff you’ve seen advertised on TV — all two-a.m. hangover purchases, as my dad called them. I’m not sure what a hangover is, but if it made me buy an automatic toenail clipper that looked like two machetes taped together, I want no part of it.”

Language 

  • Gum Baby, a magical sticky being, loudly and frequently refers to Tristan as “Bumbletongue” or “thistle-head.” As they’re friends, it’s done mostly in jest.
  • Light language is occasionally used. Words include chump, rejects, and doofus.
  • Tristan meets a kid named Memphis, who uses they/them pronouns. 
  • A slave-patroller haint chases Tristan, yelling, “You ungrateful little stain on society, get over here! I will hunt you down, you hear?”

Supernatural

  • Tristan is having issues with his magic. Most notably he keeps bursting into flames when he gets angry. For instance, Tristan notes, “I stared in utter horror at the small silver flame popping out of my knuckles.” This happens frequently throughout the book.
  • As this is the third installment in the series, Tristan gives a quick recap of the last couple books. He says of his summer, “I’d eaten a bunch of key lime pie, done a little boxing, fallen into another world with powerful gods and made a bunch of folk hero friends…You know, the normal summer.” These gods and folk heroes feature throughout the book as Tristan is trying to rescue them.
  • Tristan’s magical smartphone is controlled by Anansi, the trickster god. Tristan says, “He was the Weaver, the owner of all stories, from truths to tall tales, and his name was embedded in my title of Anansesem.”
  • Tristan and his granddad enter Congo Square in New Orleans, where “ghostly apparitions dressed in their Saturday night finest were hitting moves that made my calves cramp as I watched…as if on cue, everybody started doing the Electric Slide.” Ghosts appear frequently in this book; many of them are friendly or give helpful advice.
  • Gum Baby announces that she’s been following a “ghostie” for a while because it was terrorizing everyone. This creature is like the haints, which are malicious spirits. Tristan describes the creature, saying, “I looked up and saw a long, lanky creature scuttling down from the top of the wheelhouse like a monstrous crab.” The group spends a chapter fighting the creature.
  • Tristan discovers that the haint that they’ve encountered is a coffle. His cousin explains its odd appearance, saying, “They were used to fasten slaves together when they were marched from the house to the fields and back.” Tristan describes its appearance, “Two long, wooden, bone-like structures protruded from the opposite sides of a loop, forming what looked like the skull of a hammerhead shark. Its body was a chain, and its four limbs were thorny, viny branches.”
  • Tristan’s magic storyteller abilities occasionally cause him to have visions. In one instance, he describes, “I saw stories — written in French and Spanish and Chitimacha and English — about the birth of jazz and the death of neighborhoods. I saw tales of Fon and the Ewe and the Igbo, and legends of Vodun and Vodou and the spirits within…I read about the slave ports that had dotted the Mississippi River. I read about the glamorous buildings that had been built around the sale of men, women, girls, and boys like me. Some older, some younger.” This description continues for several pages.
  • Cotton is the main antagonist of the series and is a powerful and evil haint. He is a manifestation of the evils of slavery. Tristan describes, “I once again saw the horrific true form of the haint underneath the disguise. Complete with his burning hatred and desire for power.”
  • A god, Mami Wata, rides in a boat that encounters Angola. Tristan notes that “a monstrous, nearly see-through house was superimposed over the prison…The house I was seeing was Old Angola, a long-gone plantation.” In this house and prison reside many trapped spirits and evil haints, including Cotton.
  • Tristan’s usual Ananasem powers (storytelling powers) change when he meets ghosts of former soldiers. He says, “I was inside the story!” In this instance, the sequence lasts for several pages and details the lives of a couple Black soldiers escaping the South to Vicksburg.
  • Tristan teaches some kids magic. When he tells them what he’s going to do so, one kid responds, “Ain’t no wizards ‘round here. That’s movie stuff.” Tristan then demonstrates that all the kids have magic within them. Tristan says, “Each of the kids had a story fragment nestled in their chest, right above their heart. A piece of the story of Alke lived on in each of them.”
  • Tristan meets Granny Z, who tells Tristan about Loa. Granny Z says, “L-O-A. The mysteres. The links between the High God and his people on earth, serviced by the mambos, their priestesses.”
  • Tristan and his friends drive a magic SUV after a magical horse that’s kidnapped a child. Tristan says, “We looked out the front windshield to see Twennymiles (the horse) leaping into the air and disappearing. Old Familiar (the SUV) followed.” They are magically transported through the air and through neighborhoods, and the scene lasts for a couple pages.

Spiritual Content 

  • Tristan encounters many different gods (like Anansi and Mami Wata) on his journey, and they’ve given him powerful artifacts for his magical powers. These gods exist throughout the book, and sometimes Tristan mentions his magical gifts. He says, “I reached for the adinkra bracelet on my right wrist. Dangling from it were my gifts from the gods. The Anansi symbol. The akofena from High John. The Gye Nyame charm. The Amagqirha’s spirit bead from Isihlangu. They gave me strength, power, and right now, all the confidence I needed.”
  • Tristan meets a girl named Hanifa, who “wears a hijab.” 
  • The gods of Alke, due to the events of the previous books, are now scattered in Tristan’s world. Some of them are weakened and some die in nonviolent ways. Tristan often laments that “Gods can’t die,” but the events of the book say otherwise, like when High John passes away beneath a tree. 
  • High John’s ghost tells Tristan, Ayanna, and Thandiwe about his upbringing and the influence of the Church. He says, “some Sundays, his lordship and most honorable, the man who wanted to be called Boss, graciously allowed the people who actually worked the fields to rest.”

Unleashed

One month after the events of Jinxed, Lacey wakes up in a hospital room with no memory of how she got there. With Jinx missing and MONCHA, the company behind the pet robot, threatening her family, Lacey doesn’t know who to turn to for answers.

After Lacey gets expelled and her mother acts strangely from the latest update from MONCHA, Lacey and her friends must get to the bottom of a sinister plot at the heart of the company, one that would ruin the interactions between bakus (pet robots) and their owners. Lacey must use all her skills to stop the corporation from carrying out their plan. But how can she take on the biggest tech company in North America with just a level one baku? 

Without the resources from her school, Lacey relies on her ingenuity and smarts to modify her baku. However, she hadn’t prepared for the company to remove public access to any information about the customization of bakus. Lacey soon learns that MONCHA, now headed by a temporary CEO, wants absolute control over the look and function of all their products, including the beloved pet robots. 

Departing from the action-packed baku battles of the previous book, Unleashed delves into Lacey’s world, which is fascinating and distinctive. Everyone relies on their baku, and each baku can make its owner happy. From copying hairstyles of famous celebrities to competing in races alongside similarly modeled species, bakus give a positive spin on day-to-day life. Yet, Jinx is different than the other bakus. He can feel and perceive things, which allows him and Lacey to converse. Jinx’s standoffish behavior adds tension to their relationship while furthering the suspense. 

Unleashed builds upon the action of the previous novel. In place of the well-known baku battles of the previous book, Lacey’s encounters with MONCHA will keep the reader engaged. Though a few characters are predictable—the incompetent adults; the spoiled rich boy; the corrupt CEO of a tech company—the story never feels stale. On top of that, Lacey’s story gives the reader a realistic look into a world in which everyone is on a device 24/7. The story has a satisfying end, answering any lingering questions the previous book left unresolved. 

Through Lacey’s experiences, readers learn an important lesson about following your dreams. You don’t have to go on a predetermined, well-trodden path to achieve your goals. The message in Unleashed is clear: going a different way doesn’t mean you will fail to reach your destination. If you’d like to go on another adventure with a mechanical animal and an unlikely hero, check out Wizard for Hire by Obert Skye.

Sexual Content 

  • Lacey blushes when Tobias, her crush, touches the back of her arm. 

Violence 

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • While hospitalized, Lacey receives some medication.  

Language   

  • One of Lacey’s classmates texts “OMG” on a group school messaging board.
  • Lacey says “Oh my god” twice.
  • Jinx exclaims “Holy bakus.”
  • One of Lacey’s friends calls Tobias’s brother a jerk

Supernatural 

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None

The Shape of Thunder

After losing her older sister, Mabel, in a school shooting, Cora has been searching for a scientific explanation. For Cora, the word is full of truth. Everything has a reason and answer – she just has to find it. If Cora can find out the reason why her sister died, maybe she can start getting over it, but no matter how hard she tries, Mabel’s death just doesn’t make sense. 

Meanwhile, Cora’s (former) best friend, Quinn, is struggling with guilt. For her brother, Parker, is the school shooter responsible for Mabel’s death. Cora is determined to fix their friendship even though the task seems impossible. That is, until Quinn starts reading about time travel.  

Time travel would fix everything. The girls could go back and save Mabel before she dies and prevent Parker from falling into the dangerous mindset that led him to commit a mass shooting. The book details their investigations into time travel as they grapple with the deaths of their siblings. Cora and Quinn make frequent visits to a nearby forest, where they think a magical tree has a wormhole that can take them back – they just need to open it. Unfortunately, their attempts to time travel fail again and again. Quinn admits why she thinks it’s not working – she’s been hiding something from Cora. Quinn says that a few weeks before the shooting, she saw Parker investigating their father’s guns. 

Cora is furious and feels betrayed, so she tells Quinn to stay away from her. Though it breaks Quinn’s heart, she lets Cora continue the time travel investigation on her own. Then, when a large storm hits, Cora sneaks away from school in order to open the wormhole with the energy of thunder. While crossing a river in the woods, Cora slips but thankfully Quinn saves Cora’s life. Afterward, Cora forgives Quinn.

The Shape of Thunder is narrated in the alternating perspectives of Cora and Quinn, which allows the reader to understand the grief and guilt they feel as they navigate life following the death of their siblings. While the plot is easy to follow, this is a powerful story about loss and forgiveness and should not be taken lightly. It is also a story about the effects of gun violence and how it rips apart families and friends. Cora and Quinn are thoughtful narrators with distinct personalities and distinct forms of grief. They have unique family situations that allow the author to paint a wide picture of a shooting’s effects. Their dedication to fixing the past – and to each other, despite the circumstances – is admirable and powerful.

Ultimately, Cora forgives Quinn because Cora realizes the issue of mass shootings doesn’t lie in isolated incidents, such as people like Parker, but is a larger, societal issue – which is much harder to fix. But The Shape of Thunder is about making the impossible possible. The use of time travel is not to turn the novel into a science fiction book but to imagine beyond what has been done before. The phrase “shape of thunder” is used for the same reasons. Cora says, “The shape of thunder. What a strange phrase. It’s more than contradictory; it’s impossible. A thing that doesn’t actually exist, but possibly could. An impossible thing that could actually be possible. Like finding a wormhole. Like time travel.”  

In the end, the girls don’t time travel, but they do obtain something they thought impossible to achieve: reconciliation. Earlier in the book, Cora says she can never forgive Quinn for playing a role in her sister’s death. Likewise, Quinn believes that she doesn’t deserve Cora’s friendship because she feels that she should’ve stopped Parker. However impossible moving forward seems, the two girls realize fighting their grief alone is too difficult. At the end of the story, Cora and Quinn start to rekindle their friendship. 

Persisting in the face of profound grief is daunting, but not as impossible as it seems when we share our struggles with others. Time travel may not be real, but love is its own kind of magic. Readers looking for other books that highlight the importance of overcoming obstacles should also read The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead, A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll, and Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • Parker orchestrated a mass shooting at Mabel’s school. He shot and killed three people and then committed suicide. While the events of the shooting are not described in detail, Mabel and Parker’s deaths are frequently mentioned. 
  • While no examples are given, Parker would say hateful things and was active on forums. Cora says, “The news said Parker was active on all these forums full of people who hated women and immigrants and Muslims.”
  • Cora slips and falls into a river while Quinn watches. “It’s like something out of a horror film. It happens so fast, but it’s also painfully slow – Cora jumping to the next rock, slipping, and hitting her head with a sickening thud. The sound of her skull colliding with the rocks is something I will never ever be able to forget.” Quinn rescues Cora, and Cora recovers after going to the hospital.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language   

  • Grams, Cora’s grandma, says “I’ll be damned.”

Supernatural 

  • A major part of the story is that Cora and Quinn are looking for a way to time travel to prevent Mabel’s and Parker’s deaths. Theories about time travel, space, and wormholes are mentioned frequently. 
  • Quinn compares time travel to magic. “Everything I’ve read says the best way to find a wormhole is to ask for one to appear. That makes me think of magic. I imagine myself like a witch, looking for the perfect place to cast a spell.”
  • Quinn thinks she sees a wormhole in the library. “I open my eyes, and for a brief moment, I swear there’s a halo of light on the floor in the library. A wormhole.” It disappears right after. 
  • Cora and Quinn are drawn to a tree in the forest that they think is magical. They return to this tree a few times, hoping it is the spot for their wormhole. 

Spiritual Content 

  • Cora has Arab roots that she isn’t very in tune with. She is collecting Arabic words to learn her ancestor’s language, so a few Arabic words appear in the text. Her family is Muslim, but according to Cora they are “not very religious.” She notes a few cultural things in her home. “There’s a painting of the Dome of the Rock hanging in our kitchen. There’s also one framed Quranic verse. . . but since I can’t read Arabic, I always forget which one it is.” 
  • Cora asks Quinn if her family’s religion had anything to do with her sister’s death. “Did [Parker] go after Mabel because she was Muslim?” Quinn replies, “I don’t know.” 

Other Words for Home

When 12-year-old Jude is forced to leave her home country of Syria with her pregnant mother, she loses her friends, family, and her home overnight. Suddenly, Jude has left behind the only place she’s ever known and moves to Cincinnati, Ohio to live with her uncle. 

Adapting takes time. People in America talk fast and talk in ways Jude doesn’t understand. The English Jude learned back home is not enough to keep up, causing her to struggle in school and making it difficult to make friends. Americans dress differently too, and many of them don’t understand Muslim customs. Meanwhile, the constant stress of her mother’s pregnancy and being separated from her home, father, and brother weigh heavily on Jude’s mind. Yet the hardest part about adapting to America is figuring out who she is in this new place. In America, Jude must redefine herself in ways she never imagined. She relies on the last words her brother spoke to her: “Be brave.” 

Jude dives headfirst into making her new life work. She studies hard, develops relationships with new friends, and even tries out for her school musical. Yet Jude becomes torn between her past and present identities when a terrorist attack leads to an increased amount of hate crimes against Middle Eastern people in her town. Jude doesn’t understand why innocent people should be held responsible for the crimes of a few. Jude says, “Americans expect bombs to go off in Lebanon, in Pakistan, in my beloved Syria, but not in France, Britain, Canada. . . Americans think it’s normal for there to be violence in places where people like me are from, where people like me and people who look like me live. . . That they all see people like me and think violence, sadness, war.” Jude concludes that many people are quick to make generalizations about things they don’t understand. However, instead of getting upset, Jude decides to prove them wrong. She decides to truly be “seen.” 

Things start to look up when Jude scores a role in her school play and her new baby sister is born. Plus, Jude is able to talk with her brother for the first time in nearly a year. Eventually, Jude finds where she fits in, confidently pursues her goals, and is filled with hope for the future when her family can be reunited again. The book ends with Jude standing in the spotlight on the stage, ready to be seen. 

Other Words for Home is a story about a girl who, despite having her life uprooted, remains optimistic for a future where she can thrive. It is written in free verse, but the story is still easy to understand. As a narrator, Jude is humorous and direct which makes her story entertaining and powerful. American readers will find the events shocking because they will see their culture through the eyes of someone else. While people may know the facts and physical struggles of immigrant families, they rarely get to see the true emotions behind the people who endure these trials. Even though some parts of the story may be uncomfortable to read, Other Words for Home is a must-read because the story will give readers a better understanding of the life of immigrants in America.

While the content of Other Words for Home can seem political, there is never a time when the reader doesn’t identify with Jude. She feels like an outcast who wants others to see her for who she really is – not the labels that society puts on her. This is especially relatable to middle-grade readers, but is also relatable to anyone who wishes the world wasn’t so quick to judge. One of the most powerful moments in the story is when Jude bravely declares, “I am choosing to not be afraid” in the face of society’s prejudice. 

One theme that is highlighted throughout the story is the importance of not judging people based on their race. Jude is an immigrant, a Muslim, and a foreigner. Others often make assumptions about Jude and these perceptions alter how she is able to adapt to American society. At first, Jude is unsure of how to navigate these labels, but she slowly comes to resist them and stays true to herself. In the beginning of the story, Jude is torn over which place – Syria or America – is her home, but she comes to realize that home is a feeling rather than a place. Home is among her friends and family, who support her dreams and see Jude as her true self. 

Sexual Content 

  • When Muslim girls get their first period, they come of age and cover their hair with a headscarf. Fatima, one of Jude’s friends, is the first to get her period. Jude says Fatima “is one of the first girls in our grade to cover. She has bled between her legs.”
  • Jude says she wasn’t supposed to watch the movie Practical Magic or Pretty Woman because “witches and prostitutes scare Mama.”
  • Jude and her friend, Sarah, watch a show with kissing. Jude describes how Sarah “doesn’t seem surprised by all the kissing on the show. I wonder if she has been kissed herself but I’m not brave enough to ask her.”
  • Jude gets her first period. “I look at the bloodstained spots that appeared on [the] sheets overnight. . . then I saw the slow, thick, crimson drip between my legs, and I felt the dense cramp of my stomach and I knew.” 

Violence 

  • Jude sees a picture in a newspaper of bloodied civilians. “The front page is filled with awful pictures of people who are bloodied and cowering together.”
  • Jude’s brother, Issa, is at his apartment with Jude and his roommates when police raid it. “There is shouting, glasses knocked to the ground, bodies shoved against walls, the sounds of handcuffs clicking, more shouting.” Neither of them is injured. The story doesn’t say what happens to the other people. 
  • Layla tells Jude about a terrorist attack. “And then she tells me: about the explosion, about the blood in the streets, and the horror and the death.” These are the only details given about the incident. 
  • There are three instances of hate crimes. No one is injured. In the first instance, Layla’s family’s shop is defaced when someone writes “terrorists” on the storefront. In the second, a man follows Jude and tells her to “go back to where you came from.” Lastly, a woman tells Jude to remove her hijab. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • Jude’s friend, Miles calls the man who told her to “go back to where [she] came from” a jerk. 

Supernatural 

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • Jude, her family, and a few of her friends are Muslim. There are references to Muslim culture such as the Quran, mosques, and Allah (God). Occasionally Jude brings up Arabic proverbs. 
  • Jude says that there are men who “manipulate the Quran to say things that the rest of us know it does not say.” 
  • Jude mentions an Arabic myth. “I felt like the woman from the Arabic myth who can see so far into the distance that she can see the future.”
  • Jude says, “Allah would want us to have faith.” When she receives a postcard from a friend after a long time of not hearing from her, Jude says, “[This] is the type of thing that makes me believe in Allah and the grace of the universe.”
  • Jude and her family visit a mosque together.

She Persisted: Claudette Colvin

Children are often taught about Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus, but before her, there was Claudette Colvin, a teenage girl from Montgomery, Alabama. Strongly influenced by her Christian upbringing and her staunch belief in racial equality, Claudette Colvin was almost the face of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The chapter book She Persisted: Claudette Colvin recounts her life and her impact on the Civil Rights Movement.

Born in Alabama and sent to live with her aunt and uncle at a young age, Claudette spent a lot of her time at church, so much so that when she would play with her sister, they would pretend to be at church. For Claudette, who lived in the Jim Crow-era south, the church touted the importance of being a good person, of perseverance and equality. These tenets in Claudette’s life became even more pronounced after her sister’s death from polio, and these themes are strongly referenced throughout the book. For instance, in the wake of Delphine’s death and the end of segregation in schools, Claudette “was learning there were plenty of other ways she could fight.”

When Claudette was 15 years old she moved to a new high school. New bus laws had been enacted, but this did not mean that white people necessarily followed them. One day Claudette was sitting on the bus when the bus driver demanded that she give up her seat to a white passenger. Knowing the law and her rights, Claudette refused. Quickly, she was removed by several police officers who treated her poorly, using racial slurs and violence. Claudette did not fight back.

The local government and police force were against Claudette, but the local chapter of the NAACP worked to build a case for Claudette to fight this injustice. Her case sparked a massive bus boycott in Montgomery. Despite their efforts, Claudette was found guilty of breaking the law. Just nine months after Claudette’s case, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus as well.

To help keep readers engaged, the book has short chapters and black-and-white illustrations that appear every three to five pages. Kids may need help understanding certain references in the book such as the NAACP, Rosa Parks, and the United States Constitution. Despite this, Claudette’s story is one that kids will be able to understand as it is fundamentally about fairness, justice, and equality.

The Montgomery of Claudette’s childhood would look very different after she took a stand that day since her actions helped lead to desegregation on buses. Claudette’s fearless behavior is inspirational, and this book gives a great example of a young girl standing up for what is right rather than doing what is expected of her. Much like the other She Persisted books, there is a list of ways to be like Claudette in the back of the book, including, “Know your rights. Visit your local library and ask for help in learning more about state and local laws,” and, “Read a copy of the Constitution.” Claudette Colvin’s story is less known than Rosa Parks’, but Claudette is worth reading about at any age. Readers who want to learn more about the civil rights movement should also read A Girl Named Rosa by Denise Lewis Patrick. Readers can find more inspirational stories in Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • Claudette is arrested for refusing to give up her spot on the city bus. The narrator describes, “One of the officers grabbed her hands, the other grabbed her arm and they pulled her out of her seat and into the aisle. Her schoolbooks tumbled onto the floor. As they dragged her backward down the aisle and off the bus, one of the officers kicked her.” This event is described over several paragraphs.
  • The narrator describes how the boycott on the city buses ended in Montgomery. “To intimidate them…protestors were fired from jobs, received death threats, and were even bombed in their homes. Many were the victims of violence.” 
  • Claudette is arrested and put in a police car. “Crying Claudette became more and more afraid as she listened to officers of the law call her every horrible word white people called Black people.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • When Claudette is unfairly found guilty, there is a newspaper headline that reads, “Negro Girl Guilty of Violation of City Bus Segregation Law.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • Religion was a large part of Claudette’s formative years. The narrator mentions that “Reverend H.H. Johnson traveled from Montgomery to Pine Level to preach the Sunday service on what folks called Big Meeting Sunday. From midday to well after dark, Claudette sat with her parents in the pews through regular service, selections from the choir and the glee club, Reverend Johnson’s afternoon sermon, early supper, Reverend Johnson’s evening sermon and a late supper.” 
  • As a child, Claudette loved church so much that she “set up chairs in her backyard, sang hymns, read scripture and shouted out sermons with her best friend.”
  • The narrator says Claudette Colvin “loved learning and God in equal measure.”
  • Claudette wonders, “When [her dog] dies, will she go to heaven?”
  • Racism and religion meet when Claudette is little. The narrator notes, “In Sunday school, the Bible taught that God created everyone equal, but Claudette wondered, why aren’t Black people treated as equals?”
  • Passages from different prayers are included in the book. For example, Claudette prays the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven / hallowed be thy name. / Thy kingdom come, / thy will be done…”
  • When Claudette’s sister, Delphine, dies of polio, Claudette questions God and asks, “Why Delphine?”
  • At church, Reverend Johnson “led the entire congregation in prayer for the young woman who stood up to racism.”
  • Before testifying in court, Claudette “bowed her head in prayer.”

Brain Trouble

Violet and Pablo are best friends who love science! So when they discover a riddle that opens a magic portal in the brain fair at school, they can’t wait to check it out! In this adventure, the friends enter the Maker Maze—a magical makerspace—along with a set of twins who are interested in learning all about the brain. The kids can’t wait to solve science puzzles . . . if first, they can learn to work together!

Any reader who wants to know more about the brain will enjoy Brain Trouble. The fast-action book teaches readers about the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brain stem. When the kids travel to the Maker Maze, they discover a giant human brain, a challenge with holograms of themselves, special goggles that trick their brains, and a test of their teamwork. For one of the challenges, the kids must determine what part of the brain controls an activity. In this section, readers will have to pay close attention, or they may get confused. However, the rest of the challenges are straightforward and easy to follow. 

With oversized text, black and white illustrations on almost every page and the magic of the Maker Maze, Brain Trouble will delight readers who are interested in the body. The large illustrations show the kids in action, which will help readers understand the plot. To add a little fun, the text occasionally shows onomatopoeia in large font. The end of the book also includes instructions on how to make prism goggles and make a model of a brain.

In Brain Trouble, Violet wants to do everything herself, but the other kids want to work together. Throughout the challenges, Violet has a difficult time completing them because she needs help but doesn’t want to ask anyone for assistance. In addition, Violet isn’t happy when Skylar starts to talk about art. Violet “didn’t have time for all this art talk.” Even though Violet doesn’t appreciate art, science is compared to art, which makes it easier to understand.

Readers will enjoy trying to complete the challenges alongside the kids. The educational book also teaches the importance of teamwork. The story focuses on a diverse group of children who have a variety of interests. However, some readers may be confused by the different parts of the brain. Similar to The Magic School Bus, The Magnificent Makers introduces readers to a variety of science-related topics. Inquisitive readers who want to learn more about science should also read Cece Loves Science by Kimberly Derting & Shelli R. Johannes and Ada Twist Scientist: The Why Files by Andrea Beaty & Dr. Theanne Griffith.

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None

Language 

  • None

Supernatural

  • The portal for the Maker Maze is a “shimmering microscope.” When Skylar puts her hand by the microscope, “her arm was being sucked through the microscope.” After being sucked in, the kids appear in the Maker Maze.
  • While the kids are in the Maker Maze, everyone else is frozen.

Spiritual Content 

  • None

The Game Master: Mansion Mystery

Rebecca Zamolo has managed to foil the Game Master’s plans before, but this time the Game Master has snake-napped Nacho, her good friend Miguel’s pet. No way is Becca going to let the Game Master get away with this dastardly plan. When the clues lead Becca and her new friends in the direction of the one house in their entire neighborhood that none of them ever want to go near, they know they have no choice but to screw up their courage and dare to investigate if they want to rescue Nacho. 

But the problem is that getting into the super spooky house is way easier than getting out. The Game Master is up to their old tricks, and Becca, Matt, Kylie, Frankie, and Miguel are going to have to face their fears and use all their smarts and strengths to solve the puzzles and games and save the day. 

Mansion Mystery is another action-packed adventure from the super-sleuthing team Rebecca and Matt Zamolo, stars of the popular Game Master Network.  

In the second installment of The Game Master Series, the kids must face their deepest fears in order to defeat the Game Master and find Frankie’s pet snake. In this spooky adventure, the kids no longer argue and disagree. Instead, they work together and encourage each other to face their fears. While most of the challenges are harmless—collecting squirmy bugs, making it through a maze, eating mud pudding—in order to escape the mansion the kids must take a perilous walk on the mansion’s roof and climb into a huge tree. When the kids find a tree house, they realize that the Game Master has been using a telescope to spy on them and the Game Master has detailed notes of each person’s behaviors. Unfortunately, instead of being completely freaked out by this, the kids believe that the Game Master may be someone who wants to be their friend.  

While the plot is farfetched, the easy-to-read story will appeal to young readers because the fast-paced mystery focuses on friendship and working together. Another positive aspect of the story are the black and white illustrations that appear periodically. Readers will relate to the diverse cast of characters, who have common fears such as a fear of spiders. While the mansion has some creepy elements such as a red stain that could be blood, it is spookily mysterious instead of scary. 

While The Game Master Series lacks character development and the plot is at times unbelievable, readers will still enjoy the escape-room-styled mystery. In the end, the kids are only able to escape the mansion by working as a team to overcome their fears. Readers who enjoyed The Game Master Series should also check out the Zeus The Mighty Series by Crispin Boyer; both series are engaging and show the importance of using a person’s individual talents to overcome an obstacle.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Heck is used four times. 
  • Darn is used three times. 
  • Dang is used twice. 
  • Holy fruits and holy cats are both used as an exclamation once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Towers Falling

Ten-year-old Dèja Barnes doesn’t like living at the shelter. She doesn’t like that her dad doesn’t work. And she definitely doesn’t like her new school, where they asked her to do projects on their homes and families. Dèja knows her dad is unwell and prone to violent mood swings, but it’s not until her class learns about September 11th that she begins to understand her dad has been hiding something from her. 

In Towers Falling, the reader is taken on an introductory journey through the events and aftermath of 9/11 through the eyes of Dèja and her friends and family. Through Dèja’s friend, Sabeen, the reader learns about Islam and Islamophobia in the United States post-9/11. Through Dèja’s father, the reader witnesses the fear that enveloped that day, as her dad escaped the North Tower but lost his friends and colleagues. 

Although much of the book is about American history, the most prominent recurring theme is community. Dèja makes connections and learns that community can be what you’re born into, like being American or feeling community with her family. But community can also be found, like in her friends or her school. Since Dèja’s story is also about poverty, she especially wants to be accepted by her classmates even if she pushes back at times. Ultimately, the book ends with Dèja feeling comfortable in her found communities and more connected to her dad when he finally shares his experiences.

Towers Falling helps readers understand the events of 9/11, especially for younger readers who were born after 9/11, much like Dèja and her friends were. Although the book doesn’t go too deep into exploring a lot of the discrimination that Sabeen’s family has experienced, Rhodes gives enough information for the reader to understand some of the inner workings of Islamophobia. The same can be said for Dèja’s dad’s mental health issues – although they’re mentioned, they aren’t the primary focus.

Towers Falling is a good story about community and it will inspire readers to explore these events in US history further. Dèja finds her communities and learns to embrace them, loving them for what they are. Through her, younger readers can start to understand what it means to treat others with compassion, regardless of skin color, nationality, religion, or any other difference. Readers who want to learn more about 9/11 should add Molly and the Twin Towers by Jessika Fleck and Somewhere Among by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu to their reading list.


Sexual Content 

  • None. 

Violence 

  • Dèja hates her family’s cramped living situation. When her mom says that there’s no use complaining, Dèja thinks, “But it makes me want to burst, hit or break something.” Dèja has feelings like this throughout the book, as she’s frustrated that her family can’t do anything about their situation.
  • While living in the homeless shelter, Dèja is always on edge. She says, “I walk the halls with fists ready.”
  • During lunch, Dèja, Sabeen, and Ben share what they know about slavery and the genocide of the indigenous people of North America. Dèja mentions, “Apache. They were overrun. Killed. Their land was stolen.” The kids continue this conversation for several pages.
  • Dèja accidentally scares her siblings when she mentions, “Pop doesn’t hit, but he’s still scary when he’s mad. And he can be mad about anything – coffee too cold, rain or no rain, wind, too little or too much, even paint on a shirt.”
  • Towers Falling details the history of the events of 9/11 and how they connect to Dèja’s family. There are descriptions of violence and death associated with the events throughout the book. When Dèja asks about the Twin Towers, one student says, “Dead. They’re dead.” Another student says, “Like my cousin. I didn’t know him.”
  • Ben shows Dèja videos of the Twin Towers burning. He says, “Terrorists attacked the Twin Towers on 9/11.”
  • Dèja describes the contents of the 9/11 videos, saying, “Flames – yellow, orange, and red – bubble and lick . . . there’s no sound, but I know there must be people inside the tower hurt, screaming.” The video description lasts for several pages.
  • Dèja is sent to the principal’s office and she thinks they’ll physically punish her. She thinks, “Maybe that’s where they have straps and whips? Paddles to punish kids?”
  • Some kids bully Ray, Dèja’s younger brother. Dèja describes, “Sometimes one of them grabs Ray’s arms and swings him like a tetherball. Ray’s too terrified to scream. I’ve got to rescue him. Punch the big kid on his shoulder, yelling.”
  • Dèja hears her dad crying at night. She thinks, “Last time I heard such a sound was when Mrs. Anderson’s son got shot by a drive-by. She was in the street, holding Eddie’s body.”
  • Dèja, Ben, and Sabeen watch the planes crash into the Twin Towers. Dèja narrates what she sees, saying, “On the cell phone, the explosion is soundless, but I can imagine sounds – screaming, tearing, slicing through concrete, steel, and glass.” When the second plane hits, Dèja says, “People are falling – no, leaping – out windows. Escaping fire, heat. Suffocating heat.” This scene continues for a few pages.
  • Dèja’s history class goes over various attacks made on American soil. The teacher, Mr. Schmidt, writes about the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and Pearl Harbor as examples. He also writes about the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Mr. Schmidt clarifies for the class, saying it was “with a truck bomb. It failed.” This scene lasts for a few pages.
  • Dèja’s dad tells her about what happened when he was working in the North Tower on 9/11. He says, “One, two, four, five, eight, ten flights of stairs. I was exhausted. Lungs aching. Still folks coming down, sounding like an elephant herd. Two men were carrying a man in a wheelchair. . . ” The description of his experience that day lasts for several pages.

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Dèja talks about her experience in homeless shelters. She says, “Shelter gangs aren’t about guns and drugs. They’re about roaming, stealing, keeping an eye out for what can be taken.”
  • Dèja describes the folks milling outside the homeless shelter. She says, “A few are a mess – dirty and stinky. Loud. Drinking beer wrapped in a paper bag.” Dèja occasionally describes some of the other homeless folks as “drunk.”
  • Dèja’s dad takes aspirin for his illness, which is unnamed but related to his mental health issues and being in the Twin Towers when they were collapsing. Dèja mentions that “when we can afford it, he uses an inhaler.”
  • At school, Dèja and her classmates build towers out of art supplies. Her friend Ben picks up a pipe cleaner and says, “Sherlock Holmes cleaned his pipe with these. Between smokes.” Dèja replies, “Sounds worse than cigarettes.” 
  • Dèja and Ben see a sign on the subway that says, “Have you spoken to your kids about drugs?”

Language 

  • Mild language is used often. Terms include dumb, loser, shut up, and nerd.
  • Sabeen discusses her experiences with Islamophobia. Sabeen says, “When I’m at the store by myself, the cashier sneers, ‘Go back to Saudi Arabia.’ Turkey’s closer to Greece, two countries away from Saudi Arabia.”
  • Dèja thinks about discrimination. She narrates, “I knew blacks were discriminated against. Also, poor people, homeless people. I didn’t know Muslims were too.” 
  • In history class, the teacher explains, “Al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We call them terrorists because they are not representative of a single nation. Instead, they’re ideologues . . . narrow-minded people, incapable of independent thought and critical thinking. America has been engaged in a new kind of war . . . a war on terror.”

Supernatural

  • Ben frequently mentions the media. At one point, he mentions that he wants to watch the Broadway musical Wicked, which is “about the witches of Oz.”

Spiritual Content 

  • One of the girls in Dèja’s class, Sabeen, “wears a headscarf.” Sabeen’s mother is described as being “covered head to toe in black cotton. Only brown eyes show.”
  • Sabeen is asked why her mom wears all black. Sabeen explains, “It’s a niqab. For modesty.”
  • As this book deals with the events of 9/11, there are somewhat frequent discussions about Islam. They are somewhat detailed, and often they revolve around the treatment of Muslims in the United States post-9/11. One student in Dèja’s class declares, “Muslims did it.” Dèja’s friend Sabeen, who is Muslim, says, “That’s not true. I mean it is but it isn’t true.”
  • Sabeen shows Dèja and Ben a drawing of her family’s house. She says, “Home is divine. Blessed by Allah.” She then explains to Dèja that Allah is Arabic for God.
  • Dèja mentions her own relationship with religion. She says, “Pop doesn’t believe in church. But before moving to Avalon, Ma would take me, Ray, and Leda to church.”
  • Miss Garcia has the students list the social units they are part of, and the students list things like, “Church, Synagogue, Girl Scouts” and so on and so forth.
  • Ben has to explain to Dèja that “it was terrorists. Muslim terrorists” that flew planes into the twin towers. This comes up because Dèja doesn’t understand why Sabeen is upset about 9/11.
  • Sabeen has Dèja over to her house, and Sabeen’s family makes traditional Turkish food, and some discussions of Islam take place. For instance, Dèja is asked if she prays, and Dèja responds, “No. Just when Ma takes me to church . . . But I wish for things.”
  • Ben makes a reference to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. When Dèja and Sabeen ask what it is, Ben explains to Sabeen that “It’s pretty Christian.” Sabeen responds, “A Muslim can’t read Christian stories? A Christian can’t read about Muslims?”
  • Dèja’s dad talks about his experience in the North Tower on 9/11. He mentions a lady who always wore what he called church hats because they looked like “any second she was going to sing gospel.”

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