Kendall, Christine. The True Definition of Neva Beane.(2020). Scholastic Inc.
Summary: Neva Beane is a vibrant young tween who rides an emotional roller coaster trying to find herself. As a West Philly native, she spends time with her best friend, admires her brother’s girlfriend and has several unexpected embarrassing moments. Neva is under the watchful eye of her grandparents for the summer who are more concerned about her whereabouts than anything else. In addition, to the scrutiny Neva’s parents spend countless hours away trying to pursue their stagnant career as musicians. Neva copes with her challenges by recording her thoughts in a notebook. She starts each entry with a “word” that describes her main thoughts or feelings. This becomes her own personal dictionary. Although, she wants to just be left alone to do as she is pleased, Neva finds interest in attending a “march” to support the greater good of her community. In the meantime, she also needs to repair her relationship with her best friend and adhere to the rules of her parents even in the distance. How will she juggle it all and have a fun summer too?
Strengths: This book is an easy read that presents issues for tweens of all cultures. Neva experiences several things that are relatable and age appropriate. The title is suitable for the storyline and the terms used in Neva’s “dictionary” are thought provoking as you read each chapter.
Weaknesses: There are no weaknesses, however you do wonder about the relationship with the parents. Although, it is not uncommon for children to be raised by their extended family both Neva and Clay seemingly needed their parents throughout the story. The physical presence of the parents would have added a different twist to the storyline.
Thoughts: I already recommended this book to a selected fourth grade class. They were eager to jot down the title when I placed emphasis on tween issues. They were also thrilled that the story takes place during the summer as we enter the season in real life.
Rhodes Parker, Jewell. Ghost Boys. (2019). Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Summary: A single mistaken moment is all it took for 12-year-old Jerome a Chicagoan, to lose his life. In hindsight his spirit never dies and becomes the voice of reason. The voice of reason turns out to be a ghostly connection to the 1955 historical civil rights’ wrongful death of Emmett Till that took place in Mississippi. Jerome who is a vibrant young boy and son to working class parents meets his fate when he is observed to have a gun. It turns out to be toy gun that unfortunately cost him his life. In the afterlife Jerome develops a relationship with Emmett with whom he has multiple conversations with regarding wrongful death, racism, and law enforcement. The big question is “Will the police officer who killed him confess and be truthful?”. Jerome continues to be present in his ghostly state and recognizes how his family is coping. He also becomes intrigued by his ability to tap into the thoughts of the police officers’ daughter. In the end, how much influence will she truly have on her fathers’ decision to do the right thing?
Strengths: This is a wonderful presentation of “mistaken”. Jerome’s afterlife is the life that truly makes this story memorable as it correlates to the life of Emmett Till.
Weaknesses: It will be helpful if the reader has had prior knowledge on the history of Emmett Till and the incident that took place in Mississippi in 1955. The book gives the reader some idea but the details will give them a better connection.
Thoughts: This is a clever way to engage students to talk about racism. It also very ingenious that both Jerome and Emmett were victims who were born in Chicago, Illinois.
Woodson, Jacqueline. Before the Ever After. (2020). Nancy Paulsen Books.
Summary: ZJ is a boy who loves his father. He enjoys the games and family gatherings that accompany the professional football career that he has been exposed to all his life. He always felt on top and possessed a heart of gratitude about what his father Zachariah did for a living. The relationship takes a pivotal turn when his father encounters an onset of illnesses that lead to a diagnosis because of his career. ZJ is often confused and does not know how to interpret the signals or moods that he may experience with his father daily. ZJ refers to his father who he once saw as the world and how he wants to turn that world back around. How will ZJ cope with the ongoing challenges that have changed the lives of his family?
Strengths: Although, this heartfelt book has such a sad undertone the relationships are positive and interwoven throughout ZJ’s support system.
He has a healthy extended family and well-established friendships.
Weaknesses: The book moves quick and is such an easy read that you do not want it to end.
Thoughts: The “verse” style of this book is appealing for the tween reader. This a perfect storyline for those who aspire to be professional athletes. It provides a real perspective on just one of the many illness that often leaves lives unchangeable.
Jackson, Tiffany. Grown. (2020). Kathern Tegen Books.
Summary: Everyone is a dreamer at some point in life. Sixteen-year-old Enchanted Jones wants nothing more than to become a singer. She finally gets an opportunity after she convinces her mother to take a detour which is supposed to be a swim meet. Instead, she is headed to an audition that might be her grand opportunity to showcase her vocal skills. It is her turn next when she takes the stage and is noticed by the one and only R&B phenomenon Korey Fields. Not only is he present, but instinctively notices Enchanted. She is mesmerized by his greeting. He also includes her parents by gracing them with celebrity introductions and later on monetary gifts. In a flash, Enchanted is receiving text messages from Korey informing her of ways to improve her singing but has an uncannily way of doing it. He woos her into a dysfunctional web which is sticky and reveals who he truly is with fate lurking nearby. Will Enchanted make good choices? How will she make a comeback? Can she trust the people around her? Is she truly grown?
Strengths: Enchanted experiences several typical teen issues throughout the story. She has healthy relationships with her family and friends that mimic the lives of so many. Prior, to her encounter with Korey, she is a happy teen trying to find her way.
Weaknesses: The family dynamics are a little complex. It is hard to follow how supportive the grandmother was in a healthy aspect during Enchanted’s teen years. She reflects on her as a memory at length throughout the story. However, some of her appearances are questionable.
Thoughts: This story is a clear depiction of power and control. It includes the elements of sexual abuse which often leads to trafficking. The content is heavy but realistic. It places emphasis on how prevalent this issue is in communities everywhere. The book also gives insight on how parenting is challenging. It shows moments of vulnerability when split decisions are made that have an adverse impact.
Gonzalez, Sarai. Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome. (2018). Scholastic Inc.
Summary: Sarai is a fourth-grade student who loves her family. She is proud of her parents who are both immigrants and reflects on their strengths even through transition. She talks about celebrations and struggles that are part of the family journey including her extended family. Sarai describes herself as awesome and refers to it as being super amazing! Trouble arises when the home that her grandparents have rented for over twenty years will be sold. Sarai becomes frantic but remains optimistic. How can she help? Will her cupcake business make enough money to save the home that all her family has found refuge in?
Strengths: This book is the face of how many immigrants thrive when transitioning to a new country. The content is relatable for students who have similar experiences. It allows them to make connections which could be extremely challenging especially for English Language Learners.
Weaknesses: The illustrations capture the reader’s attention; however, the cover is so vibrant it makes the black and white less favorable.
Thoughts: This is one of three books in the Sarai series. These books are great for students who are elevating from picture books to chapter books. The storyline covers everything from assimilation to problem solving.
Barnes, Derrick. I Am Every Good Thing. (2020). Nancy Paulsen Books. (Penguin Random House)
Summary: I “am” is the common phrase in this book from brotherly love to superhero. The astronaut, champion, and the scholar are all promised to you if that is what you put your mind to. You can slam dunk or dance to the rhythm Boom-Bap! These dreams, encounters and visions are what makes and carries you through life. What will you choose to be?
Strengths: This book promotes bravery and positivity for black males of all ages and skin tones. It clearly speaks on how there are no limits of who you can become regardless of what odds may be or look like.
Weaknesses: There are no weaknesses, however it would have been nice to have illustrations of those mentioned in the beginning to provide a seamless connection especially for emerging readers.
Thoughts: The early mentions and dedication to the those who were subjected to police brutality and wrongful death is an example of symbolism. One of the purposes of the book is to make a statement “despite” what has happened to others you can still be. This is an impactful read that can be shared repeatedly.
Coles, Jay. Tyler Johnson Was Here. (2018). Little Brown and Company (Hachette Book Group)
Summary: Tyler and Marvin Johnson are twin brothers who are different in just about every aspect of life. They are both handsome and smart. They both are very protective of each other, but one of them likes to be seen more than the other. In the case of bad attention, Tyler befriends a local high school drug dealer and quickly gets entangled in something he seemingly cannot get himself out of without suffering. Marvin on the other hand is worried sick that Tyler will end up incarcerated like their father. The thought of incarceration is surely a way to send their hardworking struggling mother into a frenzy. The lifestyle is inviting but the consequences are dangerous. Marvin learns just how low down and vicious things can get as he reluctantly attends a party at a local warehouse where he knows his brother will be. In a matter of minutes things spiral out of control and gunshots ring through the air like an unfamiliar techno beat. Through frustration, fear and panic Marvin runs through the party in search of Tyler. To no avail he cannot find him anywhere. Where is Tyler? Is he a victim of the haunting melodious music that rang through the air or is it an act of police brutality?
Strength: I am my brothers’ keeper is an understatement that is the ultimate challenge in the book. Marvin wants to be true and loyal but is also scared for his brother. Although he does not know all the details, he is no dummy to the harsh reality of street life. This storyline keeps the reader alert, engaged, and suspicious.
Weaknesses: The storyline is sad but relatable. So many youth experience parts and the whole of this story.
Thoughts: My brother is not your # (hashtag) is mentioned and speaks volume. In other words,” Why does this keep happening?”
Harris, Meena. Ambitious Girl.(2021). Little Brown and Company (Hachette Book Group)
Summary: Hooray for her confidence and poise! This book is about young girl who is determined not to let others tell her who she is or what she can do. She dreams with a clear vision and displays ravishing moments of empowerment that are a benefit from the exposure to strong women. She is determined to accomplish her goals by using her skills and voice to acknowledge her worth.
Overall, she is indeed ambitious from start to finish and proud of it.
Strengths: This book has great illustrations that set the tone for the reader. It has diverse representation that is motivational for all races, class, and gender. She makes strong reference to her community and extended family which paints a portrait of the "Village" often referred to an in old African proverb. The vocabulary exemplifies pertinent self-reflective character traits embedded in rich English Language Arts and Reading curriculum everywhere.
Weaknesses: The character does not have a name, but that is not necessarily a weakness. Readers will remember the main character simply as she is referred to in the title "Ambitious Girl".
Thoughts: This is yet another wonderful book that supports positive self-esteem for young girls of all ages.
Parker Rhodes, Jewell. Black Brother, Black Brother. (2020). Little Brown and Company (Hachette Book Group)
Summary: Have you ever wanted to be invisible in your own skin? Donte a 12-year-old tween is not your average black male according to his peers and the staff at Middlefield Prep. Like most siblings he is quite different than his brother Trey. Donte's skin tone is a determining factor of how quickly he becomes the target and how he is treated in school. He is the constant center of attention in every possible thing that goes wrong. However, Donte has a gift. He is spectacular in the sport fencing which ultimately saves him but not without accusations, twists and turns.
Strengths: This book has life lessons that focus on many issues regarding discrimination, and justice. It also highlights accountability for adults and students when examining their actions. The storyline will capture the attention of the reader by the details that are presented about a sport that is less publicized. Did you know you that a fencing match is called a bout? This easy read is full of information and touches such relevant issues on the forefront for youth today.
Weaknesses: This book will leave you wanting more. Readers will want to know what happens in the future for Donte, Trey, and the other characters in the book. The epilogue is detailed but makes you wonder if Donte will continue competing in fencing and how his choices will guide him on his journey.
Thoughts: This is a wonderful way to hook tweens into reading. It is written in manner that prompts thinking, teaches new information and is perfectly paralleled to common issues that occur in the school setting.
Magoon, Kekla. The Season of Styx Malone.(2018). Random House Children's Books
Summary: Styx Malone is a boy trying desperately to find his way. He is new to a small town in Indiana and meets a few friends whose lives are hugely different. Styx has been around the block a few times and stability has not been a fair game in his life. He introduces his new friends to a challenging bout of entrepreneurship that causes tension and questionable moments of honesty and integrity. During a disagreement Styx let’s his anger get the best of him and finds himself in a near tragic accident. Will he survive? What will be next for his life that already seems so complicated? How will the incident impact his friendship?
Strengths: The relationships in this book provides the reader with the opportunity to get a clear sense of each character. Styx is the leader of two siblings Caleb and Bobby Gene who quickly become his friends. It appears Styx wants to be a good friend without any negativity, but his life has been complicated by frequent moves in his 16 years of life. In the end, he learns that his friends and even their parents are genuinely good people.
Weaknesses: Styx keeps his chaotic life a secret, but it creeps out. Although it is not a weakness it would have been nice to know just a little bit more of his background.
Thoughts: This story has several chapters that are relatable for students who experience the challenges presented. It also promotes a sense of hope for those who need placement and permanency.