Dr. Larry Recommends

Dr. Larry Recommends

What books have I recently enjoyed reading? What plays have I recently enjoyed seeing? This section offers recommendations of some of my current favourite literary and arts experiences.  I look forward to frequently posting children’s literature book lists here.

YA BOOKS: Spring 2021

This listing includes ten titles about identity and culture for Young Adolescent Readers. Several books happen to connect with others on the list, particularly with a focus on race, on the refugee theme and/or stories are centred on coming out gay.  

HOW IT ALL BLEW UP By Arvin Ahmadi

Opening: First, Let me get one thing straight: I”m not a terrorist. I’m gay. On the day of his high school graduation, 18 year old Amir Azadi has taken off for Rome. Amir is tormented by the fact that he can’t come out to his Muslim family and after receiving a blackmail threat by some students, Amir takes action and when he arrives at the airport and spontaneously books a flight to Italy. He is swept up into the world of some out, very good looking, older men and develops friendships and enjoys the lifestyle of Italian sites, food and parties. His family is desperate to learn about son’s safety but he is worried that he won’t be understand. The story unfolds with different episodes of his days (and nights) in Rome and is interwoven with conversations in an airport interrogation room. For many young people it is hard to tell the truth and the whole truth. Many will identify and cheer on Amir’s self-discovery.  The author writes that the story was inspired by events that he experienced one summer spent in Rome. But the encounters that Amir experiences seemed rather lucky (the stuff of fiction) and I’m not sure that all such escape adventures for a teenager trying to find himself would be as fortunate or joyful as this young man’s. Still, it is great to have those adventures to help you through life’s journeys and identity quest. I absolutely rooted for Amir.  And I longed to visit Italy. 

COME ON IN:15 stories about immigration and finding home by Adi Alsaid (ed.) Short stories

15 stories written by diverse YA authors and describe journeys and settlements from such places as Ecuador, Fiji, Mexica, Argentina, an India.  Like any short story collection, some worked better than others but each effectively descries a journey of families taken from home to find a new place called home. They are stories of leaving things behind, crossing borders, and finding a place of belonging and acceptance. Ultimately, each story answers the question “But where are you really from?”

THE NEW QUEER CONSCIENCE by Adam Eli

Adam Eli is Jewish and queer.  Eli grew up with Talmud teachings: All Jewish people are responsible  for one another” and dreams of living in a world knowing that “Queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere.” After all, wouldn’t you want someone to fight for you. Ali is the founder of Voices 4 a non-violent direct-action activist group committed for advancing global LGBTAIAA+ liberation. In this slim volume, Adam Eli recounts his own experiences of coming out and argues,  for some changes that need to be made to ignite the responsibilities of gay people everywhere. The book is framed around ten recommendations (e.g. ‘We approach all gay people with the principles of identification and kindness”; ‘Recognize that the playing field is not equal’. 

This slim book is one of a series of 8 books published under the Pocket Change Collective “born out of a need for space. Space to think. Space to connect. Space to be yourself.”  The  activism titles  in the series ask big questions and offer solutions for teenager to reflect upon and learn from. These little books are a call for social justice and possibilities. Some topics include:  equality for those who are deaf (Continuum by Chella Man); the Global movement to eliminate single-use plastics (Taking on the Plastics Crisis by Hanna Testa), the climate crisis (Imaginary Borders by Xiuhtexcat Martinez) reimagining the gender binary (Beyond the Gender Binary by  Alok Vaid-Menon).

SAY HER NAME by Zetta Elliott (Poetry)

At the top of the book cover, there is a highlighted subtitle: ‘Poems to Empower’.  These are powerful poems by a powerful Black poet, celebrating and empowering Black women.  Elliott finds inspiration from world events, often brutal, and from Black poet mentors.  A feature of this book is the inclusion of  Notes and these are worth reading to discover how Black youth, historical figures and poems have spurred Elliott on to write these powerful poems about equal justice and a call to Black Lives Matter. The art  illustrations by Loveis Wise that appear throughout may, at first glance, seem to decorate the words, but these images add poetry of their own to the collection. 

Say Her Name (excerpt)

Say her name and solemnly vow

Never to forget, not allow

Our sisters’ lives to be erased;

Their presence cannot be replaced.

This senseless slaughter must stop now. 

THE HILL WE CLIMB by Amanda Gorman (poem)

This slim volume is the in-print version of Amanda Gorman’s poem presented on January 20, 2021, the day of President Biden’s inauguration. Activist and poet, Gorman, age 22, was the youngest poet to deliver a poetry reading at an inauguration and in the preface to this publication, Oprah Winfrey writes, ‘they don’t come very often, these moments of incandescence where the welter of pain and suffering gives way to hope. Maybe even joy.”

Excerpt (page 29)

When day comes, we step out of the shade

Aflame and unafraid.

The new dawn blooms as we free it.

For there is always light,

If only we’re brave enough to see it,

IF only we’re brave enough to be it. 

THE TALK: Conversations about Race, Love and Truth by Wade Hudson & Cheryl Willis Hudson (editors).

This is a collection of 17 short pieces by 30 diverse and award-winning authors and illustrators that offer frank discussions, advice, and pleas to young people about identity, about racism and about self-esteem and about finding and using their voices. Selections are told in letter format (Not A China Doll by Grace Lin;  poetry (Tough Tuesday by Niki Grimes, lists (Ten by Tracey Baptiste) short stories (The Bike by Wade Hudson,and essay format (Why Are There Racist People by Duncan Tonatiuth, each author believing that they can give inspiration, hope and each knowing  that TALK is the way to begin.  Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson are the coeditors of the anthology We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices

HERE THE WHOLE TIME by Vitor Martins

The opening line: “I am fat”. From page one of this novel, readers want to put their arms around Felipe, a large 18 year old  gay Brazilian boy, who seems to be filled the insecurities (he goes to therapy). The plot begins quickly, when Felipe learns that his mother agreed to let Caio (the very handsome, sexy neighbour) stay with them while his parents are away. Felipe has had a crush on Caio for a long time. How will he talk to hCaio? What will he say? How can he handle his infatuation? How can he handle his insecurities? Caio is in the household (and eventually shares Felipe’s bedroom) over 15 days and in 15 chapters a strong friendship, a  growing trust and yes – a mutual ‘love’ unfolds.  Both boys need admire each other and both boys need each other. The character of Felipe can be a hero for many adolescents who are always looking into the mirror and seek a place of belonging and acceptance. A candid and funny gay story .  The book is translated from the Brazilian Portuguese. 

GONE TO THE WOODS: Surviving a Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen

Gary Paulsen has always been a favourite author of mine. Every since reading Hatchet, The Winter Room, The IslandI always looked forward to buying any new Paulsen title in hardback. in 1993, I read his biography Eastern Sun, Winter Moon and was wowed by the description of harrowing events in the author’s life. I had the honour of meeting him at a Language Arts conference years ago. Me in my navy blazer; Mr. Paulsen in his denim. What do you say to an author you so admire. As I passed on a copy of his autobiography to sign, I said: “Mr. Paulsen, you are a hero.” He signed: “For Larry – Also a hero – Gary Paulsen.

I was excited to receive his new book, a memoir, describing his life growing up. Again I was wowed! What this guy has been through seems to be the stuff of fiction, but he lived through these daunting events. The world that he lived through – being abandoned by his mother, fishing on a Minnesota lake, feeding chickens, hiding away in a ship, witnessing a brutal shark attack, escaping drunken parents, battling. mosquitoes, and geese and rats, and bullies, working in a bowling alley, sweeping floors in a bar, hiding alone in a basement eating peanut butter sandwiches, going to vocational school to learn about television repair, joining the army. Paulsen’s world is so far removed from my own urban life. He is at one with nature.  He is a survivor. 

The most heartwarming section of this memoir (written in the 3rd person where he describes the life of ‘the boy’ was his entrance into the world of the library, when a kind librarian handed him his first book, his first library card. As a struggling young adolescent reader he came to devour books. And then the librarian handed him a notebook and where he too could great word pictures and stories for others to read.
The rest – over 200 books – is history.

Mr Paulsen, you are a hero.

Excerpt (page 300)

(He) realized that he could know ore, maybe be more from reading.

Amazing.

He wanted more as if he was… what? Thirsty. Like his brain was thirsty and wanted more things to know the way he wanted water if he was dry. And not just that he wanted more, but he had to have it, like water. That’s what came from books, the knowing of new things and then wanting more. 

REFUGEE BOY by Benjamin Zephania

Allem, a young adolescent boy from Africa finds himself without any family in London, England. His father is Ethipian and his mother Eritrean and their countries are at warm. Through assistance with the Refugee council e comes to settle comfortably in a caring foster home but is challenged by a system that is not easily giving him asylum. Readers will absolutely cheer on this smart, determined teenager. This novel, originally published in 2001, resonates with refugees today who seeking a place of safety and freedom. In the introduction to this publication, the author writes that he was meeting refugees every day and each one of them had a unique and usually terrifying story to tell. Refugee Boy borrows from many stories that Zephania heard and it is one story that remarkable serves as a case study for the refugee experience which includes, education, bullying, friendships, racism, government policy, protest, trauma and hope.

 

SHOUT OUT! SHOUT OUT!

EVERYTHING SAD IS UNTRUE (a true story) by Daniel Nayeri

  “Like Scherezade in a hostile classroom, author Daniel Nayeri weaves a tale of Khosru (Daniel) trying to save his own life: To stake his claim to truth. And it is (a true story)” (jacket blurh)

WOW! What a great great book! This title – winner of the Printz award 2021 for best YA fiction -,  claims to be simultaneously be fiction (sad but untrue)  and nonfiction (a true story). It recounts Daniel Nayeri’s life experiences as an Iranian youth, who immigrated to Oklahoma with his mother and sister. Nayeri is the young student telling stories in a middle school classroom to those who listen with curiosity and disbelief (and disinterest).  The stories told rise from early years in the author’s life back in Iran and his family’s escape as refugees, recent years experiences in a U.S. community  and decades ago in his ancestor’s lives and long ago centuries in Iranian lore. 

If I counted, I’m sure there 1001+ stories within the pages of Everything is Sad But Untrue:  blood slopping from the throat of a bull; a giant rug 150 feet long, woven with gold and silk and gems; a fatwa put on his Mother’s head for switching over to Christianity; eating egg sandwiches in the bathroom of the local library; an abusive stepdad who beats up Nayeri’s mother (they got married 3 times); Twinkies; a school bully who flicks the ears of poor little kids until they scream in pain; preparing goody bags for American soldiers; church barbecues; paper clip missiles; falling in love (in your mind) with an Armenian princess; a stolen baseball cap; standing at the back of a cafeteria line; a sister’s pinky dealing by a thin string of skin; bathrooms without ‘chairs; pants poop; nailing shingles on a roof; a refugee camp outside Rome; a father’s baptism; a gold Cadillac; getting stitches ina hospital in Dubai; Alexander the Great; Persian markets; the history of the Shiites and Sunis; the tragedy of saying good-bey to a beloved stuffed toy named Sheep Sheep; telling story upon story upon story. 

Interesting enough, after reading about 30 pages, I found myself grabbing a pencil to make note of some astonishing sentences. Some might turn down pages, some might get use sticky notes  but I found myself pausing and pondering on many many statements. 

“A patchwork memory is the shame of a refugee.” (p. 49)

“I won’t lie t you. The deck marked ‘life’ is stacked full of bum cards.” (p. 108)

RUMI: “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.” (p. 124)

“Would you rather be a god who listens or a god who speaks?” (p. 216)

“Every story is nestled somewhere within another story.” (p. 258)

Reading some online comments, it seems that there is some ‘concern’ about who this audience for the book. It’s YA+. For many years, Nayeri worked to find the best way to tell his story and as an intended YA read, he’s spot on. Maybe not an easy ‘sell’. Maybe, not a stick-with-it read for teenagers expecting plot or linear style. (There are no designated chapters in this bouncing back and forth storytelling). I think every Iranian teenager needs to read this book. I think every non-Iranian teacher would learn from this book. They will discover an authentic narrative about the refugee experience, about bullying, about heritage and culture, history and about memory.

Of course, every book we read, prepares us to read others. Along the way in our reading journey we are met with surprises. I’m thinking of APEIROGON by Column McCann which I found to be astonishing in its blend of fiction and nonfiction. It’s a worthy comparison to Nayeri’s book since they both are expert storytellers of life experiences and they both explode in factual information. I recently read HOMELAND ELEGIES by Ayad Akhatar, describing the author’s life as a Muslim in America. which claims to be a novel but is another title that is a hybrid of style. Each of these books have profound narrative voices. I would say that Nayeri’s narrative voice is the most unique I’ve read since meeting Salinger’s Holden Caulfield.  I love books like this where you really seem to get in the minds of the characters as they share their views of the world. 

Nayeri is always aware of the reader peeking over his shoulder and slithering into his mind:

“I’m not going to introduce\e myself. You will know me by my voice. In your mind, we are sitting together… In here, you host me. I am your guest and you probably think of me like you think of yourself – human.” (p. 11)

I will be re-reading this book someday. 

PICTURE BOOKS: Spring 2021

Several  of the  dozen picture book titles listed in this posting are sure to be on my year-end list of favourites.  They have touched my heart, made me smile and made me very excited about sharing them with students, young and old, someday. Most of these books were 2021 publications. 

 

OUTSIDE YOU NOTICE by Erin Alladin; Illus. Andrea Blinick (2021)

A wonderful celebration of life outdoors and the wonder of nature.
A book to stir the imagination, arouse curiosity and pay tribute the world outside. (plants, soil, water, vegetables. This is a top-notch nonfiction picture book where each fact is succinctly and clearly presented in simple boxed text.

HAIR LOVE by Matthew A. Cherry; illus. Vashti Harrison (2020)

I ordered this title pre-pandemic but it just arrived in my office. Zuri loves ‘that my hair lets me be me!”.  An engaging story about curly, funky, puffy hair. Moreover it is a story about love as Zuri’s dad septs in to help his daughter find the perfect hair fit.  This book is based on the Oscar-winning animated film.

NO MORE PLASTIC by Alma Fullerton (2021)

Set in Prince Edward Island, a young girl takes action against ocean pollution by stirring her family into adopting a zero-waste lifestyle. No More Plastic inspires readers to thing about the fact that the health of our oceans, our planet, is in our hands. The memory of a beached whale inspires Isley to make change that will last. The art is made from repurposed plastic, sand, and moss. Another fine – and important – picture book creation by Alma Fullerton.

STORY BOAT by Kyo. Maclear; illus. Rashin Kheiriyeh (2020)

A young girl and her brother are forced to flee the home they’ve always known. This picture book is a very fine addition to stories about the migration crisis and the hopes of finding a new home where dreams can be realized.  The narrative beautifully follows a patterned format that mark significant events and belongings in the life of refugees.  ((Here is a blanket, patterned and soft, color of apricots/ Here is a lamp. Big and bright, powered by. the sun./ Here is the song thate everyone can singThe art work has a limited palette of orange, pale blue and black but the details, facial expressions and artifacts that are displayed on each page each tell a story. A beautiful picture book creation, a recent favourite. 

SHOUT OUT: THE BRAVE PRINCESS AND ME by Kathy Kacer; illus. Juliana Kolesova

 n 1943, the Nazis had taken control over most of Europe, Including Athens. Princess Alice of Greece kindly accepts people of all differences.  Born deaf, she knows what it is like to be discriminated against.  When the Jews in Greece find themsleves in danger, Princess Alice finds them a safe place to hide, even though it means putting her own life and the lives of others in danger. A real-life hero, Alice was the mother of Prince Phillip, the grandmother of Prince Charles and grandmother to William and Harry. Kathy Kacer tells a suspenseful story and recount history in a meaningful way in this picture book  (published in 2019 from Second Story Press).  Special books like this one provide readers with important background of the Prince as well as another story of courage and bravery  during the Holocaust. 

A LAST GOODBYE. by Elin Kelsey; illus. Soyeon Kim (2020)

Species from throughout the planet express grief and care for each other at the end of life. Though text is simple, this nonfiction picture book, shares the ways and emotions animals mark death, helping readers to celebrate those who will we love who will always be with us. Text on each page is sparse, but the art work fills each spread with movement and connection of such animals as the Mountain Gorilla, The African Elephant, The Black Billed Magpie and Killer Whales. 

THE ROCK FROM THE SKY by Jon Klassen (2021)

In the early pages, we are introduced to a spot. It is a good spot. It is the perfect spot to stand. Or is it?  The threat of a falling rock from the sky, urges the narrative on.  “Move from that spot!”1`A review in the New York times compared this book to Waiting for Godot (why not get them thinking about life’s absurdities at any age.) In an interview on the CBC, the author/ illustrator suggested that he was inspired by Alfred Hitchock. For me, the stories stand on the shoulders of the rascally animals in I Want My Hat Back.  Suspense. Wonder. Strangeness. Waiting. the book is told in 4 different chapters with monochrioamtic illustrations, dialogue statements alternating in black and gray font, wide open spaces and enough tension to move each of the stories forward 1. TheRock; 2. The Fall; 3. The Future 4. The Sunset.  Mr. Klassen you make good books. 

THAO by. Thao Lam (2021)

Everyone has a name. Everyone has a story about their name. The author’s name has perpetually been misspelled mispronounced and misunderstood and now, through the words and pictures is going to do something about it.Many readers will identify with  this Vietnamese artist’s  name story and for that the book is worthy of applause. The end page portrait galleries also are especially worthy of ovation!

SHOUT OUT: THE ONE THING YOU’D SAVE by Linda Sue Park; illus. Robert Sae-Heng (2021)

“Imagine that your home is on fire. You’re allowed to save one thing. You family and pets are safe so don’t worry about them.” Thus begins a school homework assignment where each student has in Ms. Chang’s class has to pick a single object to save in a an emergency. Any reader is sure to contemplate how they would rise to the challenger (a phone, a photograph, medicine, an article of clothing. As students present their choices, they are reminded that suggestions should have no judgements.  (WE PROTECT, AFFECT, RESPECT ONE ANOTHER).   The further challenge is to use the line structure form SIJO (SHEE-ZHO), an ancient form of traditional Korean poetry. (i.e., three lines of thirteen to seventeen syllables. Sometimes the lines are divided into six shorter ones.  This book is s hybrid of poetry, free verse narrative and picture book. The art images would inspire students to create their own to accompany their own ONE THING YOU’D SAVE pieces.  And, I’m sure the shared stories would lead into other stories about family, possessions and fire. Another gem from Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park.

Sample SIJO  poem


My laptop. The whole universe on a thirteen-inch scren.

It’s like having an extra brain. Besides, they cost a bomb –

just makes sense to pick something expensive over something cheap.

CARRY ON: Poetry by Young Immigrants,  illus. by Roge (translated from the French in 2021)

Children’s book author, Simon Boulerice had the opportunity to run creative writing workshops with migrant adolescents in Outremont Quebec. Each of the voices in this picture book collection were composed by newcomers to Canada. The one-page poems (less than 20 lines) were each illustrated in soft watercolour portraits where the spirits, hopes and identities of the youth shine through. 

This is a very special picture book. 

Excerpt

I couldn’t get my head around

The changes in my fate to come

What waits for us int his place?
What path will my life take?

IF ONLY by Miles Van  Hout (2021)

Sometimes we let our imaginations run loose and dream of becoming someone, or something else, perhaps an animal. This book invites children to wonder about the wonder of the life of bugs who might also dream of becoming something else…’if only’. The butterfly thought, If only I were a stick insect/ The stick insect thought if only I were a whirligig beetle. The whirligig beetle thought… The vibrant expressive art is terrific. The glossary of creatures and instructions for making collage art are a bonus.

ROOM ON OUR ROCK by Kate & Jol Temple; illus. Terri Rose Baynton (Released in Canada in 2021)

Two years ago, my friend brought this picture book from Australia as a gift. I was thrilled to see that it has now been published in Canada. It is a simple but powerful story about immigration and finding a place of welcome where there is ‘room on the rock’ for all who seek itVery cleverly the book is to be read to the end, then back again. A gem. 

GROWN UP READS: Winter 2021

Book by book, I’m getting through my pile of books for grown-ups. There’s rather a wide range of content in these titles that include a memoir about the Muslim experience in contemporary U.S., a book about the Asian identity experience in contemporary U.S., a memoir about growing up Black in the U.S., a novel about growing up Black in the U.S.,  a story about an android. a novel translated from the French about an aging prostitute,  a book about a queer NDN, a boozy church Deacon, and a collection of stories about LOVE.   Most titles were published within the last few couple of years. One is a 2021 publication.  Each and every one provides insights into unique identities. 

 

HOMELAND ELEGIES: A NOVEL by Ayad Akhtar

This is a lot of book. Fiction, Memoir, Essay in which the author, a Muslim, digs deep into the place of the immigrant in America. The story finds a centre in the relationship between Akhtar’s father, a heart specialist who once treated Donald Trump.  Or did he? Akhtar takes his narrative from his own personal experiences, but the  front cover displays the word “NOVEL” in a large a font as the title of the book.  Is this a novel? Is it autobiography? The central character is named Ayad Akhtar, a playwright who once won the Pulitzer Prize for the play Disgraced. (true). But did the author once have syphilis? encounter Islamophobia while waiting for his car to be repaired in Scranton, Pennsylvania? experience that wild night of sex? give a speech at a university? make a bundle of money with a hedge-fund scheme? I accept it all as truth but that word ‘novel’ looms large.  Most of all, Akhtar digs deep into otherness – his, his family and the friends and citizens he encounters. Much writing goes into unravelling political views, which for me was like attending a university lecture and not readily grasping what was being said. The first 80 pages or so were slow reading and I was going to put the book aside. I decided to persevere and was rewarded with a staggering, sprawling document of our times, a time when Trump’s ‘”particular genius was. need for attention so craven, so unrelenting, he was willing to don any and every shade of our moment’s ugliness, consequences be damned.” I often felt that I wasn’t smart enough for the author’s views of religion,  academia, and finance. I have many questions, but essentially am curious whether Ayad Akhtar will win another Pulitzer Prize? Deserved. 

THE VANISHING HALF Britt Bennett

Two identical twin sisters,  Stella and Desiree, are born light-skinned Black and come t0 choose as adults, to lead different lives; one in the urban white world; one in the rural black community. Each of the sisters has a daughter and for much of the book we see the world through their eyes: Kennedy who knows nothing about her mother who has chosen to pass for white and dark-skinned Jude who The way this novel is written is like holding a remote control in your hand. Bennett switches time and character and returns to them, chapter by chapter, and especially within the chapter narratives. The story and the storytelling was like watching a soap opera as we meet characters, learn about their relationships, their yearnings, their loves and their remembrances. That’s not to say, that the writing was ‘schlocky’ (Are soap opera’s shlocky?). The storytelling is efficient, intertwining stories, generations, and race. It is a book about past informing the present, denial and secrets, and family separation and bonding. 

THE BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE by Ta-Nehisi Coates

In this memoir,  Ta-Nehesi Coats brilliantly and poetically chronicles his coming-ofage story. At the centre of his life is his father,, Paul Coates A Vietnam vet, a Black Panther, a radical publisher and strict disciplinarian to seven children. Ta-Nehisi, surrounded by his chaotic Baltimore environment and a rather misguided outlook at education.  But the author grows into becoming the profound writer of The Water Dancer; We Were Eight Years in Power and Between the World and Me.  I should have finished this 221 page book in a few days, but I found myself reading many sentences over more than once.  I was making a lot of inferences, throughout, because of the way the author is ‘talking black’. The language, lingo and cultural contexts often slowed me down but who am I argue with Ta-Nehisi Coates powerful use language and narrative style of this important cultural, social and political writer. 

THE LIFE BEFORE US (Madame Rosa) by Romain Gary (Emile Ajar)

This book was written in 1975 and has been translated from the French La Vie Devant Soi. Recently, my friends Robbie and Marco highly recommend that I read this novel. I loved it! I had remembered seeing the terrific movie Madame Rosa with Simone Signoret. The film is being re-released on Blu-ray I decided to order the DVD (I haven’t ordered a DVD in sometime). There is an updated version of the story which was recently featured on Netflix, The Life Ahead with Sophia Loren (it was satisfactory).  I love books told from the point of view of young people and readers will fall in love with the MOMO as much as Madame Rosa did. Madame Rosa was a Holocaust survivor who now resides in a Paris suburb where she takes charge of children who had been dropped off by whores who have gone on their way, one of those being the orphaned Arab boy, Momo.  The cast of characters  includes pimps, witchdoctors, a transvestite, a Jewish doctor, and an umbrella. As the health of Madame Rosa tragically fades, Momo will do anything to support her in any way he can. This is a story of Devotion, with a capital D. Very funny. Very moving. Thank you Robbie and Marco for the recommendation. 

SHOUT OUT! THE HILL WE CLIMB by Amanda Gorman (poem)

This slim volume is the in-print version of Amanda Gorman’s poem presented on January 20, 2021, the day of President Biden’s inauguration. Activist and poet, Gorman, age 22, was the youngest poet to deliver a poetry reading at an inauguration and in the preface to this publication, Oprah Winfrey writes, ‘they don’t come very often, these moments of incandescence where the welter of pain and suffering gives way to hope. Maybe even joy.”

Excerpt (page 29)

When day comes, we step out of the shade

Aflame and unafraid.

The new dawn blooms as we free it.

For there is always light,

If only we’re brave enough to see it,

IF only we’re brave enough to be it. 

KLARA AND THE SUN by Kazuo Ishiguro (2021)

This is either a love-it (raves) or hate it (what’s it all about?) reading experience. I tend to avoid any books about dystopian futures. In fact, I generally steer away from Science Fiction, but Ishiguro’s novel intrigued me because I do like stories told from the point of view of young people. In fact this one ‘almost’ seemed like a YA novel. Klara is an. AF (Artificial Friend) who. was chosen by Josie, a young teenager who lives alone with her mother. Josie is ailing, and Klara becomes her loyal companion determined that no harm will come to her ‘friend’.  Klara’s wisdom, exceptional observational skills. The blurb on the back cover cites the following passage, “Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?” At the heart of the book, Ishiguro asks us to consider “what does it mean to love?”,  a question for all times that will continue to be asked in the future.  I didn’t love this book, I didn’t hate this book. I know I read it ‘differently’,  – with much inferring –  than I do other fiction. 

TINY LOVE STORIES edited by Daniel Jones and Miya Lee

Tiny Love Stories is part of the Modern Love column in The New York Stories. All 175  stories, 100 words of less, have been submitted by readers, young and old, gay or straight, parent or child, single, married or divorced. This was a fine little book to cozy up to on a winter afternoon while being stuck inside. There are stories of humour and tenderness and sadness. I enjoyed reading the anecdotes about Fate that brought people together (Woman on a subway: Will you please help me, I think I’m going to sneeze. The guy puts his hand under her nose to catch the sneeze. She just wanted him to hold her coffee so she wouldn’t spill it. That sneeze led to a marriage; a meeting in a tenement kitchen in Glasgow on the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.). Especially touching are stories of saying good-bye to loved one’s who are dying. Especially heartwarming are stories of parent and child. A little gem of a collection, ideal for sharing with anyone you love. 

SHELTER IN PLACE by David Leavitt

It is 2016 and Donald Trump has been elected president, much to the fear of a group of Manhattanites, especially Eva. a control freak who decides that owning and decorating a new home in Venice will provide a great escape. Leavitt emerges readers in conversations )often quite funny) about politics, decorating, romantic relationships (gay and straight), fidelity, cooking and dogs. The book had a gossipy flavour to it but in the end, I’m not sure how place provided a place of comfort, belonging, and shelter. (I wonder how this group would react to Mr. Trump in 2021).

DEACON KING KONG by James McBride

James McBride packs a wallop in every, often-lengthy. sentences. Syntax, images, lingo and description are vividly original in this story  set in 1969 Brooklyn. Sportcoat is the deacon in the old neighbourhood church (what does a deacon do anyway?) On the opening page we read that Deacon pulls the trigger on  a 19 year old drug dealer. From that pistol shot, the narrative rolls and rolls on as we learn about the secrets and stories and connections amongst the Black, Latinx and write citizens of the  area as well as the cops, mobsters and drug dealers who play a part in the survival of all the people affected by the shooting.  Shootings, police chases, drug deals, a a mysterious Christmas Club box, a valuable hidden treasure and the ghost of a beloved wife intermingle in this somewhat convoluted, boozy (very boozy) – and yes, funny – tale.  A friend recommended this title to me, saying it was absolutely the best book he read in 2020. I’m not as enthused about this book as my friend is. I was wowed by the writing, but this book took me longer to read than it should have and I often had trouble keeping track of the characters  (Sister Gee, Sister Paul, Soup, Elefante, Pudgy, Bum-bum,  Hot Sausage) and the many stories within stories. 

INTERIOR CHINATOWN by Charles Yu

This book  (winner of the National Book award 2020  for fiction) follows the life of ‘Generic Asian Man’ (Willis Wu)  who dreams of becoming Kung Fu Guy, more than just a background bit player in television and movies ,where if truth be told, most Asian characters have been relegated to. The novel is written in Courier font and  in the form of a screenplay of a cops and robber cop show. The unique combination of prose and script, the fiction within fiction narrative, and Willis Wu’s  determination to beat the system, and  his quest to ‘be more’,  help to make this a knockout (and funny) and certainly timely document of immigration, stereotyping, and Anti-Asian racism. 

JONNY APPLESEED by Joshua Whitehead

This book received recognition by being declared the winner of CBC Canada Reads 2021. Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Creee, Two-spirit Indigequeer member of Peguis First Nation.  Whitehead tells the story of Jonny Appleseed who after leaving the rez, struggles to live, love and survive in the big city (Winnipeg).  In 54 rather short chapters, we learn about Jonny’s lustful adventures, dreams of belonging, desires to be loved.  (“Funny how NDN ‘love you’ sounds more like ‘I’m in pain with you.'” The narrative premise is the that Jonny has 7 days to return to his home to attend the funeral of his stepfather. Episodes from Jonny’s life meander throughout the 223 pages but it is the powerful stories of family strong connections  (mother and beloved kokum) that poignancy and heart to Jonny’s outlook on life, Jonny’s hopes and dreams. A compelling, poetic, gritty, and funny, queer Indigenous Canada read!

PICTURE BOOKS: March 2020

Am always pleased to acquire new picture books, especially one’s that support teaching of identity and inclusion. The following 11 titles provide exploration of a number of topics.


EASTER MORNING, EASTER SUN by Rosanna Battigelli; Illus. Tara Anderson

A family of cats celebrate secular Easter traditions through rhythmic poetry. Easter springtime, Easter buzz/ Easter chirping, Easter fuzz. Full page illustrations add to the charm of this seasonal book.

HARLEY THE HERO by Peggy Collins

Harley is a service dog who accompanies Ms Prichard to school each day to ensure she feels safe. Children love Harley and send him letters of appreciation. One day, the old stage curtains catch fire and when the fire alarm blasts, chaos erupts. Fire safety and drill practice is an important part of school life but when a real fire breaks out, how does that safety practice get realized? Harley comes to the rescue and is a true hero. 

        SHOUT OUT:  MILO IMAGINES THE WORLD

by Matt de la Pena; illus. Christian Robinson

The Last Stop on Market Street by author de la Pena and illustrator Robinson won the won both the 2016 Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor and the dynamic duo have come together again for another gem of a picture book. The Setting: a subway/ The main character: Milo The plot: a boy imagines the lives of the people he encounters on the ride (a man with a crossword puzzle, a woman in a wedding dress, a boy in a suit).  The creates visions and narratives for these strangers in his sketchbook. But these pictures are drawn from Milo’s imagination and speculations. Can these stories be true? Can we ever know the truth about someone just by looking at them?  Not all young people can share in the urban experience of riding on subways or buses or street cars, but this story has universal appeal by helping to activate narratives about the strangers we meet, while travelling in the community, while visiting a park, while shopping, These stories may or may not be accurate but when re-reading Milo Imagines The World I was enthralled to have words and pictures that helps us to story and question  and imagine those we meet in our world. Perhaps these are only guesses, perhaps the ‘real’ story can be discovered over conversations and time.  I’m sure this is ‘game’ of making-up stories most grown ups play in their lives. This book lets children into the game of  “I wonder if…” about people they stop to think about. There is a powerful ending that helps to punctuate one of the themes of this wonderful wonderful picture book. 

“These monthly Sunday subway rides are never ending, and as usual Milo is a shook-up soda.

Excitement stacked on top of worry

on top of confusion

on top of love. 

WHEN ELEPHANTS LISTEN WITH THEIR FEET: Discover Extraordinary Animal Senses by Emmanuelle Grundmann; illus. Clemence Dupont


This is a fine specimen of a nonfiction picture book exploring the different ways that animals around the world, see, hear, feel, and taste. I admire the way that information is presented in succinctly presented in text boxes. that give enough detail and surprising facts about different animals. Did you know: That in proportion to its body, a bear’s brain is thee times smaller than a humans?; A Gambian pouched rat has an incredible sense of smell that is 300 times great than a human’s; a crab has no tongue but it still can taste? This book provides an abundance of facts (and illustrations) about all God’s creatures great and small. An index of animals, a glossary, diagrams, recording-breaking facts and an index to the book are bonus text features of this Canadian picture book, translated from the French.

EYES THAT KISS IN THE CORNERS by Joanna Ho; illus. Dung Ho

A young Asian girl notices that her eyes are different from her friends. Her eyes, like her mother’s and Amah’s (grandmother)) “kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea, crinkle into crescent moons” This is a wonderful book that help many young readers thing about their own identity, their own beauty and their family heritage. IT is a book that should give many children confidence in who they are, no matter what their eyes look like.

SUNNY DAYS by Deborah Kerbel; illus. Miki Sato

A celebration of sunny weather that welcomes readers into the world of play and investigations  on days when “Shining sun, beaming bright / Makes a cozy patch of light.” The appealing rhyming couplets and the textured collage art help shine a light on spring and summer activities (i.e. planting seeds; mud cookies; ocean swims; icy treats; outdoor reading; stretching shadows.) Hooray for sunny days! 

HAVE I EVER TOLD YOU BLACK LIVES MATTER by Shani Mahiri King; illus. Bobby C. Martin Jr.

This is a powerful poem that honours and ignites recognition of Black role models and how their their achievements have inspired, taught us. 116 names from sports, th arts, literature, politics, science etc are highlighted throughout thus building awareness of the names confirming that Black lives have mattered and do matte. This is not a typical verbal text and illustrated book. The text is presented in bold graphic style, with different coloured fonts and sizes. An appendix at the back provides autobiographical sketches of the names that have appeared throughout (e.g. Aretha Franklin, August Wilson, Chadwick Boseman, Jean-Michel Basquiat,  Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Marcus Garvey, Ta-Nehesi Coates, Thurgood Marshall).  The names are presented in order alphabetically by first name and may be easily recognizable, others invite further contemplation and inquiry. The poem is addressed to Black youth who ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’. Moreover, it is a book that is a litany of Black excellence that can help students in our classroom  appreciate and celebrate Blacks who mattered as they deepen understanding of social justice, equity and anti-racism.

                SHOUT OUT: FROM ARCHIE TO ZACK by Vincent X. Kirsch

“Archie loves Zack. Zack loves Archie.Everyone said it was so.” These two boys, one Black, one white, spend all their time doing things together. They love each other but haven’t found a way to tell each other about their feelings. A book with simple text, delightful illustrations, attention to diverse characters, I think there’s more to this title than a simple love story Love isn’t always simple, especially between two young (and older boys). I love Archie. I love Zach. I love this book.

THE TALE OF THE MANDARIN DUCK:  A Modern Fable  by Bette Midler, photographs by Michiko Kakutani; illus. Joana Avillez

I’m not fond of celebrity authored picture books but heck, I’m a Bette Midler fan, and a fan of  New York and any story about an animal that brings people together, and helps citizens to think about the natural beauty around them, seems to be worth reading.  The tale of this Mandarin Duck is based on the arrival of this brightly-coloured duck who arrived one October day in Central Park to swim alongside mallards and Canadian geese and found himself to be the centre of attention from her new Manhattan friends. Friends.. you gotta have ’em!. 

THE CAT MAN OF ALEPPO by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha; illus. Yuko Shimizu

“This is a story about cats and war and people. But most of all, it is a story about love.”
(Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel)

What a beautiful, heartwarming picture book. Based on a.true story, readers learn the good deeds of Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, an ambulance driver from Aleppo who took it upon himself to care for the animals who were left behind when Syrian refugees fled towards safety. Alaa took i what little money he had to boy food for the hundreds of hungry cats wandering through his beloved city. News of Alaa’s compassion and generosity spread through out the world and help was soon offered to the man who came to be known The Cat Man of Aleppo. This story of compassion and good deeds brings a narrative that can help young readers look courage and kindness that can help to overcome adversity. The art work by Yuko Shimizu, recognized by the New York Times  as one the best illustrated picture books of 2020 and is a Caldecott Honor winner.    is as powerful as the story depicting landscapes and humanity (and animals) in a war-torn country.

MY VERY FAVORITE BOOK IN THE WHOLE WORLD by Malcom Mitchell; illus. Michael Robertson.

If. you were asked to talk about your favorite book in the whole world, what title comes to mind? Would you be challenged to choose from many titles? For Henley, the assigned homework to find and share a favourite book is problematic. Harley does not like to read. Some books are too hard, some books are too boring, and most books aren’t any fun! Based on the author’s experiences as a struggling reader, this title acknowledges and respects those who don’t love books and reminds us, as J.K, Rowling says, “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book!” (spoiler alert: Harley does discover a very important, very favourite book.)

 

FICTION: MIDDLE YEARS, 2021

Here is a list of 10 novels for readers ages 10-13. One was my very favourite book so far this year. One of them hugely disappointed me. One was written by a former colleague of mine who I spent many a lunchtime gabfest with.  One was  very funny. One was very very very funny. One was a Newbery Award Winner.  A graphic story, a favourite author, a Canadian author, a multimodal story, a heart-stopping adventure,  a rabbit’s tale, were all mixed into my 2021 start-0f-the-year reading. 

 

THE CANYON’S EDGE by Dusti Bowling

It is Nora’s birthday and she and her father head into the Arizona desert to celebrate. Things turn for the worse, when Nora finds herself stuck in the bottom of a slot canyon, separated from her father who was taken away by a flash flood. This is a remarkable survival story where the young girl, without any supplies, faces dehydration, scorpions, snakes, frigid weather and fears and haunting memories of her mother who was killed in a shooting one year ago. Dusti Bowling (Insignificant Events in the Life of the Desert), knows all about the Arizona desert and takes readers into a frightening situations that will leave them ‘on the edge’. And this is novel is written in free-verse style. Bravo!

ILLEGAL by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin: illus. Giovanni Rigano (graphic novel)

When his brother, Kwame, disappears from his home in Ghana, Ebo is determined to  find his brother and join him on a journey to Europe. The story is told in alternating chapters – Then and Now describing Ebo’s dangerous journey across the Sahara Desert and dangerous streets (then) and the hazardous, harrowing journey at sea, riding perilously on a boat with other hopeful refugees.  This is a moving and nail-biting narrative, though fictional, is based on the true stories of ‘illegals’ forced to flee and struggle to survive.  Illustrator Rigano has mightily captured the landscapes, human expressions and   the cinematic events in alternating palettes (golden browns (then); midnight blues and turquoises (now). A worthwhile companion read to When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson.  From the preface: “You, who are so-called illegal aliens, must know that no human being is illegal…. How can a human being be illegal?” (Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor). 

THE SMARTEST KID IN THE UNIVERSE by Chris Grabenstein

Jake is just a ‘regular’ kid but when he eats a batch of jelly beans left aside at a hotel conference he suddenly finds himself to be ‘the smartest kid in the universe’.  His blurting out of facts astonishes his friends, family and teachers (TED talks stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design (T-E-D),but being so clever now leads him to help solve the problem of his middle school being torn down to make way for a luxury condo.  Grabenstein is a hero for writing wild and crazy adventures.  Helping the FBI, speedily learning to speak Spanish, finding Haazim Farooqui, the scientist who is responsible for IK (Ingestible Knowledge)  pills / jelly beans, being tested for IQ, having a friend addicted to watching detective shows, going on a mission to recover a long lost pirate treasure, becoming a basketball star, winning Quiz Bowl tournaments, infatuation, underarm perspiration and halitosis, are story elements that all whirl together to make this another Grabenstein winner. (first in a series) 

 

SHOUT OUT!  GROUND ZERO: A novel of 9/11 by Alan Gratz

This is a GREAT book!.  This is a THRILLING book! This is an IMPORTANT book. I am assured that Ground Zero will be a popular reading choice for students, ages 10-13 this year, particularly as we approach the 20th anniversary of the following of the Twin Towers.  There have been several books written about the 9/11 experience. (Nine, Ten: A September 11 story by Nora Raleigh Baskin,  Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes). In this novel, like Eric Walters’s, We All Fall Down,  a boy is visiting the tower on the day of the disaster. Brandon has been suspended from school and his father, who works as a chef in the top floor of the North Tower restaurant, insists that Brandon come to work with him. Early in the morning, Brandon is separated from his father because of a plan he had to go shopping in the underground mall. History tells us what happens, but through a fictional character we learn step by step how someone faced the confounding dangers of collapsing walls, being trapped in elevators, fire blasts, crowded staircases, power outages and the devastating fear of not knowing how you will survive. The events that Gratz takes readers through are heart-stopping. But, Gratz goes further.  The book is told in alternating chapters. After reading Brandon in 2001. the narrative takes us to September 11, 2010, Afghanistan where we meet Rashmina who has grown up in the shadow of war. When she ends up rescuing an American soldier named Taz, Rasmina needs to make decisions that involve her family, her community.  The young girl’s brother is determined to join the Taliban. In the chapters set in Afghanistan, readers learn about a family surviving with meagre means, ammunition hidden in caves, the threat of Taliban, the question of American as allies. revenge, bomb blasts and rescue. The author brilliantly interweaves past and present, illuminating personal tragedies and political views as he builds two heart-in-the mouth stories. I consider Alan Gratz’s REFUGEE a must read. Add  the riveting poignant Ground Zero to that must read list. It will be. 

 

BENBEE AND THE TEACHER GRIEFER by. K.A. Holt

DISCLAIMER: I know nothing about video games. Never play em. Not interested. I am however aways eager to read novels presented in multimodal format and K.A. Holt’s book is told from four different perspectives (+),  and includes  free-verse (double column, no less) (+), chat conversations, illustrated notebook entries and prose style. I also was intrigued with the plot of a reading teacher helping her students to pass the Florida Rigorous Academic Assessment Test (FART) . Stuck in summer school, the middle school  characters, divergent thinkers all, see things differently than the way school demands.  It is an addiction to Sandbox, a video game a la Minecraft tht keeps them motivated and the students make a deal with Ms. J that a minute with reading aloud equals one minute they get to play the video game.  Read some reviews of the book that were mighty favourable, and there is no doubt that tweenagers will enjoy the book. But I did not enjoy this book (See Disclaimer). The premise seemed interesting enough but I was puzzled by the teacher’s approach (reading aloud=successful literacy testing); the really smart inner voices  and language ability of these supposedly Special Needs Learners.  I was perturbed by the fact that the teacher refused to call Ben Y by their chosen name. I was angry that these kids were squeezed in under the stairs of the school.  I accept that a teacher of worth would always seek the strength of their students and teach according to their needs. I like that the kids become a community.  but  the narrative was a slog for me. Can’t win ’em all. If this is the first in a series, count me out.  I much preferred The Unteachables by Gordon Korman where I laughed at the teacher and rooted for those struggling students. 

FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON by Janae Marks

This novel rides on two mysteries 1. Will Zoe Washington achieve her dream of joining America’s Kids Baking Contest on TV 2. Will she be able to find proof that her father who has been in prison since her birth is innocent of committing murder. Readers will certainly root for 12 year old Zoe who is determined to create the ‘best cupcake’ to show off her talents and who is even more determined to communicate with the father she’s never met and to find a witness who might help with his case. Her quest forces her to tell likes and keep secrets from her mother and stepfather. An engaging, emotional  narrative filled with hope. 

UNTIL NIAGARA FALLS by Jennifer Maruno

Each chapter in this novel tells a story that involves friendship (and loyalties), community living, a summertime pastimes in the early 1960’s. Anecdotes about going to library, riding bicycles, going to the local swimming pool, wiener roasts, and churchgoing.. and pickles  are delightful to read. This novel encourages young readers to thing of their own summers, their own family and friendships, no matter where they live. I could taste the jujubes, the double bubble gum, I could hear the roar of the falls, I could see those souvenir stores and library rooms. Jennifer and I were teaching colleagues long ago in the Peel District. You’ve come a long way, kiddo!

CODE NAME BANANAS by David Walliams

I look forward to reading a new novel by the wildly entertaining author David Walliams.His stories are full adventure – farcical and absurd  and funny! This kind of stuff has a huge appeal for young readers and it’s no wonder that his books have been number one in book lists and sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. Applause for his inventive narratives, the design of the books with a range of fonts, black backgrounds and spot illustrations contribute to the appeal of these book treasures. And make no mistake, the gifted illustrator of these books, Tony Ross, explodes the narrative and delight the eyes the eyes while animating the verbal text. CODE NAME BANANAS is set in World War II, the London Blitz, Nazi attacks, a threatened assassination on Winston Churchill and a Gorilla named Gertrude who has been rescued from the London Zoo.  There was a somewhat different flavour to this Walliams title that had a layer of historical fiction.  But Walliams doesn’t fail to be farcically funny and has gone bananas with this adventure of an orphan boy, his uncle who has tin legs and a very loyal and very hungry monkey (oops! make that an ape!). 

ALICE’S FARM: A Rabbit’s Tale by Maryrose Wood

I’m quite fond of anthropomorphic stories (The One and Only Ivan; Abel’s Island) and this novel is a beautifully written tale in which rabbits and foxes and weasels and a bald eagle named John Glenn, live together, even if they are predator or prey. The Harvey family arrive from the big city to Prune Street Farm. Perhaps they are naive in their decision to make a go of it. but determined they are to find success. Alice, the rabbit, her brother and her friends collaborate to save the farm from being bulldozed, coming up with a plan (with the cooperation of other animals) to build a ‘miracle’ garden. Not since Charlotte’s Web have we been immersed in the everyday life of begin a farmer. But this book is full of life’s challenges and joys: the preservation of eagles, the threat of developers to overtake a property; the idea of homeschooling; the fear of hunters; the preservation of eagles; the ritual of annual autumn marketing; a community helping each other; the decision about being a vegetarian,  a passion for  creating a new product (dehydrated fruit)’ the inevitability of death and a family struggling to follow their dreams. Womderful writing. Great storytelling. 

 

SHOUT OUT: Newbery Winners 2021

NEWBERY MEDAL

WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER by Tae Keller

This is a powerful story about the power of stories.  Lily is a young Korean girl who moves into her grandmother’s home with her sister and mother. A stranger calls and wants to retrieve something from Halmoni (Grandmother).  The stranger happens to be a tiger. The something happens to be jars of story stars. Keller draws stories from Korean folklore in this captivating, often thrilling , story of friendship,  heritage and loyalty.Lily’s strange encounters with a tiger and with hopes hopes of rescuing her ailing grandmother from getting sicker, make this a engaging novel about identity, culture and family for middle age readers.  

NEWBERY HONOR WINNERS:

FIGHTING WORDS by Kimberly Brubaer Bradley

WE DREAM OF SPACE: Erin Entrada Kelly

ALL THIRTEEN: THE INCREDIBLE CAVE RESCUE OF THE THI BOYS SOCCER TEAM by Christina Soontornvat

BOX: HENRY BROWN MAILS HIMSELF TO FREEDOM by Carole Boston Weatherford

 

RECENT PICTURE BOOK PURCHASES

Fiction, nonfiction and poetry titles and some titles  that deal with tough topics – and the pandemic. Some staggering art abounds, including a list of Caldecott winners, 2021.

THE LIGHTS & TYPES OF SHIPS AT NIGHTS by Dave Eggers; illus. Annie Dills (nonfiction)

WOW! WOW! WO! This book is a celebration of ships that pass in the night providing. readers with essential facts about all kinds of boats  (a container ship, a RORO, a trawler, a galleon.  Moreover, the astonishing art illuminates the words. You can certainly see those lights shine brightly as they explode off the dark background.  Follow the invitation the author to give praise to the world of boats: “But did you realize that of all the worlds most beautiful sights, there is nothing more beautiful than a ship and its lights on the sea at night? This is true This is a factual book.”  This premise may be far removed from the world of most young citizens but isn’t it oh-so-wonderful- the worlds and information that a great picture book to their wondering minds?

A PLACE INSIDE OF ME: A poem to heal the heart by Zetta Elliott; illus. Noa Denman (poem)

This title recently received a Caldecott Honour prize. Through the eyes of a Black  boy, readers think about the different emotions that young adolescents might experience, (i.e., fear, anger, pride, joy). Amidst grief and protests and healing, “There is still hope inside of me/ a promise deep down inside of me/ that I will use my life to help others/ and they will help me in return.” 

WE ALL BELONG by Nathalie Goss; illus. Goss

Simple rhyming text and clear illustrations help young children think about the fact that “Everyone is different in one way or another.” A good introduction to diversity. 

THINKER: MY PUPPY POET AND ME by Eloise Greenfield; illus. Ehsan Abdollahi (poetry)

A small collection of free=verse. poems, written by an average puppy named Thinker. Jace’s pet needs to keep quiet, but when he accompany’s his owner to school one day his secret identity as poet extraordinaire is revealed.

When I recite my poems,
I make music. I say the words
fast or slow high or low,
I stop and I go, almost
like singing, making
word-music

CATCH THE SKY by Robert Heidbreder; illus. Emily Dove

Each short rhymes (each four lines) in this collection is a tribute to things we see  high in the sky. (e.g., Kites, Dragonflies, Balloons, Helicopter, Elephant Cloud, ). The subtitle of the book ‘ Playful  Poems on the Air We Share”  is an invitation to read these poems to and with young readers. Wonderful!

Crows

Dark sprays of wings

     through fading light,

        crowd-clouds of crows

             head home for the night.

INTERSECTION ALLIES: We Make Room for All by Chelsea Johnshon, La Toya Council, & Carolyn Choi; illus. Ashley Seil Smith

The intersection of our identity (ie. age, sin colour, religion, body size, class and culture identify who we are and how we live. By helping young people think about  how all the different parts of ourselves combine to affect our life experiences and personal identity (i.e., Intersectionality), the authors invite our students to open their arms up wide to ‘make room’ for those who are not like us. Despite differences, we can still have values and interests and stories that intersect. A remarkable, accessible book told in rhyme that helps readers grown in their understanding of uniqueness and social justice. Much thanks to teacher Tracey Donaldson for recommending this titles. 

THE CAT MAN OF ALEPPO by Irene Latham; Shamsi-Basha Karium and Yuko Shimizu (nonfiction)

This is based on the true story of a Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel who bravely offered safe haven to hundreds cats in Aleppo  left stranded the midst of Syrian Civil War. This title was the recipient of the Caldecott Honor, 2021. The story and art together make this a treasured book for sharing 

AND THE PEOPLE STAYED HOME by Kitty O’Meara; illus. Stefano Di Cristofaro and Paul Pereda

A book for our times when e we needed to go into quarantine. This poem was written in the early days of the global coronavirus pandemic and posted o Facebook. The book has now presented as a picture book with simple statements and large pages flat-colour illustrations The words help readers to think about the importance of spending time with ourselves, to cherish the people and things in our lives and to consider our place in the planet. (“And the people began to think differently. And the people healed.”).  I have a hunch we’ll be meeting much literature about COVID 19.  A book like this (and Eric Walters’ novel “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” are worthy pieces to begin the journey. 

WHO ARE REFUGEES AND MIGRANTS? WHAT MAKES PEOPLE LEAVE THEIR HOMES? and other big questions by Michael Rosen 7 Annemarie Young (nonfiction)

This nonfiction book answers some essential questions to help readers understand the lives of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants who have left their homes, often experiencing life-threatening journeys to find safety. The questions and answers are clearly laid out (with photographs) in 485 page resource which  succinctly provides explanations to help readers a) understand the plight of millions of people across the world b) think about the big questions raised by the subject and think about their own views and responsibilities to human rights. 

I AM HUMAN: A Book of Empathy by Susan Verde; illus. Peter H. Reynolds

This title affirms that being human means that we find joy in friendships, be fearful of things we don’t yet understand.,  and that we are not perfect and make mistakes.  If I  “keep trying to be the best version of ME”, I know that I need to make good choices, act with compassion have empathy for others, thereby feeling l am connected to the goodness of the world.

BOX: Henry Brown Mills Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford; illus. Michele Wood (biography; poetry)

 There are many fine examples of children’s picture books, biographies and novels to help readers make sense of the Slavery and the Undergroiund Railroad experience. In this award-winning book, Poet Carole Boston Weatherford  tells the story of Henry Brown, who shipped himself in a box from slavery to freedom. The narration is told in titled stanzas of six lines each ‘each line representing one side of a box.’  Factual information drawn from both Brown’s own writing and historical records provide the poetic narration. The art work (mostly given full pages) exquisitely conveys the life of African Africans seeking freedom. An important, astonishing,  picture book creation. 

SOMETIMES A WALL by Dianne White; Illus. Barroux

We haven’t heard the word “I’m building a wall,’ much in the lasg couple of years but in this picture book, we go an a neighbourhod journey, through simple subtly rhyming text to encounter all kinds of walls. (‘So many things we choose to do / Different sides and points of view.

 

SHOUT OUT: Caldecott Awards Winners, 2021

WE ARE WATER PROTECTORS by Carole Lindstrom; illus. Michaela Goade (2020)

This picture book is worthy of the awards it will/should receive. A rally cry to save the Earth’s water from harm and corruption (i.e. the harm of the evil black snake). “This is not a Native American issue; this is a humanitarian issue. It is time that we all become stewards of our planet so we can protect it for our children and our children’s children./ Water affects and connects us all. We must fight to protect it.” Carole Lindstrom

WHY?: Inspired by Indigenous movements to defend the sacred resource. A strong companion piece to award-winning The Water Walker by Canadian Ojibwe author.  Lush jewel-coloured illustrations provide an art-gallery of visuals. Bonus: Appendix essay /More on Water Protectors. Bonus (final page) An Earth Steward and Water Protector Pledge (“I will do my best to honor Mother Earth and all its living beings, including the water and land. I will always remember to treat the Earth as I would like to be treated.”)

We stand

With our songs

And our drums.

We are still here.

 

Caldecott Honor Winners

ME AND MAMA by Cozbi  Cabrera

THE CAT MAN OF ALEPPO  by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha;  illus. Yoku Shimuzu

OUTSIDE IN by Deborah Underwood; illus. Cindy Derby.

A PLACE INSIDE OF ME by Noa Denmon; illus, Zetta Elliott

LARRY’S FAVOURITES 2020

It’s been quite the different year. (You can quote me on that!). Going to live theatre came to a stop in early March. Sitting in a Cineplex seems to be a thing of the past. Watched more Netflix than I ever have before. Tried to catch some theatre events being streamed (some were readings of plays). Being stuck inside, I accomplished a LOT of reading… over 160 books, a majority was children’s literature, but lots of grown-up reads too. In the middle of the night, I kept ordering stuff from Amazon and though I was hoping that the pandemic would reduce my ‘to read’ stacks, I have piles to go before I sleep.

The following is an attempt to highlight some of my favourites. Though I tried to keep up with new releases, not all literature came from 2020 titles. Items are listed alphabetically, and because most novels were targeted for Middle Years, my list is a bit longer for those titles. 

I gave up limiting each list to five titles. I gave up choosing the best of the best, but I’ve put an asterisk beside some titles that were some of my  favourite favourite things.


PICTURE BOOKS

If You Come to Earth by Sophie Blackall 

Wild Symphony Dan Brown (illus. Susan Batori (poetry)

All Because You Matter by Tami Charles; illus Bryan Collier

I Talk Like a River  Jordan Scott; illus. Sydney Smith *
I Am Every Good Thing Derrick Barnes; illus Gordon C. James
Outside In  Deborah Underwood; illus. Cindy Derby *
We Are All Water Protectors Carole Lindstrom; illus. Michaela Goade *

NOVELS: MIDDLE YEARS

The Colour of the Sun David Almond
Fighting Words Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Class Act Jerry Craft

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise Dan Gemeinhart
How to Bee Brin MacDibble *

Prairie Lotus Linda Sue Park
Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney
Becoming Mohammad Ali by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander *
Ghost Boys Jewell Parker Rhodes (reread) *
Three Keys Kelly Yang

NOVELS: CANADIAN

The Case of Missing Auntie Michael Hutchinson
The Greats Deborah Ellis
The Brushmaker’s Daughter Kathy Kacer
Don’t Stand So Close to Me by Eric Walters
The King of Jam Sandwiches Eric Walters 

GRAPHIC TEXTS

Dancing at the Pity Party Tyler Feder

When Stars Are Scattered  Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed *
A Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel  Jason Reynolds *
Dragon Hoops  Gene Luen Yang *
The Wanderer (wordless) Peter Van den Ende

GROWN-UP READS

Anxious People by Frederik Backman

The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes (NF)
Apeirogon by Colum McCann *
Let the Great World Spin by Column McCann
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell *
Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld (NF)

NETFLIX (Series)

Fauda

Flowers 
La Casa de Los Flores (House of Flowers)
The Crown
, Season 4
Midnight Diner *
Ozark
The Queen’s Gambit
Rita

AMAZON PRIME 

The Amazing Mrs. Maisel
Flesh and Blood

Friday Night Dinner 
Normal People
Small Axe (5 films)

MOVIES

Burning
Mother *
The Personal History of David Copperfield (Cineplex)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Cineplex)
Sorry We Missed You (Cineplex) *

Da 5 Blood

Another Round

DOCUMENTARIES

Botero

Father, Soldier, Son

Filthy Rich: Jeffrey Epstein 
The Octopus Teacher (Netflix) *
What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

PLAYS: Streaming

Barbecue
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk
Lips Together, Teeth Apart
The Men From the Boys
A Monster Calls 
Pipeline
Sea / Wall
Three Kings *

PLAYS AS FILMS (TV)

American Utopia *
The Boys in the Band
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
What the Constitution Means to Me

PLAYS: LIVE…(January-March)

Adrenaline

Midsummer’s Night Dream (Theatre Rusticle)

Box 4901
Caroline or Change (The Musical Stage Company)
My Name is Lucy Barton (NY)
Sunday in the Park with George (Eclipse Theatre)
West Side Story (NY) *

 

CD’s (yes, CD’s)

THE DREAM OF YOU Diana Krall

RENDEZVOUS WITH MARLENE Ute Lemper

SOMEWHERE ELSE: West Side Story Songs Ted Nash

DEBUSSY/RAMEAU Vikingur Olaffsson

DOLLY PARTON: Greatest Hits Dolly Parton

WOMAN CHILD  Cecile McLorin Salvant *

IN THE HEART OF THE MOON Ali Farka Toure

 

ETC. / SHOUT OUTS

TELEPHONE TALES Gianni Rodari; illus. Valerio Vidali (70 short stories translated from the Italian)
TAKE ME TO THE WORLD: A SONDHEIM 90th BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION
CECILE McLORIN SALVANT (all 5 CD’s)

GROWN-UP READS: Fall 2020

The 9 titles below are fairly eclectic mix of  hilarious, mysterious, diary, short stories, Canadian and non-Canadian. Next up…I’m going to dig into books by favourite authors (John Boyne, Rachael Joyce, David Leavitt, Colum McCann).  If folks would stop recommending titles to me I’d perhaps get to those 20 or so books staring at me.  But keep those recommendations, coming… I think we’ll be stuck indoors for a while longer. 

 

ANXIOUS PEOPLE by Frederik Backman

This is the newest title by popular author Frederik (A Man Called Ove) Backman. This book is hilarious.  I was entertained and enlightened by this whacky farcical story” about a bank robbery, an apartment viewing, and a hostage drama. But even more it’s a story about idiots. But perhaps not only that”.  (p. 98)  This is my favourite of of Backman’s books since since Ove. It was the last novel I read in 2020. I loved it!

THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY by Matt Haig

Do you have any regrets about the choices you’ve made or the way you’ve lived your life? If you could go back in time to make changes, small or large would you? Nora Seeds, in her late 30’s is very unhappy with her life, so despondent, so wallowing in self-pity that she wants to end her life (“I am a waste of carbon footprint..” “I am not cut out for living.” )When Nora  finds herself in the Midnight Library, she has a chance to replay the events of her life by choosing from shelves of books that will allow her do things differently.  Will she find a perfect life? Will she after experiences hundreds of life stories (singer in a band, Olympic swimmer, author, Arctic traveller find the answer to the question, “What is the best way to live?” I myself don’t seem to live a life that dwells on regrets, so I didn’t seem to emerse myself in Nora’s adventures back in time. Accepting the fantasy premise that you can re-do your life, I was intrigued enough to keep reading if and how Nora will find happiness.

RABBIT FOOT BILL by Helen Humphreys

Humphreys draws on real life events that took place in Saskatchewan in 1947 when a an outsider, named Rabbit Foot Bill killed a bully boy.  In the novel, a young boy named Leonard flint was enamoured with Rabbit Foot Bill’s free-spirited life living alone and chasing rabbits. The book skips through time, from 1947 to 1959 (back to 1947) and then to 1970. When Leonard Flint arrives at Weyburn Mental Hospital, known for LSD experiments with mental patients, he meets up with Rabbit Foot Bill once again and is eager to establish a bond with him. The book is a mystery story, digging into the events of the past, but moreover, a psychological narrative, digging into why we behave the way we do. I loved this book. Humphreys is a great storyteller, describing events and feelings with clarity and compassion.

LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN by Colum McCann

This novel has been sitting on my shelf for a few years and I knew I’d get around to reading it one day. This summer, after reading the author’s newest publication APEIROGON, I’ve been collecting some McCann novels and was eager to find out what all the fuss was about with Let The Great World Spin. When my nephew recently asked me what it was about, I said that it was the story of the guy who walked across the twin towers in the ’70’s. That news event filters throughout the novel, but the book is more than the story of PHILIPPE PETIT’S harrowing feat. Narratives include a young Irish monk living in the Bronx who brings salvation amongst prostitutes, a group of mothers, connected by the loss of their songs who died in Vietnam, who meet in a Park Avenue apartment, a prostitute and her mother charged with misdemeanors and a Jewish judge who, in some way, connects all the stories. But the main character is the city of New York. who draws humans together through tragedy and hope. Yes, McCann is deserved of praise for this heartbreaking novel. I am anxious to read three other of his titles sitting on my shelf.

THE DIARY OF DUKESANG WONG: A Voice from Gold Mountain by Dagid McIlwraith; illus. Wanda Joy Hoe (NF)

This book contains the only known first-person account by a Chinese worker on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad and serves as witness account to the life and times of thousands of Chinese railway workers. The book presents translations by Wanda Joe Hoe  of her grandfather’s diaries from 1867-1918 outlining Wong’s journey. This narrative journey includes  Wong’s decision to emigrate from an unstable China, the appalling conditions, hard labor  working on the CPR he encountered, and finally  to the time he became a father, husband and tailor in New Westminster BC.  It is the document not only of racism and exploitation but it is the story of the strength of the human spirit.

THE ROUND HOUSE by Louise Erdrich

The setting –  a reservation in North Dakota, 1988. The protagonist – thirteen-year-old Joe who’s family life is transformed when his mother has been raped. As Joe tries to bring comfort to his traumatized mother and gets answers about the crime from his father, a tribal judge, he is prepared to independently embark on the investigation. This book is more than a mystery story and a coming-of age story. It provides powerful (and comical) (and spiritual) narratives of the Ojibwe experience.  This National Book Award winner provided the author with a platform for 1 in 3 Native women who will be raped in her lifetime, the majority of assaults perpetrated by non-Native men.  (2009 Amnesty International Report)I hadn’t read any books by the author, but this title, which is a birthday gift from a dear friend,  has assured me that I am in for further rich reading about the Native American people through the many novels she has written.

IN ONE ERA & OUT THE OTHER by Sam Levenson

I have a distinct recollection of reading this book in 1974 while riding on the Sheppard Ave bus . Early in the book, humourist, Sam Levenson describes his experiences as a school teacher and it spurred me on to apply to the Faculty of Eduction University of Toronto to become a teacher. The rest of history. I re-ordered the book from Amazon and re-read it on Christmas Day 2020.  Levenson’s writing made me laugh, especially his observations of Jewish family life.  Mother: “I’m going to visit the neighbour’s for a minute. Make sure you stir the chicken soup every 30 minutes”. Father: “Next time I take you any place I’m gonna leave you home.” Humour a la David Sedaris, Jerry Seinfeld, Neil Simon that I love.

“IS THIS ANYTHING?” by Jerry Seinfeld

The title questions is what every comedian says to other comedian when. they want to try out new bits. Jerry Seinfeld has dug into the files of stand-up material and is divided into sections that cover the past 4 decades (the final chapter archives routines from the last 5 years).  Each transcript  as a title, and most take up less than 3 pages in double-space format. I love this stuff. Funny observation s scrutinize the ordinary and give meaning to what seems to be the ordinary with Seinfeld’s razor-sharp wit. (e.g. Cotton Balls, Airplane Bathrooms, Doctor’s Waiting Room, Marriage Chess, Lip Liner, Coffee Break).Having been a fan of the sitcom, Jerry Seinfeld’s voice and mannerisms jumped off every line of the shticks presented here. This book kept me company as U.S. election results unfold.  Great to have a funny book, a funny man to keep you company in these wonky times. Loved it!

HOW TO PRONOUNCE KNIFE by Souvankham Thammavongsa (Short Stories)

Winner of the Giller Prize 2020.  Poignant narratives floating around the immigrant experience. I liked every story in this anthology. Precise crafted writing. Deserved of the award.

NEW PICTURE BOOKS

Sure wish I had a classroom of kids to share some of these fine picture books with. Most are 2020 titles and I’m placing bets that at least one of these will win picture book awards.  Each book is like a great walk through an art gallery. Three titles get shout outs from Dr. Larry. 

 

IF YOU CAME TO EARTH by Sophie Blackall

How might you explain the wonders of the world to someone from another planet? What might you tell them about cities,town villages; the homes we live in; our families; our friends; weather, emotions, occupations, school, celebrations, oceans, rivers, seas…

“The book is a call for us to take care of both Earth and each other.” (jacket blurb)

The opening statements from this picture book can inspire writers at all grade levels.
DEAR VISITOR FROM OUTER SPACE,
IF YOU CAME TO EARTH, HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW.

ALL BECAUSE YOU MATTER by Tami Charles; illus. Bryan Collier

Hope and affirmation of black identity presented in lyrical verses and acoompanied by vivid paintings by masterful artist Bryan Collier.

On the night you were born, /stars sprayed across the sky, /each one full of
light,
hope,
love,
and all the moments in your life that would matter…

YOUR PLACE IN THE UNIVERSE by Jason Chin

A beautiful specimen of a nonfiction picture book that has readers wondering and learning about the immensity of the universe. This book is filled with scientific facts and fascination with scale. (‘e.g., Scientists believe there are trillions of comets beyond the Kuiper Best. The farthest of these could be 100,000 times farther from the Sun than the Earth is’. / ‘The Edge of Space is around 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level’.Any reader intrigued with Space – and with big numbers – will be intrigued by the abundance of information that appears throughout (including an informative appendix). Note: Metric numbers are provided throughout. 

HUNDRED: What You Learn In a Lifetime by Helke Faller; illus. Valerio Vidali (2017)

This book (not necessarily a book for children), examines life from age 0 to 100. Each of the 100 items makes a philosophical  (8: ‘You get braver with every step.’) or asks a philosophical question (45: ‘Do you like yourself the way you are?’).  There are many universal truths in Faller’s survey of a long life.  And whether we’ve experienced the life events celebrated, adult readers can reflect  and consider the big question ; “What have you learned from life?” The draw for me was the art by Valerio Vidali who illustrated the new English publication of Gianni Rodari’s Telephone Tales. I’d sure love to write a book that Vidali could illustrated. 

B ON YOUR THUMB by Colette Hiller and Tor Freeman

This is a collection of 60 poems to boost reading and spelling. Each rhyme teaches a particular lesson by tackling tricky spellings.  Essential letter  sounds or letter combinations  are indicated with the use of Upper Case and/or colour font.  The authors `ell us that there are ditties (good choice of word) for young children learning to master letter sounds and  as well as poems that are examples of spelling patterns or tricky spellings.  

A  Very Short Lesson

Here’s the lesson for today:

A + Y = ay.

That is all I have to say.

Lessons over. Go away.

RAVEN, RABBIT, DEER by Sue Farrell Holler; illus. Jennifer Faria

A gentle and  cozy book about  a young boy’s outing with his grandfather along a snowy forest trail.  The boy enjoys teaching his grandfather about the joys of playing in the snow and the grandfather enjoys pointing out the tracks of animals that they encounter along the way, naming raven, rabbit and deer in both English and Ojibwemowin. A warm intergenerational story on chilly winter’s venture from Canadian author Sue Farrell Holler. 

I PROMISE by LeBron James

Inspired by the NBA chanpion’s I PROMISE School in Akron Ohio, readers are encouraged to think about how success starts with the and that they need to “promise’  to reach their full potential. “I promise to work hard and do what’s right, to be a leader in this game of life.” NOTE: Each page features a group of young children enjoying their time at school. On the final spread, nine children climb and play all around the words I PROMISE. Only one of these children appears to be Caucasian. We’ve come a long way in the world of picture books.  Just sayin’.

WHAT WE’LL BUILD: Plans For Our Together Future by Oliver Jeffers

Jeffers seldom disappoints. This is a tribute to a father and daughter, spending special time together to build a home of safety, warmth and love.  Told in simple couplet rhymes (often assonant rhymes) (i.e., ‘I’ll build your future and you’ll build mine/We’ll build a watch to keep our time.’). A book filled with optimism and love and wonderful wonderful art (of course!)

THE MUSEUM OF ME by Emma Lewis (2016)

A visit (and a celebration) to all kinds of museums and the different exhibits we can experience. I was hoping the book would be more like visual images of  the ‘me museum’ (like: My Map Book).  It’s not until we arrive at the last page that we have images that represent the girl’s life.

WHEN THE WORLD WENT QUIET by Tia Martina; illus Kelly Ulrich

When the Global Pandemic hit, people were stuck inside and the world went quiet. This book, told in rhyme, describes how animals returned to more free existence throughout the world. The book helps us ” to focus on the preservation of wilderness and the protection of wildlife”.  (‘Giant elephants wandered slowly foraging for tasty treats/ Where they were joined by the spotted civet on India’s empty streets.’ )

YOU MATTER by Christian Robinson

Christian Robinson won the Caldecott Honor and Newbery Medal awards both for Last Stop on Market Street written by Matt de la Pena. This book is told in simple text and vivid illustrations to help students know that they matterr… whether they swim with the tide, or not; If they fall down and have to start over again; if they feel lost and alone; old or young’ big or small; first or last.

OUTSIDE IN by Deborah Underwood; illus. Cindy Derby

Pondering: When Deborah Underwood wrote the draft of this picture book, did she know that in 2020, much of the world would be ‘stuck inside’.  In simple, lyrical text, the author pays worship to the beautiful sights sounds and smells of things outside our windows (e,g., Outside sings to us with chirps/ and rustles/ and taps-taps on the roof). The mighty watercolour images, sometimes expressionistic,  by artist Cindy Derby support and strengthen Underwood’s words. This is one of the best picture books of the year – and for the year.

THE WANDERER by Peter Van Den Ende

This is a WOW! picture book artifact. The  artist spent several years to create the black and white spreads for this wordless picture book. The real and surreal images of ocean life and beyond are astonishing. Readers who choose to gaze slowly at the illustration on  each page will wonder,  ‘How did he do that?’  The story: A small paper boat is set out to sea and quietly and bravely carries on despite monumental encounters with extraordinary creatures of land, sea and air, gigantic ships, and heavenly skies.  The interpretation of the narrative and symbols is left totally up to the reader. Picture book artist Shaun Tan declares this book to be “wonderfully strange and strangely wonderful.” Awesome indeed! 

MIDDLE YEARS BOOKS: December 2020

I finished off this year, reading some terrific terrific 2020 novels for middle years readers. I have a hunch a few of these titles will appear on many end-of-the-year top ten lists. I have a hunch there are awards awaiting some titles within this list. I’ve highlighted some SHOUT-OUTs in pink font.  I have a pile of YA novels staring at me.. .but I am eager to dig into some grown-up reads to start of 2021. 

 

FIGHTING WORDS by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Life for ten-year old Della and her teenager sister has not been good. Their mother is now in jail after blowing up a hotel room making meth. They have been tormented by a man their mother has left behind. Both girls end up living in a Foster Home. They take nothing for granted and  hope that one day life will get better.  Della has always relied on Suki for care, protection and hope. Suki has dark secrets that demonize her. When Suki tries to commit suicide the girls lives turn upside down. It’s time to take stand up and speak up.. To have a middle age novel about child sexual abuse is brave and important. This compassionate novel serves as a guide to what it means to be resilient and how we can overcome dark times. The author’s note: “The first thing I want you to know is, it happened to me.” 

A PLACE AT THE TABLE by Sadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan.

Sara is a Pakistani girl who arrives at a new middle school and is uncomfortable about meeting making friends. Elizabeth, Jewish girl,  has friendship problems, the fickleness of girl loyalties. Sara’s mother is struggling to make ends meet and establishes a cooking business. Elizabeth’s mother is saddened by the recent death of her mother in the United Kingdom. Both Sara’s  mother and Elizabeth’s mother need to pass the test to become American citizens. An after-school cooking class (led by Sara’s mother) bring the two girls together and a friendship is strengthened by the possibility of winning a spot ona local food show. by creating a cross cultural dish together (Halwa Cuppa Tea (Pakistani Halwa and British Earl Grey tea).  This is an engaging story about friendships, family, and food. It is also about story about cultures joining together amidst the shadows of racism. A worthy contribution to books about cultural diversity that many students will likely identify with. The novel, written by two authors is presented in chapters that alternate the voices of the two main characters, Elizabeth and Sara.

THE SILVER ARROW by Lev Grossman

Kate is bored and writes a note to her uncle – her very rich uncle – asking for a birthday present. Careful what you wish for, Kate, cuz she finds herself the recipient of a train – a real train, The Silver Arrow. Kate and her brother hop aboard the train which takes them on thrilling adventures through forests, under the ocean, up in the sky. Along the way, the passengers who join in the travesl are animals from around the world: a porcupine, a mangrove snake, a heron, a polar bear and a pangolin (the only mammal with scales).  In the end (or about 3/4 way through) we learn the reason for the gathering of this menagerie… to protect animals from extinction brought on by human behaviour.  Lev Grossman tells a great story that holds a terrific appeal for readers, ages 9-11 who like fantasy adventures., books with fairly short chapters and black and white illustrations that help to bring reality to fantasy.   Spoiler: although there is a ‘no place like home’ endingI don’t think this is the last of ,Kate,Tom and The Silver Arrow

LUPE WONG WON’T DANCE by Donna Barba Higuera

7th Grader, Lupe Wong is a fighter. And an activist. Her mission is to eliminate Square Dancing from the Physical Education program because it’s archaic, discriminatory, and embarrassing. Lupe’s daily problems are part of the world of young adolescents, especially the fickle loyalty of friendships. But Lupe is determined to raise her voice for what she believes is right and throughout the book finds ways to convince her gym teacher and her principal that things need to change.  She also has her eyes set on a goal on becoming a the famous pitcher in the Major Leagues, just like Fu LI Hernandez, who like her is Chinacan/ Mexinese.  Spoiler alert: tall gets well-solved with a happy ending. Readers will root for – and perhaps identify with – this feisty, funny character.

SHOW ME A SIGN by Ann Clare LeZotte

From 1640 through the late 1800’s, hereditary deafness was common on Martha’s Vineyard, especially in the town of Chilimark, where at one time, one in twenty-five residents was born deaf.  Le Zotte is a deaf librarian and with this novel she describes a world of the past (1805)  set on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard. Mary is grieving for the loss of her older brother who was killed in an accident. When a stranger arrives in the community, Mary’s world shifts. The young scientist hopes to learn more about the mystery of the island’s prevalent deafness. The book is divided into two parts and the second half is brings danger to Mary’s life after she has been kidnapped to be used as a research specimen. This is a story that illuminates the deaf experience for readers. Many Deaf readers will likely identify with Mary’s plight. LeZotte has strong storytelling skills as she examines grief, cultural clashes, racism and intolerance. This is a special book. 

CHIRP By Kate Messner

This one is about a cricket farm (and sexual harassment). Mia and her family return to live in Vermont and she is determined to saver her grandma’s cricket busy (they’re delicious and healthy too) and when she learns that there is a plot underway she gets the help of her new friends to find out who is trying to destroy the farm.  After 100 pages, we learn that Mia is also keeping a secret about a former gymnastic trainer who gave her inappropriate hugs and massages.  The cricket story is intriguing, the makerspace camp that Mia attends is very current, and the harassment story is drawn from contemporary news stories.  A good read. 

THE MAGIC FISH by Trung Le Nguyen (graphic novel)

Tien’s parents are refugees and he can’t seem to find the right words to tell them that he is gay.  Three fairy tales (The German “Allerleiruah” and the Vietnamese “Ta m Cam”, two versions of Cinderella and a version of “The Little Mermaid” )help Tien to navigate the world. The author is a remarkable artist and this is his first graphic novel. Graphic stories stimulate readers to make inferences (the narrative between the panels, the reliaistie on narrative captions, making-meaning through visuals) and for me this book falls short on clear storytelling. I wasn’t wasn’t always sure who the characters were (and how old they were), and I there seemed to be gaps in what was happening in each of the three folktales. Stronger use of narrative captions might have helped. But as a coming-out story of a Vietnamese boy, The Magic Fish is autographical and might help some young adolescents contemplate their own sexual identities. 

BECOMING MUHAMMAD ALI by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander (biographical novel) 

Before he was Muhammad Ali, he was Cassius Clay and two mighty authors have joined together to create this astonishing fictional biography. Recount from Cassius Clay’s early life is told in the first person as poetry (Alexander) and in third person narratives from the point of view of Clay’s best friend, Lucas,  Lucky for short (Patterson).  Full page black and white illustrations are interspersed throughout the book, which is divided into ten sections (ten rounds). But there is something more to this fine book than the story of perseverance and confidence of this athletic hero who knew he would become The Greatest. This is a story that celebrates Blackness and heightens awareness that Blackness means going through the world differently from white counterparts. From the New York Times review, November 8, 2020, “It is my hope that Black children read this book, see themselves in young Clay and know that they too are poetry made flesh.”  This is a fantastic book and it is my hope that readers of all races immerse themselves in Cassius Clay’s growing-up tale of family and friends and school and infatuation and a tale of fierce determination to rise against all odds.  James Patterson is a  great author, Kwame Alexander is a great poet  who pay tribute to Muhammad Ali, The Greatest. This is one of the greatest books for middle years readers this year.

LORETTA LITTLE LOOKS BACK: Three Voices Go Tell it by Andrea Davis Pinkney; illus. Brian Pinkney

What a mighty mighty book this is! The story spans three generations from the cotton fields (1927) to the presidential election (1968). Andrea’s brilliant text includes first-person narratives, spoken-word poems, folk myths and gospel rhythms and her husband’s rhythmic, dream-like black and white illustrations introducing each section throughout add extra power to powerful narratives. Each of the three young members of the Little Family tell the story of their generation through monologues that  together paint a vivid tapestry of Americas struggle for civil rights. In the afterward, Andrea Pinkney writes “It is a novel with the intention of inviting readers to step in the shoes of characters and to experience history through the eyes of those whose life and time represent the resilience of people.” (p. 256). This is exquisite, deep writing of history, injustice, perseverance – and racism and certainly at the top  of the list of great books for the year 2020 – and not just those written in the children’s literature cannon. The preface to this novel advises us “How To Read This Book”.  With conviction/ With attitude / With feeling / With friends.

MY LIFE IS AN ICE CREAM SANDWICH by Ibi Zoboi

It is 1984 and Ebony-Grace Norfleet is obsessed with, consumed with outer-space adventures. She is determined that she will be an astronaut when she grows up.  The story takes place in Harlem where Ebony-Grace comes to life with her divorced father while her mother back in Alabama deals with troubles with Ebony-Grace’s grandfather, who was once of the first Black engineers to integrate NASA in the 1960’s. Urban life in Harlem opens the daughters eyes  and ears to Hip-Hop, break dancing competitions, graffiti and the fickleness of friendships and the attitudes of ‘nefarious minions’. Devoted to all things Star Trek, Ebony Grace believes that she is really Cadet E-Grace Starfleet of theMothership Uhura. Ebony-Grace lives in her ‘imagination location’. Why can’t the rest of the world join in her believing in the world beyond? Realistic fiction blends with sci-fantasy in a book that shines a light on a strong black girl who wants “to boldly go where no girl has gone before.”Graphic pages appear throughout the book. 

Nonfiction

THE MISSING: The True Story of My Family in World War II by Michael Rosen 

British author, Michael Rosen knew nothing about his six great-aunts and great uncles who presumedly died in concentration camps. Rosen embarks on an investigative journey (online searches, books, interviews) to gain some truths about his family who had been living in Poland and France at the beginning of the war. Slowly, slowly the author learns of his family history and details emerge. More than a memoir, this book provides readers with a concise history of European Jews caught within Nazi terror. Poems excerpts from Rosen’s previously published anthologies  are spread throughout the book.  (‘People run away from war. Sometimes they get away. /Sometimes we don’t. / Sometimes were’ helped. /Sometimes we aren’t/’ (from People Run).This 94-page book is a gem.