February is here and with it comes a fresh collection of Top Six Picks from the editors at School Library Connection, school librarians’ most trusted source for reviews of the latest kid and YA lit. This month sees our reviewers highlighting an impressive variety of titles. From timely looks at both the present and the past of America, to tales of heart-stopping resilience and strength, to a poetic, insightful look at the life of a visionary sci-fi author, these titles are certain to capture the attention of readers everywhere.
Me and White Supremacy: Young Readers’ Edition
2022. 304pp. $17.99. hc. Sourcebooks eXplore. 9781728261287. Grades 6-12
Highly acclaimed for her adult version of the same title, Layla F. Saad has reworked her book into one geared towards middle and high school students. She has written a clear guide of how to understand white supremacy and racism which includes various strategies to make positive changes in our actions. This vast collection is organized into three main sections: an introduction, Exploring White Supremacy, and Practicing Anti-racism. A glossary, an extensive reading list, and letters from the author are also included. A chapter titled “How to Use This Book” is extremely valuable, containing suggestions for students such as keeping a journal and expanding on how to navigate these complex and challenging topics is enormously beneficial. Teachers will want to guide their students through this thought-provoking journey to learn how to build relationships on trust, consistency, and accountability with everyone, especially marginalized individuals and groups. One feature I especially like are the “Recap, Reflect, Respond” sections that are found at the end of each of the chapters. These sections not only summarize the content, but suggest questions meant to guide reflection and appropriate responses to the situations discussed in the text. This kind of advice geared for reading the title with a group will be especially appreciated by teachers. Educators will treasure this extraordinary tool and will recognize that this book can and will transform lives. Middle school and high school librarians will want to add this title to their collections, hopefully in the form of a classroom or small group set. A list of additional resources was not available in the review copy but will be added in the final version.
Ruie Chehak, Retired Teacher Librarian, Charlotte County PS, Florida and Cedar Rapids SD, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
True History: The Founders Unmasked
2022. 144pp. $8.99. pbk. Penguin Workshop. 9780593386101. Grades 6-12
This entry in the True History of the United States series takes on the beginnings of the American nation and its founders. Author Jennifer Sabin focuses on the major players in this slim volume: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. She promises to reveal “the good, bad, and ugly” about these founders and she unpacks their actions clearly, frequently referring to the words of experts like Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times author of the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, as well as various collegiate authorities on this period. Additional chapters examine additional individuals such as Sally Hemings and Frederick Douglass, including the latter’s perspective on being a Black man asked to speak about freedom in America. In the case of Hemings, Sabin relies heavily on the research of Annette Gordon-Reed to flesh out her thinking and circumstances. Throughout, Sabin maintains an even-handed approach, acknowledging the positive qualities of the founders while still revealing their prejudices and racist practices. A professional journalist, she also does a concise, coherent job of breaking down complicated material—like placing an idea in the context of the time—making the book a valuable piece for teaching modern concepts such as Critical Race Theory. Sabin also employs a number of additional features to make the text more understandable. Subtitles are used to separate complex topics and textboxes are added to define words and terms. However, the book does read more like an academic title despite the fact that it is marketed to readers in grade 5 and up. Sabin’s longest chapter examines the Hemings-Jefferson sexual relationship, and much of the information touched on in the other chapters requires the reader to have a preexisting cognizance of colonial times. Although students of a young age should be made aware of the true history, Sabin’s writing style lacks the accessibility of titles like Jason Reynolds’ Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers 2020), which itself is marketed to readers in grade 7 and up. Sabin’s book (and the others in this series, assuming they follow suit) represents an important title for students and an immensely useful resource for educators. For most young library users, it is a book that will require introduction and guidance from a teacher or school librarian. Grade 5 in our district studies colonial times and teachers could use this title to supplement textbooks that omit these significant facts and viewpoints.
Bernadette Cooke, Teacher-Librarian, Julia R. Masterman School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
2022. 40pp. $17.99. hc. Levine Querido. 9781646141104. Grades PreK-2
Primary students will immediately connect with this story about the first day of school, especially if English is not their native language. Dat knows only how to say his name as he rides on the school bus for the first time. Dat doesn’t understand anything anyone around his is saying—it all sounds like gibberish to him. The illustrations are the glue that holds this story together. Each picture is presented in a square, much like comics or graphic novels. Both the gibberish and the confusion in Dat’s mind are rendered entirely in shades of gray, while Dat himself is depicted with bright and bold colors. Dat is caught in a gibberish fog. His classmates talk, but he doesn’t understand a word they say, hearing and seeing only gibberish. He doesn’t know where to go, where to sit, or what to do. At recess he plays alone until an unexpected person appears. With no need for words, the two play together. Back inside Dat tries to read, but the words form gibberish which just falls to the floor. The rest of his day is enormously gray. Alone on the bus again, things remain gray until someone surprising drops in. Colors sparkle as he learns his new friend’s name, and each square gets more colorful as Dat learns new words. This is a delightful first day of school story. Beginning readers will love this book as the illustrations say it all. Whether based on author Young Vo’s personal experience or not, he has nevertheless precisely captured the emotions of a child starting school in a new place.
Ruie Chehak, Retired Teacher Librarian, Charlotte County PS, Florida and Cedar Rapids SD, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
We are Wolves
2022. 304pp. $17.99. hc. Atheneum (Simon & Schuster). 9781665904223. Grades 6-8
This story is a great example of historical fiction which covers an element of World War II that isn’t often told—the horrible life of the Wolfkinders. This term refers to the many orphaned children from the East Prussia area who fled into the woods to survive after their parents had been killed or taken. This tale follows three children—Lisle, Otto, and baby Mia—who must leave their mother on a frozen river as it is being bombed by the Russian army. Lisle is in charge of keeping the three together and safe. It is a huge task. They face bad weather, Russian soldiers, mean people (both adults and children), little or no food for several months, and varying degrees of filth, cold, and disease. Throughout their whole ordeal, Lisle and Otto show amazing strength and concern for each other, Mia, and the friends they meet along their journey. Though they do have moments of despair, both know they must rally in order to survive. After making some friends and losing them, learning to steal and forage, and finding a few spots to stay for several days at a time, the three end up in Lithuania begging for food and shelter. When Mia becomes very ill, the siblings end up on the doorstep of Magdelena and Dovydas, who take them in. The more the children discard their German identities (and names) in order to stay safe, the more the pain grows in Lisle’s chest. After a close call with a group of Russian soldiers, Lisle knows she must give her old self up for good and become a true Lithuanian at heart. She decides to walk out into the field to say her goodbyes to her real Mama, Papa, Oma, and Opa. There, she is approached by an unknown figure only to discover that it is her mother. In the end, readers know that all six people will become a family together because there is enough love for all of them. This book is filled by turns with love, hope, and heart wrenching sadness. The children, particularly Lisle, are resilient and strong—great characters for middle school-age children to read about and learn from. Any child who likes historical fiction, especially stories about World War II, will enjoy this book. I loved it!
Melinda W. Miller, PreK-12 Library Media Specialist, Colton-Pierrepont Central School, Colton, New York
Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler
2022. 128pp. $16.99. hc. Dutton Children’s Books (Penguin Young Readers Group). 9780399187384. Grades 3-8
This biography of Octavia Butler combines poetry, prose, quotations, and historical artifacts to create a unique portrait of the acclaimed science fiction author. Focusing mainly on Butler’s childhood, author Ibi Zoboi introduces each chapter with a poem in a variety of styles—haiku, free verse, and concrete poetry. She weaves significant historical events such as the US space race with Russia, the Cold War, and the civil rights movement with vignettes of Butler’s earliest memories as a writer. Quotations from Butler herself not only explain how current events influenced her stories but also provide insight into her thoughts as she entered into a literary world unfamiliar to a shy, young African American woman. Readers will appreciate this title on many levels: aspiring writers will gladly glean information about Butler’s journey as an author, fans of her novels will want to know more about the woman who wrote them, and aspiring poets and historians will simply connect with the content. This title truly has something for every reader.
Barbara S. Zinkovich, Library Media Specialist, Greenville County Schools, Greenville, South Carolina
We are the Song
2022. 304pp. $18.99. hc. Holiday House. 9780823448890. Grades 3-8
Fantasy fans will queue up for this delightful novel with its strong female characters and carefully drawn fantasy world. Elissa’s early childhood was idyllic. She lived in the sunny, peaceful Kingdom of Cadenza near the monastery of the Goddess Cae, who created the world and all its people. Her gentle parents filled their days with songs and stories honoring the goddess, but they cautioned her to never speak or sing in public. The one time she forgets and sings out, she is torn from her parents’ arms and taken to the monastery. Her parents are thrown in jail. Teachers at the monastery spend their lives training musically gifted children to become composers and singers honoring Cae. For the next five years, Lucio comforts Elissa and teaches her to sight read the songs and spells he composed for her. When the king dies and war breaks out between the two rulers of adjacent kingdoms, each wants to control Cadenza. Despite their youth, Lucio and Elissa are tasked to roam the world creating and singing songs of the Goddess Cae to ease the people’s pain and bring them hope. After two years on the road, 17-year-old Lucio and 12-year-old Elissa have witnessed much devastation and performed small miracles in the goddess’s name across the countryside. Shortly after they arrive at the palace of the King of Basso, Lucio is lured by the glamour of the court and the lavish attention he receives. When the king proposes that they remain in Basso forever, Lucio accepts but Elissa, having learned that their songs can be used for healing as well as for power and destruction, flees the castle. The goddess comes to Elissa in visions and aids her in her harrowing journey to recruit other singers to raise their combined voices to bring about peace. Elissa faces many obstacles as she tries to bring about the goddess’ wish for peace. Rising action and heady magic are cleverly woven together to reach the moving climax. The novel is filled with musical terms, with chapters themselves being divided into various movements. Background knowledge of these musical terms will help readers understand all the references but is not necessary to appreciate the story. Attentive readers may also notice that the good characters are primarily female while antagonists are mostly male, and that same sex marriage is commonplace in this world. Fast-paced action will keep readers totally engaged. This captivating novel promises a good future for this first-time author.
Tena Litherland, Central Library Director (Retired), Webb School of Knoxville, Knoxville, Tennessee
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