Skylark

Angie lives in an old car with her brother and mother. Homeless after their father left to find work, the family struggles to stay together and live as normally as possible. It is difficult though. Between avoiding the police and finding new places to park each night, it is a constant struggle. When Angie discovers slam poetry, she finds a new way to express herself and find meaning and comfort in a confusing world.

Living in a car makes Angie’s life difficult and she tries to hide the fact that her family is homeless. Performing slam poetry gives her an outlet to explore her feelings. While performing, Angie meets several people her age. However, these relationships are superficial and add no depth to the story. For example, one boy continually glares at Angie, but the reason for his hostile behavior is never explained.

Through flashbacks, readers also get a look into Angie’s family life before her father left. While Angie’s father left to find work, Angie still wonders if he will ever return. Through Angie’s experiences, readers get a glimpse into the world of a homeless teen and her complicated family life. However, Angie’s poetry and the poetry slam are the main focus of the story. Because of this, readers who aren’t interested in poetry or language may find Skylark a difficult book to complete.

Written as a part of the Orca Soundings books, which are specifically written for teens, Skylark is an easy to read story that uses large text, short chapters, and a relatable protagonist to keep readers engaged. Despite this, Skylark is not a typical, fast-paced story, but instead, Angie’s thoughts are what drive the story. Readers who love delving into the inner thought of characters will enjoy Skylark. However, none of the supporting characters have any depth; instead, they are flat and add little to the story.

Because of the story’s slow pace and lack of dynamic characters Skylark is not for readers who love action and adventure. Even though the book shines a light on homelessness, readers interested in the topic may want to read books with more depth and character development such as Almost Home by Joan Bauer.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Angie’s mom gets injured, and her dad “got her painkillers from the drugstore and fed her a couple every few hours.”

Language

  • Crappy, hell, piss and ass are all used once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Run

Bo Dickinson is a girl with a wild reputation, a deadbeat dad, and a mama who’s not exactly sober most of the time. Everyone in town knows the Dickinsons are a bad lot, but Bo doesn’t care what anyone thinks.

Agnus Atwood has never gone on a date, never even stayed out past ten, and never broken any of her parents’ overbearing rules. These rules are meant to protect their legally blind daughter, though protect her from what, Agnus isn’t quite sure.

Despite everything, Bo and Agnus become best friends. It’s the sort of friendship that runs truer and deeper than anything. So, when Bo shows up in the middle of the night, with police sirens wailing in the distance, desperate to get out of town, Agnus doesn’t hesitate to take off with her. But running away and not getting caught will require stealing a car, tracking down Bo’s dad, staying ahead of the authorities and – worst of all – confronting some ugly secrets.

Bo and Agnus are unlikely friends mostly because of Bo’s bad reputation. Everyone in town believes that Bo is white trash, who drinks too much and sleeps around with anyone and everyone. Even though Bo has done nothing to earn this reputation, she does nothing to dispel it either. Unlike Bo, Agnus is resigned to live a boring life in her hometown that she will never leave. Because of her disability, her parents are overprotective, but Agnus never talks to them about how she feels trapped. The two girls form a strong bond, and readers will enjoy seeing how their friendship progresses and changes them.

Run alternates between Bo and Agnus’s points of view; it also jumps from the past to the present. Bo and Agnus’s voice are very similar, so readers will need to pay attention to the name that appears at the beginning of every chapter. Despite this, the story’s plot is easy to follow. However, while Bo and Agnus are interesting characters, they are not necessarily relatable.

Unfortunately, the girl’s relationship doesn’t necessarily make either one of them better people. Once Agnus begins spending time with Bo, she begins lying to her parents, using profanity, and even drinking beer a couple of times. Although Agnus’s parents come to like Bo, when Bo’s mother is thrown into jail, Agnus’s parents do nothing to help her.

Run will appeal to teenagers because it deals with many teenage issues such as false rumors, gossiping, parent disapproval and trying to find your way in life. However, at times the frequent profanity is distracting and Bo’s unwillingness to correct false accusations is unbelievable. Despite this, Run is an entertaining story that teenagers will enjoy.

Sexual Content

  • Someone tells Agnus that over the weekend, Bo “went down on him in the hayloft at Andrew’s party Friday night.” Later, Agnus wonders if she should be friends with Bo because “Bo was the kind of girl who cussed in front of teachers and stole her mama’s whiskey to bring to parties and went down on other girls’ boyfriends.”
  • In the middle of the night, Agnus’s sister invites a boy into her room. The story implies that they have sex.
  • When Agnus and Bo run away, they are looking for a hotel that will rent to underage teens. Bo knows they can find one because “too many girls get pregnant on prom night, and I know they ain’t doing it in their parents’ house.” They find a hotel that looks like “a lot of drug deals have gone down in [it].”
  • Agnus’s friend can’t take her home from school. Her friend says, “I think today’s the day. I think we’re going to . . . you know.”
  • While at school, a boy asks Bo, “Wanna hang out? I’ll give you ten bucks and some whiskey if you’ll come over and suck my dick. . .. What’s the problem? You do it for every other guy in town. Why not me? Is my dick too big for your mouth?”
  • After dancing with Colt, Agnus thinks about kissing him. “I’d laid in bed remembering the way his hands felt on me and trying to imagine what it would feel like to kiss him.”
  • Agnus goes to Bo’s house. When Bo’s mother comes home, she yells, “Is that why she’s here? You fucking her too? Gone through all the men in town, so you gotta start sleeping with the girls too?”
  • Bo tells Agnus about being in foster care. The dad “was always walking in on the girls while we were changing or. . .”
  • Agnus and Colt start kissing. “He kept kissing me, and eventually, I picked up the rhythm and followed his lead. . . I’m not sure how we ended up lying down, twisted together on top of his bed. Or how my shirt and bra ended up on the floor. . .” The two have sex, but the act isn’t described. Later Angus thinks, “Sleeping with a boy who wasn’t my boyfriend, who’d be gone by the end of the week—it sure hadn’t been part of my plan.” However, she doesn’t regret her choice.
  • On New Years, Bo and Dana “made out in the car.” The two won’t date because, “Her daddy’s a deacon at the church down on Peyton Street.”

Violence

  • When a boy calls Agnus a “fucking fat bitch,” Bo hits him. “So, after I get a few good punches and kicks in, he gets his senses together and shoves me on my back. My head hits the concrete, and for a minute I see stars. . . I might have a black eye, but he’s gonna be missing a tooth.” At one point, Agnus hits the boy with her cane. The fight is described over two pages.
  • While in foster care, Bo saw, “The older kids were always fighting. I saw one of them pull a knife on the other. But the foster parents didn’t do nothing about it.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Bo’s family has a bad reputation and many of them are known to be drunks.
  • Before Bo’s father took off, she remembers him drinking. “Then, usually, both my folks would end up getting drunk and yelling at each other.”
  • Bo and Agnus go to several parties where kids are drinking. Bo says that at one party, a boy “spilled beer down the front of my white shirt, too. Still ain’t convinced that was an accident. Kinda a waste, though. Not like I got the boobs to rock a wet T-shirt.”
  • Bo’s mother uses meth.
  • While hanging out by the river, Bo gives Agnus a beer. Agnus said, “It’s kinda what I’d imagine pee tastes like. Why do people drink it?”
  • When Agnus and Bo go to a party, Agnus drinks a beer.
  • When Bo’s father won’t let her stay at his house, she steals a bottle of alcohol and “the first drink burns. The second not so bad. And by the fourth or fifth, I don’t feel a thing.” Bo gets so drunk that she begins throwing up. Despite the rumors, this was the first time Bo had drunk alcohol.

Language

  • Profanity is used in excess. Profanity includes: damn, hell, piss, fuck, shit, goddamn, and holy shit.
  • There is frequent name calling including bitches, asshole, fucking redneck, fake motherfuckers, prick, harlot and dyke.
  • Jesus, Jesus Christ, and Oh my God are used as exclamations a few times.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Agnus’s grandmother thinks the Dickinsons are “dirty drunks and thieves. And godless, too. None of them stepped foot in a church in generations. Probably get stuck by lightning if they did.”
  • Christy, Agnus’s friend, calls Bo a slut. Christy says, “God thinks she’s a slut, too.” Bo overhears part of the conversation and Christy says, “Jesus loves you, Bo.” As Bo walks away Christy calls her a “whore.”
  • Bo is bisexual. Agnus thinks, “I’d grown up my whole life in the church, been told it was only all right for girls to like boys. Anything else was wrong.”
  • While at church, Agnus and Christy have a mean conversation about a girl who was a sinner. When Agnus refuses to stop talking, the Sunday school teacher kicks her out of class.

Breathing Underwater

Olivia is on the road trip of her dreams, with her trusty camera and her big sister Ruth by her side. Three years ago, before their family moved from California to Tennessee, Olivia and Ruth buried a time capsule on their favorite beach. Now, they’re taking an RV back across the country to uncover the memories they left behind. But Ruth’s depression has been getting worse, so Olivia has created a plan to help her remember how life used to be: a makeshift scavenger hunt.

Throughout their journey, they’ll be taking pictures and making memories, like they’re pirates hunting for treasure. Olivia will do whatever it takes to snap the picture that will make her sister smile. But what if things never go back to how they used to be? What if they never find the treasure they’re seeking? As the two girls face these questions, all Olivia can do is love her sister, not change her—and maybe that’s enough.

Anyone who struggles with depression—whether it’s themselves or someone they know—should read Breathing Underwater. The story is told from Olivia’s perspective which puts the spotlight on her desire to help her sister. Despite Olivia’s love for her sister, Olivia often struggles with the burden of always having to watch for signs that Ruth is falling into “The Pit.” Everyone in the family is understandably concerned about Ruth’s mental state; however, this often leaves Olivia feeling as if she does not matter. The story explores the topic of mental illness through a sister relationship which allows the reader to see how Ruth’s depression affects everyone around her.

One positive message that is reinforced in the story is the idea that each person has wonderfully different “superpowers.” Olivia observes her cousin, Darcy, comforting someone, and Olivia realizes Darcy’s “superpower is making people feel relaxed.” At that point, Olivia wishes that she was more like Darcy. Olivia thinks, “I just wish my power was to have whatever power people needed, to do exactly what they needed, exactly when they needed it, and I wonder if anyone has that power.” However, Olivia comes to realize that “one person’s weird is another person’s Vincent van Gogh, and where would we be without our Vincents?” When Olivia thinks about the question “where would we be without our Vincents,” she realizes that her—and Vincent van Gogh’s “superpowers”– may not be appreciated by everyone, but they still have value. In the end, Olivia becomes comfortable with herself, which allows her “superpower” to shine.

Olivia would do anything to help her sister. However, she comes to realize that she is not responsible for Ruth’s happiness. Olivia learns that no one can be in control of someone else’s happiness or unhappiness. This pivotal lesson allows Olivia to love her sister without trying to change her.

Breathing Underwater would make an excellent book to use as a discussion starter because it highlights the complexities of families and mental illness. Despite this, some readers may have a difficult time reading the entire book because much of the story focuses on Olivia’s inner monologue. Readers who would like to read more stories that explore mental illness may want to read The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim and My Life in the Fish Tank by Barbara Dee.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Ruth takes medication for her depression. At first “it took lots of tries with different kinds of medicine and different doses before the doctors and Ruth found one that calmed the whirlpool going on in her mind.”

Language

  • Ruth occasionally calls Olivia names such as wierdo, dork, punk, and prick.
  • Crap is used once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope

For much of her youth, Ana’s life consisted of secrets. Her Abuela, who took care of her after her mother died, warned Ana never to tell anyone the truth about herself – the truth that she was HIV positive. Ana clung to her grandmother’s words despite the fear and isolation secrecy brought. Although she was infected as an infant, Ana did not fully understand the virus and what it meant to live with HIV, but Ana listened to her grandmother and “did what she was told. She accepted her life at face value.” Ana kept the secret of her HIV and the death of her Mamá and baby sister, Lucía, who both died of the virus, to herself, dwelling in the loneliness her dangerous secret produced.

After her father’s death when she was about eleven years old, Ana had to learn how to grow up quickly. She promised her Papá she would protect her little sister Isabel, but this proved difficult as her Abuela’s home was far from a safe place. Ana and her sister endured sexual abuse from their Abuela’s boyfriend, Ernesto, and when Ana tried to tell the truth to her grandmother, she was beaten. After addressing her abuse in a letter to the Church, the police arrived to remove Ana and Isabel from their Abuela’s house.

Ana and her sister went to live with their great-aunt Sonia and her family but had little luck finding love and comfort there. Although Isabel was better at staying quiet and invisible, Ana, with her rambunctious spirit, was often fighting with her family and suffered more beatings and abuse. Ana preferred the company of her trusted friend, Yolanda, and Yolanda’s mother, who accepted Ana as her own daughter. With the help of a trusted teacher, who witnessed Ana’s bruised arms and sad eyes, Ana was moved out of her great-aunt Sonia’s house to a reform center. Unfortunately, this meant she had to leave her sister, Isabel, behind.

At the center, Ana met Berto and the two instantly clicked. They found comfort in their similar journeys. Both had lost their parents, and both were HIV positive. Eventually, Berto and Ana were moved to a home for people living with AIDS. Living at the house was the first time Ana really felt comfortable talking about her HIV. For once, Ana did not have to feel the shame or burden of her secret; instead, she was loved and accepted. Ana learned more about HIV and how to protect herself and others. Feeling safe at her new home, Ana and Berto fell in love, and although she was told to always use condoms, the two neglected protection for one night and Ana found herself pregnant at the age of seventeen.

Rather than feeling burdened by the pregnancy and having to quit school, Ana found hope with the birth of her daughter, Beatriz. Ana was determined to raise her with all the love and support that Ana was denied. After Beatriz was born, Ana moved into her Aunt Aída’s house and reconnected with her family, including Isabel. Although Ana and Berto eventually drifted apart, Ana continued to raise her daughter with unconditional love. Ana took every precaution during and after birth to protect her daughter from HIV.

Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope was inspired by Jenna Bush’s experience working with UNICEF in Latin America and the Caribbean and the amazing children she met. Bush adapts a genuine and personal tone while telling Ana’s story, and even though Ana faced many difficult moments in her life, her journey is thoroughly uplifting and inspiring. The book is written in a way that allows young readers to understand the gravity of Ana’s situation while also acknowledging the hope that permeates her life. Although the book ends abruptly before Beatriz’s final HIV test, Bush assures readers Ana’s story is far from over.

By sharing Ana’s story, Bush teaches the importance of hope. Although Ana’s journey seems dark and tumultuous at times, Ana stays optimistic, doing all she can to give her child and herself a better life. Ana’s story also serves to inform readers about HIV and AIDS in the hopes of breaking the stigmatization of those living with the virus. While Ana is HIV positive and takes medicine daily to protect her health, she does not let the virus define her. At the end of the book, Bush includes multiple resources on HIV/AIDS, safe sex practices, ways to prevent sexual abuse and bullying, and other useful information about volunteering and helping children, like Ana. The book is intended to inspire others to make changes, big or small, to better communities around the world.

 Sexual Content

  • When Ana was ten years old, a nurse explained to her “when she was older and ready to have sex that it was very important to always use condoms” because she was HIV-positive.
  • On bad days, when Ana offered to bring beer to Ernesto, “he often reached for the beer and then grabbed Ana by the wrist, pulling her close, rubbing his fat belly against her . . . Sometimes his hand slipped across her chest or between her legs.” Ana described feeling “dirty and embarrassed when it happened to her” and “enraged and powerless when she watched it happen to Isabel.”
  • “When Isabel got up to go to the bathroom, Ernesto slid his hand under Isabel and felt her behind.”
  • One night, Ana woke up to see “Isabel leaning against the door, sobbing. Her hair was tangled, her skin red and blotchy.” Ernesto followed Isabel in the bedroom shortly after and threatened Ana not to tell her father. It is implied Isabel is further sexually abused by Ernesto, but the extent of the abuse is not mentioned as the story follows Ana’s perspective.
  • Another night, Isabel forgot to lock the bedroom door and Ernesto came in. His “grimy hand covered Ana’s mouth so she couldn’t scream. Isabel ran out of the room and locked herself in the bathroom. Then Ernesto started touching Ana all over.” He threatened Ana, telling her not to tell anyone.
  • Ana’s aunt confesses to her niece that “both your mama and her sister were raped by their stepfather when they were young girls. Their stepfather had AIDS and he made them both sick.”
  • At the reform center, Ana meets Pilar, a girl who “believed their only way to survive was to sell sex on the streets.” Pilar explains that becoming a prostitute was the only way to earn money to feed herself.
  • After her first day of ninth grade, Berto and Ana go for a walk, and he kisses her. “Ana had kissed other boys before, but she had never felt a connection like this; shivers ran up her spine, and her mouth curved into a perfect smile.”
  • One day, as Ana and Berto were kissing, “Berto ran his fingers through Ana’s long, wavy hair. She looked into his eyes and saw pleasure and desire.” Then, Ana asks Berto, “Do you have any condoms?” Berto promises he will get some the next day. They have sex for the first time, unprotected, but it is not described in detail.
  • Ana and Berto have sex multiple times, but it is not explicit.
  • Ana and Berto break up and Ana grows closer to a new boy, Guillermo. One day, “Guillermo began kissing her more intensely,” but Ana made him stop as she wanted to take things slow.
  • There are resources in the back to provide information about safe sex, using condoms, HIV/AIDS, and how to avoid sexual abuse. The information is informative but not explicit and is not intended to encourage sexual behavior.

Violence

  • When Ana tries to recall her last moments with her mother “she didn’t remember Mamá’s face becoming gaunt and skeletal; she didn’t remember her Mamá’s breathing becoming labored and slow . . . Ana’s Mamá was not yet twenty when she died of AIDS.”
  • Ana tells her Abuela about what Ernesto has been doing to her and her sister, but instead of believing her, “Abuela shooed Ana away by spanking her, hard, on the back of her thighs with the broom handle, then turned abruptly back to her work.”
  • After Ana refuses to clean up her things, “Ana’s grandmother snapped. She reached down and grabbed a metal clothes hanger. She came at Ana in a rage, swatting her hard on the back, again and again and again.” Abuela left Ana “lying on the ground, her legs on fire as if a hive of bees had attacked.”
  • Despite being removed from her abuela’s house, Ana still suffered beatings from her aunt’s family. “Ana usually remained quiet and passive when she was out with her family, but if Ana was belligerent or talked back, they slapped or kicked her.” Ana learned to become a fighter.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • “Many nights Ernesto and Ana’s Abuela drank heavily and smoked cigarette after cigarette until the house stank like a disco, saturated with the sour smell of beer and the thick fog of smoke.”

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • At her father’s funeral, Ana “called out to God, crying: ‘Why did you take Papá?’” Ana found herself “angry at God; she was angry at Abuela; she was angry at everyone.”
  • After her father’s death, “Ana attended a first Communion class at her church. Every Sunday, a priest and a nun met with a dozen sixth-graders to prepare them to accept their first Communion.”
  • After joining her Communion class, Ana “no longer blamed God for taking her mother, father, and sister, and for not protecting her from Ernesto. She no longer felt that God had forgotten her or lost her somewhere along the way.”
  • At her first Communion, “Ana dressed in the traditional white lace dress with a veil covering her eyes. She looked at her reflection in the mirror and prayed to God and her parents, asking, “Papá, ayú-dame, help me. Mamá protégeme, protect me.”
  • Ana compares her experience in reform center to “being in hell—not the fiery red hell of the Bible, but a drab, colorless one.”
  • At the reform center, “two women from one of the local churches came by to pray with the girls and give them a lesson in scripture.”
  • At her Quinceañera, the priest explained to Ana that she wore a tiara “because she was a princess in the eyes of God.”

by Elena Brown

Almost American Girl

In her graphic novel memoir, Robin Ha shares the story of her experiences leaving her home in Korea for America, and her journey trying to navigate a new world and form a new identity. Despite living with her single mother (something considered taboo in Korea), Chuna (who later chose the name Robin in America), found her place with her Korean friends. After school, Robin would eat snacks from food stands, shop for comic books, and attend after school classes. Robin was happy and content in Korea until one day, her mother told her they would be taking a trip to Alabama.

Curious by this mysterious location, Robin assumed it was just another vacation her mother had planned. However, in Alabama, Robin was introduced to Mr. Kim and his daughter, Lena. Robin also met Mr. Kim’s sister and her children, Grace, Ashley, and Daniel. Finding herself bored and lonely in Alabama, Robin was excited to return to Korea. However, her life was severely shaken when she received the news that her mother and Mr. Kim were getting married, and they would be staying in Alabama indefinitely.

Robin resented her mother for making this decision without her, but she was unable to change her fate. Soon, Robin selected her English name and was sent to a new middle school with Grace and Ashley. Initially, Robin found life in Alabama utterly miserable; she could not understand why her mother believed life in America was better than life in Korea. Robin knew little English and could not communicate with her peers well enough to make friends. In addition, Robin was the only Asian student at her school and suffered racist comments from school bullies who taunted her and made her say rude things in English.

Despite what Robin believed, her mother was not blind to her daughter’s suffering. One day, Robin’s mother took Robin to a comic-book store and enrolled her in a comic drawing class. There, Robin found herself surrounded by people who shared her love for comic books. She also met Jessica, who instantly became her best friend.

Just as Robin began to grow comfortable in Alabama, things between her mother and Mr. Kim grew rocky. Robin’s mother, who always valued her independence, refused to move to Los Angeles with Mr. Kim because she feared it was too unsafe. Her refusal to move sparked tension between her and Mr. Kim’s mother who believed she was being a bad wife to her son. Making a desperate attempt to preserve her freedom, Robin’s mother made plans to move with Robin to Virginia.

Despite her fears of moving again, Robin adjusted well because her new school was more diverse, and Robin grew very close to a group of Korean girls. In Virginia, Robin finally began to see America as her home. After graduation, Robin and her friends visited Korea, and while Robin still enjoyed certain aspects of Korean culture, her visit allowed her to appreciate American culture even more. These feelings were compounded upon witnessing Korea’s harsh treatment of single women and unmarried mothers. In the end, Robin identifies herself as neither Korean nor American, but a combination of both.

Staying true to her love of comics, Robin’s memoir is a graphic novel. For most of Robin’s story, the comic panels consist of simple and colorful drawings. Each image has a one to two sentence caption, explaining the actions or emotions of the scene. Many images also include dialogue or thought bubbles that provide a good balance of words to pictures. However, some powerful images fill the whole page with just a small amount of text to convey an emotion rather than reality. For example, an image of Robin lying in a dark forest with the caption, “cast out in a strange and hostile land,” conveys the loneliness and isolation Robin feels in her first few months in America. The images become more vibrant and colorful when Robin starts to feel more confident and comfortable. While some Korean words are used, a glossary is provided in the back of the book for an explanation. In addition, the blue-colored text is used to imply characters are speaking in Korean, while black text signifies English.

Robin’s story speaks to the experience of many immigrants trying to find their cultural identity in a new country. Through her vibrant memoir, Robin Ha shares the beauty of her home country while still being able to look back on the negative aspects through a more mature lens. Through visual flashbacks, characterized by a more neutral color palette, Robin explores how her mother endured shame and insults because she was unmarried, with a young daughter. Despite prejudices against single mothers, Robin’s mother did all she could to give Robin a better life. Robin begins to truly realize all the sacrifices her mother made for her, and she learned to appreciate the opportunities America provided.

Overall, Almost American Girl is about embracing change and learning how to value different cultures and appreciate differences. The memoir also reveals how finding your identity is not always an easy process, but it’s okay to just be authentic to yourself. Robin’s story is inspiring and heartwarming to read. It’s fast paced and engages readers by teaching about the cultural differences between Korea and America.

Sexual Content

  • Robin is surprised by American traditions during her first Halloween. When she saw her friend in a rather revealing costume she thought, “Wow, I can see the top of her boobs.”
  • Later in life, Robin becomes aware of the prejudice against single mothers in Korea. An image shows a teenage Robin watching a T.V in Korea that says, “I didn’t raise a slut! You are no child of mine . . . ” The show is referring to an unwed mother.

Violence

  • In her first week of school, Robin is shoved against a locker by two bullies. Robin is not hurt, but she is confused as to why they were being mean.
  • In a flashback sequence, Robin recalls a time her third-grade teacher called her up to the front of the class and beat Robin’s hands with a ruler because she made a slight mistake.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When Robin was a baby, Robin’s dad would frequently come home late and drunk. Robin’s mother said, “You reek of alcohol. Don’t come closer!”

Language

  • A bully at school gets Robin to say, “I eat shit.” She is unaware of what she is saying.
  • When Robin shares that Ashley [her step-cousin] has not been helpful at school her mother cries, “What a little bitch!”
  • Frustrated with her new life in America, Robin screams she “was happy living in Korea. I had friends and I didn’t have to deal with this stepfamily bullshit!”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • None

by Elena Brown

 

One More Step

Fourteen-year-old Julian’s parents separated when he was a baby, and he is still angry and hurt. His mother has had relationships since—all of which have ended disastrously—but this time it seems serious. Jean-Paul looks like he might be the real thing. Julian is wary—and critical—as he comes to terms with the fact that he and his brother may have to let down their defenses and allow their mother to find happiness. On a road trip with his mother and her new beau, Julian finds that love and happiness can come in many guises.

Anyone who comes from a broken family will relate to Julian, who is frustrated with his mother’s less-than-perfect boyfriends. Plus, Julian is still angry at his father for leaving when he was just a baby. While the story delves into the relationship between Julian and his father, the father-son relationship is not explored in depth. Instead, much of the story revolves around Julian’s relationship with his mother’s boyfriend, Jean-Paul. Even though Julian is often rude to Jean-Paul, Jean-Paul is always supportive of both Julian and his mother. In the end, he realizes that it is not blood that determines true family, but the willingness to stand together.

In One More Step, Julian also must deal with the death of his grandfather. However, Julian’s grieving process is not explored in detail. Despite that, Julian’s positive relationship with his grandfather is funny and endearing.

Julian’s story is told through his diary and much of the action takes place before the book begins. Since the story’s focus is Julian’s emotions and relationships, there is little action. While Julian’s story is not action-packed, his relationships are realistic and interesting. Written as a part of the Orca Soundings books, which are specifically written for teens, One More Step looks at the complicated nature of families. Readers interested in reading more books that explore family dynamics should add In Plain Sight by Laura Langston to their reading lists.

Sexual Content

  • For Christmas, Chris’s mom gives him “purple condoms in his Christmas stocking. Mom must think things are heating up between Chris and Becca.”
  • After receiving a Christmas gift from her boyfriend, Jean-Paul, Mom gives him a kiss. Julian thinks, “No tongue, just a peck on the cheek. Thank God.”
  • Julian is glad his grandparents are coming over because “Maybe that would mean Mom and Jean-Paul would keep their hands off each other. I saw hickeys on my mother’s neck when she was in her bathrobe.”
  • Julian sees his mother and Jean-Paul outside. Jean-Paul “was planting these little quick kisses on her mouth, her nose, her chin, and her forehead. Kind kisses. Sugar kisses. . .”
  • When Mom and Jean-Paul get married, Julian “boogied the night away with sweet Bernadette. I even got a real French kiss before the night was through. Maybe two. Maybe three.”
  • When Chris comes home from college, Julian thinks Chris “probably finally kissed Becca or used a condom.”

Violence

  • When Julian was being disrespectful during dinner, his Nana “kicked [him] under the table. For eating with my mouth open! She kicked me! In the shin!” Later Julian burps just to be rude and “Nana kicked him again.”
  • Julian upsets his father and “his fist found the wall. He punched a hole right through.”
  • One of Mom’s boyfriends, who Julian calls the Shark, stalked her after they broke up. The man showed up at their house “high as a kite.” The Shark “grabbed a fistful of Mom’s hair and was screaming at her.” When the Shark refuses to let go of Mom, Chris “whacked him a good one across the back of the neck with a bat. The guy was out cold. There was blood. We were bawling and screaming by the time we heard the sirens.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • When Julian’s grandfather had a retirement party, “they’d all had a bit to drink.”
  • One of Mom’s boyfriends was “only interested in drinking beer.”
  • Julian’s father is a “harmless drunk who holds down a good paying job.”
  • While at his father’s house, his dad had coke “spiked with rum.”
  • While meeting Jean-Paul’s family, he allows Julian to have a beer. “I realized the other kids my age were sipping beer too.” Later, Julian “was feeling a bit dizzy from the beer.”
  • Julian goes out with his friends and comes home drunk. He “hurried to [his]room and prayed for the ceiling to stop spinning.”

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes: ass, asshole, damn, frickin’, hell, pisses, and shit.
  • Holy crap is used once.
  • Julian refers to one of his mother’s ex-boyfriends as “the Turd.”
  • Julian tells his brother, Chris, to “Frig off.” Chris replies, “Bite me.”
  • My God and Lord are both used as an exclamation once. Oh, Jesus is used twice.
  • When Julian’s stepmom went to feed the baby, Julian walked into the room just as “Erika popped her breast out of her shirt.” He says, “Oh, Jesus! Sorry, Erika.”
  • Julian’s grandfather calls him a “peckerhead.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • On an outing, Mom wants everyone to “hold hands in a circle and listen to the stillness” and say a prayer. Julian thinks, “a wave thumped so loud below us, it seemed to me that God was mocking her.” Mom says that they are praying “to the Source.”

I Am Not Starfire

Mandy Anders is the daughter of Koriand’r/Kory Anders, otherwise known as the superheroine Starfire from Teen Titans. For most of her life, Mandy has lived in the shadow of her mother’s fame as a superheroine, and Mandy’s lack of superpowers only enhances her stress. Kids at school constantly pester her for information on her mom. They look for Mandy’s superpowers. They even theorize about her online. Combine that with high school and it’s easy to say Mandy’s life is a bit of a disaster.

Mandy’s only real friend is a boy named Lincoln, she has a crush on popular girl Claire, and she walked out on her S.A.T which her mother is completely unaware of. After walking out on the test, Mandy has become more distant with her mom. What appears to be a normal, yet rocky mother-daughter relationship devolves into a massive fight over Mandy’s future and her life.

I Am Not Starfire is told from the perspective of Mandy and follows her life at a normal high school in Metropolis until it is upended by the arrival of Blackfire, Starfire’s sister. Readers get to follow Mandy’s emotions as the story progresses, as well as experience her relationship with her mother from her point of view. Mandy’s story centers on learning to not take her mother for granted, understanding the importance of her connection with her mother regardless of her being Starfire the superhero, and taking risks in all manners of life.

Some readers may relate to Mandy’s struggles with school, college, being unsure of what she wants to do in the future, as well as her rocky relationship with her mother. Queer readers will especially relate to Mandy as she has a crush on a female peer, Claire, and her attraction and eventual relationship to Claire is presented as normal– not something that requires a grand “coming out of the closet” moment. However, some may find Mandy’s dialogue and thought process too edgy and sometimes misogynistic. For example, Mandy makes a comment about her mother’s outfits: “She wears less than a yard of fabric to work every day, yet somehow, I’m the one who’s dressing weird.”

I Am Not Starfire has beautiful art that readers will find attractive. The character’s faces are expressive, and the color composition of certain scenes highlights the emotions Mandy feels in that particular moment. Readers may also appreciate the outfits in I Am Not Starfire. Starfire and Blackfire’s outfits are modern, the kind that the targeted audience would recognize, but they are presented in a way that will make them timeless.

I Am Not Starfire is a quick read with simple vocabulary and pretty pictures. Each page has about fifty or fewer words, all of them either in speech bubbles for dialogue, boxes for the characters’ thoughts, or rounded rectangles for text messages. However, I Am Not Starfire doesn’t have a good plot or good character development. While the graphic novel provides a good entrance to the DC universe, it falls flat on its message: the people around you don’t define who you are, and you can be whoever you want to be.

Anyone who is looking to get into its massive and ever-expanding universe will find I Am Not Starfire entertaining. New fans will be incentivized to investigate DC as a whole and learn more about Starfire and the Teen Titans. However, readers who are already fans of DC comics will find this graphic novel very disappointing as it has inaccurate information on Starfire’s powers, goes against DC’s established lore, and overall is written poorly. If you’re looking for a fun, well-written graphic novel with a positive message and an LGBTQ character, Pumpkin Heads by Rainbow Rowell & Faith Erin Hicks would be a good choice.

Sexual Content

  • A guy at school yells from the background, “Hey Mandy! Like your mom’s tits.”
  • Mandy recalls a summer camp romance experience where she kissed a girl. “I did have this girl who kissed me at camp one summer.”
  • In a two-page spread, Mandy and her crush, Claire, kiss for the first time.

 Violence

  • When Starfire tells Mandy about her past on Tamaran, she brings up that her sister killed their parents. Their death is not shown. “Our parents…were killed by The Citadel.”
  • Blackfire and Starfire battle against each other to determine Mandy’s fate. However, Starfire loses to her sister which causes Mandy’s powers to awaken. Mandy fights Blackfire in her mother’s place and wins. The fight lasts for about 16 pages. The illustrations are kid-friendly, and the characters end up with a few scratches and cuts with a little bit of blood.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Lincoln calls a group of Teen Titans fans assholes for not respecting Mandy’s boundaries.
  • Multiple characters often use the word “shit” and other variations of the word. For example, Lincoln says Claire’s friends “are shitty but [Claire] seems okay.”
  • When Mandy’s mom wants to talk about Mandy’s college plans, Mandy says, “Fuck.”
  • After Blackfire has knocked out Starfire, Mandy says, “Why don’t you just fuck off and die?!”

Supernatural

  • While not exactly supernatural, the story features aliens; Starfire is an alien from the planet Tamaran and thus, Mandy herself is an alien. Starfire’s sister, Blackfire, also appears in the book.
  • The Teen Titans make brief appearances in the book. Beast Boy is a green metahuman (human with powers) who can turn into any kind of animal and Raven is a superheroine who is a Cambion (half human and half demon).

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Emma Hua

American Royals #1

When America won the Revolutionary War, its people offered General George Washington a crown. Two and a half centuries later, the House of Washington still sits on the throne. Like most royal families, the Washington’s have an heir and a spare. A future monarch and a backup battery. Each child knows exactly what is expected of them. But these aren’t just any royals. They’re American.

As Princess Beatrice gets closer to becoming America’s first queen regnant, the duty she has embraced her entire life begins to feel stifling. For Princess Samantha, nobody cares about the spare except when she’s breaking the rules, so Princess Samantha doesn’t care much about anything, either . . . except the one boy who is distinctly off-limits to her. And then there’s Samantha’s twin, Prince Jefferson. If he’d been born a generation earlier, he would have stood first in line for the throne, but the new laws of succession make him third. Most of America adores their devastatingly handsome prince . . . but two very different girls are vying to capture his heart.

While American Royals follows the lives of the three Washington children, the story is told from multiple characters including Beatrice, Samantha, Nina, and Daphne. Beatrice struggles with the pressure of becoming the future queen. Because Samantha is the “spare,” she feels that no one cares about her, so she has turned into a wild party girl. Nina is Samantha’s best friend, and for a brief time, she dates the prince, Jefferson. While Nina deeply cares about Samantha and Jefferson, she struggles with the media storm that follows her. And then there is Daphne; she wants a crown and is willing to do anything to get it. The four distinct points of view allow the reader to understand the nuances of each character. This allows for rich world-building full of suspense, passion, and surprises.

Even though the story focuses on the monarchy, politics is not a major storyline. However, Beatrice and her father do talk about politics; for example, the King believes that “opposition is critical to government, like oxygen to fire.” These discussions will give readers some political questions to ponder. Plus, these discussions allow the reader to understand how Beatrice is forced to always put the crown before her personal desires.

The dynamics between the Washington family and their friends create an interesting story full of unique characters that draw the reader in. The narration includes some of the characters’ thoughts and feelings, which gives the story depth. While there is a clear villain, some of the suspense comes from not knowing everyone’s motivation. However, in a break from believability, most of the characters do not act like typical young adults. Despite this, many readers will relate to the characters’ fight against social and parental expectations. In the end, American Royals uses American’s fascination with royalty to spin a terrific tale that sheds light on the difficulties of being a prince or princess. However, if you’re looking for a book full of intrigue without the steamy kissing scenes, the Embassy Row Series by Ally Carter is sure to entertain you.

Sexual Content

  • Jefferson’s girlfriend finds him “in bed with another girl.”
  • At the Queen’s Ball, Samantha meets Teddy. She takes him into a coat closet and tells him, “I outrank you, and as your princess, I command that you kiss me.” After a brief conversation, Samantha “grabbed a fistful of his shirt and yanked him forward. Teddy’s mouth was warm on hers. He kissed her back eagerly, almost hungrily.”
  • Daphne, Jefferson’s ex-girlfriend, curtsied. “They both knew there was no reason to greet him like this, except to give him a good view down the front of her dress.”
  • At a graduation party, Jefferson and Nina go to his bedroom and make out. “Nina fell back onto the bed, pulling Jeff down next to her. . .his hand slipped under the strap of her dress, and it forced Nina brutally to her senses.” Nina stops Jefferson before they have sex.
  • Jefferson and Nina kiss four times. After the Queen’s ball, Jefferson kisses Nina. “She felt a sizzle of shock as the kiss ricocheted through her body. This is what she’d been chasing when she’d kissed those boys at school . . . This is how a kiss should feel—electric and pulsing and smokey all at once. . .”
  • Even though Beatrice is dating Teddy, she kisses her guard, Connor, and “the utter rightness of that kiss struck her, deep in her core.” They kiss five times.
  • During a skiing trip, Jefferson kisses Nina. “Nina went still, her eyes fluttering shut. Jeff’s lips were freezing, but his tongue was hot. The twin sensations and the fire sent shivers of longing through her body.” The kiss is described over two paragraphs.
  • Beatrice and Connor get stuck in a snow storm and have to share a room. While there, Connor kisses Beatrice. “He kissed her slowly, with a hushed sense of wonder that bordered on awe.”
  • Teddy is dating Samantha’s sister, Beatrice. Despite this, he kisses Samantha. “The kiss was gentle and soft, nothing like their fevered kisses in the cloakroom that night. . . Sam lifted her hands to splay them over the planes of Teddy’s chest, then draped them over his shoulders.” They kiss several more times after this incident.
  • Daphne wants to get back together with Jefferson. When they meet at a party, she tells him, “This time we don’t have to wait. For anything.” Before, Daphne told Jefferson that she wanted to wait to have sex, but now she’s hoping sex will help her get Jefferson back.
  • Teddy kisses Beatrice “with a quiet reverence. . . Beatrice had sensed that this was coming, and tried not to think about it too closely—not think anything at all. But it took every ounce of her willpower not to recoil from the feel of Teddy’s lips on hers. Just this morning she had been tangled in bed with Connor, their kisses so electrified that they sizzled all way down each of her nerve endings, while this kiss felt as empty as a scrap of blank paper.”
  • Even though Daphne was dating Jefferson, she has sex with Jefferson’s best friend, Ethan. “Suddenly they were tumbling onto the bed together, a tangle of hands and lips and heat. She yanked her dress impatiently over her head. . .She felt fluid, electrified, gloriously irresponsible.” The description stops here.
  • At Beatrice and Teddy’s engagement party, Beatrice kisses Connor. “His mouth on hers was searing hot. . . It felt like she’d been living in an oxygen-starved world and now could finally breathe—as if raw fire raced through her veins, and if she and Connor weren’t careful, they might burn down the world with it.”
  • At Beatrice’s engagement party, Daphne gets a ride with Ethan. Ethan kisses her and “the kiss snapped down her body like a drug, coursing wildly along her nerve endings. Daphne pulled him closer . . . Somehow, she moved to sit atop him, straddling his lap. They both fumbled in the dark, shoving aside the frothy mountain of her skirts.” The make-out scene is described over three paragraphs; the sex is not described.

Violence

  • During a knighting ceremony, Jefferson’s friend remembers “when Jefferson had drunkenly decided to knight people using one of the antique swords on the wall. He’d ended up nicking their friend Rohan’s ear. Rohan laughed about the whole thing, but you could still see the scar.”
  • Jefferson and Samantha have a graduation party at the palace. The guests “all had a lot to drink; the party’s signature cocktail was some fruity mixed thing.” During the party, a girl “tumbled down the palace’s back staircase.” The girl is in a coma after her fall.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • There are many, many events where alcohol is served to both adults and minors. For example, during the Queen’s Ball alcohol is served, including champagne. Even though Samantha is a minor the bartender gives her “a pair of frosted beer bottles.”
  • Samantha thinks about the difference between Jefferson and herself. “If pictures surfaced of Jeff visibly drunk and stumbling out of a bar, he was blowing off some much-needed steam. Samantha was a wild party girl.”
  • While at a museum, Beatrice looks at Picasso’s paintings. She said, “They always make me feel a little drunk.” Her guard says, “Well, really it’s to make you feel like you’re high on acid. But drunk is close enough.”
  • During the World Series, one of Jefferson’s friends became drunk and “bartered away his shoes for a hot dog.”
  • After a play, Samantha was served “two glasses of wine and a whiskey sour” even though she is only eighteen.
  • At a New Year’s party, Samantha and Daphne get drunk. “For the first time in her life, Daphne was drunk in public. After she and Samantha took that first round of shots, Daphne had insisted on switching to champagne. . . She’d never known how utterly liberating it was, to drink until the edges of reality felt liquid and blurred.”
  • Nina goes to a frat party. “Despite the chilly weather, a few of the houses had kegs and music on their front lawns. . .” When Nina goes inside, she sees, “clusters of students gathered around a plastic table, lining up their cups of beer for a drinking game.”
  • The King’s sister only goes to royal engagements when she’s drunk.
  • At a party, Daphne drinks tequila. She kept hoping that if she drank enough, she might temporarily forget that her hard-won, high-profile relationship was unraveling at the seams. So far it hadn’t worked.
  • Sam tells Teddy about some of her ancestors. King Hardecanute “died of drunkenness at a wedding feast . . . He literally drank himself to death!”
  • At his sister’s engagement party, Jefferson “sat on a gleaming barstool, his body slumped forward, his elbow propped on the bar. An expensive bottle of scotch sat before him . . . He was drinking straight from the bottle.”
  • After Beatrice’s engagement party, her father and she have bourbon. Beatrice takes a glass because it was “liquid courage.”
  • At a graduation party, Daphne puts “ground up sleeping pills” into a girl’s wine. The girl was “visibly drunker, her words louder and more pointed, and then a few minutes later she retreated to a sitting room.”

Language

  • Hell is used occasionally. Damn is used once.
  • God and oh god are used as exclamations occasionally.
  • If Samantha talked back to the paparazzi, she “was a ruthless bitch.”
  • After a picture of Jefferson and Nina kissing appears, people begin attacking Nina. One person posts, “get rid of that skanky commoner.” She is also called a “fame whore” and “a social climber.”
  • Daphne calls Nina a “gold-digging fame whore.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • The American Constitution says that “the king is charged by God to administer this Nation’s government.”
  • When Beatrice and Connor get stuck in the snow, she prays “that she could stay here forever, outside time itself.”
  • The King tells Beatrice, “I wish I had someone I could turn to for guidance. But all I can do is pray.”
  • While the king is in the hospital, his mother has “her rosary clicking in her hands as she mouthed her litany of prayers.”
  • When the king dies, “All the prayers that Beatrice had memorized as a child came rushing back, their words filling her throat. She kept reciting them, because it gave her something to occupy her brain, a weapon to wield against her overwhelming guilt. Love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

My Life in the Fish Tank

Twelve-year-old Zinnia “Zinny” Manning loves her siblings and adores her older brother, Gabriel. But one night, the Manning family gets a call that shakes up their lives: Gabriel has a mental illness and will be going to a rehabilitation center. Zinny’s parents tell Zinny and her two other siblings, sixteen-year-old Scarlett and eight-year-old Aiden, to keep quiet about Gabriel. This means that Zinny can’t confide in her two best friends, who don’t understand why Zinny has been acting differently and won’t talk with them about what happened.

My Life in the Fish Tank discusses themes like mental health, family, and the importance of expressing your feelings. Zinny and her family struggle with understanding Gabriel’s diagnosis (bipolar depression), and each character has a unique way of coping. Zinny’s mom insists on keeping Gabriel’s diagnosis and treatment a secret, while Zinny’s dad buries himself in work and becomes very quiet. Zinny’s older sister Scarlett lashes out and refuses to speak to or visit Gabriel, and younger brother Aiden is left to deal with his emotions and schoolwork on his own. Zinny takes on a parental role over Aiden, and tries to help him with homework, making dinner, and trying to crack jokes.

Zinny’s main tactic is avoidance of her own emotional turmoil, which frustrates and saddens others around her, especially her best friends. As a result, Zinny grows apart from them and spends more time with her cool science teacher, Ms. Molina, who teaches Zinny about the wonderful world of crayfish. Ms. Molina notices Zinny’s separation from her friends, however. This leads to Zinny’s invitation to join the Lunch Club, where a group of students meets with guidance counselor Mr. Patrick. The Lunch Club is set up like group therapy, but with middle school students and pizza.

Initially, Zinny hates attending, but she eventually befriends the others in the club and learns to express her feelings in a healthy and productive manner. Zinny makes peace with her feelings about Gabriel, her parents, and ultimately herself. Zinny also learns that even when bad things happen, she’s allowed to enjoy good things, too. Zinny wants to be there for her family, and she almost passes up a chance to attend a summer marine biology program. However, Gabriel encourages her to do what she loves.

My Life in the Fish Tank explores how mental health affects a family. Zinny is a wonderfully flawed character who starts on the path to emotional maturity. Most importantly, this book shows that everyone is always learning—about mental health, and how to handle their emotions and communicate with loved ones. Gabriel’s diagnosis didn’t change him, but he and his family had to learn to understand each other in new ways, and to be emotionally perceptive when others react to trauma in different ways. By the end of the book, Zinny no longer feels trapped in her fish tank of feelings, watching as life happens around her. Through self-expression and love, she can be honest with her loved ones, and they can be honest with her. My Life in the Fish Tank will help middle school readers understand more about mental health and can be used as a discussion starter. Readers who struggle with difficulties such as anxiety will want to add After Zero by Christina Collins to their reading list.

Sexual Content

  • One of Zinny’s classmates got a haircut, and according to her, “a whole bunch of other girls in the seventh grade” were obsessed with him, including her friends Kailani and Maisie. Maisie suggests that “James likes Kailani. That he has a crush.”
  • While getting ice cream, Zinny notices Gabriel is flirting with the girl working. Zinny says, “Girls have always liked Gabriel; once when we were at the town pool, two older girls told me, ‘Your big brother is sooo cute.’”
  • Zinny meets Jayden at the Lunch Club. Zinny notes that he is “way cuter than James Ramos.”
  • Mr. Patrick mentions that he’s “mad because his husband got another parking ticket.”

Violence

  • Gabriel crashes his roommate’s car. Dad tells Zinny and the rest of the family, “He broke his collarbone, but they’re saying he doesn’t need surgery, and he’ll just wear a sling for a while. He’s lucky; sounds like from the condition of the car, it could have been much worse.” Gabriel may have crashed the car on purpose to harm himself, though he never says if that was his intent.
  • Zinny says that the only thing she knows about her classmate Keira is that Keira “was always getting into fights with people.”
  • One boy in Zinny’s crayfish group cheers when their group finds out that they have a male crayfish. Zinny thinks, “Scarlett would probably slap this kid,” as Scarlett is often mad when people assume pronouns or make misogynistic remarks.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Gabriel has “been drinking and driving, way too fast. Which is how he smashed up his roommate’s car.”

Language

  • Zinny’s older sister Scarlett says “bullcrap” to their brother Gabriel, except according to Zinny, “she doesn’t say ‘crap.’”
  • Light language is used often. Some terms include omigod, crazy, dumb, weird, fool, shut up, stupid, barf, fart, and dope.
  • Asher says, “Oh God” when the Lunch Club brings cupcakes for his birthday.

Supernatural

  • Zinny has a flashback to six years previous when she and her siblings played a game where they were characters from a Cartoon Network show. Scarlett’s character has a “magic flyswatter.”
  • Zinny and her friend Kailani make up stories about Kailani’s two kittens. Zinny says, “they’re orphans with magical powers, princesses under a spell, they can predict the future if you understand mewing.”

Spiritual Content

  • Gabriel gives Zinny a tiny chair from a museum gift store as a “good luck charm.” Zinny says that she doesn’t believe in luck, and Gabriel responds, “Yeah? Well maybe you should?”
  • Gabriel tells Zinny that she “might see a mermaid” at her science camp. Zinny replies that she doesn’t believe in them, and Gabriel says, “Maybe you should.”

by Alli Kestler

Swashby and the Sea

No-nonsense Captain Swashby has lived his life on the sea, by the sea, and with the sea—his oldest friend. He loves his quiet life just as it is: sandy and serene. When new neighbors settle in next door and disrupt his solitude, Captain Swashby leaves notes in the sand: “Please go away!” But the sea “fiddled, just a little” and changed the message to read, “PL—AY.” Could it be that the sea knows exactly what he needs?

Captain Swashby is reluctant to spend time with his neighbors, but the sea “decided to meddle more than just a little” and soon Captain Swashby discovers that “it was easy for Swashby to have tea with the girl and her granny—and ice cream, and lobster, and s’mores on the beach. It was easy for him to share his special sea glasses.”

Captain Swashby’s story is beautifully illustrated in sandy browns and ocean blues. Sometimes, Captain Swashby scowls and looks like a grump, but that doesn’t stop his new neighbor from asking him to play. The new neighbors—a girl and her grandmother—are African American and they both are adorably cute. The illustrations do an excellent job of conveying the characters’ wide range of emotions. As readers explore the illustrations, they may want to look for the seagulls that are scattered throughout the pages.

Even though Swashby and the Sea is a picture book, the story is intended to be read aloud to a child, rather than for the child to read it for the first time independently. Parents may need to explain some of the more difficult language, such as serene, civilized, and commandeered. Even though each page only has 1 to 4 sentences, the complex sentence structure may be difficult for young readers.

Swashby and the Sea is a sweet story that little readers will love. Anyone who has met someone that appears a little bit grumpy and unfriendly will relate to the story. In addition, Swashby and the Sea shows the importance of making new friends. Shawn Loves Sharks by Curtis Manley is another book that ocean-loving readers will enjoy and it also teaches an important lesson about friendship!

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • When the sea changes his message, Captain Swashby says, “Barnacle bottoms.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Somewhere Among

Ema is used to spending her summers in California with Bob and Nana, her mother’s parents. But this year, she and her mother are staying with her father’s parents in Japan, as they expect the arrival of a baby. Her mother’s pregnancy has been shaky, making everyone anxious for her health. Despite her mother’s physical wellbeing, Ema is happy because, finally, there will be someone in her immediate family who understands what it is like to fit in and not fit in at the same time.

Ema’s happiness is dashed when Obaachan, her Japanese grandmother, scolds her for the smallest mistakes. When she and her mother must stay in Japan longer than anticipated, and Ema has to attend a new school, her concerns about not fitting in become bigger. And when the tragedy of 9/11 strikes the United States, Ema and her parents watch the Twin Towers fall and the aftermath of the attack.

Her mother grieves for the United States, her home country. Ema also worries about her mother’s health, which threatens the safety of the baby. Alongside the grief, Jiichan gets ill, which worries Ema. Ema feels lonely, but then Obaachan shows a kinder side of herself and reveals the reason for her sternness—she had done so to prepare for her family for the worst.

As a whole, the story occurs from June 2001 to December 2001. Each month has an illustration relevant to a seasonal theme. Each chapter is told from Ema’s perspective, which helps the reader understand her solitude and the Japanese culture from her point of view. The story is written in free verse and portrays a detailed and orderly environment, with the descriptions grounding the reader in Ema’s headspace and forestalling confusion about Japanese folklore, language, and cultural norms. Though Ema is lonely, she is a happy and optimistic child, always taking part in traditional holidays or outings with her parents.

Since Ema lives with a lot of adults, the story details a lot of current events and the repercussions of historical events. Somewhere Among portrays the Japanese perspective on domestic tragedies, such as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the observance of abroad tragedies, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor. However, the incidents are a backdrop in Ema’s life and the weight of the tragedy is with the adults in the room. Through these incidences, the story reinforces the importance of having “peace among nations/ peace among peoples/ peace in the heart.”

The story also hits on Ema’s identity as a “hafu,” or a person who is half-Japanese. Middle grade readers will relate to Ema, who is struggling to exist in a foreign country. For example, Ema’s classmates scrutinize her because of her mixed heritage. They make fun of her facial features and her name, and ignore it when Masa, a boy in her class, bullies her. In the end, Ema stands up for herself and feels like she has a place in Japan. The story ends on a light note and shows Ema’s family after the end of their struggles. Readers who would like to read more about historical events in Japan would enjoy reading Somewhere Among.

 Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • When Obaachan insists Ema’s mother should bathe in warm water, Ema’s mother, tells Ema’s father that “Obaachan is trying to kill us [her and the baby].”
  • Throughout most of the novel, Maribeth “vomits” frequently due to her pregnancy.
  • Updates about the Ehime Maru, “a Japanese fishing ship/ struck and sunk/ by an American submarine” are shown throughout the novel. In July, “its mast will be dynamited/ girded/ and lifted/ from the sea.” Later, US Navy officials explained their “plans to bring/ nine boys and men. . . up from the sea.” After searching for the sunken fishing ship and failing to rescue the crew members, “one hundred and twenty boxes/ of personal items/recovered from victims…are given to their families…to the principal [of Uwajima Fisheries High School]/ the school flag from the ship/ to the captain/ a bell from the steering room.”
  • Five people die from “mudslides/in Japan” after two typhoons go through Japan.
  • Masa, one of Ema’s classmates, “rams [her] thigh with his broom.” At first, her grandparents do nothing, but then Obaachan calls the teacher. Her teacher apologizes for Masa’s behavior but says asking Masa’s mother for an apology “is not possible. . . it cannot be helped.”
  • When they are in the classroom, Masa bullies Ema aggressively. He asks Ema if she “knows how to use a futon” as if she was a baby. Later, he “grabs, crumples and tosses my math homework.” Masa’s bullying occurs six more times throughout the book.
  • On September 11, 2001, Ema and her family watch the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. “We watch the towers go down/ over and over and over…a plane went down in Pennsylvania/ and/ the war department of the United/ States of America/ in Washington, DC is in flames.” Ema’s mother would not believe the attack happened “until the TV is turned on.” The aftermath and the rescue efforts continue for four pages.
  • After 9/11, Nana and Grandpa Bob were scared when they considered traveling to Japan from the United States. “Nana and Grandpa Bob are worried/ about flying./ They don’t say so/ but I know so./ Everyone is/ after seeing planes go through/ buildings/ and down in a field/ on September 11.”
  • Ema’s father mentions that George Harrison, a member of the Beatles, a British rock band, has died. “’He was a man of peace,’ Papa/ says./ ‘He knew how to treat people.’”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • When Ema’s mother began speaking Japanese, she thought she was saying “Great-Grandfather” to Obaachan’s father, but she was saying “honorable old fart,” because she made a mistake with a vowel.
  • Ema’s classmates say she “looks weird” because of her “upside-down crescent-moon eyes” and her skin color, as Ema is half-white and half-Japanese.
  • Masa teases Ema with a common mispronunciation of her name. Her name, pronounced Eh-ma, sounds like the word “for wishes and prayers” in Japanese, but most foreigners miscall her as Em-ma, which means “God of Hell.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Ema’s name “sounds like the name for shrine prayers”
  • “Tanabata” is a Japanese holiday on July 7, a day that celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi. The traditions for this holiday are described over eight pages.
  • Ema describes her mother as “calm as Buddha.”
  • Obaachan goes to a shrine to “pray for Little Sister and Mom.”
  • On December 7th, the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, “Prayers are said/ on all shores.”
  • Maribeth goes to a church with Ema, who has “never been in a church,” to light a candle for the lost lives on 9/11. Jiichan prays for “the dead and the living without incense.”
  • Obaachan and Ema go to a shrine gate. Obaasan shows her the proper way to pray at a gate. “She bows twice, throws a coin,/ pulls the thick rope with two hands,/ claps twice/…bows once.”
  • Ema states that the Americans use the “jack-o’-lanterns/ from pumpkins/ to scare away spirits” during Halloween.

by Jemima Cooke

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise

Twelve-year-old Coyote Sunrise and her dad, Rodeo, have lived in an old school bus named Yager for five years—the same amount of time it’s been since her mother and two sisters suddenly died in a car accident. Coyote and Rodeo haven’t gone back home since the accident. They’re only looking forward and never turning back. Then, Grandma calls Coyote and tells her that the city is tearing down the park in Coyote’s hometown—the same park where Coyote, her mom, and sisters buried a treasure chest.

Coyote devises a plan to trick Rodeo into driving home to Washington State to get the treasure chest. Along the way, Coyote and Rodeo pick up an eclectic cast of characters, all with their own stories and destinations in mind. Coyote and Rodeo both learn that to move forward, sometimes you must go back.

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise is a funny, touching book that explores themes of grief and love. After the tragedy that strikes their family, Coyote and Rodeo never allowed themselves a moment to process their grief. They go so far as to pick new names for themselves, and they consider going back to their home in Washington State to be a major “no-go.”

When Rodeo figures out that Coyote has tricked him into taking them back, they must face each other not as companions on a school bus adventure, but as a father and daughter who lost the rest of their family. Coyote demands of him, “Why can’t you be my dad?” Coyote and Rodeo’s relationship is one of the most interesting dynamics because so much goes unsaid between them. Although Coyote helps explain certain rules and turns-of-phrase for the reader, Coyote and Rodeo’s relationship is more complicated than what’s initially expected.

Coyote is the narrator of this book, and she has a unique way of speaking to the other characters and to the reader. Coyote is funny and expressive, but much like with her relationship with Rodeo, there are certain things that are left unsaid until she’s comfortable thinking about them. For instance, she doesn’t even think about her sister’s names until late into the book. Through Coyote’s narration, the reader can see her complexity.

The supporting characters are striking and dynamic, and Rodeo and Coyote embrace their new friends with open arms. The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise is as much about putting the past to rest as it is about a found family. In the end, Coyote and Rodeo are happy to remember their loved ones while embracing their found family. The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise is for readers of all ages and is a must read because it handles the universal themes of grief, love, and family with an intelligent and kind hand. This isn’t a journey to miss.

 Sexual Content

  • Lester needs a ride to Boise, Idaho, to get his kind-of-ex girlfriend Tammy back. She wants him to get a “real job” while Lester wants to play in his jazz band. Lester tells Coyote, “If I get a real job, she’ll marry me.” This spawns a conversation between Coyote and Lester about love that lasts for a few pages.
  • Salvador asks Coyote why she’s really headed north, and Coyote responds, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” Salvador’s “face flushed deep red” and then Coyote clarifies, “Geez. I mean, I’ll tell you where we’re going if you tell me why your mom and aunt lost their jobs.”
  • Salvador’s mom and aunt tell Coyote funny stories from their childhood. According to Coyote, one of the stories was about “something about their mom walking in on Salvador’s mom with a boy. They wouldn’t give [Coyote] all the details on that one, but the embarrassed blood running to [Salvador’s mom’s] face pretty much told [Coyote] what [she] needed to know.”
  • On their journey, Coyote and Rodeo pick up a girl named Val. Val tells them that she was kicked out of her parent’s house because she’s gay. Coyote relates that her mom’s sister, Jen “is gay, and her wife Sofia, is [Coyote’s] very favorite aunt-in-law, and the thought of having someone hating on them for who they love made [Coyote] want to put on boxing gloves.”

Violence

  • Coyote explains, “My heart stopped short like a motorcycle slamming into the back of a parked semi (which I actually saw once outside Stevenstown, Missouri . . . not a sight you’re likely to forget, I promise you).”
  • Coyote’s cat, Ivan, is startled when he wakes up on Rodeo’s neck. Ivan sinks “all ten of his razor kitten claws” into Rodeo’s neck. Eventually Ivan lets go, though Rodeo is bleeding a bit.
  • When her new friends ask where Coyote’s other family members are, Coyote responds, “They’re . . . they’re dead, ma’am. They were killed in a car accident five years ago.”
  • Salvador admits that his dad physically abuses Salvador and his mom. Salvador tells Coyote, “Sometimes he . . . hits.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Coyote describes the gas station’s contents, noting that beer is one of the drinks lining the coolers along the walls.
  • Rodeo buys a six-pack of beer at a gas station and sits out back, drinking it.

Language

  • A variety of creative language is used to show displeasure. Only adult characters use words like hell, badass, and damn. Everyone often uses words like darn, weirdo, freaky, heck, wimpy, holy heck, dang, crazy, idiots, stupid, shut up, morons, jerk, pee, crap, pissed, and freaking.
  • Coyote sometimes refers to Rodeo as “old man.”
  • While telling a story about two animals, Rodeo refers to the crow in the story as an “ornery old cuss.”
  • One girl at a campground says, “Oh. My. God” in response to how cute Ivan is.
  • The girl from the campground mentions that she’s reading Anne of Green Gables and Coyote responds, “Oh, lord, I love Anne of Green Gables!”
  • Coyote once uses the phrase “how on god’s green earth” as an exclamation.
  • When Rodeo and Lester accidentally leave Coyote behind at a gas station in Gainesville, Florida, Coyote says, “Oh god” and “Oh, lord.” Coyote and Lester use these sorts of exclamations often.
  • A few years back, Rodeo installed an old bell in the bus. Rodeo and Coyote named it the “Holy Hell Bell on account of if you really put your arm into it, that old bell made a holy hell of a racket.”
  • Coyote stands in a river and pees. She says, “if you’re already standing in a river and you’re getting out to go pee, you’re doing it wrong.”
  • When the brakes give out on Yager, Lester “said a couple words [Coyote] won’t repeat, but with which [Coyote] totally agreed.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Coyote and Rodeo have a ceramic pug that sits on the dashboard of their bus. They call him the “Dog of Positivity, and Rodeo insisted he was a sort of canine guardian angel, keeping us happy.”
  • Coyote explains her beliefs just before a miracle happens. She says, “Now, here are some things I generally don’t believe in: fate, astrology, angels, magic, or the mystical power of wishes. Sorry, I just don’t. So there ain’t no easy explanation for what happened next. But that’s all right, ‘cause not everything in this world needs to be explained. We can just chalk it up to luck and call it good.”
  • Coyote mentions her mom on the bus. Coyote says that doing this is like “farting in church,” as in deeply inappropriate.
  • According to Coyote, Rodeo is “always saying how the universe seeks balance.” Coyote isn’t sure what this means.
  • Coyote says that “Rodeo says that anywhere outside can be a church, ‘cause anytime you’re in nature you can feel God.”
  • Rodeo, Coyote, and other characters say, “Help me, Jesus,” and other similar phrases.
  • Ms. Vega prays when the bus’s brakes give out.

by Alli Kestler

Annie John

Annie John is a young, genius schoolgirl who wants to grow up to be just like her mother. Annie finds her mother beautiful – physically and internally – and her greatest wish is to stay forever with her, in their matching dresses, repeating their familiar daily routine of preparing dinner and washing clothes. They even share the same name: Annie. However, as young Annie starts to come of age, she is hit with the realization that she and her mother are not so similar after all.  When Annie points out a fabric to make a pair of dresses for them both, her mother replies, “You are getting too old for that . . . You just cannot go around the rest of your life looking like a little me.”

Annie’s world crumbles. As she advances to a new school, the differences between Annie and her mother become more apparent. Annie likes girls – especially those who don’t have to bathe and comb their hair every day like Annie is forced to. She likes to play marbles – even though her mother forbids it, since it isn’t ladylike. And Annie steals. To have what she wants, Annie is forced to steal things like trinkets, money, and marbles. She begins to resent her mother’s strict ways and desires her own, free existence.

When Annie falls ill for a long time, she is nursed back to health by her mother. After which, she leaves her family in Antigua behind to go to England to become a nurse, since she “would have chosen going off to live in a cavern and keeping house for seven unruly men rather than go on with [her] life as it stood.”

While Annie’s young teenage rebelliousness sounds familiar to many, she struggles deeply with the divide between the life she wants and the life her mother wants for her. Annie says, “In the year I turned fifteen, I felt more unhappy than I had ever imagined anyone could be. My unhappiness was something deep inside me, and when I closed my eyes, I could even see it . . . It took the shape of a small black ball, all wrapped up in cobwebs. I would look at it and look at it until I had burned the cobwebs away, and then I would see the ball was no bigger than a thimble, even though it weighed worlds.”

Annie John is not a difficult story to read in terms of language or length, but as a story it is tough to swallow since it is about growing up, which comes with the heavy realization that you must become your own being. Mostly, the story focuses on events from Annie’s life that are narrated rather than her depression and related illness. These topics are not discussed in detail, rather left open for the reader to think about.

Annie John is not told chronologically, which can be confusing at times. This story is historical fiction and showcases some of the culture of Antigua, an island in the Caribbean, whose native population has been impacted by colonization. This is most apparent in the strict gender norms emphasized by Annie’s mother and the teachings in Annie’s school. This story is wonderfully crafted. While these issues seem like major ones, they are carefully blended into Annie’s life so subtly that the reader can fully understand what it’s like to live as Annie John. The events of the story are personal to Annie’s life, however, the sadness that comes with growing older is universal. Because of that, this story is timeless and a must-read for those who seek to understand a genuine, flawed character, as she escapes from her restrictive past and sails to a new future.

Sexual Content

  • The schoolgirls wonder when their breasts will grow larger. Annie tells the reader, “On our minds every day were our breasts and their refusal to budge out of our chests. On hearing somewhere that if a boy rubbed your breasts they would quickly swell up, I passed along this news. Since in the world we occupied and hoped to forever occupy boys were banished, we had to make do with ourselves.”
  • Later, Annie thinks about spending time with her friend, Gwen, who she is in love with: “Oh, how it would have pleased us to press and rub our knees together as we sat in our pew . . . and how it would have pleased us even more to walk home together, alone in the early dusk. . . stopping where there was a full moon, to lie down in a pasture and expose our bosoms in the moonlight. We had heard that full moonlight would make our breasts grow to a size we would like.”
  • The Red Girl, one of Annie’s crushes, pinches her, then kisses her. “She pinched hard, picking up pieces of my flesh and twisting it around. At first, I vowed not to cry, but it went on for so long that tears I could not control streamed down my face. I cried so much that my chest began to heave, and then, as if my heaving chest caused her to have some pity on me, she stopped pinching and began to kiss me on the same spots where shortly before I had felt the pain of her pinch. Oh, the sensation was delicious – the combination of pinches and kisses. And so wonderful we found it that, almost every time we met, pinches by her, followed by tears from me, followed by kisses from her, were the order of the day.”

Violence

  • Annie torments a girl she likes. “I loved very much – and used to torment until she cried – a girl named Sonia . . . I would pull at the hair on her arms and legs – gently at first, and then awfully hard, holding it up taut with the tips of my fingers until she cried out.”
  • Annie recounts an incident with one of her friends. “In a game we were making up on the spot, I took off all my clothes and he led me to a spot under a tree, where I was to sit until he told me what to do next. It was long before I realized that the spot he had picked out was a red ants’ nest. Soon the angry ants were all over me, stinging me in my private parts, and as I cried and scratched, trying to get the ants off me, he fell down on the ground laughing, his feet kicking the air with happiness.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • After Annie’s mother sees her talking to boys, she calls Annie a slut. Annie narrates the event like this: “My mother said it had pained her to see me behave in the manner of a slut in the street and that just to see me had caused her to feel shame. The word ‘slut’ was repeated over and over until suddenly I felt as if I were drowning in a well but instead of the well being filled with water it was filled with the word ‘slut,’ and it was pouring in through my eyes, my ears, my nostrils, my mouth. As if to save myself, I turned to her and said, ‘Well like father like son, like mother like daughter.’”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • The kids sometimes go to choir and church on Sunday, and carry bibles, but this is rarely described, only referenced. For example, Annie’s mother “checked my bag to make sure that I had my passport, the money she had given me, and a sheet of paper placed between some pages in my Bible on which were written the names of the relatives with whom I would live in England.” Annie does not discuss God or her beliefs.
  • When Annie is sick, an obeah woman from her family tries to help her by giving her herbs and using other remedies, although Annie is too sick to note them.
  • The obeah women of Annie’s town believe that Annie falls ill because of a “scorned woman” from her father’s past. There is no further elaboration on this topic.

by Madison Shooter

 

The Sun is Also a Star

Natasha Kingsley, a lover of science, believes in facts and evidence. According to Natasha, nothing lasts forever. There is no “meant to be,” and there is no such thing as love.

Daniel Jae Ho Bae, a poet, believes in love and destiny. He trusts that the specific amount of circumstances required to bring two strangers together has meaning, even if it can’t be scientifically explained. On his way to a Yale interview, Daniel sees a beautiful girl with large pink headphones walk into a record store. Obeying what he believes are signs from the Universe, Daniel follows her and finds his world colliding with Natasha’s.

Compelled by the inexplicable feeling that they are meant to be, Daniel postpones his interview in order to prove that love is real by making Natasha fall in love with him in one day. Natasha reluctantly agrees to this plan. However, Natasha is almost certain they are not meant to be a couple because it is likely her last day in America. Natasha and her family, who are Jamaican immigrants, have been asked to leave the country and return to Jamaica following her father’s DUI.

Despite the impending threat to her life in America and her aversion to love, Natasha finds herself falling for Daniel. Eventually, the secret of Natasha’s deportation is revealed and the two vow to make the most of their time together by condensing a whole relationship into one day. Despite their respective responsibilities for the day, they always find their way back to one another, proving their destiny is to be in each other’s lives.

However, in the end, Natasha cannot change her fate and must return to Jamaica with her family, while Daniel remains in America to pursue his dreams of becoming a poet. Due to the distance, Natasha and Daniel grow apart. But chance brings them together years later, making the readers wonder if they are meant to be after all.

The novel mainly switches between Daniel and Natasha’s perspectives, with brief interruptions to feature the perspective of supporting characters or to explain scientific concepts relevant to the story. Other chapters also provide historical context for relationships between racial groups in America. For example, the historical connection between Korean immigrants and the black-hair care industry.

The novel also depicts the experiences of young first and second-generation immigrants. Although Daniel was born in America, his parents view American culture as a threat to their Korean values. On the other hand, Natasha was not born in the United States but still views America as her home. Despite the history of racial tension between their cultures, Daniel and Natasha bond over their shared identity as Americans.

Overall, The Sun is Also a Star is an irresistible love story that explores the connection between art and science. Through beautiful metaphors and complex characters, Nicola Yoon exposes the poetic nature of science, which ultimately brings people together.

 Sexual Content

  • Natasha finds herself attracted to Daniel and assumes his “sexy ponytail may be addling my [Natasha’s] brain.”
  • The science behind love and attraction is explained. “Oxytocin is released during orgasm and makes you feel closer to the person you’ve had sex with.”
  • When Natasha says, “I like it big” in reference to her hair, Daniel’s brother makes a crude joke that she “better get a different boyfriend.”
  • Daniel gets a glimpse of Natasha’s thighs when her dress shifts. “They have little crease marks from the couch. I want to wrap my hand around them and smooth the marks with my thumb.”
  • Daniel and Natasha start kissing in the norebang, a Korean karaoke place. “We start out chaste, just lips touching, tasting, but soon we can’t get enough…She’s making little moaning sounds that make me want to kiss her even more.” Daniel and Natasha move to the couch and continue to kiss passionately. Eventually, they stop; there is no sex or nudity.
  • Daniel stares at Natasha “because I’m picturing her in a candy striper outfit and then picturing her out of it.”

Violence

  • Daniel and his brother, Charlie, get into a fight over Charlie’s racist and sexist comments regarding Natasha. Daniel’s “fist catches him [Charlie] around the eye socket area, so my knuckles hit mostly bone.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Natasha’s father gets a DUI.

Language

  • Ass/asshole is used numerous times by Daniel. For example, Daniel calls his brother an “overachieving asshole.”
  • Pissed is used three times. For example, Daniel states his brother “was so pissed that his voice cracked a little.”
  • Shit is used repeatedly.
  • Daniel explains his brother’s anger after his mother’s disapproval of him. Daniel’s mom “could’ve called him an epic douche bag, an animatronic dick complete with ball sac, and it would’ve been better than telling me not to be like him.”
  • Goddamn is used five times. For example, Daniel’s parents believe America has made him soft and Daniel thinks, “If I had a brain cell for every time I heard this, I’d be a goddamn genius.”
  • Profanity is used in the extreme. Profanity includes fuck, dick, shit, ass, pissed, damn, bastard, and douche-bag. For example, a passenger on Daniel’s train tells the conductor to “shut the fuck up and drive the train.” Also, after a fight, Daniel explains his lip “split open on the outside because the bastard [Charlie] hit me while wearing some giant-ass secret society ring.”

 Supernatural

  • None

 Spiritual Content

  • Charlie hears a hurtful comment from his mother “because of God or Fate or Sheer Rotten Luck.”
  • Natasha’s father believes their deportation is part of God’s plan, but Natasha thinks “he shouldn’t leave everything up to God.”
  • On the train, Daniel hears the conductor give his testimony. “God HIMself came down from HEAven and he saved me.”
  • Daniel believes when people are born, “they (God or little aliens or whoever) should send you into the world with a bunch of free passes.”
  • Natasha’s father is sure “God wouldn’t have gifted him with all this talent with no place to display it.”
  • While entering the subway, Daniel decides to “say a prayer to the subway gods (yes, multiple gods).”
  • Daniel explains if he could invite anyone for dinner, it would be God.

by Elena Brown

The Detective’s Assistant

Eleven-year-old Nell Warne couldn’t have imagined what awaits her when she arrives on her long-lost aunt’s doorstep lugging a heavy sack of sorrows.

Much to Nell’s surprise, her aunt is a detective, working for the world-famous Pinkreluctanceational Detective Agency! Nell quickly makes herself indispensable to Aunt Kate. . . and not just by helping out with household chores. As her aunt travels around the country solving mysteries, Nell must crack codes, wear disguises, and spy on nefarious criminals.

Nation-changing events simmer in the background as Abraham Lincoln heads for the White House, and Aunt Kate is working on the biggest case of her life. But Nell is quietly working a case of her own: the mystery of what happened the night her best friend left town.

Nell’s adventure paints a picture of life in the 1800s. When she is forced to live with her Aunt Kate, Nell quickly realizes that her aunt isn’t like most women—instead Aunt Kate takes on many disguises while solving mysteries. At first, Aunt Kate doesn’t trust Nell and doesn’t want to give the grieving girl a home, giving readers a small peek into the life of an orphan. The Detective’s Assistant also uses letters between Nell and her friend to delve into the topic of slave hunters. Even though the topic is explored in a kid-friendly manner, sensitive readers may be upset by the death of so many people.

Despite her aunt’s reluctance to give Nell a home, Aunt Kate makes sure Nell learns vocabulary, grammar, and math. Throughout the story, Aunt Kate is always correcting Nell’s speech. For example, Aunt Kate tells Nell, “And the proper word is isn’t, not ain’t. Mind your grammar, even in times of distress.” Nell also learns new vocabulary such as somnambulist. This highlights the importance of getting an education and adds fun to the story.

The Detective’s Assistant is sure to delight readers because of the interesting, complex characters as well as the cases that Aunt Kate and Nell help solve. Since the story is told from Nell’s point of view, the readers get an intimate look at Nell’s emotions. Nell struggles with the death of her family, how the slave trade affected people, and the possibility of being sent to an orphanage. All of these aspects make The Detective’s Assistant a fast-paced story with many surprises. In the end, Nell learns that “family meant taking the folks we’re stuck with and choosing to love them anyway.”

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • A pickpocket takes Aunt Kate’s purse. Nell sees him “and with one swift stomp of my foot, I crashed the heel of my big brown boot onto his toes. The bandit let out a howl and began hopping on one leg.”
  • When others notice their money is missing, the crowd “pounced on the skinny pickpocket like a pack of wolves.”
  • In a letter, Nell’s friend tells her about slaves who were trying to go to Canada so they can live free. “And the next thing Mama knows, her friend’s neck is in a noose hanging from a tree.”
  • Aunt Kate investigates a “murder by poison.” A woman’s “lover has succeeded in putting his wife in a pine box.”
  • While babysitting a young girl, the girl treats Nell poorly. Her “shins ached from unexpected kicks, my arms were sore from vicious pinches, and my pride was wounded from insults to my general appearance and intellect.”
  • Aunt Kate investigates a bank robbery. “A bank teller was murdered in cold blood, and money was stolen.” The bank teller was killed with a hammer and “three blows to the head.” Later the criminal confesses.
  • Slave hunters stole a family and they “got sold off to the highest bidder.” The family was torn apart.
  • Nell’s father, Cornelius, accidentally shoots and kills his brother. Cornelius was helping slaves escape to Canada. At night, “a man came riding up toward us—we could almost feel the hoofbeats. . . [a man] called for us to stop. . . And in a rush of panic that swept over all of us, your daddy fired his gun.”
  • While Cornelius was helping slaves escape, slave hunters killed him. “His body washed up in the Chemung River.”

  Drugs and Alcohol

  • Nell’s father, “saw the jailhouse for drinking and cheating at poker.” Nell’s father is often referred to as a drunk liar who gambles.
  • Nell names her dog Whiskey. Nell “didn’t know a thing about liquor when I named her. But I heard my daddy say whiskey was pure gold.”
  • While walking down the street, “a few menacing drunks pushed past, knocking both Aunt Kate and me off balance.”

Language

  • “Heck and tarnation” is used twice.
  • Darn is used twice
  • Nell calls a bratty girl a “little jackanapes.”
  • Nell thinks that some boys are “dunderheads.”
  • When a rebel starts talking about John Wilkes Booth, Nell thinks the rebel is an “illiterate oaf.”

Supernatural

  • In order to gain a suspect’s trust, Aunt Kate pretends to be a fortune-teller. The suspect believes that “her brother’s ring warned him of storms at sea.”
  • A man thinks the detectives use “voodoo magic to get those criminals to talk.” Others think the detectives use whiskey to get people talking.
  • Nell couldn’t go to a funeral because “Daddy thought it was bad luck to have a child so close to the Grim Reaper.”

Spiritual Content

  • Nell writes to a friend, saying her daddy “is splitting logs with the angels.”
  • Someone asks Nell how her father made it “to the pearly gates of heaven.” Nell replies, “Through prayer, ma’am. Mine mostly, since he wasn’t the praying kind. . .”
  •  Aunt Kate says, “Frugality is a virtue. It says so in the Bible.”

The Legend of the Shark Goddess: A Nanea Mystery

Ever since the war started, Nanea has done her best to follow all the new rules. When she meets a boy named Mano in her grandparents’ market, Nanea is shocked to hear him admit to breaking some rules—and bragging about getting away with it.

When things start to go missing from the market, Mano is the first person Nanea suspects. Nanea is determined to protect her grandparents, but Mano, whose name means “shark” in Hawaiian, seems to be hanging around the market more and more. What can Nanea do to keep her family safe from this dangerous boy?

Nanea’s story focuses on the effects of World War II in 1941. In a kid-friendly way, The Legend of the Shark Goddess illustrates some of the discrimination that Japanese Americans faced. Even though the story takes place after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the story also revolves around Nanea’s efforts to discover who is stealing from her family. As the mystery evolves, Nanea realizes it is difficult to tell if someone is a “good shark or a bad shark.”

Nanea is obsessed with following the rules, which is one reason she focuses on her first impressions of others. For example, when Nanea meets Mano, she is convinced he is the thief because he breaks curfew. Nanea is so focused on proving that Mano is a thief that she never really considers that anyone else could have taken the items. While most of the suspects are not well developed, the story provides enough mystery to keep readers entertained.

The Legend of the Shark Goddess does an excellent job describing Hawaii during the 1940s. Readers will learn many facts about this time period as well as several life lessons. The story focuses on two main lessons: don’t spread rumors and don’t judge others. The repetition of the lessons is a little tedious, but the conclusion helps reinforce the story’s lesson in a surprising way.

Readers who love mysteries may be disappointed that Nanea doesn’t do much sleuthing and there are no clues to follow or riddles to solve. Instead, the story relies on Nanea’s impressions of others to build suspense. However, Nanea’s story is interesting and many middle school readers will relate to Nanea. At the end of the book, readers will find a glossary of Hawaiian words and facts about Nanea’s world. Even though The Legend of the Shark Goddess lacks mystery, readers will still enjoy spending time in Nanea’s world. Readers who like history with a dash of fantasy should also read The League of Secret Heroes by Kate Hannigan.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Nanea often thinks about the shark goddess Ka’ahupahau, “who guarded the entrance of Pearl Harbor with her brother, Kahi’uka. . . She was born a human with fire-red hair. But as a shark, her body could take many forms. She could become a net, difficult to tear. And with her net body, she captured man-eating sharks that entered her harbor.”

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling 

Anna Chiu strives to be a perfect Chinese daughter. However, Ma has been stuck in bed for longer than usual and her mental health is worsening. Anna’s Baba, who is supposed to be the parent, is spending more time at his restaurant. While the family struggles to keep Ma’s sickness a secret, Anna feels it is her responsibility to take care of her younger siblings, Michael and Lily, but she soon falls behind in her schoolwork. Will Anna realize she is taking on more than she can handle and accept that she and Ma need help?

To escape the pressures of home, Anna volunteers to help at Baba’s Chinese restaurant. There, she meets Rory, the delivery boy with a history of depression. With Rory’s help, Anna learns that treatment for her mom’s mental health is available and can help bring peace to the Chiu family. After a traumatic episode involving Ma mutilating a live fish, Ma is sent to a hospital for psychiatric care where doctors can evaluate her condition and prescribe medication. While her mother is under the doctor’s care, Anna can focus on her own mental health and she finds new ways to open up.

By the end of the novel, the family learns how to better support one another, and Anna eventually accepts that not every day can be perfect. Even Rory, who has received help for his depression and anxiety, has difficult days. The book delivers a message to those struggling with mental health issues that no one is alone and there is always someone willing to listen.

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling is told through Anna’s perspective and provides a realistic picture of mental health issues. Anna is a relatable character who struggles to fit in and at first, is awkward in her relationship with Rory. However, after witnessing Rory’s honest personality, Anna learns to discuss issues that are bothering her. Anna and Rory support and care for one another in a happy and healthy way. Anna is an admirable protagonist who loves her Ma and is passionate about working hard to save Baba’s restaurant. Plus, Anna shows love and encouragement to her younger siblings.

The novel demonstrates how race and struggles with identity can influence one’s mental health. As s Chinese-Australian, Anna experiences microaggressions from her peers and cultural pressures from her family. For example, the kids at Anna’s school call her “banana,” meaning she is “yellow on the outside, white on the inside. . . It’s like saying [Anna’s] a bad Chinese.” Anna soon recognizes how these pressures contribute to her anxiety. Despite this, these comments make Anna question whether she is good enough for her family.

In the end, Anna learns to take each day one at a time. She no longer bears the full responsibility of her family but recognizes the journey of her mother’s mental health recovery. Despite the stigmas against mental health issues that Anna witnesses, she accepts that her life is already normal—“It’s heartbreaking. And it’s true.” Anna no longer needs perfection as long as she is with the people she loves. The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling explores mental health issues in addition to having a cute romance. Readers who would like to explore mental illness through another book should also read Paper Girl by Cindy R. Wilson.

 Sexual Content

  • Anna talks about how she has little experience with boys. “It’s like when it comes to matters of sex, I don’t even count as an observer.”
  • One of Rory’s bullies makes a racist and sexist comment to Anna asking, “Aren’t the Asian ones supposed to be submissive?”
  • Rory and Anna share a passionate kiss. “We press our mouths harder against each other. Kissing still feels a bit strange and weird but exhilarating at the same time.”
  • Rory and Anna share a kiss in his car and things escalate. “Somehow we’re in the back seat. I feel his tongue on my skin, his breath against my neck, a hot and wet sliding.” However, they are quickly interrupted by Anna’s ringing phone.
  • Anna and Rory are kissing once again. Anna drags “him closer, feel[s] the tiny hairs on the back of his neck, the base of his throat, taste[s] the inside of his mouth. My legs and hips move, and I’m climbing out of my seat and into his lap.” Rory rubs his hands down Anna’s back, but then the scene ends.
  • Anna briefly describes her sexual experience with Rory. “When Rory hovers over me and I can feel his skin pressing up against the bits of my skin that have never felt someone else before, it’s I feel sated, protected, and exhilarated all at the same time.” Anna’s first time having sex with Rory is not described in great detail, but the action is clear.

Violence

  • Some schoolgirls discuss their assignments and joke about suicide. A girl says, “I’m going to kill myself.”
  • Anna discusses how “Ma used to beat us with the end of a feather duster when we did something naughty . . . I went to school with long sleeves covering the blue-and-green streaks.”
  • Anna claims she wants to “smack the eyeliner off” of a mean girl’s face.
  • Anna makes a vague comment that she wants to “tie weights to [her] ankles and be done with it now.”
  • Rory tells Anna how he once tried to kill himself by jumping in front of a moving train, but the train did not come that day.
  • While Lily is sleeping, Ma tries to hit her. “There are a few muffled thuds and a sharp cry, so I know Ma’s blows have landed but probably across the blanket.”
  • During one of her episodes, Ma mutilates a fish at the restaurant. Ma “holds up a slippery orange fish, no bigger than a mackerel, and before I can do anything, she pops its eyes between her fingers.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Anna is surprised to see her father home “standing by the sink, holding a small tumbler of beer.”
  • Rory takes Anna to his sister’s roller derby game where there is drinking. Rory offers Anna a beer and she accepts.
  • Ah-Jeff, who works at Baba’s restaurant, slips Anna some Hennessy and Coke while celebrating the new restaurant.

Language

  • Anna acknowledges that her “Cantonese might be crap.”
  • Baba calls a work colleague who quit a “bastard.”
  • After Anna finds her sister has pierced her ears, Anna exclaims, “What the hell, Lily?”
  • Anna makes an awkward squeaking sound and questions, “What the hell is wrong with me?”
  • Rory wants Anna to form a thesis declaring Rory, “The most badass English professor I’ve ever had,” to which Anna responds calling Rory, “Mr. Badass.”
  • Rory describes his time in the hospital. “It was shit and it made me feel worse.” He proceeds to use “shit” multiple times in his description.
  • Anna snaps at her brother Michael who can’t find his sock. She yells, “It’s a goddamn sock. Deal with it!”
  • Anna states Michael’s “cute pout isn’t going to save my ass.”
  • Anna calls Rory’s old friends “real assholes.” In a text conversation, she refers to the same group as “dickheads.”
  • Lily texts Anna that she is still “pissed” at her.
  • Rory feels as though he is a “shit son.”
  • A patient at the hospital calls someone a “bitch.”
  • Shit is used four times in one paragraph. For example, Rory states that “Hospitals are shit.”
  • Anna’s face turns red from drinking alcohol she can’t tell if she should “feel embarrassed or damn happy to be called out this way.”

 Supernatural

  • None

 Spiritual Content

  • Anna runs into some girls from school at the market and says a silent prayer “to whatever gods there are that the girls won’t see me.”

by Elena Brown

The Stinky Cheese Vacation

Geronimo gets a letter from Uncle Stingysnout, who needs to see him immediately. According to Uncle Stingysnout, he is about to leave this world and he would like Geronimo to fulfill his last request. Geronimo agrees to help by planting lots and lots of flowers. But then the next day, Uncle Stingysnout has another request and another. . .

Geronimo is put to work until Uncle Stingysnout’s entire house is fixed. But then he finds out that his uncle is not ill. Instead, his Uncle just wanted to have his house fixed up for free. After cooking, cleaning, painting, and planting, Geronimo discovers that Uncle Stingysnout plans on opening Hotel Stingysnout as a “five-cheese resort.”

During the remodeling, Geronimo’s uncle again shows his stingy side when Geronimo discovers a treasure map. Geronimo and his family search for the treasure: Truffled Cheddar (extra-stinky). But Uncle Stingysnout wants to keep all of the cheese for himself! Uncle Stingysnout only agrees to share after Hercules threatens to eat all of the cheese by himself.

Whether you are a Geronimo Stilton fan or a first-time reader, The Stinky Cheese Vacation will have readers giggling. The story uses a lot of cheese puns, such as when Geronimo says, “After all, my heart is softer than mozzarella, and I can be a real cheeseball.” However, the plot does not have much action or suspense. Unfortunately, Uncle Stingysnout shamelessly takes advantage of Geronimo’s generosity. In the end, Geronimo forgives his uncle for his dishonesty, but it is clear that Uncle Stingysnout will not change his greedy ways.

The Stinky Cheese Vacation’s layout will draw readers in with large, full-color illustrations that appear on every page. In addition to the often humorous illustrations, the large text has a graphic element that makes the words look fun. Some of the key words are printed in a larger, colored print. For readers who still struggle with reading, The Stinky Cheese Vacation would make a great book to read aloud while letting the child read the words that are in the colored print.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Occasionally, Geronimo hurts himself. For example, when he was organizing a bookcase, he fell. “I landed on a wooden desk, then I tumbled to the floor, massaging my head where a great big BUMP had formed”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Geronimo uses exclamations like “holey Swiss cheese” and “moldy mozzarella.”
  • Someone calls Uncle Stingysnout a cheapskate.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

When Stars Are Scattered

Omar and his younger brother Hassan have spent most of their childhood inside the A2 block of the Kenyan refugee camp Dadaab. After fleeing from his family farm in Somalia and becoming separated from his mother, Omar’s main concern is always protecting his only remaining family member, his nonverbal brother Hassan. Not only does Omar shield Hassan from the grueling chores of finding water and cleaning the tent, but he also cares for his brother when Hassan suffers seizures, or when he is teased by the other kids for only saying one word: Hooyo—“Mamma.” Omar also hopes one day his mother will find him and Hassan, and so he keeps all days the same. So, when Omar has the opportunity to go to school, he knows it might be a chance to change their future…but it would also mean leaving his brother, his only remaining family member, every day.

When Stars are Scattered is an easy-to-read, beautifully illustrated graphic novel. Omar Mohamed’s story comes to life in this graphic novel about his childhood in a refugee camp. The story shows the heartbreaking events that lead to Omar going to a refugee camp when he was only four. Omar’s story chronicles the hunger, heartbreak, and harsh conditions he endured. The story also sheds light on other issues including women’s access to education, starvation, family loss, and the constantly looming struggle to get on the UN list that invites refugees to interview for resettlement. Despite difficulties, Omar is still able to create a sense of family and home in the midst of difficult situations.

Like all people, Omar is a complex character who struggles to make the right decisions. He also often has conflicting emotions. For example, Omar wonders if his mother is dead or alive. He thinks, “I love my mom, but sometimes I hate her for leaving us. It’s like these two feelings are tearing me apart.”

At one point, Omar wonders if school is a waste of time; however, his foster mom tells him, “Prepare yourself and educate yourself. So you can be ready when God reveals his plan to you.” Eventually,

Omar falls in love with the power of learning and the potential of resettlement. Omar begins to learn what it feels like to build a new life by focusing on what he is given, rather than remaining torn by what he has lost. It is in this way that Omar moves from searching the stars for his mother to actually feeling that, “Many years ago, we lost our mother. But maybe she is not gone. She is in the love that surrounds us and the people who care for us.”

The story teaches several important life lessons including not to judge others and to make the most of your life. Appreciating what you have is the overarching theme of When Stars Are Scattered. Omar’s best friend tells him, “I didn’t ask for this limp. But I didn’t ask to live in a refugee camp either. . . I guess you just have to appreciate the good parts and make the most of what you’ve got.” Despite his struggles, Omar makes the most of what he has been given and thanks God for the love of others.

Based upon the real-life story of Omar Mohamed, When Stars Are Scattered navigates themes of familial loss, grief, struggle, and finally, hope, all while addressing the permanent feeling of a temporary refugee camp and the heartbreak of a war-torn home country. Omar shares his story because he wants to encourage others to never give up on home. Omar says, “Things may seem impossible, but if you keep working hard and believing in yourself, you can overcome anything in your path.”

When Stars Are Scattered not only encourages others to remain persistent, but also sheds light on the conditions of the refugee camps without getting into a political debate on immigration. Instead, the graphic novel focuses on Omar’s story—his hardships, his hopes, his despair, and his desire to help others like him.

The narrative is occasionally intense and heavy in its consideration of grief and the lifestyle of a refugee, which may upset younger readers. However, the serious and very important subjects that When Stars are Scattered covers are overall presented in a digestible way for young readers. The graphics that illustrate the story are absolutely captivating for all, while the humor and uplifting optimism that perseveres throughout this novel can fill the hearts of any audience.

Sexual Content

  • Maryam’s family needs the money, so they allow Maryam to get married despite the fact that she is only in middle school. “Maryam’s husband is old, but he’s not too strict.”

Violence

  • When Hassan hugs a boy, the boy pushes him away. The boy tells Omar, “I don’t know why you bother taking care of this moron. He’s a waste of space. You should let him wander off into the bush to get eaten by lions.” Omar punches the boy, and they get into a fight. An older woman breaks up the fight.
  • While Omar is at school, Hassan wanders off and some kids “[take] his clothes, and… He’s pretty badly hurt.”
  • When Omar’s best friend says he’s going to America, Omar thinks about the resettlement process. He thinks, “I heard about one guy… His case was rejected by the UN and he couldn’t handle it. He… He killed himself.”
  • During an interview with the United Nations, Omar talks about the village he came from. Omar was playing under a tree when he heard men yelling at his father. Then, “Bang! Bang! Bang!” Omar ran to his mother, who told Omar to take his brother and run to the neighbor. The neighbor hides them inside, but “then I heard gunshots and screaming, and soon the whole village was running. There were angry men everywhere.” Omar and his brother run and stay with the people from the village, but they never see their mother again. The event is described over three pages.
  • When Fatuma describes her sons, she notes that “they were killed in Somalia” but there is not any explicit description as to how they were killed.
  • When Hassan tries to help Omar with collecting water one day, Omar gets frustrated and shoves Hassan, yelling “leave me alone!”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Some of the men in the refugee camp chew khat leaves. Omar explains that “a lot of men in camp chew Khat. They say it kind of helps you . . . forget things.”

Language

  • There are multiple times where some of the children are called by names based upon their physical appearance. For example, one child is called “Limpy” based upon a physical disability. Omar is also called “Dantey” for being quiet.
  • The story has some mild name-calling, such as idiot, jerk, and dodo head. For example, Omar thinks that one of the boys his age is “kind of a jerk.”
  • While walking to school, someone yells at two girls, “Hey it’s the mouse and the shrimp.” In reply, someone says, “Tall Ali… You’re like… A towering tree of an idiot.”
  • In class among the girls, A boy says, “You’re just jealous because you’re, what, number seventeen? I didn’t know we had seventeen girls in class. My goat could’ve done better than you.”
  • When Tall Ali becomes frustrated at Hassan for not understanding a game, he says to Omar, “ I don’t know why you bother taking care of this moron! He’s a waste of space. You should let him wander off into the bush to get eaten by lions!” Then he says to both Omar and Hassan, “Now I know why you’re orphans. That’s probably why your mom left you.”
  • When Jeri gives a presentation in school about how much he wants to be a teacher when he grows up, another classmate exclaims, “what a kiss-up.”
  • When Omar learns that all the teachers speak in English, he thinks, “Oh crud.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • When community leader Tall Salan tries to convince Omar to go to school, he says, “Omar, only God knows what will happen in the future.” Omar’s foster mom Fatuma also says, “I think you should look deep inside yourself and see what God is telling you to do. If this is God’s will, then He will make everything okay.”
  • Omar and his brother practice Islam. Because of this, Omar recognizes that “Like every morning, I hear the call to morning prayers over the loudspeakers. It’s early, but today I was already awake.” There is also a chapter dedicated to discussing the Holy Month of Ramadan. This chapter shows Omar and his friends celebrating Eid Al-Fitr, which is the holiday at the end of this month. It is also recognized that Omar’s camp, and others near it, have a “loudspeaker that, five times a day, called everyone to prayer.”
  • When Omar decides to go to school, he prays “that [he’s] making the right decision.”
  • Omar’s foster mom tells him that God has given Hassan gifts. “Hassan is considerate, helpful, and friendly.”
  • When the community comes together to help Hassan, Omar thinks, “We may be refugees and orphans, but we are not alone. God has given us the gift of love.”
  • During Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, Muslims are supposed to fast from sunrise to sunset. Even though many in the refugee camp are always hungry, “people in the camp fast anyway… Just because we’re poor and hungry doesn’t mean we can’t observe the holy month.”
  • During Eid, Omar prays “for me and Hassan. That we’ll find a way out of this refugee camp—that someday we will find a home.”
  • When a social worker brings Omar a school uniform, he thinks, “you just try your best, and God will find a way to help you when you need it.”
  • Even though life has dark moments, Omar believes that “God will deliver an answer, and you’ll find a faith out of the darkness. The kindness of strangers. The promise of new friends.”
  • When Omar is waiting to see if he will be resettled in America, he thinks, “We’ve done all we can. It’s in God’s hands now.”

by Hannah Olsson

 

 Land of the Cranes 

Nine-year-old Betita knows she is a crane. Papi has told her the story, from even before her family fled to Los Angeles to seek refuge from cartel wars in Mexico. Long before that, Aztecs came from a place called Aztlan, which is now the Southwest U.S. This place was called the land of the cranes. The Axtecs left Aztlan to establish their great city in the center of the universe -Tenochtitlan, modern-day Mexico City. But it was prophesied that their people would one day return to live among the cranes in their promised land. Papi tells Betita they are cranes that have come home.

Then one day, Betita’s beloved father is arrested by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deported to Mexico. Betita and her pregnant mother are left behind, but soon they too are detained and must learn to survive in a family detention camp outside of Los Angeles. Even in cruel and inhumane conditions, Betita finds heart in her own poetry and in the community, she and her mother find in the camp. The voices of her fellow asylum seekers fly above the hatred keeping them caged, but each day threatens to tear them down lower than they ever thought they could be torn. Will Betita and her family ever be whole again?

Land of the Cranes is told from Betita’s point of view. Her voice comes through in the narration and in the poems she writes for her father. She also draws simple illustrations that help convey her emotions. Even though the story is told from a child’s point of view, younger readers may be upset by the harsh treatment and a brief description of sexual abuse.

Written in prose, Land of the Cranes has some beautiful language. However, Spanish words and phrases are scattered throughout the book, which may cause confusion for non-Spanish speakers. In an extended metaphor, Betita refers to her and her family as cranes. Expanding on this metaphor, when she thinks about her mother’s pregnancy Betita talks about the “egg” and the “nest.” One reason Betita is worried about the “egg hatching” is that “Mami has lost / two babies before. / They worry that this one / might get lost too.”

Land of the Cranes explores the “zero tolerance” policy of ICE detaining undocumented immigrants and the harsh condition of the detention centers. One of Salazar’s purposes for writing the book is to show an example of “a larger, tragic, and true story of the criminalization of migration that spans hundreds of years.”

Younger readers may be disturbed by Land of the Cranes because it deals with the difficult topic of immigration and families being torn apart. In addition, readers may have a difficult time understanding some of the language and when Spanish is used, there are not always context clues to help readers understand the words’ meanings. Despite this, Land of the Cranes would be an excellent book to use as a conversation starter. Sensitive readers may want to skip Land of the Cranes and read Efren Divided, which explores the same topics but uses a more child-friendly manner.

Sexual Content

  • A young woman has a girlfriend.
  • Betita’s friend tells her a secret. “There was a man who cooked our food / who would lock me in the closet with him. / He did things. / He told me it was supposed to feel good / but it didn’t. It hurt so bad, I threw up.”

Violence

  • Betita’s Tio, Pedro, was killed by a cartel. Papi says, “A cartel hurt Tio Pedro / made him disappear / when he didn’t give them / the money they wanted.”
  • A woman in the detention center explains why her family fled to America. She was fearful that the cartel would hurt her family. The woman saw the cartel “kill a man for not paying the rent on his cart. I knew we would be next.”
  • A woman guard tells Betita to undress. Betita stomps “my feet on her foot . . . The guard grabs me by the arm / shakes my body like a sheet /and starts to pull up my blouse.” The guard tries to “hit Mami,” but another guard stops her.
  • A young woman tries to fight the guards, who are putting her in a cell. “They get her up and open the / gate to our cell, and give her a shove. . . She lunges at one of the guards. / The guard’s fist smashed into her nose / which sends her back like a rag doll. / Then the other guard rushes her / while she is down / and kicks / and kicks/ and kicks/ her in the stomach / and in the face.”
  • Betita’s friend was taken to a detention camp for children. Her friend says the guards “hit the kids / who tried to run out of the doors or cried too loudly.”
  • While sleeping, a guard checks on the prisoners. “I count one kick in my face / while I slept, from a guard.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • At a quinceanera, “Tio Desiderio is on guard / at the bar, making sure some /of her pimply-faced guy friends / don’t try to get beer.”
  • Papi tells Betita that a cartel is “a group of men who sell / drugs / guns / and people / sometimes.”

Language

  • Several of the guards at the detention center call the prisoners “donkeys.” For example, a guard yells, “Burros, time to eat!”
  • The guards call the prisoners names including wetback, perra, and stupid.
  • Betita doesn’t like her friend’s “booger of a brother.”
  • When a guard pushes a prisoner, the prisoner yells, “Don’t push me, you piece of scum!”
  • Dang is used twice.
  • Freaking and damn are both used one time.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Betita’s mother thinks about her brother, who was killed by the cartel. “Mami lights a candle daily / to a small statue of La Vigen de Guadalupe / and a picture of Tio Pedro faded in the frame. . . She prays for protection under her breath.”
  • When her father is deported, Betita cuts a piece of her father’s pillow and “put it on Mami’s Virgencita / smoosh it between the moon / and the angel / and pray for protection. ‘Please, Virgencita, don’t / take Papi with you too.’”
  • When Betita and her mother are taken to a detention center, “Mami prays Tio Juan / will reach Fernanda and that she will / know where to find us. . . Virgencita, protect us, por favor, Mami says.”
  • Betita tells the story about how the Mexican people are cranes. “Several tribes including the Mexica / traveled south like cranes / when Huitzilopchitli. . .The god of war / announced his / prophecy that they /would move south / to build their great /civilization in the / ombligo of the world.”

A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns is set against the volatile events of Afghanistan’s last thirty years—from the Soviet invasion to the reign of the Taliban to post-Taliban rebuilding. It puts the violence, fear, hope, and faith of the country in intimate, human terms. It is a tale of two generations brought jarringly together by the tragic sweep of war. In war, personal lives—the struggle to survive, raise a family, and find happiness—are inextricable from the history playing out around them.

Mariam and her mother live as outcasts. With little contact with the outside world, Mariam dreams of a time when her father will accept her. When Mariam’s mother dies, Mariam has no choice but to show up at her father’s house. Her father quickly arranges for Mariam to marry Rasheed. At first, Mariam is hopeful that living in a new city with a new husband will be the beginning of something good. But after a string of miscarriages, Rasheed becomes violent and forbids Mariam from seeking friendship.

Meanwhile, Laila grew up with parents that believe everyone deserves an education, including girls. While Laila’s childhood is far from perfect, she is surrounded by loving people. Then, just when her family plans to leave their war-torn city, Laila’s parents are killed. With no family or friends left, Laila isn’t sure where to turn. When Rasheed offers marriage, Laila reluctantly agrees to become his second wife. However, she wasn’t prepared for his first wife’s hate or Rasheed’s violence.

A Thousand Splendid Suns has worked its way onto many schools’ required reading lists because the story helps readers understand Afghan history. More importantly, it is a story of family, friendship, and hope. Mariam and Laila’s friendship gives them strength to live in a brutal environment, where their husband is cruel and abusive. Through their plight, readers will begin to understand the role women play in Afghanistan and how the Taliban changed their world overnight.

Readers will be deeply moved by the story’s events. However, the brutality of war, the massacre of innocent people, and the harsh physical abuse of both Mariam and Laila is graphic and disturbing. Hosseini paints a realistic picture of living in a war-torn country, and the images of death will remain with readers for a long time after they close the cover of the book. Even though A Thousand Splendid Suns has a positive message, sensitive readers will find the descriptions of Rasheed’s abusive behavior and the constant death upsetting.

Before you read A Thousand Splendid Suns, grab a box of tissues because the story will bring you to tears. Because of Laila’s friendship, Mariam makes a decision that will forever alter both of their lives. Through Mariam’s experiences, readers will come to understand how powerless women were under the Taliban’s rule, but they will also see how friendship and kindness have the power to change one’s life.

Sexual Content

  • After Mariam’s mother got pregnant, the baby’s father told his wives that her mother had “forced” herself on him.
  • Mariam is forced to marry a much older man. Before the marriage, Mariam thinks about her mother’s words. “It was the thought of these intimacies in particular, which she [Mariam] imagined as painful acts of perversity, that filled her with dread and made her break out in a sweat.”
  • One night, Mariam’s husband comes into her room. “His hand was on her right breast now, squeezing it hard through the blouse. . . He rolled on top of her, wriggled and shifted, and she let out a whimper. . .The pain was sudden and astonishing. . . When it was done, he rolled off her, panting.”
  • Mariam finds pornography in her husband’s room. The women in the pictures, “their legs were apart, and Mariam had a full view of the dark place between.”
  • Mariam’s husband desires intimacy. “His appetite, on the other hand, was fierce, sometimes boarding on violent. The way he pinned her down, his hand squeezes at her breast, how furiously his hips worked.”
  • Laila’s feelings for her best friend, Tariq, begin to change. She wonders “what would it be like to kiss him, to feel the fuzzy hair about his lips tickling her own lips?” Later, they have sex. “Laila thought of Tariq’s hands, squeezing her breast, sliding down the small of her back, as the two of them kissed and kissed.”
  • Laila hears a story about three sisters who were raped and then “their throats slashed.”
  • After Laila’s parents die, an older man asks Laila to marry him. He implies that if she says no, she may have to work in a brothel. Laila agrees to marry him because she is pregnant.
  • After Laila and the man are married, he has sex with her. “Laila had a full view of his sagging breast, his protruding belly button. . . she felt his eyes crawling all over her.” They have sex several times, but the action is not described in detail.

Violence

  • The book often describes the violence of war. For example, someone says that the Mujahideen forces boys to fight. “And when soldiers from a rival militia capture these boys, they torture them. I heard they electrocute them. . . then they crush their balls with pliers. They make the boys lead them to their homes. Then they break in, kill their fathers, rape their sisters and mothers.”
  • After Mariam goes into town, she comes back and sees “the straight-backed chair, overturned. The rope dropping from a high branch. Nana dangling at the end of it.”
  • After Mariam has a miscarriage, her husband becomes different. It wasn’t easy tolerating him talking this way to her, to bear his scorn, his ridicule, his insults. . . [Mariam] lived in fear of his shifting moods, his volatile temperament, his insistence on steering even mundane exchanges down a confrontational path that, on occasion, he would resolve with punches, slaps, kicks. . .”
  • Russians took over Afghanistan and people talked about “eyes gouged and genitals electrocuted in Pol-e-Charkhi Prison. Mariam would hear of the slaughter that had taken place at the Presidential Palace.” The president was killed after he watched the “massacre of his family.”
  • Mariam’s husband was angry because of her cooking. “His powerful hands clasped her jaw. He shoved two fingers into her mouth and pried it open, then forced the cold, hard pebbles into it. Mariam struggled against him, mumbling, but he kept pushing the pebbles in, his upper lip curled in a sneer . . . Then he was gone, leaving Mariam to spit out pebbles, blood, and the fragments of two broken molars.”
  • A teacher would slap students. “Palm, then back of the hand, back and forth, like a painter working a brush.”
  • A boy shoots a water gun, spraying a girl with urine.
  • After a girl is bullied, her friend fights the bully. “Then it was all dust and fists and kicks and yelps.”
  • A rocket hits one of Laila’s friend’s houses. “Giti’s mother had run up and down the street where Giti was killed, collecting pieces of her daughter’s flesh in her apron, screeching hysterically. Giti’s decomposing right foot, still in in its nylon sock and purple sneaker, would be found on a rooftop two weeks later.”
  • A rocket hits Laila’s house. “Something hot and powerful slammed into her from behind. It knocked her out of her sandals. Lifted her up. And now she was flying, twisting and rotating in the air. . . Then Laila struck the wall. Crashed to the ground.” Laila sees her dead parents.
  • Laila hears a story about soldiers “raping Pashtun girls, shelling Pashtun neighborhoods, and killing indiscriminately. Every day, bodies were found tied to trees, sometimes burned beyond recognition. Often, they’d been shot in the head, had their eyes gouged out, their tongues cut out.”
  • Rasheed, Laila’s husband, hits both of his wives often. “One moment [Laila] was talking and the next she was on all fours, wide-eyed and red-faced, trying to draw a breath. . .” She drops the baby she was carrying. “Then she was being dragged by her hair.” Her husband locks her in a room and then goes to beat his other wife. “To Laila, the sounds she heard were those of a methodical, familiar proceeding. . . there was no cussing, no screaming, no pleading. . . only the systematic business of beating and being beaten, the thump, thump of something solid repeatedly striking flesh.”
  • When the Taliban take over Afghanistan, they kill the Afghanistan leader. The Taliban “had tortured him for hours, then tied his legs to a truck and dragged his lifeless body through the streets.”
  • After Rasheed hits Laila, she “punched him . . . The impact actually made him stagger two steps backward. . . He went on kicking, kicking Mariam now, spittle flying from his mouth. . .” At one point Rasheed put the barrel of a gun in Laila’s mouth.
  • Rasheed gets upset at Laila and begins “pummeling her, her head, her belly with fists, tearing at her hair, throwing her to the wall.” Mariam tries to help Laila but Rasheed hits her too.
  • After an old friend comes to see Laila, Rasheed gets angry. “Without saying a word, he swung the belt at Laila. . . Laila touched her fingers to her temple, looked at the blood, looked at Rasheed, with astonishment. Rasheed swung the belt again.” Rasheed begins to strangle Laila. “Laila’s face was turning blue now, and her eyes had rolled back.”
  • In order to save Laila, Mariam hits Rasheed with a shovel. “And so Mariam raised the shovel high, raised it as high as she could, arching it so it touched the small of her back. She turned it so the sharp edge was vertical . . . Mariam brought down the shovel. This time, she gave it everything she had.” Rasheed dies from his wounds.
  • When an Afghanistan leader is killed, Laila thinks about some of the violence that he caused. “She remembers too well the neighborhoods razed under his watch, the bodies dragged from the rubble, the hands and feet of children discovered on rooftops or the high branches of some tree days after their funeral. . . “

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Someone is given morphine after being injured.
  • Laila overhears a story about her husband. He was drunk when his son “went into the water unnoticed. They spotted him a while later, floating face down.” The boy died. Someone says, “This is why the Holy Koran forbids sharab. Because it always falls on the sober to pay for the sins of the drunk.”

Language

  • Profanity is rarely used. Profanity includes ass, piss, shit, and damn.
  • As a child, Mariam’s mother reminds her that she is a bastard because she was born out of wedlock.
  • Mariam yells at her half-brother, saying “he had a mouth shaped like a lizard’s ass.”
  • Mariam pleads with her father, asking him not to make her marry a stranger. He yells, “Goddamn it, Mariam, don’t do this to me.”
  • A child yells at a bully, saying, “Your mother eats cock!” The child does not know what the words mean.
  • Someone calls Laila a whore. Later, Laila’s husband also calls her a whore.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • The story focuses on characters who are Muslim. They often pray.
  • Mariam’s mom said she had a difficult labor. She said, “I didn’t eat or sleep, all I did was push and pray that you would come out.”
  • Mullah Faizullah teaches Mariam about the Koran’s words. He tells her, “You can summon them [God’s words] in your time of need, and they won’t fail you. God’s words will never betray you, my girl.” During difficult times, Mariam thinks about verses from the Koran.
  • Mariam asks Mullah Faizullah to convince Mariam’s mother to let her go to school. He replies, “God, in His wisdom has given us each weaknesses, and foremost among my many is that I am powerless to refuse you, Mariam.”
  • Mariam’s mother tells her, “Of all the daughters I could have had, why did God give me an ungrateful one like you?” Later that day, her mother commits suicide.
  • After Mariam’s mother commits suicide, Mullah Faizullah says, “The Koran speaks the truth, my girl. Behind every trial and every sorrow that He makes us shoulder, God has a reason.” Later, he tells Mariam that Allah “will forgive her, for He is all-forgiving, but Allah is saddened by what she did.”
  • After Mariam’s father forces her to marry, her father says he will come to visit her. She tells him, “I used to pray that you’d live to be a hundred years old. . . I didn’t know that you were ashamed of me.”
  • When Mariam learns that she will have a baby, she thinks about a verse from the Koran. “And Allah is the East and the West, therefore wherever you turn there is Allah’s purpose.”
  • When Mariam has a miscarriage, she gets angry, but thinks, “Allah was not spiteful. He was not a petty God. . . Blessed is He in Whose hand is the kingdom, and He Who has power over all things, Who created death and life that He may try out.”
  • When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, flyers were passed out with new rules including “all citizens must pray five times a day. . . If you are not Muslim, do not worship where you can be seen by Muslims. If you do, you will be beaten and imprisoned. If you are caught trying to convert a Muslim to your faith, you will be executed.”
  • A man tells Mariam, “God has made us differently, you women and us men. Our brains are different. You are not able to think like we can.”

Rise of the Dragon Moon

Alone in a frozen world, Toli’s Queendom is at the mercy of the dragons who killed her father. She is certain it’s only a matter of time before they come back to destroy what’s left of her family. When the dragons rise and seize Toli’s mother, she will do anything to save her—even trust a young dragon who may be the key to the queen’s release.

With her sister and best friend at her side, Toli makes a treacherous journey across the vast ice barrens to Dragon Mountain, where long-held secrets await. Bear-cats are on their trail and dragons stalk them, but the greatest danger may prove to be a mystery buried in Toli’s past.

Readers will not want to start Rise of the Dragon Moon unless they have time to read the book in one sitting, because they will not be able to put the book down! Byrne builds a harsh, ice-covered world where dragons and humans are at odds. Right from the start, Toli’s conflict draws the reader into the story.

The story focuses on Toli, who is consumed with guilt about a secret she is keeping. Toli is a strong, determined character who doesn’t want to rely on others. While Toli is far from perfect, readers will admire her for her strength and willingness to put herself in danger to protect the people she loves. The story reinforces the idea that everyone makes mistakes, but “making them doesn’t mean we get to give up.”

Rise of the Dragon Moon is full of action and adventure and ends with an epic dragon battle. The well-developed characters are another positive aspect of the story. Readers will wish they had a friend like Wix, who was willing to fight bear-cats and dragons in order to help Toli. Although the dragons are not as well developed as the human characters, the main dragons all have unique personalities and ambitions which give the story added depth.

Throughout the story, one refrain is repeated several times—“The past was like the ice—it would never bend, but it would also never forget.” This phrase helps reinforce the idea that even though the past cannot be changed, the past does not need to define one’s future.

Besides being an incredible story, Rise of the Dragon Moon also shows the importance of trying to understand others—in this case, the dragons and humans must learn to communicate and work together to fight an unseen enemy. Even though the conclusion wraps up most of the story’s threads, Bryne leaves enough room for a possible sequel. Rise of the Dragon Moon will captivate readers with courageous characters who brave the danger of an icy wilderness in order to bring Toli’s mother home. Readers who love action, adventure, and dragons should also read Legends of the Sky by Liz Flanagan and Spark by Sarah Beth Durst.

 Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • The dragons attack a group of hunters. One dragon attacks Toli. “A single talon was half as tall as her . . . she saw the dragon’s tail coming, too fast, too huge. She took the impact in her gut and ribs, flying backward to smash into the cold, hard wall.” Only one hunter survives, but the deaths are not described.
  • A swarm of beetles attacks Toli, Petal, and Wix. When they attack, Toli “swing[s] her beater to knock a beetle out of the air. She swung again. Her arm gave a painful throb as the beater connected with another giant insect. Two down. . . From the corner of her eye, she could see Wix swinging his beater, knocking one after another to the ice.” Wix is injured.
  • A dragon named Krala gets angry at Toli. “Krala lashed the ice with her tail and lurched forward, snapping at Toli. . . Krala rattled and lunged, forcing them farther back.” Wix and Toli grab their bows and shoot. “Both arrows soared, straight and true, piercing Krala’s shoulder and chest, one behind the other. . . The dragon roared in pain, shaking ice under their feet.” Krala flies off.
  • Bear-cats attack Toli and her friends. “Wix fired. His arrow struck the new attacker’s shoulder. It let out a roar and put on a burst of speed. . . Petal cried out as Wix fired again, this time hitting the third one in the chest. It slowed, but the first one let out a roar and surged forward.
  • One of the bear-cats goes after Ruby. “Ruby veered away at the last moment, slashing with her talons as she passed. The bear-cat’s jaws snapped shut and came away with feathers. Its shoulder was bleeding. . .” The fight is described over three pages.
  • The dragons battle to see who will be their leader. Toli is in the middle of the battle. “The air was rife with growls and the sound of tearing flesh. . . Scorched feathers drifted down like ash, bringing with them the scent of burning.” Toli tries to find safety. “Toli rose from the ground and stumbled sideways. She caught herself on the charred ground, crying out as a long slice opened across her palm.”
  • Toli runs from the battle. “Blood stained the ground. The yellow dragon lurched forward, snapping its jaws as Toli switched directions. . .”
  • Spar, a human, tries to stab the Mother dragon. “The Mother took two running steps to meet her attacker. Barbed quills flew like arrows. One caught Spar in the shoulder and she fell to the ground, sending up a plume of fine gray dust.” Spar holds a blade against Toli’s neck. “The blade of her knife pressed tightly against Toli’s skin.” Toli is uninjured. The battle takes place over nine pages.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • In Toli’s world, the adults drink honeywine.

Language

  • The dragons call a human “bone bag” and “puny bite.”
  • “Thank the stars” is used as an exclamation once.
  • “Nya’s bless, child” and “Nya’s light” are both used as an exclamation once.
  • Hailfire is used as an exclamation several times.
  • Toli calls a dragon a coward.

Supernatural

  • Toli looks into a “silver liquid” and sees into the future.

Spiritual Content

  • When the dragons were awake, “everyone in Gall would take cover and pray to the Daughter Moon to keep them safe.”
  • Toli’s people tell a creation story, where Nya was lonely so she decided to make “the creatures of her dreams. . . with each passing cycle of Father Moon, Nya made new souls to join the people, hiding them from her father on an island of sand and stone under the black rock ledge.” Nya created people from “basalt, and sand, and shell” and made everyone look different.
  • When Toli’s mother is taken, Toli “prayed for Nya to show her where the dragon had taken her mother.”
  • When the dragon Ruby becomes ill, Toli “closed her eyes and sent a fervent prayer soaring out to the Daughter Moon to keep Ruby alive.”
  • When a dragon wants Toli to give her Ruby, Toli “prayed the folds of her cape would hide the dragon’s lithe form.”
  • When Toli is reunited with her mother, her mother says, “Thank Nya’s light, you’re all right!”

 

See You in the Cosmos

Alex is a brilliant eleven-year-old, fascinated by space and astronomy. He has been working on building a rocket to launch his “Golden iPod” into space. After working at a local gas station sorting magazines in Rockview, Colorado, he saves enough money to attend SHARF, a rocket festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

On the way to SHARF, Alex meets Zeb who is an author that frequently meditates and has taken a vow of silence. By using a chalkboard to communicate, Zeb becomes friends with Alex and accompanies him to the rocket festival. On the day of the rocket launches, Alex’s rocket does not end up in space but crashes into the ground. While crying in disappointment, Alex is comforted by a fellow attendee who encourages Alex by telling him how his team went through many failures before finally succeeding. Alex learns, “Right now is the most important moment – how they react to failure. They could either let it stop them or they could redouble their efforts, figure out what went wrong, and fix their mistakes so they can make the next try a success.”

From Colorado to New Mexico, Las Vegas to L.A., Alex records a journey on his iPod to show other lifeforms what life on earth, his earth, is like. But his destination keeps changing. And the funny, lost, remarkable people he meets along the way can only partially prepare him for the secrets he’ll uncover—from the truth about his long-dead dad to the fact that, for a kid with a troubled mom and a mostly absent brother, he has way more family than he ever knew.

See You in the Cosmos is a heartbreaking and touching story of a child following his dreams and his unconditional love for his family. The story is told as a transcript of the recordings Alex makes on his “Golden iPod,” which he is determined to launch into space someday so extraterrestrials will know what life on Earth is like. The reader is given an opportunity to look at the world through the eyes of an eleven-year-old, which provides a new perspective on life’s challenging issues.

The novel follows Alex as he learns to cope with difficult family situations as a young child with a limited view of the world. Upon returning from his adventure, his mother gets diagnosed with schizophrenia, and Child Protective Services gets involved to determine Alex’s future. The reader forms an emotional connection to Alex, feeling empathy for the experiences Alex is facing while providing the reader a deeper understanding of how children interpret life’s events.

See You in the Cosmos provides an innovative story that will pull at the hearts of readers of all ages. Younger readers may miss the deeper meanings behind Alex’s journey. However, since this book is told from the perspective of an eleven-year-old boy, this novel could serve as a new way for children to learn to cope with difficult situations in life or help children understand situations that others, such as classmates, might be going through. This book will teach readers how to be themselves, what it means to be brave, and how to follow your big dreams.

 Sexual Content

  • Alex records the story of how his parents met saying, “They went to the top of Mount Sam on the tramway and when they got up there they looked out over all of Rockview and up at the stars and that’s when they have their first kiss.”
  • Alex’s half-sister, Terra, tells him about a guy she is seeing. Alex asks her if she French-kissed him, and she responds, “Yes. We French-kissed.”
  • Terra and Zed’s roommate, Nathaniel, were alone in Nathaniel’s bedroom and Alex sneaks in with his iPod saying, “I thought maybe they were French-kissing and I thought you guys might want to know what that sounds like.”
  • Alex asks Terra what being in love means asking, “Is it wanting to French-kiss somebody?”

Violence

  • Steve has a crush on Terra, and when he sees Terra and Nathaniel alone together, he punches Nathaniel. Terra says, “Oh god, he’s bleed–.”
  • While climbing up a roof, Alex falls off the ladder and is impaled on a fence. Terra records on the iPod saying, “Just hearing his voice– I kept seeing him hanging over that fence.”
  • Ronnie tells Alex the truth about their father. “Deep down he was selfish and abusive.” Alex responds, “Did he hit Mom with a hockey stick like Benji’s dad hit his mom?”
  • Later in the conversation, Ronnie says, “Dad never hit Mom, at least that I know of. He never hit me either but he came really close once. . . He started yelling and undoing his belt and Mom was trying to shield me. . . Just ‘cause he never hit us doesn’t mean he wasn’t abusive in other ways.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Terra explains why she did not attend college. She says, “Why go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt when you’re competing against other people on an artificial standard or even worse, drinking and partying away four years of your life only to come out with a piece of paper that isn’t worth sh–.”
  • Terra, Zed, and Zed’s two roommates all drink beer and vodka. Alex says, “I don’t know how you guys can drink that stuff because I tried a sip of one of Benji’s dad’s beers once and it was so gross.”
  • Alex reflects on a party. Alex stayed in his room all night but he had to use the restroom, and he ran into a girl drinking from a red cup. He asked her what she was drinking and she responded, “Coke and vodka.”

Language

  • Alex occasionally says “bleep” where individuals would normally curse in a sentence. For example, when he is at SHARF and sees the Southwest High-Altitude Rock Festival Banner and registration desk, he says, “HOLY bleep!”
  • Terra and Alex discuss swear words, and Alex says, “One time in school, Justin Peterson who’s on the basketball team and his locker’s next to mine asked me, Do you even know any swear words? And I said, Of course, I do, DUH! and then I told him all the swear words and I said sometimes Benji and I even combine them into sentences like, Bleep the bleep bleep who bleeped on my bleep bleep bleeping bleeper.”
  • Alex speaks into his recording saying, “Venice Beach was so huge, guys. I could see it even as we were driving up, and I said, Son of a beach! B-E-A-C-H.”
  • Steve gets into an argument with Terra and yells, “You think I’m an idiot, don’t you? Well maybe I AM. Maybe it takes an IDIOT like me to tell Alex here how things work in the real world. An IDIOT who’s not just going to feed him a bunch of false hopes!”
  • After the argument, Terra tells Alex, “Steve’s a jerk.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Paige Smith

 

 

 

 

They Called Us Enemy

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans are forced into internment camps. While George knows there is a war against the Japanese, he does not understand why he and his family are being forced to leave their home. Unable to grasp the injustices that George, his family, and other Japanese Americans are being forced to endure, George describes his joyful, yet troubled boyhood in two of America’s ten internment camps.

As George and his family adjust to life in the internment camp, George cannot help but notice the anguish and anxiety his parents and families around them are experiencing. When will the war end? How long will Japanese Americans suffer under this legalized racism? Will George, his family, and the other 120,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps ever be able to return home?

As he grows older, George angrily questions how his parents and so many other Japanese Americans could have let this happen. George’s later successes as an actor, activist, and author force him to reflect not only on his time in the camps but also on his understanding of his parents and their situation.

This heartfelt story highlights the themes of family, sacrifice, and empathy. As readers learn George’s story and watch his growth physically and emotionally, they will view all stages of George’s life—from blissful childhood ignorance to teenage anger and thoughtful adulthood. In addition, George includes his thoughts on his incarceration. Through simple, captivating images and storytelling, readers are given the chance to grow alongside George as the story progresses.

They Called Us Enemy utilizes compelling visuals and accessible language to engage and educate readers on the difficult and often overlooked subject of Japanese internment. The animated illustrations and comic style make this difficult subject more palatable for young readers while still depicting the tough reality of the characters’ situations.

From the eyes of a young George Takei, readers are able to join George in his journey to understanding and coming to terms with his and his family’s imprisonment. The combination of George’s conversation and a short, accompanied narrative tells not only George’s autobiography but the evolution of Japanese sentiment during and following World War II. Overall, this 2020 American Award Winner lives up to the praise. With its engaging historical background and cultural depictions, They Called Us Enemy is a must-read for readers of all backgrounds.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • When residents become seemingly more radical, George notes the unrest that exists throughout his second camp, Tule Lake. This results in “hostile words quickly erupt[ing] into violence throughout Tule Lake.”
  • As George and his family prepare for Christmas, they hear on the radio that Pearl Harbor has been attacked by the Japanese which would “naturally mean that the President would ask Congress for a declaration of war.”
  • Thousands of volunteers from Hawaii and across internment camps form the 442nd regimental combat team of all American-born-Japanese Americans. George narrates that, “the 442nd suffered over eight hundred causalities.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • After leaving the internment camp, George and his family live on Skid Row in Los Angeles where they lived among “derelicts and drunkards.”

Language

  • Older boys teach George and his brother the phrase “sakana beach” in order to prank the young boys and upset the guards. The words do not hold a negative meaning in Japanese but are meant to imitate the phrase “son of a bitch.”
  • Before yelling “sakana beach,” an older boy warns George to “run like hell” in order to avoid being caught by the angry guards.
  • While being arrested by a guard, a man yells, “Damn Ketoh,” which George’s father later explains is an offensive term used against white people. Ketoh translates to “hairy breed.”
  • During a fight between the guards and the internment camp residents, a man yells, “Go to hell ketoh!”
  • The term “Jap” is used in a derogatory manner by non-Japanese individuals throughout the story.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Katie Ng Ross

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