Charlotte Spies For Justice: A Civil War Survival Story

Twelve-year-old Charlotte lives on a plantation in Richmond, Virginia, where the American Civil War is raging. All around her, citizens and the Confederate army are fighting to protect slavery — the very thing Charlotte wishes would end. When she overhears the plantation owner conspiring against the Confederates, Charlotte knows she must help. Maybe together they can help the Union win the war and end slavery. Helping a spy is dangerous work, but Charlotte is willing to risk everything to fight for what is right — justice for all people.  

Charlotte Spies For Freedom is full of action and suspense that focuses on the heroic deeds of many historical events. While Charlotte is fictional, she is a relatable character who shows bravery despite her fear. Several times, Charlotte visits Libby prison. Even though the story shows the harsh conditions of Libby prison and includes the death of several Union soldiers, no gruesome details are given. However, the story highlights Charlotte’s fear of being caught and harmed. Despite her fear, Charlotte is willing to risk her life to help the Union cause. She says, “I’m willing to give my life away if it helps free my people.”  

Even though Charlotte is a fictional character, many of the book’s characters are based on real people. This includes Elizabeth Van Lew, who gathered important information to pass along to the Union Army. Readers will be fascinated with the different ways Elizabeth Van Lew used to send messages, including using invisible ink and ciphers. She also hides messages in hollowed-out eggs, the heels of boots, and loaves of bread. Several times, Charlotte comments on Elizabeth Van Lew’s “odd” behavior; the author’s note explains that Elizabeth Van Lew’s strange behavior was another way she disguised her activities.  

Another historical spy is Mister McNiven. Despite being surrounded by war, Mister McNiven greets Charlotte each morning by saying, “It’s a good day to be alive.” At first, Charlotte doesn’t understand his optimism. However, she soon realizes Mister McNiven believes this because “he knew he was doing something important. He hoped for a better tomorrow and he was doing his part.” 

To make the story easy to follow, each chapter begins with Charlotte’s location and the date. Every ten to seventeen pages there is a black-and-white illustration that focuses on Charlotte’s activities. One illustration shows a Confederate soldier hitting Charlotte. The back of the book contains an author’s note that goes into more detail about the historical facts of Elizabeth Van Lew, a glossary, and three response questions to help readers connect to the reading material. 

Charlotte Spies For Freedom is an engaging story that shows how ordinary people were willing to lay down their lives to fight for the freedom of all people. The story, which uses kid-friendly descriptions, is both educational and entertaining. Since the story is full of danger and action, it will appeal to a wide audience. Readers interested in historical fiction can also learn about the Underground Railroad by reading Long Road to Freedom by Kate Messner. 

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • Charlotte goes to a prison holding Union prisoners. While there, she sees “a dead Union soldier. . . I caught a glimpse of his face. I could tell he had been beaten.” 
  • While delivering food to the prisoners, a Confederate soldier named Robert points a gun at Charlotte. Robert “walked toward me, put the barrel of his gun in my face, and cocked it.”  Another soldier, Erasmus Ross appears and grabs Charlotte’s face. “He squeezed even harder, and a sharp pain shot through my jaw.” Ross drags Charlotte outside. 
  • In order to protect Charlotte, Ross takes her outside and tells her, “I’m going to get you out of here, but I have to hit you.” He proceeds to backhand her. “It hurt, but not nearly as much as it should have. . . Mister Ross gave me a shove so hard it sent me to my knees.” As she was leaving, “a shot rang out behind me. I could only hope that Mister Ross had fired into the air.” 
  • After a prison break, Confederate soldiers “recaptured forty-eight Union soldiers. . . Two of them drowned.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Some people called Elizabeth Van Lew “Crazy Bet.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Stacey’s Extraordinary Words

Stacey is a little girl who loves words more than anything. She loves reading them, sounding them out, and finding comfort in them when things are hard.   

But when her teacher chooses her to compete in the local spelling bee, she isn’t as excited as she thought she’d be. What if she messes up? Or worse, if she can’t bring herself to speak up, like sometimes happens when facing bullies at school?  

Stacey will learn that win or lose . . . her words are powerful, and sometimes perseverance is the most important word of all.  

Stacey’s Extraordinary Words is a fabulous story that introduces readers to new words by showing a protagonist who loves words. Stacey “adored fun words, long words, unusual words. Words with histories and weird combinations.” When Stacey encounters a new word, the definition of the word is included. However, because of the many words that Stacey loves, young readers will need an adult’s help pronouncing difficult words such as ptarmigan, onomatopoeia, persnickety, and perseverance.  

Unlike most books, Stacey’s Extraordinary Words doesn’t end with Stacey winning the spelling bee. Instead, the mean boy wins, and he makes fun of Stacey for misspelling a word. Despite the boy’s mean behavior, Stacey “stayed onstage like a good sport as Jake got his trophy and she received her second-place ribbon. Everyone congratulated Jake and so did she.” Through Stacey’s experiences, the reader learns the importance of being a good sport and the importance of perseverance.  

While Stacey’s story doesn’t have a happily ever after ending, Stacey learns that “words shouldn’t be used to hurt people.” But the most important part of all is that Stacey learns “new ways to speak up and help others.” The author’s note at the back of the book explains how the story was based on the author’s life experiences.  

Stacey’s Extraordinary Words tells an engaging story which is enhanced by the colorful full-page illustrations. When Stacey reads, many of her thoughts appear in the background, allowing readers to understand Staceey’s thought process. Many of the words that Stacy loves appear in large text and use fun fonts. Plus, when Stacey is at school, her classmates are a diverse group of students. In addition, her mother appears in several pages and is always encouraging and loving. Even though the story is a picture book, the pages are text heavy and the pages have as many as seven complex sentences.   

The educational and entertainment value of Stacey’s Extraordinary Words makes it a must-read book. Not only will readers learn important life lessons, but they will also enjoy the story and illustrations. The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds is another must-read picture book that features a protagonist who loves words.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Way You Make Me Feel

Sixteen-year-old Clara Shin doesn’t take life too seriously, but when she pushes one joke too far, her dad sentences her to a summer working on his food truck the KoBra. Clara was supposed to go on vacation to Tulum to visit her social media influencer mom; she was supposed to spend lazy days at the pool with her buddies. Instead, she is stuck in a sweaty Korean-Brazilian food truck all day, every day? Worse still, she is working alongside her nemesis, Rose Carver. It’s definitely not the carefree summer Clara had imagined.  

But as time goes on, it turns out that maybe Rose isn’t so bad. And maybe the boy named Hamlet (yes, Hamlet) who’s crushing on Clara is pretty cute. And perhaps Clara actually feels invested in her dad’s business. What if taking this summer seriously means Clara has to leave her old self behind?  

Clara doesn’t mind being the center of attention if she’s carrying out a prank or causing mischief. Because of her bad attitude, Clara is a surprisingly unlikable protagonist who always focuses on herself. Even though Clara befriends Rose and Hamlet, the reader is left wondering why two nice, over-achieving teens would spend time with Clara. When forced to work at her father’s food truck, Clara matures slightly. Unfortunately, Clara’s personal growth doesn’t make up for her poor attitude and her transformation at the end of the book is not believable. 

While there is a host of other characters in the book, none of them are well-developed. Clara’s nemesis, Rose, seems like a well-adjusted teenager, yet she has no friends. Rose’s lack of friends is not believable because it is never explained why she has no friends. Plus, after years of hating each other, the girls quickly become besties, which is a little unrealistic. In addition, Clara’s father ignores his daughter’s outrageous behavior and temper tantrums. Even when Clara travels out of the country to visit her mother without telling him, her father’s reaction is mild. Because Clara is the only character who is well-developed, readers are left confused—why do Rose and Clara’s father act as they do? 

The Way You Make Me Feel has a unique premise that revolves around a food truck; however, most of the conflict comes from Clara and Rose bickering, which becomes tedious. Several times throughout the story, Rose’s old friends appear—however, they are equally unlikable and add little to the story. The lack of character development and the absence of genuine conflict make The Way You Make Me Feel a book that will be quickly forgotten. While The Way You Make Me Feel is a disappointing read, Maureen Goo’s other books—Somewhere Only We Know and I Believe in A Thing Called Love—are excellent books that will make your heart swoon. However, If you’re hungry for a food-related romance, both A Pho Love Story by Loan Le and Love & Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch are sure to please. 

Sexual Content 

  • While at a school dance, Clara and her friends “passed the time by taking Snapchats of people making out or groping one another on the dance floor.” 
  • One of Clara’s neighbors saw Clara “making out with my boyfriend” and doused them with a hose. 
  • Clara tells a friend that she and her boyfriend “made out so many times.” 
  • After Hamlet and Clara go on a date, Clara kisses him. Clara “took a step forward, and tugged him by his shirt until our hips bumped. . . I got up on my tippy-toes to reach his lips, and brushed them over his. . . He drew me in closer until our bodies were pressed against each other, one of my hands still clutching his shirt, the other wrapped around his neck, curling into his hair.” 
  • Hamlet’s mom “bought an American customer-service telemarking company in Beijing but didn’t realize until weeks into it that it was for sex toys.” 
  • After coming back from a trip, Hamlet picks Clara up from the airport. “Then he leaned over and kissed me. Kissing Hamlet felt like coming home, for real. I stood up on my toes to deepen the kiss. . .” They kiss several other times, but it is not described. 

Violence 

  • While at prom, Clara and her friends pull a prank. After being voted the prom queen, one of Clara’s friends dumps a bucket of fake blood on her. Rose, who helped plan the prom, got angry and grabbed onto Clara’s wrist. “Rose growled as she let go of one of my wrists to take another swipe at my crown. . . There were a few people onstage now, dragging us apart.” The two girls slip on the fake blood and knock over a lantern that causes a fire. 

 Drugs and Alcohol 

  • In ninth grade, Clara smoked a cigarette in the school bathroom. It was her first time trying a cigarette, but she got caught and was suspended. 
  • Clara and her friends go to a party and drink beer. 
  • Clara and her mom go to a party. While at the party, Clara “continued to drink—people kept offering me shots and various frosty cupped drinks with fruit in them.” Clara gets drunk and has a hangover the next morning. 
  • The morning after the party, one of Clara’s mom’s friends was drinking a Bloody Mary. 

Language   

  • Clara calls people names including jerk, nutjob, dick, butt-kisser, incompetent clown, and total fascist. 
  • Clara’s dad tells her that she is acting like a “little butthole.” 
  • Oh my God, God, and Jesus are all occasionally used as exclamations.  
  • Profanity is used sometimes. Profanity includes ass, damn, crap, freaking, piss, and WTF.  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • When Clara’s friend Patrick gets injured, he texts her saying his parents “think Jesus was punishing them for letting me date you.” 

From The Desk of Zoe Washington

Zoe Washington is a normal 12-year-old who is refusing to speak with her long-time best friend, Trevor. Her spiraling friendship with Trevor seems to be the most of her worries . . . until she checks the mail and sees a strange letter from the county prison. Could this be what she thinks it is? Is her long-lost father finally reaching out after all these years? 

All Zoe knows about her birth father, Marcus, is that he is in prison after being convicted of murder. Zoe’s mother refuses to speak about Marcus and brushes off all of Zoe’s questions. After all, Zoe has a wonderful stepfather that has taken care of her since she was born, so what need is there for Marcus? But there is a need. Zoe wonders about Marcus. Does he like Hawaiian pizza too? Why did he refer to her as “Little Tomato?” Why is he telling her he is innocent? Innocent people didn’t go to prison . . . or did they? 

For Zoe, Marcus’s letter brings up so many unanswered questions. Questions about who he is and what he did to end up in prison. But more than anything she can’t stop thinking, what if he is innocent? With each new letter and phone call, Zoe begins to piece together the clues of the crime that Marcus supposedly committed. The only problem is that nothing is adding up. Suddenly the answer seems so clear to Zoe; she needs to track down a mysterious witness to help prove Marcus’s alibi.   

But tracking down the witness is harder than Zoe anticipated . . . especially when she must keep it a secret. So, Zoe enlists the help of none other than her ex-best friend, Trevor, to travel to Harvard University to find the witness. However, the day trip turns out worse than anticipated and Zoe ends up in big trouble. Worst of all, now that she is grounded, Marcus has no one searching for the woman who may be the answer to his freedom. 

From the Desk of Zoe Washington is an inspiring story that showcases Zoe’s bravery. The plot emphasizes that even when life seems uncomplicated, it usually is anything but. The overlap between Zoe’s summer activities and her mission to prove her father’s innocence provides a delicious complexity to the storyline. The story takes a deep dive into Marcus’s conviction and the racial inequality of the justice system. The plot successfully educates the reader on wrongful convictions and racism, while maintaining a lighthearted nature that cuts the heavy feelings that can arise from such deeply serious topics. Even though the book delves into mature topics, it is not overwhelming. Instead, readers will find the story easy to understand.   

Zoe is a likable and well-written character who matures throughout the novel. Her character development reinforces that it is not the amount of time you spend with someone that matters, but instead how you spend it with them. Zoe reminisces on this towards the end of the novel when she visits Marcus in prison. “I had no idea what would happen next, but I hoped with all of my heart that The Innocence Project would set Marcus free. In the meantime, I was so thankful I found his letter on my twelfth birthday, and that he was in my life now, where he belonged.”  

Readers will sympathize with Zoe and understand her confusion when it comes to topics such as The Innocence Project and wrongful convictions – concepts that are hard to understand in the mind of a 12-year-old. Serious topics such as racism and wrongful convictions are discussed throughout the novel, but nothing of a graphic nature is present.  

While the story is intended for a younger audience, it still evokes a sense of realness within the plot and the characters. The roller coaster of emotions that Zoe goes through during her journey is easy for the reader to understand and admire. There are so many moments where the reader’s heart will reach out for Zoe. From The Desk of Zoe Washington focuses on themes such as having an unconventional family, social justice, and prison reform. The seamless, yet informative inclusion of social justice issues complements the kid-friendly nature of the novel, making it a must-read for those wanting to be gradually introduced to these topics. Middle-grade readers who want to explore other books about racial injustice should read A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramé and I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Zoe discusses the Black Lives Matter movement. “I knew about the Black Lives Matter movement, how Black people all over the country were getting shot by police for no good reason. If those police officers weren’t going to jail, then it made sense that the whole prison system was messed up. I never thought about whether prisons had the wrong people before. I assumed that if you committed a crime, you got the punishment you deserved, and innocent people would always be proven innocent. Apparently not.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Zoe’s grandmother recalls a fight that Marcus got into when he was younger with another basketball player. “Marcus said that the other player, who was white, called him the N-word while they were playing. Under his breath, when nobody else could hear him.”  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Dog Days

It’s tough being the new kid at Carver Elementary. Gavin had lots of friends at his old school, but the kids here don’t even know that he’s pretty good at skateboarding, or how awesome he is at soccer. And when his classmate, Richard, comes over and the boys end up in trouble, not only does Gavin risk losing his one new friend, but he has to take care of his great aunt Myrtle’s horrible little dog, Carlotta, as punishment.

To make matters worse, Gavin seems to have attracted the attention of the school bully. Will he be able to avoid getting pounded at the skate park? And how is he ever going to prove he’s cool with a yappy little Pomeranian wearing a pink bow at his side?

Gavin’s problem starts when he goes into his sister’s room to steal candy. While looking for the candy, Gavin’s friend, Richard, throws a snow globe that breaks. In order to earn enough money to pay for the snow globe, Gavin walks his aunt’s dog. However, Gavin never takes responsibility for his deeds. Instead, Gavin thinks “it isn’t his fault that Danielle’s snow globe got broken. Sure, he shouldn’t have been in her room—but then, she shouldn’t be keeping candy in her room to tempt him.”

Gavin’s problems continue when he walks Carlotta. Not only is he mean to the dog, but he also ties Carlotta to a park bench and leaves Carlotta alone so he can skate. When Gavin returns, he discovers that another dog has stolen Carlotta’s Chew-Chew. When Gavin sees the toy with another dog, Gavin asks the dog’s owner to return it, which the owner refuses to do. Gavin thinks, “It’s not fair. The guy is bigger than me. He’s older. And that means one thing. The older, larger person can tell a giant fib and the smaller person can’t do anything about it.” However, instead of being honest with his aunt, Gavin buys a new Chew-Chew for the dog. When he lies, “He’s proud that he’s managed not to tell a big lie.”

Dog Days will appeal to a wide range of readers, but parents may not like the story’s content. Even though Gavin is the narrator of the story, parents would not want their children to emulate Gavin’s behavior. He treats Carlotta terribly, he lies, and he blames his actions on others. To make matters worse, Gavin’s friend Richard is mean to Gavin and often ditches him to spend time with older boys. However, it’s not just the children in the book who behave badly. Gavin’s parents allow Aunt Myrtle to boss Gavin around, and in order to avoid Aunt Myrtle’s bad attitude, Gavin’s mom disappears which allows Aunt Myrtle to rule over Gavin.

Misbehaving and bratty kids give Dog Days some humor and suspense, but it also showcases bad behaviors. By reading the story, young readers will learn that telling small lies is okay. Because of the story’s lack of positive relationships, both with the adults and children, Dog Days lacks any educational value. If you’re looking for a fun dog-related book, there are plenty of other options including the Puppy Pirate Series by Erin Soderberg, the King & Kayla Series by Dori Hillestad Butler, and the Haggis and Tank Series by Jessica Young.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • After Gavin sees Harper stealing from a convenience store, Gavin tells his friend Richard. Richard then tells Harper what Gavin said. The next day at the skate park, “Harper gives Gavin’s shoulder a poke. A hard poke. He glares down at him.” After poking Gavin several times, an adult steps in and stops Harper’s behavior.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Gavin’s sister calls him a bozo several times. She also calls him a dork.
  • As part of the narration, Gavin refers to his classmates as knuckleheads.
  • Gavin also thinks one of the girls in his class is stuck-up and snooty.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Becoming Muhammad Ali

Before he became the legend, Muhammad Ali, young Cassius Clay learned history and card tricks from his grandfather, hid report cards from his parents, and biked around Louisville with his pals. But when his bike is stolen, Cassius decides there’s something else he wants: to be able to fend off bullies by becoming a boxer.

Cassius has a best friend, Lucky, who sticks by him whether his fists are raised in victory or his back is against the ropes. Before long, Lucky is cheering Cassius on in his first amateur fight. With the support of all his friends and family, will Cassius make it to the top?

Becoming Muhammad Ali focuses on Cassius’ younger years and highlights the importance of his family and his community. Cassius’ story is told from both his point of view and his best friend’s point of view. When Cassius is telling his own story, the words appear in poetry format. This narrows the story and allows Cassius’ swagger to shine. When the story shifts to Lucky’s point of view, the text appears in paragraph structure that uses a conversational tone. Lucky’s perspective allows the reader to see Cassius’ intense training schedule and shines a light on Cassius’ fear. The joint perspectives give a well-rounded picture of Cassius’ bold personality and personal struggles.

Because the story begins in the late 1950s, Cassius’ story isn’t just about boxing. The biographical novel delves into the racism prevalent during this time period. Each example of racism is described in a kid-friendly manner that allows the reader to picture the events. The descriptions all focus on events that affected Cassius. He explains the events in a way that shows the unfairness of the situation without sounding bitter or preachy. However, some readers will not understand the correlation between racism and Cassius’ desire to change his name to Muhammad Ali and “use his time to focus on black pride and racial justice.”

Becoming Muhammad Ali is an entertaining and engaging biographical novel that will inspire readers to fight for their dreams. Through Cassius’ actions, readers will see the hard work and dedication that allowed Cassius to become one of the best boxers in history. However, Cassius’ story isn’t just a boxing story, it’s a story about family and friends. Cassius’ story doesn’t gloss over some of the unfairness in life. Instead, Cassius shows how he overcame obstacles and, in the end, realized that there are some things that are more important than boxing.

When a reporter asked what Cassius wanted to be remembered for, he said, “I’d like for them to say, he took a few cups of love, he took one tablespoon of patience, one teaspoon of generosity, one pint of kindness. He took one quart of laughter, one pinch of concern, and then he mixed willingness with happiness, he added lots of faith, and he stirred it up well. Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime, and he served it to each and every deserving person he met.”

Cassius’ story comes to life in easy-to-read prose and includes full page, black and white illustrations that are scattered throughout. Becoming Muhammad Ali is a must-read because it highlights how hard work and dedication allowed Cassius to achieve his dreams. Readers who want to read another inspirational sports book should check out The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, which has also been made into a graphic novel.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Since Cassius watched boxing matches and later fought in them, there are some descriptions of the matches. For example, Cassius describes a fight when Frank Turley “broke a guy’s nose with a left jab, then smiled when the joker went tumbling outta the ring, blood spurting everywhichaway.”
  • Cassius and his friends were walking along the street when a “car filled with men. White men” drove by. One of the men “flashed a knife—a switch blade. [Lucky] saw the guy with the knife say something to the driver. The car engine stopped. Then all four car doors opened at once.” Cassius and his friends ran away from the men and were safe.
  • Cassius tells a story about “how Tom the Slave escaped freedom by hiding in a casket on a ship of dead bodies on its way to London, England, and how when he got there he became a famous bare-knuckle boxer. . . the Brits rushed the ring in the ninth round, clobbered Tom, and broke six of his fingers.”
  • A kid from the neighborhood, Corky, bullied Cassius and his friends. Corky “stepped on my sneaks, and bumped Lucky with just enough force to make him lose his balance, and knocked Rudy backwards like a domino into a couple. . .” then Corky wandered off.
  • During a match, Cassius landed “a series of short pops to his head, one right below his left ear that makes him stumble into the ropes. . .” Cassius wins the match.
  • Cassius’ father showed him “a gruesome magazine photograph of a twelve-year-old faceless boy who was visiting family. . . when he was shot in the head, drowned in the river, and killed for maybe whistling at a white woman.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Darn is used once.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Cassius’ mom didn’t like him betting “on account of God not liking ugly, and all gambling is ugly.”
  • When Cassius says that the Bible didn’t get him and his brother into the whites’ park, his mother says, “Boy, don’t you dare blaspheme the Good book.”
  • During one match, Cassius “recited the Lord’s prayer.”
  • Cassius’ mother prays, “we gather together to send this boy out into the world, and ask that you hold his dreams tight, let them rocket to the stars and beyond.”
  • Cassius “joined the Nation of Islam—a movement that was founded to give black people a new sense of pride. A week later, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali.”

 

Ty’s Travels: Lab Magic

Corey and Ty take an exciting trip to the museum, where they get to be scientists. First, they study bugs. Then, they study the wind. Ty is disappointed when he discovers that he is too little to do science experiments at the museum. But Ty doesn’t let that spoil his day.

Once Corey and Ty get home, Momma helps them set up a science experiment that is perfect for younger kids. Before they begin, Corey and Ty make sure they are safe by putting on a lab coat (Dad’s shirt), goggles, and gloves. With their parents’ help, Corey and Ty learn that they like being scientists.

Lab Magic is part of the My First I Can Read Series, which uses basic language, word repetition, and illustrations that are ideal for emergent readers. Each page has one to four simple sentences with large, brightly colored illustrations. The illustrations will introduce different types of science such as using test tubes or learning about butterflies. Plus, the pictures will help young readers understand the plot.

Young readers who are learning how to read will enjoy Lab Magic. The short sentences and large illustrations make the story accessible to emergent readers. Like the other books in Ty’s Travels Series, Lab Magic shows Ty’s two-parent family in a positive light. Readers will enjoy learning about Ty’s adventure and all of the different ways science can be studied. For more science fun, check out Cece Loves Science by Kimberly Derting & Shelli R. Johannes.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

A Wish in the Dark

All light in Chattana is created by one man — the Governor, who appeared after the Great Fire to bring peace and order to the city. For Pong, who was born in Namwon Prison, the magical lights represent freedom, and he dreams of the day he will be able to walk among them. But when Pong escapes from prison, he realizes that the world outside is no fairer than the one behind bars. The wealthy dine and dance under bright orb light, while the poor toil away in darkness. Worst of all, Pong’s prison tattoo marks him as a fugitive who can never be truly free.

Nok, the prison warden’s perfect daughter, is bent on tracking Pong down and restoring her family’s good name. But as Nok hunts Pong through the alleys and canals of Chattana, she uncovers secrets that make her question the truths she has always held dear. Set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world, Christina Soontornvat’s twist on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is a dazzling, fast-paced adventure that explores the difference between law and justice — and asks whether one child can shine a light in the dark.

Beautiful imagery and compelling characters bring the world of Chattana into clear focus. While the story focuses on Pong, the supporting characters add interest and depth. Pong, who was born and raised in prison, believes that his only chance of living a happy life is to flee Chattana. With the help of Father Cham, Pong realizes that he cannot run from his problems. Father Cham explains, “You can’t run away from darkness. It’s everywhere. The only way to see through it is to shine a light.” Because of Father Cham’s wise words, Pong has the strength to stand up for justice and change his world for the better.

A Wish in the Dark shines a light on social issues such as protest, privilege, and justice. However, the book does not preach a particular doctrine. Instead, Pong’s experiences lead him to understand that one mistake or misfortune does not define a person. For example, Pong sees firsthand how people who have been in prison face discrimination. Once they are released, they find it difficult to find jobs and provide for their families. Because Father Cham lives a life dedicated to helping the poor, Pong learns compassion for those who are poor and downtrodden. Father Cham teaches that “desperate people deserve our compassion, not our judgment.”

As a Newbery Honor Book, A Wish in the Dark will leave readers thinking about many of society’s problems. While the story shows the glaring disparities between the wealthy and the poor, it does not give unrealistic solutions. Instead, readers see how “wealth can be as much a curse as a blessing and no guarantee of happiness.” The conclusion doesn’t end with a perfect happy-ever-after, but instead shows that there is hope for the people of Chattana. The story also leaves readers with this question: “Which is better: being safe or having freedom?”

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • While in prison, two girls beat up Somkit because he won’t give them a mango. Later, “Somkit touched his bruised cheek and winced.”
  • When the mean girls throw Somkit’s food on the ground, Pong “stomped on her bare foot.”
  • Nok, Somkit, and Pong are held captive in a stable. When the guards catch them trying to escape, Nok, “brought the end of it [her staff] down hard on the stable floor. . . The ground shook like an earthquake. . . All four guards lay on their backs on the floor, twitching like fish in the bottom of a boat.” All three run.
  • When a group of over 1,000 peacefully march over a bridge, the Governor orders his men to arrest everyone. “In the Governor’s right palm, a huge ball of light began to swirl, as blindingly bright as the center of a star. It swelled, bigger and bigger. People in the crowd cried out. . .The Governor reared his arm back, as if getting ready to hurl the enormous mass of light forward . . . Pong knew what to do . . . Pong seized the Governor’s wrist and held on. . . As soon as he grabbed the Governor’s wrist, the raw light swirling in the Governor’s right hand went out.”
  • Angry, the Governor “growled like a beast and raised his other fist to strike Pong. As he brought it down, a streak of jet black shot out from the crowd. Nok flew to Pong’s side and crossed her forearms in front of her, blocking the Governor’s fist.” The Governor flees. The protest and the supernatural events (see below) are described over 14 pages.
  • The Governor grabs Pong. “Two hands gripped his shoulders. The last thing Pong saw was the rage in the Governor’s eyes as he yanked Pong toward him, and then hurled him over the side of the bridge.” Someone jumps in after Pong and saves him.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • A girl calls her brother a dummy.
  • Somkit tells Pong, “Don’t be a jerk.”
  • A man calls a group of kids “lazy brats.”
  • Crap is used three times. For example, Somkit calls a boat “a piece of crap.”
  • Heck is used five times.

Supernatural

  • Chattana used to have vendors who “sold all manner of magical treats: pears that made you fall in love, cakes frosted with good luck, even a rare fruit shaped like a sleeping baby that would let you live for one thousand and three years if you ate a single bite.”
  • The governor is the only one who can create light that powers the city.
  • Pong is thrown into the river and is drowning when he has a vision. Then, “The white wispy shape formed the body of a man. . . It was Father Cham. . .Pong turned to follow Father Cham’s gaze and saw a pulsing orange glow hovering on the northern horizon. He knew he was seeing another vision from the past: The Great Fire.” In the vision, Father Cham imparts wisdom to Pong. The vision is described over seven pages.
  • During the protest, Pong grabs the Governor’s wrist and “the Gold light flowed into his palm, down his left wrist and into his arm . . . A liquid Gold light flowed, trapped beneath Pong’s skin . . . The lines of light streamed out of his prison mark.”
  • Trying to help his friend, Somkit grabs Pong. “Light flowed from Pong into Somkit’s hand. The same streams of Gold light poured form Somkit’s crossed-out tattoo.”
  • Somkit, Nok, and Pong were “glowing like human lanterns on the dark bridge.” The people come forward and hold hands. “Each person felt the surge of light flow through them and burst out into the darkness.” By the next morning, everyone’s light had disappeared.

Spiritual Content

  • Father Cham, a monk, puts bracelets around Pong’s wrist. As he does, he gives blessings such as, “May you never get food poisoning from a raw chicken” and, “May wasps never sting the palms of your hands or the bottoms of your feet.”
  • Father Cham blesses a baby and says, “may you walk in peace wherever you are in the world.”
  • When Father Cham dies, a monk tells Pong, “You know that Father Cham is merely leaving this life behind and going on to the next.”
  • After Pong leaves Somkit, “not a day had passed at the temple that Pong hadn’t prayed for his friend and wished he could know what he was doing.”

Just Ask: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You

Sonia and her friends are planting a garden, and each one contributes in his or her own way. Rafael has asthma and sometimes must stay calm so he can breathe, which gives him time to paint beautiful rocks for the garden. Anthony uses a wheelchair to get around and can move super-fast, directing the group. Anh has a stutter and prefers to listen, so she knows just how to plant each flower. All the friends are different, but they all have one thing in common: they like to ask questions and learn about one another!

This inclusive story is told by US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and inspired by her own diagnosis of diabetes. Readers will see differently abled kids use their strengths to work together and learn about each other. The book shows that differences are wonderful and that all you have to do when you don’t understand something is ask.

Each page of the picture book focuses on nature and the children who are working in the garden. The illustrations are brightly colored and show some imaginative elements as well. For example, Jordan loves dinosaurs, and in his illustration, he is walking over a rainbow and is surrounded by dinosaur shaped plants. Readers will enjoy finding all the animals that appear throughout the book such as a squirrel, a grasshopper, and birds.

The book uses a similar format on all the pages. Each two-page spread has a paragraph about a different person who has a disability. Each page also has a question for readers to consider. For example, “I also love reading and writing. What about you?” Even though each page only has 2 to 5 sentences, parents will need to read the book to their child rather than having the child read it independently. The complex sentence structure and advanced vocabulary will be difficult for beginning readers.

Just Ask uses an extended metaphor that compares people to a garden. For example, Sonia must take insulin because “my body doesn’t make insulin naturally like other people’s.” The full-page illustration that accompanies the words shows Sonia sitting in a flower, giving herself a shot of insulin. Just Ask introduces readers to a wide range of differences such as autism, stuttering, and needing to use a wheelchair. Plus, the children who appear in the story are diverse and have many different skin tones.

Parents and educators who want to educate readers about people with different abilities should put Just Ask on their must-read list. Unlike most picture books, Just Ask isn’t necessarily entertaining, but it teaches important lessons about being inclusive and shows how everyone can contribute in different ways. While young readers may not understand the connection between people and different types of plants, Just Ask is the perfect book to use as a discussion starter. While the story encourages readers to ask about people’s differences, it does not explain how to ask in a polite and kind manner.

The beautiful and creative illustrations, the diverse characters, and the positive message make Just Ask an excellent book to read to young children. The picture book gives information about different disabilities as well as food allergies and encourages readers to be inclusive.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Hello Goodbye Dog

For Zara’s dog, Moose, nothing is more important than being with his favorite girl. So, when Zara has to go to school, WHOOSH, Moose escapes and rushes to her side. Hello, Moose!

Unfortunately, dogs aren’t allowed at school and Moose must go back home. Goodbye, Moose.

But Moose can’t be held back for long. Through a series of escalating escapes, this loyal dog finds his way back to Zara, and with a little bit of training and one great idea, the two friends find a way to be together all day long.

Hello Goodbye Dog is a super-cute picture book full of fun illustrations that show Moose repeatedly escaping his house and running to Zara’s classroom. The brightly colored illustrations are often humorous. The characters’ faces are expressive and show a wide range of emotions. Another positive aspect of the illustrations is that the children and staff are a diverse group, including Zara, who uses a wheelchair. Each page has two to four short sentences that use easy-to-understand language.

Young readers will laugh at Moose’s antics as he continually runs to Zara’s school because he enjoys being with Zara and the other children. The conclusion shows a unique solution to the problem when Moose attends therapy dog school. Once Moose graduates from therapy dog school, he is welcomed to Zara’s classroom by everyone, including the adults who once chased him out.

Dog-loving readers will love Hello Goodbye Dog and will want to read it again and again. If you’re looking for another fun dog-related book add Shampoodle by Joan Holub and Marley Firehouse Dog by John Grogan to your reading list.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

A Time to Dance

Veda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance—so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling. But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.

First and foremost, Veda is a likable teenager who deals with many types of normal teenage problems including conflicts with her parents and friends, crushes, insecurities, as well as the loss of her leg. Readers will connect with Veda because she is an imperfect teen who feels an array of emotions. Throughout her journey, Veda refuses to give up. Despite the loss of her leg, she is determined to continue Bharatanatyam dance. For Veda, dance is “a sacred art, an offering of devotion to God.” When Veda wrestles with the way her disability affects her dancing, her grandmother tells her, “There are as many perfect poses as there are people. . . Shiva sees perfection in every sincere effort. He loves us despite—or maybe because of—our differences.”

When Veda is learning how to use her prosthetic limb, the story skips past the difficulties of learning how to use the prosthetic as well the other physical ailments. Instead of explaining the difficulties, Veda’s time with the doctor is spent describing her infatuation with him. To learn more about how amputation can affect an athlete, The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen is an engaging story that can give you more insight.

A Time to Dance is written in beautiful verse that magnifies emotions and conflicts but is never confusing. The inspirational story shows Veda’s courage, perseverance, and the importance of personal growth. A Time to Dance is an entertaining story that contains positive life lessons and teaches readers about Veda’s traditions, culture, and religion.

Sexual Content

  • Veda’s grandmother tells her about the history of dancers. Brahmin dancers “weren’t allowed to marry. And somehow, somewhere along the way, / society retracted / its promise to respect these women. / They were treated as prostitutes / and their sacred art degraded / into entertainment to please vile men.”
  • Govinda helps Veda overcome her leg’s phantom pain. “His fingers feel good/stroking my invisible skin./So good I want him stroking my real skin. / Want to reach out and stroke his. / My desire scares me, and I reach for the safety of my teacup.”

Violence

  • Veda is on a bus when it crashes. “Pain / sears through me / as though elephants are spearing my skin with sharp tusks and trampling over my right leg. . .” Her dance teacher covers her eyes, but “through his fingers I see / shredded skin, misshapen muscles. / Mine. Feel sticky blood pooling / below my right knee.” Veda’s leg is amputated below the knee. The bus driver “hit a tree. He died.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Veda’s Hindu religious belief is an integral part of every aspect of her life. Below are some specific examples; however, it is not a complete list of everything in the book.
  • When Veda was a child, she climbed up a ladder to touch Shiva’s feet. The priest tells her, “You don’t have to climb ladders to reach God. He dances within all He creates. . . God is everywhere. In everybody. In everything. He is born at different times, in different places, with different names.”
  • Veda believes in reincarnation, which is mentioned often. For example, Veda’s grandmother says Veda was always able to “shape thoughts” with her fingers. “It was as if you remembered the sign language of Bharatanatyam from a previous life you’d lived as a dancer before being reincarnated as my granddaughter.”
  • When Veda dances, she loves “portraying Shiva, who, through the steps of His eternal dance, creates and destroys universes.”
  • After Veda’s accident, her grandmother says, “God’s grace moves the mute to eloquence and inspires the lame to climb mountains.”
  • After the accident Veda doesn’t “feel God is anywhere nearby let alone inside of me.”
  • Veda wonders if losing her leg is a punishment from God or for “bad Karma we built up in a past life.” Her grandmother says, “I don’t believe in a punishing God. I believe in a compassionate God. To me, Karma isn’t about divine reward or retribution. Karma is about making wise choices to create a better future.”
  • Veda’s grandmother tells her a story about God. “The sight of you—poverty-stricken, overcome by age and illness—turned Buddha from a mere man into a reincarnation of God.”
  • When Veda’s grandmother is dying, Veda gives her “a drink of this water from the holiest of rivers. She believes it will help wash away her sins.” After she dies someone says, “I’m sure her soul doesn’t need to be reborn in the world. She’ll now be reunited with God.”

Mia Mayhem Gets X-Ray Specs

Mia Mayhem is learning to control her x-ray vision! She can’t wait to see through walls and crack secret codes. There’s only one problem: her glasses are way too big, clunky, and totally not cool! But she knows that if she wants to keep up with her classmates, she’ll have to adjust quickly. Will Mia be able to look past her obstacles and see things through?

A large part of the storyline follows Mia and her classmates as they try their supervision. Mia doesn’t want to admit that she doesn’t have x-ray vision. Instead of being truthful, she lies and says she sees “an elephant with a hot dog.” In the end, Mia learns that she “should have never guessed during the eye exam and pretended to know something when [she] didn’t.”

Mia Mayhem Gets X-Ray Specs has a diverse cast of characters which includes a girl who wears prosthetics. In addition, Ben and his seeing-eye dog, Seeker, make an appearance, which gives an added dose of interest. Readers will note how Seeker assists Ben. The story also shows how Ben’s blindness helps him hone his other senses, which in turn helps him with this supervision.

Young readers will enjoy the book’s format which has oversized text and black and white illustrations on every page. The large illustrations are often humorous, and they also help readers follow the story’s plot. Mia Mayhem Gets X-Ray Specs has an easy-to-understand plot that is perfect for emerging readers. However, some readers will need help with some of the advanced languages, with words such as connection, recognize, squinting, and officially.

Readers who are ready for chapter books will enjoy the silly storyline in Mia Mayhem Gets X-Ray Specs. Mia’s enthusiasm and friendliness make her a fun and likable protagonist. Even though Mia Mayhem Gets X-Ray Specs is part of a series, the books do not need to be read in order. While the story doesn’t have any life lessons, the Mia Mayhem Series will make emerging readers excited to see what type of mischief Mia gets into next, and with 12+ books in the series, readers will have plenty of adventure to look forward to.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • A boy yells at Mia, “Nice job using your loser vision.”

Supernatural

  • Mia finds out that “super-sight usually kicks in at age eight. . . You’ll soon be able to do awesome things like x-ray through walls and see in absolute darkness.” Later, she stares at a wall and then “a blast of heat lasers came out of my eyes! In just one shot, I burned through five walls. . .”
  • Because Ben is blind, he uses his other super senses such as being able to feel vibrations that lead him to his seeing-eye dog. Ben says, “I may not have regular vision like you, but I’m sensitive to echoes.”

Spiritual Content

  • None

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

 

Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Survival Story

Twelve-year-old Mary and her Cherokee family are forced out of their home in Georgia by U.S. soldiers in May of 1838. From the beginning of the forced move, Mary and her family are separated from her father. Facing horrors such as internment, violence, disease, and harsh weather, Mary perseveres and helps keep her family and friends together until they can reach the new Cherokee nation in Indian Territory. Will Mary and her family survive the terrible move forced upon them?

Mary and the Trail of Tears is told from Mary’s point of view, which allows the story to be told with kid-friendly descriptions. While the descriptions are not graphic, some readers will be upset by the brutality that the Cherokees faced. For example, Mary’s grandfather is killed by a man who says, he “wouldn’t be happy until every Cherokee in Georgia was dead.” The Cherokees faced the constant threat of being shot or dying from disease. However, the story ends on a positive note when Mary and most of her family are reunited in Oklahoma.

The story highlights the difference between the Cherokees and the soldiers. The Cherokees loved nature and respected all people. In contrast, the soldiers were motivated by greed and hate. “Since gold had been discovered on Cherokee land a decade earlier, many Georgians were convinced we had gold hidden away. They didn’t understand that to us the most valuable things were other Cherokees.” Throughout the story, the soldiers show cruelty or indifference to the Cherokees’ suffering.

Each chapter begins with the date and location, which makes it easy for readers to follow the events that take place between May of 1838 and March of 1839. To help readers visualize the story’s events, black and white illustrations appear every 7 to 10 pages. The book ends with nonfiction support material including a glossary, and three questions about the Indian Removal Act of 1830. These accounts will help readers learn more about the removal of the Cherokees from Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and the ten prison camps that were set up in Tennessee.

Mary and the Trail of Tears focuses on one girl’s story and the suffering that the Cherokee people faced during the Trail of Tears. Because readers will sympathize with Mary, the death of her family members will be upsetting. Despite this, Mary and the Trail of Tears should be read because of its educational value. By writing this informative story, the author—who is a member of the Cherokee tribe—sheds light on “one of this country’s darker chapters.”

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Mary’s family and neighbors are forced out of their homes and the whites fight over the Cherokee’s belongings. “Georgians marched Raven out of his house with his hands tied in front of him. His hair was messy, and his cheek was swollen. . .They had hit Raven and bound his hands.”
  • When Mary’s grandpa runs back into his house, she “was afraid they were going to beat my grandpa or whip him when we got to the fort. Grandpa was only in the house a moment when a single rifle shot exploded.” Grandpa is killed.
  • The man who shot grandpa said that “he wouldn’t be happy until every Cherokee in Georgia was dead.” The man is not punished for his crime.
  • When Mary’s family is in the prison camp, they meet a man who had run away from the prison camp and then returned. He says, “The soldiers who were escorting us were cruel. I came back here because there is no place else for a Cherokee to go. . . There is no food or water, and many drowned falling from the overcrowded boats.” Through the man’s story, they learn many had died, including enslaved Africans.
  • While traveling, the children were slowing them down, so “the soldiers took babies from their mothers and put them in wagons with the sick and the dead.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Mary thinks about her grandma, who looked for medicinal plants found in the woods. Mary thinks, “The creator provided food and medicine we couldn’t grow in the garden.”
  • Grandpa sings a song after dinner. He explains that “It’s about us. It means the creator wants us to take care of each other. If a child is alone and crying, we need to take care of them.” Later a group sings the song.

Brown Boy Nowhere

Sixteen-year-old Angelo Rivera is from the bustling city of San Diego where his parents owned a Filipino restaurant. Now, Angelo has moved across the country to Ocean Pointe where Angelo and his family are the only Asian people in the entire town. He’s left behind all of his friends, and his girlfriend Amanda, so his mom and dad can run a new restaurant called Sloppy’s Pit Stop. To make everything worse, Angelo wants to participate in a skateboarding competition in California, but the only way he can go is if he pays for his own plane ticket by working at Sloppy’s. But Angelo has a plan: Convince his aunt to let him stay in California so he can be with his friends and Amanda. He’s determined to leave Ocean Pointe behind for good.

Angelo’s plans go awry when he meets fellow outsiders Kirsten and Larry. All three of them are seen as outcasts by the students at Ocean Pointe High School where football players and cheerleaders are at the top of the social hierarchy. Kirsten abandoned cheerleading for art and Larry is the grandson of a known drug dealer. Both ask Angelo to teach them how to skate, boosting their self-confidence and creating a small group of friends for Angelo. After Amanda breaks up with Angelo over the phone, he begins to grow closer to Kirsten. As a result of bonding with Kirsten, a fight breaks out at OPHS that results in Angelo being more seen than ever.

Brown Boy Nowhere is a prose-style novel that is told from Angelo’s first-person perspective. As a result of being told in Angelo’s perspective, the reader will experience the same prejudice and violence Angelo does. This allows readers who aren’t Asian to understand the unique situations Asian people face in a racialized society. The story hits close to home for many Asian readers who understand what it’s like to be the only Asian person in a majority white town, school, or area.

Readers who aren’t Asian will also learn that some “jokes,” such as Asian people eating dogs and cats, are microaggressions that create lasting scars for their Asian peers. Even simple questions can be microaggressions depending on the person to whom they’re directed. For example, when Angelo first meets Larry, Larry asks Angelo where he’s from. When Angelo says he’s from California, Larry responds with, “No. I mean, where are you really from?” Such a question insinuates that Asian people do not, and will never belong in America and isolates Asian peers from their white peers.

Angelo also does his best to educate his new friends Kirsten and Larry on anti-Asian racism and microaggressions, calling them out on their blanket statements about Asian people. Angelo even tells Kirsten that saying, “I do not see race” is a microaggression and explains to her why. Angelo says, “I get that some people who say it mean well. But saying you don’t see race disregards my identity. I’m Asian. I’m proud of it. If you don’t see race, then you’re ignoring that part of me.”

Brown Boy Nowhere is a fascinating novel that tells a story about an Asian teenager finding himself in a town where he feels like he does not belong. The book has many early 2000s references, such as Angelo comparing Kirsten to actress Kirsten Dunst, and even has the feel of a 2000s teen movie. The book is not set in the early 2000s, but it provides Angelo with another interest and supplements his thoughts. It also tackles the incredibly complex issue of anti-Asian racism and the unique experience of a member of the Asian diaspora. Some events in the novel, such as the star football player named Grayson, vandalizing Sloppy’s, feel unrealistic and have unrealistic consequences. However, the novel is a perfect read for people who like coming-of-age dramas and want to learn more about the challenges Asian teenagers face in a world that expects them to be invisible.

Sexual Content

  • Angelo recalls that on his last night in San Diego, he had sex with his girlfriend Amanda. “Heat creeps into my cheeks. I don’t know what I expected losing my virginity would be like, but my fantasies certainly didn’t include me blubbering like an idiot, telling her how much I’d miss her.”
  • After Angelo saves Kirsten from being hit by a car, she gives him a kiss on his cheek. “I frown curiously as she takes a giant step toward me, letting out a soft gasp when she presses her soft lips against my cheek.”
  • While in the warehouse together, Angelo expresses a desire to kiss Kirsten. “My gaze flits down to her bottom lip. I want to kiss her. I want to kiss her more than anything in the world. More than skate competitions, burger patties, and even plane tickets to California.”
  • When Kirsten takes him to the beach, Angelo finally kisses her. “Pushing all second-guessing aside, I finally lean forward. I press my lips against hers. She takes a sharp breath against my mouth, stiffening for a second. Quickly, she relaxes and kisses me back, raking her fingers through my wet hair, tugging at the ends lightly.” They continue to make out for a page.
  • Angelo’s ex-girlfriend, Amanda, accidentally sends him a sext which includes “a photo of her chest with nothing but a tiny bikini top covering her, um, assets.”
  • After clearing up the misunderstanding because of the sext, Angelo and Kirsten kiss again. “Kirsten opens her mouth to speak, but before she can say anything I reach over and cup my hand over the back of her neck, pulling her into me. I press a kiss into her lips, quieting any lingering doubt she might have about me. My feelings for her. Us.”

Violence

  • Angelo decides to skate away from a group of boys who are harassing him. One of the boys throws a rock at Angelo which results in him falling off his skateboard. “The next thing I know, something jams against my front wheels. Before I can react, I’m flying off my board. On instinct, I stick my hands out to stop my fall, but I’m at a weird angle and land cheek first into the parking lot.”
  • When Grayson learns that Angelo and Grayson’s ex-girlfriend are friends, Grayson punches Angelo in the school hallway. Angelo tells Grayson he’s being racist. The scene lasts for 8 pages. Angelo doesn’t “even get to finish my thought. A blinding pain hits me square in the jaw. Sharp and intense. I stagger back, gasping for anything to hold on to, only to smack my open palms against the cold locker . . . Grayson keeps his fist up to my nose. His knuckles are bright red.”
  • To prevent Kirsten from being seen by the Sheriff, Angelo tackles her onto the grass. “Without thinking twice, I push off my board and tackle Kirsten onto the grass lining the street. We crash and find ourselves rolling into a ditch.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When exploring Ocean Pointe, Angelo ends up at the high school where he sees a group of guys holding cigarettes. “Cigarettes glow from between their fingers as they stare me down, scanning me from head to toe.”

 Language

  • The word “shit” and other variations of the word are used frequently.
  • The words “ass” and “asshole,” along with their variations, are used often.
  • “Bitch” and “bitchy” are used often in the novel, typically in relation to female characters.
  • “Fuck” is thrown around a lot by the characters in the story.
  • Angelo faces multiple microaggressions from his white peers, many of them relying on the racist stereotype of Asian people eating cats and dogs. A football player even says, “Guess that makes this here brown boy the dog, huh? You are what you eat.”
  • The football players who bully Angelo often call him “brown boy” as an insult due to Angelo being Filipino and having brown skin.
  • Angelo calls his friend from San Diego, Mackabi, a “dipshit” affectionately.
  • Angelo says he “feel[s] a bit dickish” for objecting to teaching other students how to skate.
  • When Kirsten implies that Angelo’s bullies confront change by being aggressive, Angelo says, “That’s bullshit. Being scared isn’t an excuse to be racist. That’s just damn ignorant. You don’t call someone ‘brown boy’ or say he eats dogs just because he’s new to town.”
  • When Grayson says he isn’t racist, Angelo calls Grayson a “delusional dick”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • None

by Emma Hua

Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon

Every step forward is a victory.

Fauja Singh was born determined. He was also born with legs that wouldn’t allow him to play cricket with his friends or carry him to the school that was miles from his village in Punjab. But that didn’t stop him. Working on his family’s farm, Fauja grew stronger, determined to meet his full potential.

Fauja never, ever stopped striving. At the age of 81, after a lifetime of making his body, mind, and heart stronger, Fauja decided to run his first marathon. He went on to break records all around the world and to become the first person over 100 years old to complete a marathon.

The picture book begins with a forward by Fauja Singh where he writes about his disability. Despite people teasing him, he never stopped believing in himself. Fauja says, “Doctors couldn’t figure out why I had trouble walking as a child, nor could they figure out why I was able to begin walking and, eventually, running. I think of it as a reminder that all of our bodies are different—and so are our experiences with disabilities.”

Every reader can benefit from Fauja’s story, which highlights the importance of perseverance and determination. Despite his disability, his mother continued to remind him, “You know yourself, Fauja, and you know what you’re capable of. Today is a chance to do your best.” With every small step, Fauja became stronger and eventually reached each of his goals—to walk, to farm, and to run a marathon.

Fauja’s story comes to life with fun, brightly colored illustrations. For example, when Fauja is stretching, a bird perched on his arm does the same stretch alongside him. While most of the illustrations focus on Fauja and his family, illustrations that portray more people show diverse groups. Even though Fauja Singh Keeps Going 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. Each page has 2 to 7 sentences, and some sentences are complex.

If you’re looking for a motivational biography, Fauja Singh Keeps Going is the book for you. Even though Fauja faced hardship and discrimination, he focused on the positive and kept working to achieve his goals. He did not let the negative comments of others bring him down. Instead, “As he ran, Fauja thought about all the things people from his village said he would never do. . . They thought he was too old to run and yet, here he was, running 26.2 miles at the age of 100.”

Fauja Singh Keeps Going is a must-read because it shows the power of positive thinking and believing in yourself. In addition, Fauja’s story will encourage readers to “try your hardest, and always choose yes when you meet a challenge.”

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • When Fauja lived in England, he “learned that some people in the United States were attacking Sikhs for how they looked.”
  • While running a marathon, “someone shouted racist and hateful words at him. Other people joined in. Fauja brushed it off. He knew he had a strong spirit.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • When Fauja began to walk, “his parents were so happy, they shared prayers of thanks and distributed parshad to the entire village.”
  • At the end of the book, there is a one-page section that gives more information about Fauja and how his religion, Sikhism, affected his life. “Sikhs believe in treating everyone equally, serving others, working hard, and living with honesty and integrity.”

Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten

Elizabeth Cotten was only a little girl when she picked up a guitar for the first time. It wasn’t hers (it was her big brother’s), and it wasn’t strung right for her (she was left-handed). But she flipped that guitar upside down and backward and taught herself how to play it anyway. By the age of eleven, she’d written “Freight Train,” one of the most famous folk songs of the twentieth century. And by the end of her life, people everywhere—from the sunny beaches of California to the rolling hills of England—knew her music.

Libba’s story, which conveys her love of music, is both beautiful and motivational. As a child, “Libba Cotton heard music everywhere. She heard it in the river when she brought in water for her mother. She heard it in the ax when she chopped wood kindling.” Libba grew up in a poor neighborhood in the segregated South, but she still found the time and the scarce resources to teach herself how to play the guitar. To buy herself that guitar, she swept floors, picked vegetables, and set the table to earn money. Readers will admire Libba’s hard work and perseverance.

As Libba became older, she stopped playing music to work and care for her family. It wasn’t until Libba was in her sixties that she began to record and tour through the United States and Europe. Her story shows that the true beauty of music has no age. “Libba believed that people could accomplish anything at any age.” Even though Libba is known for her music, the story also focuses on her kind and caring personality.

Libba’s story comes to life in muted illustrations that show her day-to-day life. Even though Libba 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. Each page has 3 to 7 sentences and some of the sentences are complex. The book repeats part of Libba’s most famous song “Freight Train.”

While Libba’s story will appeal to music lovers, it is also an important story to read because it highlights the importance of never giving up on a dream. Despite growing up poor, Libba’s positive attitude carries her through life. Libba’s story teaches young readers that dreams can come true with a good mix of work and dedication. If you’re looking for another motivational biographical picture book, add Counting on Katherine by Helaine Becker to your must-read list.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Dang is used four times. For example, when Libba broke a guitar string, her brother said, “Dang. She’s done it again.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • The author’s note explains that “the pastor at [Libba’s] church urged her to give up playing guitar, saying it was ‘the Devil’s music.’”

 

Blackout

The sun beats down on the city of New York where there are places to go and people to see. As a heatwave takes over New York City, electricity goes out. This creates the infamous blackouts causing the lights to go off and the trains to stop running. No electricity also means no air conditioners, and that everyone outside is sweating through their clothes from the summer heat and humidity. Amid the blackout, six couples spark a different kind of electricity in the City that Never Sleeps as old loves, and new ones, meet and head to a massive block party in Brooklyn.

Blackout features six short stories following six couples. “The Long Walk” follows two exes named Tammi and Kareem. Kareem needs to get to a block party and Tammi needs to go back home to Brooklyn – coincidentally where the block party is being held. Together, Tammi and Kareem begin a long walk to Brooklyn during the heatwave. “The Long Walk” is also split into 6 parts and scattered throughout the novel instead of being compacted like the rest of the short stories.

“Mask Off” is a queer, MLM (Man Loving Man) love story that follows Tremaine and basketball star JJ. The two of them are riding on the subway before it is shut down by the blackout. “Made to Fit” is another queer, WLW (Woman Loving Woman) love story that follows Nella and Joss at a senior living facility. Nella’s grandfather accidentally loses a picture of his wife, Nella’s grandmother, and Joss offers to help Nella look for it in the dark.

“All the Great Love Stories…and Dust” features two characters named Lana and Tristan, who are trapped in the New York Public Library during the blackout and play a game to see who can find the best book. “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” follows a love triangle on a double decker bus between Kayla, Micah, and Kayla’s boyfriend Tre’Shawn. The final story, “Seymour and Grace,” is a first meeting between Grace and her Ryde driver Seymour. Grace needs to get to the block party in Brooklyn, but the trip gets interrupted by Seymour’s car running out of gas.

All six short stories follow a prose narrative style in the first-person perspective of their respective narrators. Each writer has a different writing style and format. For example, “All the Great Love Stories…and Dust” features footnotes at the bottom of the page to convey Lana’s truth and demonstrate her character. “The truth: I [Lana] just wanted us to have our adventures together away from anyone we might run into. The people we are in Brooklyn aren’t the same people we are in Manhattan or the Bronx or Queens. Do you think you can be a totally different person in a different place? Your insides and outsides transforming into another you?”

There is a sense of consistency between all six authors, allowing the reader to easily grasp the flow of the stories and connect them to the other five. The stories feature romance, and the novel is meant to celebrate young black love. All the characters are teenagers, and most of them are in their late teens. This makes them relatable to a young adult audience as the characters deal with friendships, their identity, and college. For black young adult readers, Blackout provides them the representation they need, and the novel perfectly portrays each character in their own, individual light with their own individual stories and identity.

Blackout is a beautiful novel written by six black authors who bring to life the idea of young love. Each story celebrates young black love and the diversity that occurs in the black community. Queer black teenagers get their own love stories separate from their straight counterparts. Each story provides a small twist on the romance genre due to the authors’ distinct writing style and the story’s format. This book is for readers who are a fan of romance and for Blackout’s targeted audience of black readers. The book is extremely entertaining and will have fans wanting more.

Sexual Content

  • JJ brings up rumors about Tremaine, saying, “there are rumors he “deflowered” both the starting quarterback and his girl.”
  • JJ recounts a sexual encounter he had with a girl on his eighteenth birthday. She “danced me into a corner and started kissing my neck. And I did kiss her back—she was a great kisser, objectively speaking—and when she pushed things a bit further, I rolled with it.”
  • At the queer party, JJ kisses Tremaine without Tremaine knowing it was JJ. “When he turned back to me, I lifted the bottom of my mask, closed the space between us . . . and I kissed him right on the mouth.”
  • Nella was in love with her ex-best friend Bree, who Nella “used to dream about kissing.”
  • In a brief flashback scene, Nella relives the experience of Bree telling Nella that she only kisses other girls when she’s drunk. Nella says, “Twig saw you kissing girls at all those house parties?”
  • Joss puts on some purple lipstick and Nella thinks, “. . . her mouth is suddenly very, very distracting.”
  • In the laundry room, Nella and Joss kiss three times. The scene lasts for two pages. “When we kiss, it’s slow and warm. It’s thickly sweet, like the butterscotch candy we took from Queenie’s bedside table, but there’s something underneath the syrupy flavor that I know must be essentially Joss too.”
  • After Lana confesses her love to Tristan, the two of them make out. “Before I [Lana] could finish, his hands are on my back and his bottom lip brushes against my neck, my ear, then my cheek, before he kisses me.”
  • Tre’Shawn tries to kiss Kayla, but Kayla doesn’t let him. This happens twice.
  • Tre’Shawn tries to kiss Kayla a third time and this time Kayla lets him. “I let him kiss me this time. It’s comforting and familiar.”
  • After having a panic attack on the Brooklyn Bridge, Tammi brings Kareem close to her and kisses him. Tammi grabs “his shirt, pull[s] him close, and kiss[es] him. I kiss my messy, forgetful, silly-ass ex-boyfriend. And as we hover over the water, I forget the world as he kisses me back.”

Violence

  • While at the masquerade party for queer men, JJ gets hit on by an older man against his consent. The man says, “Oh, don’t play coy, now,” as he breathes down JJ’s ear and grabs his arm.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • The words “shit” and “ass” are used a variety of times and in a variety of ways. For example, when Tristan is talking to Lana about them going to separate colleges, he says, “I’m supposed to help you and your dads move you into your fancy-ass Columbia dorms before I bounce to Binghamton.”
  • When talking about her ex, Taylor, Joss says, “That bitch missed out too.”
  • During an argument with Kareem over Tammi not trusting him, he says “Fuck it.”
  • Tammi reminisces over a middle school memory where Kareem was bullied. She calls those bullies “assholes.”
  • Kareem says that Tammi called him “a fucking liar” because Tammi thought he lied and cheated on her.
  • Kayla confides in her best friend, Jazmyn, about her issues with her relationship with Tre’Shawn. Jazmyn says, “Is he on some fuck boy shit?”
  • Kayla calls her classmate Micah a “jackass” lightheartedly.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual

  • None

by Emma Hua

I Am Alfonso Jones

Fifteen-year-old Alfonso Jones has had an interesting life. His class plans to put on a hip-hop rendition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Alfonso starring as King Claudius and his crush, Danetta, as Queen Gertrude. Danetta is also Alfonso’s best friend, and he wants to let her know how he really feels about her.

To complicate matters, Alfonso’s father is in prison after being wrongfully accused of murdering and raping a white woman. But now his father is finally being released from prison after being proven innocent! Alfonso’s mother sends him to buy a suit for his father’s return.

While shopping and changing jackets, a police officer fatally shoots Alfonso, thinking the coat hanger was a gun, despite the two objects having no similarity in appearance. Alfonso is transported onto a ghost train where he meets victims of police brutality. In the world of the living, Alfonso’s friends, family, and classmates struggle to come to terms with his death, and his death sparks massive protests throughout the world.

I Am Alfonso Jones is a touching novel about the Black Lives Matter movement and why the movement matters. The graphic novel uses a striking art style and simple, but effective prose, that allows the point to come across well; black lives do matter, and the loss of black life is a human rights issue. The novel also shows the different realities black people, especially boys and men, face. A mundane activity, such as buying a suit for a special event, can instantly turn into another death plastered all over news media outlets.

In America, there are unwritten rules for black people to follow. This is depicted in a scene where Alfonso’s grandfather, Velasco, gives his grandson “the Talk”—a conversation about race. Velasco tells Alfonso, “Son, this ‘talk’ is not what you think it would be. This is not about birds—or bees—flowers or any of that mess! This is about what it means to be black in America. You have to learn how to conduct—I mean, protect—yourself, especially in the presence of police officers. This is not a country that values black boys, men—women or girls, for that matter. Too many of our people are getting vacuumed into the prison industry or killed for no rational reason whatsoever but the skin they’re living in….”

I Am Alfonso Jones is told from the perspective of Alfonso and readers follow his daily life up to his death and beyond into the afterlife. The reader will experience the stories of other victims of police brutality from their point of view. The reader also sees the world of the living through the perspectives of Alfonso’s friends and family, most notably Danetta and his mother, as they struggle to get justice for Alfonso in a system that is rigged against them. They become organizers for Black Lives Matter, showing that the foundation of BLM is BIPOC women.

Because the story is told from the perspective of the BIPOC characters, the reader gets to see firsthand how the justice system fails marginalized groups. The plot even showcases the demonization of BIPOC for the system’s own failings and its ways of upholding white supremacy.

The graphic novel’s art uses black and white. The lack of color minimizes the violence committed by the police to prevent readers from seeing any real blood or injuries. The lack of color, however, centers the narrative and the violence toward black people. The character’s faces are expressive. The prose and emotional dialogue are easy to understand because it appears in speech bubbles, while the character’s thoughts are in air bubbles. The pages are heavy with words, averaging about 300 words per page.

I Am Alfonso Jones is a quick read that holds a lot of emotional weight. It encompasses why the Black Lives Matter movement is extremely important, especially in America, where massive injustices have been carried out to victims of color. If readers are confused as to why Black Lives Matter is an important movement, then I Am Alfonso Jones will answer that question.

Sexual Content

  • Alfonso and Danetta almost kiss once. Danetta wants Alfonso to make a move, while Alfonso is worried about getting rejected. Eventually, he thinks, “Oh, forget it! I’m just gonna do it —” before he’s interrupted. He doesn’t kiss Danetta because of being interrupted.

Violence

  • The book displays multiple events of police brutality, which usually end with the deaths of black people. Alfonso is shot and there are multiple flashbacks dedicated to what happened to him. One ghost was also shot by the police, and another was beaten to death. These scenes don’t last for more than four pages. The book opens with a page showing Alfonso running away from the bullet and the bullet eventually hitting him in the back. He shows a strong expression of intense pain. Unlike the other scenes, this is the most brutal because it was done to Alfonso, who is 15 years old.
  • Alfonso’s dad, Ishmael, returns home from work and is beaten by a police officer because he’s the main suspect for the rape and murder of a white woman. The scene lasts for a page. The officer slams Ishmael to the ground after Ismael saves his wife, Cynthia, from a fire in their apartment complex. After being slammed onto the concrete, Ishmael cries out, “Wait a minute! Wait! That’s my wife! That’s my wife! And my baby! My baby!”
  • During a peaceful protest, police throw tear gas into the crowd and the tear gas affects Alfonso’s classmates and Danetta. The scene lasts for two pages and shows police in full body armor, throwing the canister of tear gas. Panels show shots of Alfonso’s friends, who are teenagers, being hurt by the tear gas and punched by police. Danetta yells out, “My eyes are burning! I can’t breathe!” The police are attempting to take in some of Alfonso’s friends amidst the chaos.
  • An arsonist sets the store Alfonso was shot at on fire with a molotov cocktail. The scene lasts for a page and shows the lit bottle in midair before progressing into a panel with an explosion. A reporter recounts the incident, saying, “Markman’s department store, where African American teen Alfonso Jones was shot and killed, was the scene of a fire. Fire department officials suspect arson.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • When he was a child, Alfonso smoked a cigarette which quickly caused an asthma attack.

Language

  • Danetta calls the character of Gertrude from Hamlet “a skank” twice.

Supernatural

  • Alfonso is turned into a ghost who rides on a train with other ghosts – all victims of police brutality. A few times he travels to the world of the living to check on his family and friends.

Spiritual

  • Alfonso’s grandfather, Velasco, is a reverend.

by Emma Hua

Parker Shines On: Another Extraordinary Moment

As she grows older, Parker Curry puts her whole heart into the art of ballet. At home, this passion manifests through silly dance moves Parker performs with her younger sister Ava and her younger brother Cash. These “dance parties” bring the whole family together.

In ballet class, Parker focuses more seriously on the movements of her teacher and vows to practice her skills more adamantly in the hopes of becoming a soloist like her friend Mira, or a professional dancer like those she sees featured on posters in the dance studio. With newfound determination, Parker waves away her sibling’s silly dances, instead dedicating herself to long hours in front of her mirror alone, practicing ballet steps over and over. “Becoming a real dancer is a serious business,” Parker thinks to herself. It isn’t until the day of her recital that Parker notices their soloist, Mira, is nervous. In this moment, Parker realizes it isn’t always practice, but the joy in the practice, that makes a performance beautiful. This realization, along with Ava and Cash’s encouragements to form a “Dance party!” help Mira and Parker showcase their hearts onstage.

The sequel to Parker Looks Up, Parker Shines On, is a true story from Parker Curry’s life, and works again to display the way powerful role models and positive experiences can shape a child’s life. Parker Shines On has dynamic and eye-catching digital illustrations by artist Brittany Jackson. On each page, readers follow Parker as she gathers dancing guidance from the posters of famous ballet icons, the movements of her best friend Mira, and the silly shenanigans of her siblings Cash and Ava.

Each illustration contrasts Parker’s carefree adventures at home — reading books, playing piano, dressing up, eating the last slice of cake, holding dance parties on the bed — with the precise and structured dances of Parker’s ballet classroom. With this contrast, readers can quickly see the way these two environments impact Parker’s approach to dancing. This adds an interesting tension to the story by displaying the way in which influences can negatively impact a person if they cause that person to pull joy away from their passions. In resolving this conflict in the end, Parker Shines On exemplifies how one can balance the structure and fun of life to not just improve on a skill, but also enjoy the process of that improvement. Each page holds scattered sections of text ranging from two to five lines and a simplistic vocabulary perfect for emerging readers.

In addition, the end of Parker Shines On is followed by Jessica Parker’s story behind the story, a note from famous ballet dancer Misty Copeland, and a biography for each dancer illustrated on the posters Parker sees throughout her practicing. These additions add another interactive piece for the readers of Parker Shines On, as these sections grant parents an opportunity to discuss real-life role models with young readers.

Though Parker Shines On will mainly appeal to those with a passion for dancing, it aims to truly capture the attention of all young readers looking for inspiration while practicing a new hobby. In showing the way Parker celebrates her own unique way of dancing, all readers are encouraged to express creative endeavors on the outside in the exact way they feel on the inside.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Hannah Olsson

The Knockout

Kareena Thakkar is very good at Muay Thai, a mixed-martial art. So good, in fact, that she’s been invited to the US Muay Thai Open, which might lead to her landing a spot on the first-ever Muay Thai Olympic team. The only problem? She might alienate herself from the Indian community even further by doing so. Kareena shouldn’t care– as her parents haven’t raised her within the Indian community since they became estranged from it years ago– but Kareena can’t help feeling like she’s not “Indian enough.”

This is especially a problem since Kareena likes Amit Patel, who is the definition of a perfect Indian boy. Liking Amit isn’t difficult. But navigating Amit’s parents’ disapproval of Kareena and Amit’s relationship may prove to be. Not to mention, Kareena has her own friend issues and the big Muay Thai competition coming up. Needless to say, Kareena has a lot on her plate. The breaking point might be Kareena’s father’s health issues and the family’s mounting debt. But Kareena won’t go down without a fight.

Kareena battles other Muay Thai fighters and her own insecurities in The Knockout, and her determination to come out victorious is inspiring. Most importantly, her most human moments are when she’s anxious about her father’s health and has lapses in confidence. Her ability to bounce back from those moments and have faith in herself and the doctors treating her father is remarkable. Kareena is a good example of what it means to get back up after getting knocked down.

The Knockout shows an interesting intersection between religion, culture, and sports. The expectations on Kareena’s shoulders also weigh on the other Indian American characters: Amit and Saanvi, one of Kareena’s ex-friends, compare themselves and their “Indianness” through cultural and religious expectations. Kareena finds herself isolated not only because of her parent’s refusal to participate in many traditional activities and gatherings but also because Kareena is told that Muay Thai is “too violent” for women. However, Kareena finds community in her parents, Amit, and the other female athletes at her high school who support her goals and her love for Muay Thai.

The Knockout is a smart and insightful story about resilience in social situations and in sports. The book also covers Muay Thai, a sport that is not often written about. The fight scenes are exciting and help show Kareena’s strength of character, which drives the plot. Ultimately, Kareena’s story is about self-acceptance and getting back up when you’re knocked down, which is a lesson that everyone can stand to learn.

Sexual Content

  • Kareena’s friend Lily has unruly hair. Kareena suggests that Lily go natural instead of trying to tame it, and Lily says, “My hair is a horror show of spiderwebs making awful love to twigs.”
  • Some girls gossip about Kareena, spreading rumors. Kareena overhears them saying, “First [Kareena] goes after your crush, my brother, while she was talking to Reg? Of course, Travis wants to mess around with her. He probably heard about her hooking up with guys. There’s no way she dated Reg and didn’t do stuff. She probably would fool around with Travis. Why else would he bother flirting with her? Travis is ever only after one thing, we all know that. And he only goes after girls who he thinks he can get.”
  • Amit kisses Kareena on her cheek, “on the far left corner of [her] lips.”
  • Kareena falls out of her bedroom window and lands on Amit. Kareena and Amit kiss, and Kareena describes, “Our lips touched with an explosion of senses that I didn’t even know existed. His warmth against my skin, the softness of his mouth against mine, the taste of cardamom and pasta on his tongue.”
  • Kareena explains that Travis “had gone to senior prom since he was a freshman . . . every prom he’d get that senior girl to rent a hotel room upstairs, get lucky, and then blab about it the next day to all of his buds.”
  • Kareena and Amit kiss while working on computer programming. Kareena says, “My stomach did a million flips as I kissed him back.”

Violence

  • The Knockout is about Muay Thai, a form of martial arts. Kareena and other characters spar during Muay Thai, and physical injuries do occur due to the violent nature of the sport. For instance, one of Kareena’s opponents, Jenny, sports a nosebleed when Kareena punches her during a match.
  • Kareena and Amit stare at each other awkwardly while studying for computer science. To stop this, Kareena “lightly punches [Amit’s] arm” and tells him to continue studying.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Profanity is used frequently. Profanity includes: badass, hell, crap, freaking, pissed, motha-freaking fans, slut, stupid, dick, prick, damn, and dumb.
  • When Kareena turns Travis down for prom, Travis says, “Saanvi must be right. You like girls, don’t you?” Kareena responds with, “Just because I’m not buying your trash? Get out of my face.”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • Kareena makes a comment about Amit being into all the “religious stuff” that comes with being Indian, but Kareena doesn’t explain further.
  • Amit invites Kareena to go to Holi at the mandir with him and his family. Kareena describes Holi: “Holi was a yearly thing that drew a butt-load of Indians to celebrate and throw brightly colored powder on each other to the rhythm of vibrant music well into the night. It was not a date thing. It was a family thing. A cultural thing. A community thing. An Indian thing.” Kareena explains throughout the book that her family does not partake in “Indian things” despite being Indian themselves.
  • Kareena and her mom sit with their feet on the coffee table, and Kareena jokingly comments, “Forgive us etiquette gods.”
  • Kareena compares her non-religious life to that of Saanvi, her former friend. Kareena says, “[Saanvi] observes all the holidays and fasts and prays every morning. We used to do sleepovers at Rayna’s, and she’d bring this portable prayer kit. You know? With a prayer towel, pictures, prayer book, and beaded necklace thing. I don’t know what that’s called. She’d wake up at dawn and face the south of the house, or something, and pray. She used to get mad when I walked in on her, even if we were quiet.”
  • Saanvi tells Kareena that according to Saanvi’s parents, Saanvi and Amit are “nakhye,” or promised to be wed to each other. Nakhye is a more religious practice. Amit denies Saanvi’s accusations.

by Alli Kestler

Written in the Stars

Naila’s fate always seems to be under her parents’ control, especially when it comes to boys. Following Pakistani tradition, Naila’s parents will choose a husband for her when the time comes. Naila, however, did not grow up in Pakistan and the idea of an arranged marriage seems very old fashioned. Besides, she has fallen in love with a boy named Saif—of whom her parents do not approve– so she must keep him a secret. However, after lying to her parents to attend her senior prom, Naila is caught with Saif and her parents ignore her apologies and explanations.

Believing their daughter has gone astray living in America, Naila’s parents take the family to Pakistan for the summer, causing Naila to miss her high school graduation. At first, Naila enjoys spending time with her family, but she still looks forward to starting college in America where she will finally be with Saif and her best friend, Carla. However, Naila soon discovers her parents are planning a much longer trip. Her cousin, Selma, informs Naila that her parents are planning an arranged marriage. To escape this fate, Naila contacts Saif and plans her escape, which is thwarted by her uncle. Afraid their daughter will try to run away again, Naila’s parents force her into a marriage with Amin without Naila’s knowledge or consent. Naila is met with a choice: accept fate and try to find happiness with her new husband or continue to fight for her true love, Saif.

Despite everything she must endure in Pakistan, Naila is a strong character who never gives up on the possibility of love. While multiple aspects of Pakistani culture are represented in the book, the tradition of arranged marriage is especially prominent. The intent of the novel is to demonstrate that while some arranged marriages have been successful, others can trap men and women into loveless marriages that are more harmful than beneficial. Through Naila’s experience, the novel reveals the importance of having a choice, especially when it comes to love and marriage.

The novel, which takes place mostly in Pakistan, gives poignant depictions of Pakistani culture. Urdu words are used throughout to help capture the setting and culture, and a glossary is provided in the back of the book to aid understanding. The novel also includes mature themes of violence, inter-marital rape, and pregnancy.

Naila is an easy character to root for because, despite the situation she is in, Naila stays true to herself and her beliefs. In addition, Naila discovers that honesty, no matter how hard it can be, is always best. Naila’s conflict is relatable because she wants what anyone else would want—the freedom to have a choice. Although the limitations of her situation sometimes slow the pace of the novel, the tension consistently builds as readers anxiously wait for Naila to be freed and reunited with Saif. If you’re interested in how women are treated in the Middle East, add A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini to your must-read list.

Sexual Content

  • Amin, Naila’s husband, forces her to have sex with him. In an attempt to stop him, Naila tries “to sit up, to reach for the light on the nightstand, but his hands press against my shoulders, pushing me down. I twist my body, trying to wrench free, but I can’t move.” Amin continues to force himself onto Naila. He whispers to Naila to forgive him and “suddenly, I [Naila] scream. Pain envelops me. The world is white, illuminated with pain.” This is all that is described.
  • Naila discovers she is pregnant with Amin’s child. “I tried denying it, I made excuses for my growing fatigue, my delayed period. But when the first wave of nausea overtook me shortly after, I could deny it no more. I’m pregnant.” Later, Naila explains that she lost her baby.
  • When they are reunited in Pakistan, Saif and Naila share a passionate kiss. “Suddenly, he leans down; his lips press against mine. Pull away. But no part of me knows how. . . I run my fingers through his hair, trace the outline of his face—And then I kiss him back.”

Violence

  • When Naila tries to run away, she is caught by her uncle. Her uncle gets on the bus and Naila is “yanked from [her] seat, dragged down the aisle, down the rough metal steps.” To defend herself, Naila tries to “kick, twist [her] wrists to pry [her]self away from him. I bite his arm. He does not let go.”
  • Furious with his daughter for trying to run away, Naila’s father slaps her across the face. She describes the “metallic taste of blood in [her] mouth.”
  • After Amin’s mother, Nasim, discovers Naila is still in love with Saif, she attacks Naila. “Nasim seems possessed by a demon. I try covering myself from Nasim’s feet—she kicks me with each curse.”
  • When Saif arrives to defend Naila, “Amin shoves Saif to the ground.” Amin punches Saif until Saif’s uncle arrives.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Naila’s uncle forces water down her throat and “almost instantly, I [Naila] feel hazy. The drink. He’s drugging me, I realize.” Naila is drugged and her parents force her to sign the marriage papers.

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • In Pakistan, Naila hears a “melodic sound” she recognizes to be “the call to prayer.”

by Elena Brown

I Believe I Can

From the moment she starts her book, I Believe I Can, Grace Byers writes a dedication of encouragement to her readers: “There will always be one person who might not believe in you; let that person never be you.” These words set off a first-person narrative of “I can” affirmations.

As the reader dives into the pages of I Believe I Can, they are sent into the narrative as the first-person character; a character with the imagination to accomplish a list of feats including sailing, stretching like the Alps, igniting like a rocket, or building the world up, brick by brick. The narrative describes all the extremes that a person can be: grounded, boundless, brave, loud, right, wrong, and strong. Through these adjectives, the reader understands that they may encounter stumbles along their path and that they may not always be perfect, but that ultimately, believing in oneself is the key to getting up and trying again whenever one falls down.

I Believe I Can by Grace Byers is a book of empowerment for young readers at the very beginning of their road towards understanding themselves and accomplishing new feats. In colorful penciled drawings by Keturah A. Bobo, readers follow along with a diverse cast of children dancing ballet, playing in pirate ships or astronaut helmets, dressing up in silly costumes, planting greenery, and decorating cakes. The book even shows the children making mistakes—like drawing in crayon on their house walls— to relate to the mistakes readers themselves may have experienced.

Byer’s diction is simple, the sentence length is short (at most five sentences per page), and most pages are a set of two-sentence rhyming couplets. There is no complicated plot to follow, as the story is more focused on accumulating powerful “I” statements that readers can use throughout their daily lives. In addition, Bobo’s drawings often add animation to the subjects described in Byer’s phrases. For example, when a rocket is mentioned, there is a drawing of a rocket made from building blocks. In this way, the powerful encouragements and detailed drawings will be suitable for any reader looking to study new words and rhyming sentences on their own.

After reading this book, all youngsters will feel encouraged to dive into the activities they love and believe in themselves as they tackle new things in their life—including reading. I Believe I Can by Grace Byers ultimately shows readers the importance of lifting yourself up, and the way believing in yourself can lead to a power you never knew you had.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Hannah Olsson

I Want to Be a Doctor

Jack jumps off the bed and breaks his foot. His whole family—dad, mom, and sister—go with him to the emergency room. While Jack and his mom go into the exam room, his dad and sister go on a field trip through the hospital. In the process, his sister learns about all kinds of doctors.

Young readers will enjoy exploring a hospital and meeting friendly doctors who want to help people feel better. The story blends narrative and nonfiction elements to create an educational story perfect for young readers. Readers will learn about nine different types of doctors including, a dentist, a physical therapist, and a pediatrician. The last page of the book has an infographic listing the different types of doctors and what they do.

I Want to Be a Doctor is part of the I Can Read series that introduces young readers to important community helpers. Another positive aspect of the book is the brightly colored illustrations that show a large cast of hospital employees who are diverse and friendly. Each page has four or fewer sentences typed in oversized text. The short sentences and familiar words make the book perfect for children learning to sound out words and sentences. I Want to Be a Doctor will delight little readers who are curious about hospitals and doctors. Readers who want to learn more about doctors should check out the picture book, The Doctor With An Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath by Julia Finley Mosca.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

Latest Reviews