Summary: Shayla seemingly avoids trouble at all costs. She is an independent hard worker who aspires to do something; however, she is unsure of exactly what it is. Middle School is the place where she secretly hopes to start discovering what she genuinely likes and where she fits in. Shayla witnesses a protest on the way home from school while talking to her mother about the possibility of trying out for the track team which her mother finds comical. The protest is the beginning of a turning point for Shayla. In what appears to be worry she begins to ask her mother questions regarding the gathering of people. Is Black Lives Matter involved? What do you think the outcome will be? She also poses several questions about the local police and their views on black people. Shayla becomes increasingly intrigued by the incident, BLM and the history of justice for all and the lack thereof. She is adamant that being involved is something that she is passionate about but also hesitant due to the “trouble” it may cause. In the end, Shayla must make a choice which will define her allegiance and shape who she is becoming.
Strengths: This book speaks to students who may have difficulty understanding the impact and tension between black youth and the police. The language is simple with vocabulary that is challenging enough without creating frustration. It allows the reader to easily follow areas of confusion when considering how the black community negatively perceives the police and vice versa. The main character deals with several age-appropriate challenges. She also demonstrates her leadership skills in a transitional way that is supportive to understanding self.
Weaknesses: Shayla’s character is very hesitant. This may seem like a character flaw, but it truly depicts how middle grade students act and think accordingly.
Thoughts: The timing of this book allows the reader to make real time life connections. In years, to come the hope is that this is a movement that makes strides but for now this is a living in the moment impactful read.
Summary: Africa is a little girl who wants nothing more than to learn how to double Dutch. In fact, she desires to learn so bad that she signs up for a competition without even knowing how to embrace the silently timed pop ups and jumps. As she begins her journey and after trying on her own, she asks several of her friends to teach her how to learn the ropes. Africa searches and searches but cannot find anyone to help. Along the way she encounters new adventures and skills, but will she master the art of double Dutch before the competition?
Strengths: This story is told in a way that embraces the confidence of a young girl who is determined. The reference of “Showing the World” what she is made of sets the tone for the reader. It speaks loud and clear that you must believe in you to achieve your goals.
Weaknesses: There are no weaknesses. The earthtone colors selected by the illustrator are unique. The pink on the cheeks is a different spin on face of the characters. It makes you wonder what prompted the illustrator to select the design with such emphasis.
Thoughts: This story is a great combination of school and the community. The setting(s) allows the reader to visualize how certain aspects of the story are relatable to their own lives. The connection is clear which is important for young readers and listeners.
Summary: This biography is an awakening for Environmentalist MaVynee Betsch. Growing up as a girl who loved the beach the steady waves and soft skies provided her with an abundance of comfort. However, the period of the pre-civil rights movement enabled segregation to keep her from sulking in the sun from just any beach. MaVynee enjoyed spending the joyous moments of watching the harmonious blends of blue and green that she often viewed with her grandfather. He was exhausted and frustrated by the discrimination. Furthermore, he was saddened by its effects on his granddaughter. Surprisingly, one day her grandfather decided that enough had been endured and purchased a beach. That beach became known as “American Beach”. Although, growing up on the beach was a priceless venture with countless memories, MaVynee grew up and pursued her career in opera which removed her from the paradise that soothed her during her childhood. In a constant longing she never stopped dreaming of the beautiful place that was considered a part of “home”. Upon return, what will she discover? How will she react? Will there be challenges? Will she be heard? What will be the end results?
Strengths: This book is beautifully illustrated. King tells the story but the illustrations by Holmes bring this book to life.
Weaknesses: This book would have benefited from a real-life photo of MaVynee in the note section or on the very last page. In biographies, students like to make connections to the real world and photos provide that sense of reality.
Thoughts: This story travels down the steep road that plagued so many. This is still a reality of so many in the land of the free. I can think of another local beach in the state of Maryland where this story parallels the deeply rooted history of “black owned” beaches that barely exists. This story is one that will stick out in the minds of students as they reflect on the history while visiting local and national bodies of water. Kudos to the author and illustrator for this collaborative effort.
Summary: Calvin is a vibrant story based on acceptance, confidence, and self-recognition. Born as a female and raised with loving and embracing parents he is unsure of how he should break the news to his family. Although, he has known for some time he still has reservations. Calvin tried to drop hints to his family through illustrations and his repeated request for low-cut haircuts until one day he blurts it out. How will his family react? Will this ruin his vacation? Will they educate him as he relates to his feelings? Will his family be kind and understanding of his identification as transgender? Will he be accepted at school? Will the opinions of others affect his own confidence and esteem?
Strengths: This story is rich and colorful which reflects the family dynamics. The family is very supportive and reassures Calvin that he is loved no matter what his choices are.
Weaknesses: There are no weakness. This story displays healthy family dynamics. It mutters the ideal family, however today the barriers are screeching with the lack of acceptance.
Thoughts: This is a beautifully written story of love and support. It not only speaks to the transgender community but also to multiracial families. Acceptance of who and what people identify as is such a prevalent issue in society.
Summary: Have you ever wanted to change something about yourself, but you couldn’t figure out exactly what? Trinity is a young girl who loves her mother, siblings and her pet pig, Peter Porker. She is also good at using her imagination to create and role play with her dolls. Trinity soon discovers something about herself as a transgender girl on the autism spectrum. She finally figured out that her cropped short hair does not resemble her identity and lifeless plain hair is not part of her vocabulary. What will come next? Will she solve this problem on her own or will her family support her colorful vision on how her crown represents who she is as a person?
Strengths: This story is enlightening and has a different spin for the LGBTQ community. It not only promotes individuality, but it recognizes that persons with disabilities are prevalent in all walks of life including transgender.
Weaknesses: It would have been nice if there were more indications of how Trinity functions in the home as a person with autism. Young readers thrive off being able to make an audio and visual connection.
Thoughts: The mother in this story is aligned with the needs of her children. Her character has been written in a manner that shows that parental involvement is a priority. Trinity’s brother, Lucien also embraces her needs and is supportive. The positivity and love demonstrated throughout the story depicts the vibrant rainbow that is a representation of Trinity’s cheerful personality and gender identity.
Sneed, Kenesha. Many Shapes of Clay. (2021). Prestel Junior.
Summary: Eisha is a young girl who is courageous and inquisitive. She thoughtfully inquiries about the emotions of her mother who is grieving the recent loss of her husband who is also Eisha’s father. As an artist Eisha’s mother is a sculpturer who creates and stores several pieces of work in her basement studio. One day Eisha makes a piece of art and watches how it changes over a short period of time. She drops the bright yellow piece which reminds her of a lemon, and it breaks into tiny pieces. Along the way she recognizes that she also feels some of the same emotions that her mother is experiencing. In the end, the story comes together as they both embrace how sadness and connecting are part of the healing process. Eisha and her mother weave together a necklace that symbolizes that certain thing can’t be replaced but making the best out of them is the key.
Strengths: The symbolism in this story is extraordinary! Sneed does an awesome job at cultivating her gift as a creator to talk about the emotions associated with grieving. The illustrations really tell the story. The artwork is strategically placed on the pages which provides comfort for someone who may be reading this book for self-help.
Weaknesses: There are no weaknesses. The realistic aspect of this text will allow it to be used for multiple purposes.
Thoughts: This is a stellar read for those who need inspiration as an upcoming illustrator. It is a great book to add to your social emotional learning collection. It can also be used to share with anybody who needs to hear the message, “That which is broken can always recover and be made anew”.
White-Dunsen, Naomi V. Why Am I Here? (2021). Naomi Books, LLC.
Summary: Why Am I Here? All the possibilities are at your fingertips. When
you use your imagination, you can see yourself doing, hearing, and saying so much. Where should you go? Through the jungle, ocean and even the sky there is not any place that you cannot travel to decide where and why! We are all quite different, yet we are the same. You are made to dream! You are made to discover! You are made to be the best you!
Strengths: This book allows readers to explore and identify with feelings about intrapersonal communication for various ages. It is vibrant and empowering to anyone who picks it up.
Weaknesses: There are no weaknesses. This book is full of inspiration however having a main character as a guide throughout the story would have been meaningful.
Thoughts: The collaboration between the author and illustrator are perfect. The text is rich and full of words that helps readers reflect on their opportunities and strengths. School Librarians love to expose students to the idea of “wonder. It helps students stay engaged and think about the possibilities. It places them in the story and helps them truly feel that it could be their reality.
Ramos, NoNiqueia. Your Mama.(2021). Versify.
Summary: Your Mama is like no other! She is original in her walk and spicy in her talk. She is strong like an anchor, forgiving, and even sometimes cray cray. The brainiac she is does not block her awareness or humor. She is a role MODEL who is beautiful, mighty, and powerful. Give it up for “Your Mama” because you will only have one!
Strengths: This is an inspirational story about the relationship that little girls share with their mothers. The flow of the nearly verse words grip the pages and draws you into this poignant story filled with “plain” ole English. The truths and realities of motherhood, mother-daughter and daughter-mother relationships are easily identifiable through the words and illustrations in this vibrant story. The Latinx author and illustrator provides a nice combination of Spanish translations and detailed glimpses of the culture.
Weaknesses: There are no weaknesses, but this story will leave you wanting more.
Thoughts: This book is a beautiful way to engage young girls in conversation from the parental and educator prospective. It can even be use in therapeutic settings for those dealing with grief, relational issues, and separation.
Miller, Christopher David. Chef Toussaint. (2021). Dare to Be King Project.
Summary: Chef Toussaint Palmer is a 9-year-old boy who resides in Georgia and is passionate about cooking. His love for food is engrained in his family where the kitchen is referred to as a magical place. It all began with Nana and her sisters who were the successful owners of a soul food restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi. Nana’s love for homemade cornbread, peach cobbler and banana pudding are a few favorites that have been influential in shaping Toussaint’s’ family traditions. The smell of vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg floating through the air is an aroma that entices the community where Toussaint is known as a cooking sensation. Toussaint shares his delightful caramel apples with sixteen local restaurants to showcase his talent. He also enters the local “Buckhead Cook-Off” a big competition in Atlanta where the top winner is featured on a magazine cover and wins a cash prize. Will Toussaint make his mark in this challenging competition? Are the recipes influenced by Nana enough to impress the judges? Will he be the youngest chef to ever win?
Strengths: This book mirrors the importance of community and family. Toussaint emulates what he is exposed to as young boy which shapes his outlook without limitations. He develops a sense of self and confidently takes on challenges while growing up in a healthy environment. His passion for cooking supports his drive that screams, “I can do anything!”.
Weaknesses: It would have been nice to hear or see how Toussaint interacts with others his age somewhere in the story.
Thoughts: This book embraces ethnic pride through its content and illustrations. It is a book that will influence those who desire to become part of the culinary profession. However, the impact of cooking is just the key storyline. The overall message is one that has the potential to encourage young readers to dream big and to face the challenge of something new with confidence.
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.