Chelsey Bahlmann Bollinger and Victoria Pennington
The playful storytelling approach of the books reviewed in this column make learning concepts such as numbers, colors, shapes, opposites, seasons of the year, and days of the week fun for preschool-age children. Each book holds the promise of an engaging shared experience when read aloud one on one or with a group of children at storytime.
A Beautiful House for Birds (Storytelling Math). Grace Lin. (2023). Charlesbridge.
In Grace Lin’s interactive, pattern-focused board book, a young Black girl named Olivia wants to paint a beautiful house for birds. She plans to start with painting the roof of a small wooden birdhouse. “How should I paint it?” She decides to paint a two-color pattern of pink and green stripes. As Olivia is painting her pattern, she gets distracted by a couple of birds. “Oh hello, birds.” Accidentally painting a blue stripe alters her pattern to green, pink, green, pink, blue. The back matter includes an ”Exploring the Math” note about expanding a child’s understanding of patterns and activities to involve children in making patterns using movement, words, and drawings.
In Between. April Pulley Sayre (with Jeff Sayre). (2023). Beach Lane.
“Every creature / on Earth / at times / finds / itself / in / between.” With a poetic text and beautiful close-up photographs of animals in their natural habitats, photo-illustrator and writer April Pulley Sayre explores the concept of in between. “In between meals. / In between trips. / In between homes.” Animals (mammals, birds, reptiles. amphibians, spiders, and insects) find themselves between life stages, movements and transformations and in almost-but-not yet situations. “Almost landed, / but not yet. // Almost asleep, but not yet. // Almost ready, / but not yet / living on one’s own.” Younger children will enjoy looking at the portraits of the animals and may be interested in learning their names; older children may be interested in talking about the concept of in between in the lives of humans and their own in-between times.
Kitty & Cat: Opposites Attract. Mirka Hokkanen. (2023). Candlewick.
Learning opposites will be fun reading Mirka Hokkanen’s picture book story told entirely through opposites such as old-new, big-little, and grumpy-happy and expressive digital artwork that focuses on the differences between a kitten and a cat as Kitty is brought home. For example, playful Kitty is energetic while Cat is exhausted and just wants to be left alone to nap. Hokkanen emphasizes the emotions of each cat through their facial expressions in this humorous picture book that ends with Kitty and Cat cuddling together. A final illustration suggesting the two felines soon will be joined by a puppy will leave readers eager for the sequel, Kitty and Cat: Bent Out of Shape, out in November 2023.
Noni the Pony Counts to a Million (Noni the Pony #4). Alison Lester. (2023). Beach Lane.
“Noni the pony stands under one tree . . . / and watches her two friends dance by the sea.” Young children will enjoy traveling through the countryside with Noni and her pals, Dave Dog and Coco the Cat, on a glorious summer day and counting the animals they encounter—from three hens to ten ladybird beetles. With her text of rhyming couplets and colorful, detailed illustrations, Australian author-illustrator Alison Lester continues this latest Noni the Pony story by introducing the more challenging numerical concepts of dozens, hundreds, thousands, and millions and ends with Noni and her pals sleeping under millions of stars. Young children will also enjoy the three earlier books in the series, Noni the Pony (2012), Noni the Pony Goes to the Beach (2015), and Noni the Pony Rescues a Joey (2019).
One Tiny Treefrog: A Countdown to Survival. Tony Piedra & Mackenzie Joy. (2023). Candlewick.
This captivating counting book offers children a gentle lesson on survival realities in the natural world as it presents the life cycle of the red-eyed treefrog. The countdown to survival begins with a cluster of ten eggs on a leaf in the Costa Rican rainforest. “Ten tiny tadpoles / grow in their egg.” Nine of the tiny tadpoles live and wiggle free to drop into the water below as one gets scooped up by a wasp. In the water, the number of survivors dwindle as predators pluck off the metamorphizing tadpoles one by one until only one tadpole remains to become an adult. “Zero tiny tadpoles. / One tiny treefrog.” The extensive back matter includes information about the red-eye treefrog and the other species of animals pictured and identified by their common and scientific names on the pages of the book and a bibliography.
One, Two, Three!: A Happy Counting Book. Sandra Boynton. (2023). Boynton Bookworks.
In this decidedly happy board book with a die-cut front cover featuring three hippos, Sandra Boynton’s rhyming text invites young children to count how many of her lovable animal characters are enjoying activities such as tea time, a car ride, acting in a play, and ballet dancing. “ONE is good for a quite walk. / TWO is right for a quiet walk. // THREE is nice for having tea / or for counting ONE TWO THREE.” Barnyard animals such as ducks and pigs play along with elephants, rhinos, and other animals to show how many are just right for each activity include a marching band of animals parades by. “TEN makes a celebration / LOUD!LOUD!LOUD!” Adults will appreciate the peacefulness of the ending: “And ONE is WONDERFUL after a crowd.”
Rainbow Days. Margaret Hamilton. Illus. by Anna Pignataro. (2023). Kane Miller.
The seven days of the week are paired with the seven colors of the rainbow in Rainbow Days with Margaret Hamilton’s simple, rhyming text and Anna Pignataro’s softly colored mixed-media illustrations. Readers will enjoy following the day-by-day activities of a young child and their family and pets throughout the week. For example, “Saturday with violets / And thread for sewing through / To make my gran a violet crown / That tells her ‘I love you.’” At the end of this cheerful and gentle book, there is a cameo appearance of Hamilton and Pignataro’s B Is for Bedtime (2015), which would be another cozy choice for one-on-one bedtime reading.
Some of These Are Snails. Carter Higgins. (2023). Chronicle.
With cut and collaged hand-painted paper images assembled digitally, Carter Higgins uses shape, color, and size to present patterns in a quirky and captivating way. The simple, rhythmic chant-like text focuses the attention of young readers on examining the images set against a white background. Readers are invited to respond to questions: “can you sort by color? / can you sort by size? / can you sort by shape or find the animals with eyes?” Interaction continues with more challenging pages to examine and questions to answer such as “who’s stripiest? / who’s spottiest / who’s wiggly wigglier wiggliest?” Readers are also encouraged to look closely at the images to see which are shapes and which are animals. Conversations are sure to be lively with this interactive picture book.
Together with You. Patricia Toht. Illus. by Jarvis. (2023). Candlewick.
The story of the shared experiences of a young boy and his grandmother through the seasons of the year is presented through Patricia Toht’s rhyming text, told from the perspective of the boy, and Jarvis’s colorful digital artwork. Readers learn about how the two get dressed for the weather and the activities they enjoy during each season. For example, in autumn, the boy zips up his fleece jacket while his grandmother pulls on her sweater, he covers his ears and she holds onto her hat as they walk in the wind, they fly a kite, and then enjoy a stroll hand in hand. The warm, cozy relationship of grandson and grandmother as they spend time together is clearly felt as the picture book ends. “For no matter the weather, / whatever we do, / every day’s better . . . // together with you.”
Where Are the Eggs? (Storytelling Math). Grace Lin. (2023). Charlesbridge.
Mei’s chickens have laid eggs in the yard. “Where could the eggs be?” Mei invites the reader to help her find the eggs on the pages of this interactive board book as she spots and describes the location of each egg in relation to an object in the yard. For example, one egg is next to the watering can and another egg is on top of an upturned wheelbarrow. In rereading the story, youngsters will enjoy pointing out the eggs and using position words to describe their locations. The back matter provides a note on exploring the math of spatial relations and some “Try This!” activities.
Chelsey Bahlmann Bollinger is an associate professor in the Early, Elementary, and Reading Department at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and a mom to two young readers. Victoria Pennington is a second year PhD student in the Literacy, Language and Culture program at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina, and a mom to two young readers.
Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
The recently-published informational picture books reviewed in this column are good read-aloud choices to introduce STEM units on the extraordinary variety of life on Earth. These engaging books will pique the interest of children to learn more through independent research on different species of animals, plants, and fungi and stimulate lively discussions of the actions needed to help insure the survival of species and ecosystems.
A Is for Australian Reefs. Frané Lessac. (2023). Candlewick.
Author-illustrator Frané Lessac’s information-packed alphabetic exploration of the reefs along the coast of Australia begins with A for Australian reefs, the different kinds of Australian reefs (barrier reefs, patch reefs, fringing reefs, and atolls) and their locations; B for Biodiversity, the variety of plants and animals living together on Australian reefs and their dependence on each other for survival; and C for Coral reefs, the underwater ecosystem of reef-building coral polyps that is home to 25 percent of the world’s sea creatures. The following double-spread pages feature animals that inhabit the Australian reefs from dolphins, eels, and fish to xanthid crabs, yellowtail barracudas, and zebra seahorses. The entry for each letter includes an introductory statement and brief paragraphs of related information set against a background of Lessac’s colorful, detailed gouache artwork. A “Spot the Fish” search-and-find activity on the final page challenges readers to find 12 colorful fish (identified by their common names) pictured in the pages of the book. (PreK Up)
Birds Everywhere (Animals Everywhere #4). Camilla de la Bedoyere. Illus. by Britta Teckentrup. (2023). Big Picture.
Like an all-things-bird encyclopedia for young readers, Birds Everywhere is an introduction to the avian world. Double spreads with Britta Teckentrup’s colorful, digitally-created illustrations and Camilla de la Bedoyere’s brief, accessible narrative cover topics such as what a bird is (including details of its anatomy); where birds live (their habitats); the history of birds (from the first bird that evolved from tiny theropod dinosaurs to the more than 10,000 species of birds alive today); different types of birds, their habitats, and behavior; the relationship of birds and people (culture, mythology, and history); and bird watching tips. Five “Can You Find It?” tasks are interspersed throughout the book. For example, on a double spread with portraits of more than 20 birds (identified by common names), “All birds have wings and feather, but not all of them can fly” is followed by “Can you guess which birds can’t fly?” Mammals Everywhere, the fifth book in the Animals Everywhere series, will be released in October 2023. (PreK Up)
Cool Green: Amazing, Remarkable Trees. Lulu Delacre. (2023). Candlewick.
Cool Green begins with a conversation between a landscaper and his granddaughter. “¿Por que, abuelo? Why? // Why am I in awe of trees? / Trees are astounding! / Let me share with you, mi niña, / some of the reasons why.” With a simple, lyrical text and stunning artwork done in acrylic paint, stamped leaf prints, and collaged specimens with embedded seeds, fronds, and leaves, Lulu Delacre introduces readers to the world’s largest living tree, the General Sherman, a giant sequoia in Sequoia National Park, Tulare County, California; the Wollemi Pine of Australia; the Umbrella Thorn Acacia of the African savanna; and eight others chosen from the three trillion living trees on planet Earth. Extensive back matter includes a note from author-illustrator Delacre; a section on the importance of trees; further information on featured trees (each with its scientific name, location in the world, and characteristics) as well as arboreal relationships (living stumps, mother trees, and the “wood-wide web,” the underground symbiotic association of trees and fungi); websites; and a bibliography. Verde fresco published simultaneously. (PreK Up)
Destiny Finds Her Way: How a Rescued Baby Sloth Learned to Be Wild (Baby Animals Tales). Margarita Engle. Photographs by Sam Trull. (2023). National Geographic Kids.
In this true story of Destiny, a three-fingered sloth living in the Costa Rican tropical rainforest, Margarita Engle elegantly unfolds the journey of rescue, rehabilitation and release by Costa Rica’s Sloth Institute of a baby sloth that has fallen from a tree in the tropical rainforest. At the Sloth Institute, she is nursed back to health and learns how to eat, climb, socialize, toilet, and hide from predators. After one year and with only one functioning eye, Destiny is released in the rainforest with a tracking collar so she can be monitored by scientists. Wildlife conservationist Sam Trull’s extraordinary photographs partner with Engle’s lyrical text to provide an engaging and informative STEM read-aloud experience for young children. Back matter includes notes from the author and the illustrator, a map of the range of the three-fingered sloth in North America and South America, facts about sloths with photographs, and resources. (PreK-Gr 2)
Emperor of the Ice: How a Changing Climate Affects a Penguin Colony. Nicola Davies. Illus. by Catherine Rayner. (2023). Candlewick.
Catherine Rayner’s beautiful illustrations set the scene for Nicola Davies’s engaging story of the emperor penguin’s breeding cycle that begins in April with the return once again of an old empress to Halley Bay, Antarctica, and ends in September when the chicks are mature enough to leave the melting ice along with the adults and begin to find food for themselves in the ocean. Warmer seas and fiercer storms cause the breakup of Halley Bay’s stationary sea ice making the area unsuitable for the penguins to rear their young, so when it is April again, the Halley Bay colony does not return. Emperor of the Ice ends on a hopeful note with a satellite view showing tiny and large colonies of emperor penguins on snow covered Antarctica. “Somewhere down there, the empress has found a new place to raise a chick: a place where the sea ice can be trusted, where there’s ice she can rely on. At least for now.” Back matter includes notes on emperor penguins and climate change. (PreK Up)
Fungi Grow. Maria Gianferrari. Illus. by Diana Sudyka. (2023). Beach Lane.
Fungi Grow is an inviting picture book introduction to the spore-producing organisms that live all over the world that are classified in the Fungi kingdom. Diana Sudyka’s vivid illustrations, rendered in gouache watercolor and finished digitally, complement Maria Gianferrari’s lyrical narrative that explains the life cycle of fungi. For example, a double-page spread with the text “Spores shoot / from gills / or teeth / or pores. / Spores catapult, / sail / wander with wind” is paired with Sudyka’s lively artwork showing five different species of mushrooms (identified by common names) releasing swirls of spores. In smaller print is a related fact—the spurting of plumes of spores by the cotton rat fungus is called “puffing.” Other double spreads cover topics such as where fungi grow (including some unusual places) and how some fungi are harmful while others heal and help. Back matter includes a WARNING! (in red) about never eating mushrooms found outside without verification by a mycologist, a glossary, examples of how fungi heal and help, fun fungi facts, a fungi life cycle infographic, sources, further reading for kids, additional resources, and blogs and websites. (PreK Up)
The Great Giraffe Rescue: Saving the Nubian Giraffe (Sandra Markle’s Science Discoveries). Sandra Markle. (2023). Millbrook.
Over time, small populations of Nubian giraffes that roamed freely in Uganda until humans claimed most of their land dwindled as they were crowded into the northern part of Murchison Falls National Park. When oil was discovered in the area, the survival of the country’s Nubian giraffes was at even greater risk. In 2016, Operation Twiga (“giraffe” in Swahili) was formed between the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation to translocate the giraffes to create new satellite population habitats and decrease the danger of extinction by tracking and studying them. This informational picture book about the logistics of moving the Ugandan herd of critically endangered Nubian giraffes that could not swim across the bridge-less Victoria Nile River is supplemented with captioned photos, maps, charts, and sidebars. Back matter includes an author’s note, additional facts about giraffes, a glossary, source notes, resources, an index, and photo acknowledgments). (Gr 3 Up)
How Birds Sleep. Sara Pedry & David Obuchowski. Illus. by Sarah Pedry. (2023). mineditionsUS.
So how do birds sleep anyway?” is addressed by Sara Pedry and David Obuchowski’s inviting narrative about 20 bird species from the United States and other countries from around the world including Chile, Kenya, China, and Australia on single pages and double-page spreads that identify the featured birds by common and scientific names and countries and present facts about their sleep behavior. The book opens at dusk in the United States with a barn owl wide awake while thousands of tree swallows signal bedtime “in an elaborate routine” in the sky before they “funnel down into the reeds” to slumber—and ends with the barn owl nestled in his tree at dawn for a good day’s sleep while tree swallows fly out of the reeds. Pedry’s lush artwork, done by hand in layers using charcoal, ink, and gouache, augments the text with realistic portraits of the birds sleeping in their natural habitats. This soothing read-aloud also makes a perfect goodnight book. Back matter includes information about bird sleep, climate change, the backstory, and resources. (PreK-Gr 2)
How the Sea Came to Be: (And All the Creatures in It). Jennifer Berne. Illus. by Amanda Hall. (2023). Eerdmans.
Jennifer Berne’s expressive rhyming verses and Amanda Hall’s exquisite illustrations, created with watercolor, gouache, pencil crayons, pastels, and digital materials, tell the dramatic story of the birth of the sea “[b]illions and billions of years long ago, / when the Earth was young and new” and the birth of life in the seas after the passing of more millions of years. “Life grew and life spread in this salty sea world / for hundreds of millions of years. / From its surface above to its depth far below / where it’s cold and all light disappears.” The extensive back matter includes an author’s note, an illustrator’s note, a double gatefold “Ocean Creatures Over Time” display of the diverse forms of life (identified by common and scientific name) that have existed in the oceans over time that opens to reveal a time line of the eons and eras of Earth’s history, a glossary of key terms and concepts, and resources. (PreK Up)
Rise to the Sky: How the World’s Tallest Trees Grow Up. Rebecca E. Hirsch. Illus. by Mia Posada. (2023). Millbrook..
Rebecca Hirsch’s lyrical text, accompanied by Mia Posada’s cut paper collage-and-water illustrations, begins with “What is the tallest living thing?” answered by what it is not (an elephant, giraffe, or blue whale) before comparing the heights of eight trees including the world’s tallest trees (the Coast Redwood at 380.3 feet in California, US; the Yellow Meranti at 331 feet in Sabah, Borneo; and the Australian Mountain Ash at 329.7 feet in Tasmania, Australia,) against the heights of Big Ben at 316 feet and the Statue of Liberty at 305.5 feet. Hirsch explores the life cycle of these arboreal giants that “spring from old stumps or from seeds.” Under the right conditions of sunlight, water, and air, the young trees grow up fast. “They rise . . . / up, up, up to the sky!” Back matter includes a section answering questions about tall trees, an infographic on the tallest member of each of the eight tree species from the opening comparison with their locations on a world map; and a page with two activities and recommended reading for readers. (PreK Up)
Nancy Brashear is Professor Emeritus of English from Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, California. Carolyn Angus is former Director of the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California.
With spare text and varied line breaks, novels in which the narrative is told through poetry can present stories with complex topics, themes, and issues in a format that appeals to readers and helps them understand voices, events, characters, and narrators in new ways. Nonfiction in verse, also included in this column, provides insight into other times and places.
Good Different. Meg Eden Kuyatt. (2023). Scholastic.
Twelve-year-old autistic Selah just wants to get through seventh grade at Pepplecreek Academy and is trying to be “a Normal person” like her mother wants her to be. However, when Selah reacts to classmate Addie’s wanting to braid her hair and accidentally striking her and drawing blood, she is considered dangerous and is suspended from school for three days. Upon her return to school, Shelah finds a way to express herself when her favorite teacher has students write poetry. “My feelings are loud. Rude. / BIG. Sometimes / angry.” Using birthday tickets from her mother, Saleh attends Fantasycon where she meets other people on the autistic spectrum, who are like her “when everything feels / like it‘s pouring in / and there’s no room / for . . . feelings to go,” setting her on a path of self-discovery. The author’s note for this novel in verse celebrating differences and finding one’s place in the world includes information on Meg Eden Kuyatt’s experiences with autism, resources, and acknowledgements. (Gr 3-5)
The In-Between. Katie Van Heidrich. (2023). Aladdin.
Thirteen-year-old Katie finds herself in the in-between—“when you’re in between / where you want to be and where you are, / when you’re in between what you previously had / and what you so desperately want to have back, . . .”—while her family is in crisis. She, her siblings Josh and Haley, and their mother, who is cycling through jobs, find themselves living in a room at the Extended Stay America hotel with their possessions, which have been whittled down to a precious few with the multiple changes in their lives. With lyrical lines, Katie explains her feelings in going to yet another new school, spending weekends with their father, his new wife, and their baby in their spacious home, and their unemployed mother’s searching for yet another new job. Katie finds solace and continuity in writing in her notebook. She likes to play with words and discover the meaning of new words. “Words, / after all, / have power,” and they provide “new ways of knowing / and understanding, / and being.” The back matter of this memoir in verse of forging friendship, loss and discovery, new beginnings, and perseverance includes archival photographs of the three siblings at different points in their lives with their parents. (Gr 3 Up)
Land of Broken Promises. Jane Kuo. (2023). Quill Tree.
In this sequel to In the Beautiful Country (2022), 12-year-old Ai Shi (Anna) Zhang and her family are carving out a new life in Duarte, in the Los Angeles area, where they operate a fast-food restaurant. Anna would like to spend summer vacation returning to Taiwan for a visit or joining her friends at summer camp, but when the Zhangs discover they missed the due date for renewing their immigration status, plans for the summer change. Anna’s mother goes to San Diego for a good paying job, leaving Anna to help her father run the restaurant, in an attempt to raise enough money to hire an immigration lawyer. In the back matter, Jane Kuo explains that her experiences in the 1980s of living in the Los Angeles area as an undocumented immigrant for years before becoming a citizen served as a model for this novel, written in first-person free verse, about the resilience, perseverance, and optimism of a young Taiwanese immigrant. (Gr 3 Up)
Miles Morales Suspended: A Spider-Man Novel. Jason Reynolds. Illus. by Zeke Peña. (2023). Caitlyn Dlouhy.
Written in a hybrid verse/prose format, this sequel to Miles Morales: Spider-Man (2017) chronicles Miles Morales’s day in ISS (In-School Suspension) at Brooklyn Visions Academy, a boarding school, as a result of breaking his desk and participating in a protest with Alicia Carson, the classmate on whom he has a crush, over racist treatment from one teacher, Mr. Chamberlain. Jason Reynolds tells the story through a third-person narrative and Miles’s first-person poems. As Miles tries to concentrate on completing the day’s class assignments, his keen spider-man senses have him hearing buzzing in the walls and seeing termites. Becoming more and more concerned about Tobin, the book-eating classmate in ISS for destroying library books, Miles soon finds himself involved in yet another high-flying heroic deed. Zeke Peña’s dramatic illustrations rendered digitally convey Tobin’s transformation and the climactic encounter between him and Miles. The acknowledgements in the back matter include information on writing the book. (Gr 6 Up)
Nearer My Freedom: The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano by Himself. Monica Edinger & Lesley Younge. (2023). Zest.
This found poetry version of the life story of Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) was “created using words, phrases, and quotes from text rearranged into verse” from Equiano’s autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, originally published in 1789. Monica Edinger and Lesley Younge add informative notes and archival images tracing the historical context to the chapters. Equiano, who was born in Essaka, Benin, in what is now Nigeria, explains the rich life of the people and the horrors of abductions and trade. “Again sold. / Again carried through a number of places.” In England, at the age of 12, he became a slave for ship captains and began a seafaring career to the western hemisphere, reckoning with experiences of masters who were either duplicitous or kind and demonstrating his multiple skills including literacy. Later, serving the slave trade as a free seaman, Equiano came to understand that his freedom, which he purchased in 1766, would always be at risk and he became an abolitionist. The release of the first edition of Equiano’s autobiography was timed to "coincide with an important debate over slavery in Parliament." The back matter of Edinger and Younge’s engaging and accessible book includes a “Creating a Verse Version” section, a timeline, a glossary, source notes, a bibliography, suggestions for further reading, and an index. (Gr 9-12)
One Last Shot: The Story of Wartime Photographer Gerda Taro. Kip Wilson. (2023). Versify.
In this historical verse novel written as a first-person narrative, Kip Wilson tells the life story of Gerda Taro (1910-1937), born Gerda Pohorylle into a Polish Jewish immigrant family in Stuttgart, Germany. At the age of 16, she attended a boarding school in Switzerland for a year where she proved independent in her interests and became fascinated with cameras before returning to Germany. Released after imprisonment for distributing anti-Nazi propaganda, and holding a Polish passport in a country that was becoming more perilous for Jews, she fled to Paris in 1933 where she soon realized that Paris was also dangerous when she heard the French say foreigners “were stealing French jobs.” Her life changed when she met and fell in love with Hungarian photographer André Friedmann (1913-1954) with whom she pursued her interest in cameras and photography while they worked under the names Gerda Taro and Robert Capa. Her love and radical politics took Gerda on assignments to document the growing conflict in Spain where, in 1937, she tragically became the first woman photojournalist ever killed in combat. Extensive back matter includes a “Dramatis Personae” section with brief biographical notes; an author’s note in which Wilson explains her inspiration and the fact-or-fiction aspects of this historical verse novel, the context of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and Gerda Taro’s legacy; acknowledgments; selected sources; and a glossary of German, French, and Spanish words. (Gr 9-12)
The Order of Things. Kaija Langley. (2023). Nancy Paulsen.
April Jackson lives with her mother in a Boston apartment across the hall from Zander (Zee) Ellis and his father. Best friends who share a love of music, Zee is a violin prodigy and April, who has always dreamed of being a drummer, is taking lessons from Papa Zee on a drum kit in the Ellis’s apartment. April and Zee have been inseparable their whole lives, but now Zee attends a Boston STEAM charter school with an emphasis on the arts while April starts sixth grade at their old school and finds herself paired for class projects with awkward Astrea Curtis. When Zee faints while practicing for a major solo, begs April to keep silent after another episode, and later is found dead at school, she is grief-stricken and feels responsible because of her promise to say nothing. April makes discoveries about herself as she deals with her grief and comes to terms with changes in her family and friendships in this richly detailed novel of deep emotions and shifts in the order of things with Kaija Langley’s sensitively crafted short poems. The author’s note includes information on sudden cardiac arrest. (Gr 6-8)
The Song of Us. Kate Fussner. (2023) Katherine Tegen.
Seventh-grade student Olivia, co-founder of the Poetry Club with her friend Lexi, promises to “work wonders with my words / . . . master meter / draft delight” this year but is mesmerized when a beautiful, new student, Eden, a musician, joins the club. In alternating voices, Olivia and Eden rhapsodize about their growing attraction for one another, complete with kisses after school, but their intense attraction changes to conflict in face of Eden’s secrecy about her identity and interests in other friends and boys, and Olivia’s open devotion to Eden. Olivia, who lives with a depressed mother, and Eden, who lives with a silent, distant father since her mother left, do not talk to their parents about their relationship, which grows in complexity. This refashioning of the Greek myth “Orpheus and Eurydice” is a story of love and loss and finding ways to heal and transform oneself. (Gr 6 Up)
Spin. Rebecca Caprara. (2023). Atheneum.
Living in ancient Thrace, 15-year-old Arachne, whose mother is a skilled weaver and herbalist and father is a master dyer, learns and practices the art of spinning with patience. Woven through this retelling of the myth of Arachne in Rebecca Capara’s lush verse novel are elements of other Greek myths as Arachne wonders why women such as Pandora and Medea are blamed and punished for mishaps while men “are celebrated / for much worse—their violence . . . / revered as necessary, noble acts.” She is angered by the liberty of men that overpowers women. As her mother teaches Arachne the art of weaving and collecting and using herbs, she tells her ancient myths, advising Arachne “to question / the stories you hear.” When Photis, her younger brother, dies falling from a tree he climbs and in unfathomable grief, her mother sickens and dies and her father becomes distant, Arachne leaves for Colophon, where she trades her beautiful tapestries. After the colorful realistic depiction of people and daily scenes in Arachne’s tapestries becomes more celebrated than the reverence to the gods rendered in Athena’s tapestry, the goddess Athena challenges her to a weaving competition. The curse, precipitated by Athena’s wrath toward the young weaver, allows Arachne to help women in a way she didn’t expect in this novel of resourcefulness, courage, and standing up for oneself. The back matter includes information on source material in the acknowledgments. (Gr 9-12)
When Clouds Touch Us. Thanhhà Lại . (2023). Harper.
In this sequel to Inside Out and Back Again (2011), 12-year-old Hà recalls the family’s fleeing the war in Vietnam two years ago to a safer, better life in America as her mother tells her and her brothers that they will be leaving Alabama for Texas for better employment opportunities. Hà objects to the thought of leaving her friends and the school where she is now settled. In this verse novel, she recounts the year of the family’s uprooting from Alabama, taking with them one pillowcase of clothes each, a bare minimum of possessions, and “treasures from across the sea,” and starting all over again in Texas in a new school where she tries to develop new friendships and meets new challenges in learning English while holding onto the traditions of her Vietnamese culture. This thought-provoking novel shows hope in creating a new life while honoring the past. “I ache to know / how much longer / until clouds touch us, / ending refugee living.” The back matter includes an author’s note explaining the rationale for the sequel and writing in verse. (Gr 3 Up)
Sandip Wilson is a professor in the School of Education and Department of English of Husson University, Bangor, Maine, and serves as President of the CL/R SIG 2022-2024.
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).