Summer is a time to think of new ways to connect literature with curriculum while planning for the return to school in the fall. The fiction and nonfiction books in this column will provide topics of discussion and inquiry related to contemporary issues, showing students ways individuals have taken action to promote the welfare and dignity of others.
Butterfly for the King: Saving Hawai'i's Kamehameha Butterflies. Susan L. Roth & Cindy Trumbore. Illus. by Susan L. Roth. (2021). Lee & Low.
In 2009, a group of fifth graders decided that Hawai‘i should have a state insect and selected the Kamehameha butterfly, an insect that lives only in Hawai‘i and is named after the king who, in 1812, united all the islands into one kingdom. The children lobbied the government and educated the public about the butterfly, whose numbers were shrinking. Their actions inspired a partnership between government, university, and citizen scientists to learn about, protect, and propagate the butterfly. In this beautifully crafted picture book, a short statement at the top of each double spread and a paragraph of related information in smaller print at the bottom explain the history and work of the Pulelehua Project and are set against a background of Susan Roth’s colorful cut-paper collage artwork. Back matter includes an afterword with more information on the Kamehameha butterfly and children’s involvement in the project, photographs, an illustrator’s note, and authors’ sources. (PreK Up)
Can’t Take That Away. Steven Salvatore. (2021). Bloomsbury.
High-school student Carey Parker, who identifies on some days as he or she and as they on other days, wishes to be a diva but has no confidence, although they are supported by their best friend, Monroe (Roe); their mother and grandmother; and Cris, the composer and DJ with whom they fell in love. Carey auditions for the part of Elphaba in the production of Wicked encouraged by Phoebe, the smartest person in the class, who is auditioning for the part of Glinda. When teacher Mr. Jackson works to cancel the production on grounds that it represents a homosexual agenda, the students take action, speaking to the school board, circulating a petition to challenge Mr. Jackson, and staging a one-day walkout in support of the production in this novel of friendship, discovery, social action, and loyalty. (Gr 9-12)
Flight of the Puffin. Ann Braden. (2021). Nancy Paulsen.
Four middle-school students tell their stories in alternating chapters. Libby loves drawing colorful scenes and adding encouraging statements on index cards, which she leaves in random places around her Vermont town. Jack attends a nearby rural school and wants to protect it from closure by the board of education. Vincent, in Seattle, loves puffins, mathematics, and triangles, but is bullied for his interests and clothes. T, who says they are neither a boy nor a girl, lives on the street to be free of their family, who does not accept their identity. Libby, who learns of Vincent’s school problems by coincidence, sends one of her cards to him. Vincent and T become friends when T gives him a shirt after a bullying event that leaves him shirtless. When Vincent happens to see a news report of Jack’s struggle with the school board, he sends Jack an encouraging letter. These four stories of identity and friendship in this timely novel illustrate how individuals can support others through acts of kindness. (Gr 6 Up)
The Good War. Todd Strasser. (2021). Delacorte.
Middle-schooler Zach hides under a hoodie and is bullied by Crosby and Gavin. Fellow student Caleb wins a grant for the school to conduct an after-school esports club, and invites Zach to participate. In a game depicting World War II, The Good War, the Axis team, which includes Crosby and Gavin, plays against the Allies, which includes Zach and Caleb. As the Axis loses rounds, Crosby finds someone to help them, but turns out to be part of a neo-Nazi white supremacist group, who hacks the game and involves Crosby’s team in hate language. Caleb discovers Zach is a resourceful person, a genius with video games, and a wise strategist. The surprises in this timely novel of friendship, teamwork, and identity demonstrate how people can bring unexpected talents to solving problems. (Gr 6-8)
Hear My Voice/Escucha mi voz: The Testimonies of Children Detained at the Southern Border of the United States/Los testimonios de jóvenes detenidos en la frontera sureña de los Estados Unidos. Warren Binford (Ed.). (2021). Workman.
In 2019, children ages five to seventeen from Mexico, Central America, and Ecuador who were detained in the Border Patrol Station in Clint, Texas, entrusted their stories of hope, despair, fear, hunger, crowding, cold, separation from families, and denial of medical care, to Warren Binford, a private citizen selected to inspect border facilities. Double-spread illustrations by Latinx illustrators, rendered in different media and styles, accompany the excerpts of the stories compiled for Project Amplify, which Binford founded. The book is in Spanish when read in one direction and in English when read in the other. Back matter includes information on Project Amplify and how it has inspired citizen activism as some people delivered things for the children while others found ways to tell their stories in song, theater, and social media. (Gr 3 Up)
I Have the Right to Save My Planet (I Have the Right #2). Alain Serres. Trans. by Shelley Tanaka. Illus. by Aurélia Fronty. (2021). Groundwood.
A child explains children’s right to air, bird song, wildflowers, and everything in nature and their right to know what is happening in the world that challenges the survival of plants, animals, and clean air and water. The child goes on to promote the right to take action. “Because we will protect our planet well and share what we have.” The child considers various problems addressed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and explains, for example, how eating and drinking are connected to farming and preservation of clean water affecting everyone, an awareness necessary to sustainably develop the planet. The book with its detailed, colorful illustrations rendered in gouache is a companion to I Have the Right to Be a Child (2012). A third book in the series, I Have the Right to Culture will be published in October 2021. (PreK Up)
Kids on the March: 15 Stories of Speaking Out, Protesting, and Fighting for Justice. Michael G. Long. (2021). Algonquin.
Kids on the March surveys the involvement of children in social, economic, political, and more recently, environmental justice for more than one hundred years. Young people have organized some of these marches such as the Better Schools March in 1951 in Richmond, Virginia, that became part of the Brown vs. Board of Topeka Supreme Court case. The book starts with the story of the March of the Mill Children in 1903 from Philadelphia to President Roosevelt’s summer residence at Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York, in which children participated advocating for shorter work weeks in textile mills, and ends with the Stand with Black Youth March in 2020, which was organized in the wake of George Floyd’s death, to protest institutions and practices that feed racism. The book includes an introduction with a timeline of marches, photographs, and source notes. (Gr 6-8)
Like Home. Louisa Onomé. (2021). Delacorte.
High-school student Chinelo loves her neighborhood of Ginger East, a fictional urban community with a rich tradition of families helping one another, and is sad to see friends leave for more wealthy neighborhoods after a shooting in the amusement arcade two years earlier. Nigerian-Canadian Nelo dreads the opening of the huge box spice store that will eclipse the store of the Vietnamese-Canadian Tran family and sees a gradual gentrification of the neighborhood’s much-loved shops. When a brick is thrown through the window of the Tran family’s store forcing them to close, Nelo decides she has to prove someone from outside the community committed the vandalism, while Maree, a girl who moved from the neighborhood, does an interview telling a false story of a robbery. In trying to preserve the neighborhood, Nelo learns that her values and purposes may differ from those of others. (Gr 6 Up)
Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race (First Conversations #1). Megan Madison & Jessica Ralli. Illus. by Isabel Roxas. Rise x Penguin Workshop.
With their introduction to the science of skin color, Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli describe the many skin tones children see in their lives, which are depicted in Isabel Roxas’s bright watercolor illustrations on each double spread of this board book. Following a brief history of how one skin tone became seen as better than others, they provide examples of racism such as unfair rules that only white children can play, dark-skinned children playing the bad guy in pretend games, saying something mean to someone else, and believing princesses have blond hair. The examples in the book promote awareness of racism and inspiring discussions on how children treat one another. (PreK-Gr 2)
Palm Trees at the North Pole: The Hot Truth About Climate Change. Marc ter Horst. Trans. by Laura Watkinson. Illus. by Wendy Panders. (2021). Greystone Kids.
This comprehensive inquiry into climate change provides a history of the Earth’s climate, discussing the creation of the Earth’s atmosphere, land, seas, and the nature and process of the ice ages before explaining how we have built knowledge of climate change. Chapters show how warming of the atmosphere occurs and its consequences, include information on ways to slow the effects of climate change and to address causes, present multiple perspectives on consequences, and discuss whether climate change is occurring. The humorous, conversational language of the text, complemented by colorful illustrations, provides information for discussion and considers many ideas for actions people can take. Each chapter has an “In which you will . . .” introduction on what will be covered and an interest-catching “In short” statement. Back matter includes a “Climate Bingo” activity and an index. (Gr 3 Up)
Race Against Time: The Untold Story of Scipio Jones and the Battle to Save Twelve Innocent Men. Sandra Neil Wallace & Rich Wallace. (2021). Calkins Creek.
In 1919, African-American sharecroppers, World War I veterans, in Hoop Spur, Arkansas, meet in their local church to discuss the merits of unionizing for better prices for their cotton. Local people attack and burn the church, killing and injuring many people and arresting others, and report the incident as a defensive measure against violent sharecroppers. The twelve arrested men are quickly tried and sentenced to death, accused of planning an uprising. Scipio Jones, a well-known lawyer in Little Rock, aware of the increasing accusations of white communities that Black people were causing riots, undertook the defense to free the dozen men that took five years, exhausting every legal step in state and federal courts before they were acquitted. This chronicle of a little-known story includes an epilogue, an author’s note, and, in the back matter, a bibliography, list of personal visits, and source notes. (Gr 6 Up)
Take Back the Block. Chrystal D. Giles. (2021). Random House.
Middle-school student Wes prefers to play video games with his friends in Kensington Oaks, but as he sees neighbors selling their houses to a land developer and his father gets new offers to sell their house, he worries that the neighborhood will be lost. To build community feeling, Wes organizes a neighborhood party with a potluck picnic, dancing, and a presentation of slides of the families who live there. When he undertakes a class inquiry into social action, he discovers the history of the neighborhood, originally named Pippin Village after its now-forgotten founder, Frederick Pippin, a Black entrepreneur, who built a lucrative lumber mill in the 1930s and established a community of houses for his workers. In this novel of social action and friendship, Wes comes to understand social and economic injustice as he discovers ways to preserve the neighborhood and save it from development. (Gr 3 Up)
Sandip Wilson is Chair of the Notable Books for a Global Society Committee and serves as professor in the School of Education and English Department at Husson University, Bangor, Maine.
Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
Biographies offer stories about the lives and achievements of memorable individuals. This column includes reviews of recently published biographies, written in various formats, which will engage readers in thinking about not only how these life stories of people (some familiar and others new to them) have been shaped by the times and places in which they lived but also how reading about them contributes to their own understanding of events of the past and present.
The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars!: A Life of Edwin Hubble. Isabelle Marinov. Illus. by Deborah Marcero. (2021). Enchanted Lion.
Young Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) loved the stars and never lost his curiosity about the universe. Following years as a high school teacher, he returned to college to study astronomy and then began working at Mount Wilson Observatory in California. After many nights spent at the telescope taking pictures of the sky, measuring, and calculating, Hubble discovered that the Andromeda nebula was a galaxy, proving that the Milky Way was not the only galaxy. He went on to identify many other galaxies and to prove that as galaxies move away from each other, the universe expands. Isabelle Marinov’s lyrical narrative with a repeated refrain of three questions—"How many stars are in the sky? / How did the universe begin? / Where did it come from”— and Deborah Marcero’s mixed-media illustrations, including a gatefold that dramatically shows the vastness of the universe, create an awe-inspiring biography for young readers. Back matter includes author and illustrator notes, notes on the importance of Hubble’s discoveries, and a bibliography. (Gr 3 Up)
Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars. Laurie Wallmark. Illus. by Brooke Smart. (2021). Abrams.
Through Laurie Wallmark’s engaging narrative and Brooke Smart’s digitally-assembled watercolor and gouache illustrations that incorporate quotes and ribbons of coded messages, readers learn about the secret, once classified, accomplishments of Elizebeth Smith Friedman (1892-1980), an early cryptanalyst, who was involved in the “greatest spy roundup in American history.” Elizebeth, who studied literature and loved exploring the complex structure and patterns of languages, transferred her interests to cryptology. When the U.S. entered World War I, Elizebeth and her husband, scientist William Friedman, developed a government code-breaking unit that uncovered enemy secrets. During WW II, Elizebeth created the Office of Strategic Services’ code-breaking unit, which was instrumental in cracking the supposedly unbreakable German Enigma Code that uncovered Nazi secrets. Back matter includes notes on codes and ciphers, a "Crack the Code!" challenge for readers, information on cryptology today, a timeline of Elizebeth’s life, and a bibliography. (Gr 3-5)
Harriet Tubman (She Persisted). Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illus. by Gillian Flint. (2021). Philomel.
In this first book in Chelsea Clinton and Alexandra Boiger’s new early chapter book series of biographies of women who worked hard to fulfill their dreams, Andrea Davis Pinkney tells the life story of Harriet Tubman (ca. 1822-1913), born into slavery on a Maryland plantation, whose dreams of freedom led her to make the treacherous flight north to Pennsylvania, a free state, in 1849. Harriet went on to make numerous journeys south to bring family members and other enslaved people to freedom, becoming “one of the most persistent conductors on the Underground Railroad.” During the Civil War, she served as a nurse and spy for the Union Army. As she relates the story of “the woman called Moses,” Pinkney weaves in many details about slavery in child-friendly language. Back matter includes a “How You Can Persists” section of activities to honor Harriet Tubman and references (books and websites). (PreK Up)
The Highest Tribute: Thurgood Marshall’s Life, Leadership, and Legacy. Kekla Magoon. Illus. by Laura Foreman. (2021). Quill Tree.
This engaging picture book biography presents the story of Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), who devoted his life to making the United States “a fair and equal place for all people.” Growing up in segregated Baltimore, Maryland, surrounded by signs (such as “WHITES ONLY” and “COLORED WAITING ROOM”), Thurgood knew that spaces for Black people and white people were separate but not equal. After being assigned to read the Constitution as punishment for misbehaving in class, he knew that segregation laws were wrong. Following graduation from law school, Marshall took on civil rights cases, became a special counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and argued cases before the Supreme Court of the United States. He became a federal judge, was appointed Solicitor General to argue cases in the Supreme Court on behalf of the U.S. government, and was nominated by President Lyndon Johnson for a seat on the Supreme Court. Sworn in as an associate justice on October 2, 1967, he became the first Black member of the Supreme Court. Upon his death, Thurgood Marshall was given “the highest tribute” of lying in state in the rotunda of the Supreme Court. Back matter includes a timeline, a “Major Court Cases” section, suggestions for further reading, and a bibliography. (Gr 3 Up)
Joe Biden: Our 46th President. Beatrice Gormley. (2021). Aladdin.
In fifteen short chapters written in a conversational tone, Beatrice Gormley offers middle-grade readers an accessible biography of Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. (b. 1942), from his growing up in a close-knit family to the beginning months of his presidency. Readers learn of the personal problems and tragedies in his life as well as the challenges he has faced throughout his political career: becoming the U.S. Senator from Delaware in 1974, serving two terms as Barack Obama’s vice president, winning the 2020 election, and being sworn in on January 20, 2021, as the country’s 46th president. Sidebars inserted throughout the narrative provide related information about events, issues, and topics such as racial segregation, voting rights, civil rights, and the Electoral College. A list of resources is included. (Gr 3 up)
Kidstory: 50 Children and Young People Who Shook Up the World (Stories That Shook Up the World). Tom Adams. Illus. by Sarah Walsh. (2021). Atheneum.
This collective biography introduces readers to young “dreamers and fighters, thinkers and makers, achievers and believers.” The double-page spreads that profile children and young people from around the world and across history to present day include introductory statements, blocks of text about their lives and accomplishments, and quotations. Each entry is illustrated with mixed-media artwork and captioned photographs. Back matter includes a “When They Were Born” spread with thumbnail images of the fifty individuals organized chronologically by birthdate from Pocahontas (ca.1596-1617) to Marley Dias (2005), a glossary, an index, and an explanation of the organization of the profiles into five sections: “Think & Invent,” “Create & Dream,” “Hope & Believe,” “Lead & Triumph,” and “Change & Conquer.” (Gr 3 Up)
Osnat and Her Dove: The True Story of the World’s First Female Rabbi. Sigal Samuel. Illus. by Vali Mintizi. (2021). Levine Querido.
In 1590, Osnat, a Kurdish Jew, was born in Mosul, where men studied at a yeshiva built by her father, Rabbi Samuel Barzani. Growing up surrounded by books, Osnat convinced her father to teach her to read in spite of the fact that he believed reading was for boys and that girls should spend their time doing chores. Osnat became a Torah scholar and highly respected teacher. After the deaths of her father and her husband, Osnat became the leader of the Mosul yeshiva. Vali Mintzi’s stunning gouache paintings in rich blue, red, and golden colors beautifully set the scene for this well-crafted biography in which Sigal Samuel weaves legend and fact in telling the story of Osnat Barzani, “a woman with a curious mind, kind heart, and, according to some, miraculous power—the first female rabbi in history.” (Gr 3 Up)
Our Country’s Presidents: A Complete Encyclopedia of the U.S. Presidency (2020 Edition). Ann Bausum. (2021). National Geographic.
This revised reference on the U.S. presidency is organized by six historical periods from “The Presidency and How it Grew” (1789-1837) to “Pathways for a New Millennium” (1989-Present). Each section includes an introduction and timeline of important events followed by profiles of the presidents during the period. Each profile includes a full-page reproduction of the president’s official portrait; a biographical essay including family background, childhood, education, pre-presidential careers, election highlights, key events during the presidency, and post-presidential activities; notable quotes; a text box of quick-reference facts; and numerous captioned illustrations. Interspersed among the profiles are double-page spreads on topics related to the presidency such as “Presidents at War: Serving as the Commander in Chief” and “Election 2020: Choosing a President During a Pandemic.” Back matter includes a chart of presidential election results, a “Find Out More” section (books, websites, videos and TV programs, and places to visit), a bibliography, and an index. (Gr 3 Up)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Iconic Supreme Court Justice (2nd Edition) (Gateway Biographies). James Roland. (2021). Lerner.
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020) was sworn in as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1993, she became the second woman to serve in that capacity. As a Jewish woman, she battled along the way to attaining this most important judicial position, including fighting anti-Semitism and gender bias in college and law school and working for women’s rights as a lawyer and a judge. On the Supreme Court, she had a reputation for fairness and being able to work with judges supporting opposite sides of issues. She advocated, “Fight for the things that you care about, . . . but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Justice Ginsburg became known as the “Notorious RBG” in popular culture with her words such as “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” She was eighty-seven and actively serving on the Court at the time of her death on September 18, 2020. Back matter includes a timeline, source notes, a bibliography, suggestions for further reading, and an index. (Gr 3 Up).
Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Scientist. Evan Griffith. Illus. by Joanie Stone. (2021). Clarion.
Jeanne Power (1794-1871), a pioneer female naturalist in a sea of male scientists, designed the first glass aquarium and made wooden cages so she could study live sea creatures up close. Joanie Stone’s exquisite digital illustrations complement Evan Griffith’s lyrical text describing Jeanne’s studies and how this self-taught naturalist solved a disagreement among scientists about whether the paper nautilus grew its own shell or stole it from another creature. After becoming the first female member of a science academy in Sicily, she moved to England to share her years of documented research, which, unfortunately, was lost in a storm at sea. After recreating her experiments and patented inventions, she finally found wide acceptance among scientist for her study of sea creatures and paved the way for future women scientists. Back matter includes additional information about Jeanne Power’s life and legacy; notes on the paper nautilus (with photographs), marine biology and conservation, and historical research; and a bibliography. (Gr 3-5)
The Stuff Between the Stars: How Vera Rubin Discovered Most of the Universe. Sandra Nickel. Illus. by Aimée Sicuro. (2021). Abrams.
The life of Vera Rubin (1928-2016) is explored through Sandra Nickel’s informative text and Aimée Sicuro’s beautifully crafted watercolor, ink, and charcoal-pencil illustrations, often incorporating artistic swirls that mimic the major focus of Rubin’s studies, rotating galaxies. Following graduation from Vassar as the only astronomy major in her class and marrying, she continued to test her galaxy movement theories that were refuted or ignored by senior astronomers. After being hired by the Carnegie Institution, she became the first woman to observe at California’s Palomar Observatory and to use the powerful telescopes atop Kitts Peak in Arizona. Her research on what some earlier astronomers called “dark matter,” the mysterious stuff filling the space between the stars which comprises 85% of matter in the universe, serves as an important foundation for current astronomy research. Back matter includes an author’s note, a timeline of her life, source notes, and a bibliography. (Gr 3 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.
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).