Caprice by Coe Booth

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Caprice has just finished a summer program at the prestigious Ainsley International School and has done well enough there to be offered a full scholarship for eighth grade through high school.  Returning home to her friends and family in Newark for the last few days of summer, she’s torn between taking this amazing opportunity or finishing middle school with the people she loves.  Complicating her decision are flashbacks of memories from when she was four years old that are increasingly difficult to ignore.  When Caprice’s grandmother in Baltimore gets sick, her family returns to the house where she spent her first few years, and she is forced to confront the trauma that happened there.  As the week draws to a close, Caprice is finally able to admit to her parents that she was molested by her uncle and can begin the healing process that will allow her to make the right decisions about her future.  Includes a note about resources for survivors of abuse.  256 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This compelling story drew me in right from the beginning.  The main narrative takes place over the course of a week, with the author skillfully weaving in Caprice’s poetry and flashbacks of memory to lead to a satisfying ending.  The topic of sexual abuse is handled in a way that’s appropriate for middle grade readers.

Cons:  The end note about resources was pretty short.

Out of this World: Star-Studded Haiku by Sally M. Walker, illustrated by Matthew Trueman

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  This collection of haiku looks at different aspects of the universe including constellations, astronomers, stars, the sun, all the planets (even Pluto!), moons, comets, and asteroids.  Each poem is supported with mixed media art to show various spacescapes.  Includes additional information for each section, a glossary, a reading list, and a list of online resources.  48 pages; grades 2-6.  

Pros:  This book will appeal to many different types of readers: poets (a great intro to haiku), scientists, and artists.  The illustrations are awe-inspiring and will fire up kids’ imaginations about the wonders of space.

Cons:  I wish someone had come up with a slightly more imaginative title than the hackneyed “Out of This World”.

The Little House of Hope by Terry Catasús Jennings, illustrated by Raúl Colón

Published by Neal Porter Books

Summary:  Esperanza, Manolo, Mami, and Papi look hard to find a new home when they arrive in the U.S. from Cuba.  The house they find is small and needs some work, but everyone pitches in to fix it up.  It’s not easy to find the time because all four members of the family are working hard to earn money and learn English.  Eventually things get easier, and they’re able to share their home with two other families who have recently immigrated from Cuba and Mexico.  Over the years, more families come and go, and Esperanza always creates special artwork for them to take for their new homes.  48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A positive look at the experience of immigrating to the United States, showing families who are able to get ahead through hard work and sharing.  Raúl Colón’s beautifully colored illustrations add just the right touch.  Thanks to Terry Catasús Jennings, who sent me a signed copy of this book (which unfortunately got a bit mangled by the U.S. postal service).

Cons:  Immigrant kids today may find their experiences are not as rosy as the ones pictured here. The back flap mentions that this story is based on the author’s experiences moving to the U.S. in 1961.  I wish she had included a note with more information about that and how times have changed since then.

Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler by Ibi Zoboi

Published by Dutton Books for Young Readers

Summary:  This biography of science fiction writer Octavia Butler is told through a collection of poetry, photographs, and quotations from Butler.  Starting with her early life as a solitary child growing up in 1950’s Pasadena, readers get to see how Octavia’s struggles in school, her introverted nature, and her love of books combined to lead to her a life as a writer.  She was fascinated by science fiction, although almost all of the writers and heroes of the stories were white men.  After years of rejection, she finally began selling her stories and eventually wrote books that earned her Nebula and Hugo awards as well as a MacArthur fellowship.  Includes a final chapter on Ibi Zoboi’s connection to Octavia Butler (they shared a birthday and met in person several times, including a science fiction writing workshop) and a list of Butler’s books.  128 pages; grades 7-12.

Pros:  This unique biography is a pretty quick read but gives an intimate look at Octavia Butler’s life and writing.  Readers who are not familiar with Butler’s work (like me) may be motivated to seek it out after getting this introduction.

Cons:  I saw some recommendations for this book starting in fifth grade, but I think it would be better appreciated by middle school and high school students, since Butler’s books are for young adults and adults.

Different Kinds of Fruit by Kyle Lukoff

Published by Dial Books

Summary:  Annabelle’s not super excited about starting sixth grade.  It’s her last year at the Lab School, where she knows her other classmates a little too well after six years in school together.  But this year begins to look different when a new student named Bailey walks into the classroom.  Bailey is nonbinary, and Annabelle is fascinated by them.  The two become friends, and Annabelle finds herself hoping it will turn into something more.  When Annabelle brings Bailey home, she’s dismayed by her parents’ cool reaction to them.  Later, her parents reveal that her dad is a trans man, and Annabelle’s world turns upside down.  With the help of Bailey and their parents, Annabelle and her family start to become part of the LGBTQ+ community, allowing them to learn more about themselves and to live more genuine lives.  320 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Newbery honoree Kyle Lukoff has created another heartwarming story that explores the lives of LGBTQ+ kids and their families and friends.  Bailey and Annabelle have to deal with a classmate (aptly named Dixon), his mother, and a wishy-washy principal who work to keep any LGBTQ+ discussion out of the classroom, and readers will get some insights on how to deal with that issue.

Cons:  Bailey and their parents seemed a little too good to be true, and sometimes seemed to exist just to educate Annabelle and her family.

Apple Crush by Lucy Knisley (Peapod Farm, book 2)

Published by Random House Graphic

Summary:  Jen and her family continue the story started in Stepping Stones.  She and her mom have settled into the routine of life on Peapod Farm with her mother’s boyfriend Walter.  Walter’s daughters Andy and Reese visit on the weekends.  Fall brings the beginning of middle school and a job for Andy and Jen helping to set up a haunted hayride at a neighboring farm.  The owner’s nephew Eddie is also working there, and even though he and Jen have a lot of common interests, Andy has a crush on him.  Jen doesn’t understand all the fuss made about romance and runs into even more issues with this when she becomes friends at school with a boy named Ollie.  Like it or not, romance is part of middle school life, and Jen has to learn to both deal with it and to speak up for herself and what she wants in her own life.  Includes several pages at the end in which Lucy shares incidents from her childhood that influenced this book.  208 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Another fun graphic novel about a middle school girl that does a great job capturing family and friendship dynamics.  The fall setting makes this a perfect back-to-school book.

Cons:  While I would no longer describe Walter as verbally abusive (as I did in my review of book 1), he still presents as an insensitive dunderhead.  

You Ruined It by Anastasia Higginbotham

Published by Dottir Press

Summary:  11-year-old Dawn has recently been sexually assaulted by her 22-year-old cousin.  When the story opens, she has just told her mother and sibling Billie.  Everyone has different reactions.  Dawn sometimes feels like she has left her body and is looking down on herself; she also misses the close relationship she had with her cousin and is struggling to come to terms with what he has done to her.  Billie is angry and says they want to kill their cousin.  Dawn’s mother is sad, angry, and glad that Dawn has told her what happened; she also signs herself up for a self-defense class.  When Mom tells her mother and the cousin’s parents what has happened, they don’t believe her and say that Dawn is just trying to get attention.  Dawn is fortunate to have caring and understanding people in her life who are determined to end the legacy of abuse that has also affected them.  By the end of the story, Dawn has started to find people and resources to help her heal.  Includes several pages of resources and discussion questions at the beginning and end for kids who have experienced sexual abuse or know someone who has.  96 pages; grades 3-8.

Pros and cons:  Although this was a difficult book to read and review, I recognize it is an important resource for kids who have experienced sexual abuse and the family members, counselors, and others who are trying to help them.  The story is told in a format similar to a journal, with a font that looks like handwriting and art created from collage and Spirograph drawings (more on those in the back matter).  The story itself shows a wide range of emotions and reactions to the abuse, and the resources and discussion questions add another empathetic layer. 

The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  Although Sai comes from an impoverished background, she’s managed to hide it and secure a coveted position as mapmaker Paiyoon’s assistant.  When Paiyoon is invited by the Queen to join an expedition that may lead to the discovery of the legendary Sunderlands, he invites Sai, who hopes to use the opportunity to improve her fortunes when she returns home.  On board, Sai meets a cast of fascinating characters including the mysterious Rian, whose rags-to-riches story Sai hopes to emulate, and a stowaway named Boo.  As they approach the part of the world rumored to hold both the Sunderlands and dragons, life on board starts to fall apart.  Storms, near-mutiny, and a close encounter with a dragon leave Sai and Boo stranded on a desert island.  But fortunes change, and a series of surprises lead Sai to some startling discoveries about both her past and her present and to the realization that she can be herself and still have the future she dreams of.  369 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This absorbing fantasy will have readers turning pages to find out what happens to the many fascinating and well-drawn characters who make the voyage along with Sai.  Christina Soontornvart picked up two Newbery honors in 2021, and with multiple starred reviews, this book is sure to be a contender.

Cons:  I read in the reviews that this story is based on Soontornvart’s Thai heritage.  I would have enjoyed an author’s note explaining that influence in greater detail.

The Depth of the Lake and the Height of the Sky by Kim Jihyun

Published by Floris Books

Summary:  A young boy and his parents leave their home in the city to drive to his grandparents’ more rural house.  As soon as they arrive, he and his dog head off into the woods to explore.  They’re delighted to find a lake with a dock, and the boy dives in.  Down, down he goes into the water, where he comes face to face with a fish.  The last page shows him and his dog stretched out on the dock in the sun.  48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A magical wordless picture book that emphasizes the importance of slowing down…both to enjoy nature in the story and to take in all the details in each illustration.  The pictures are mostly black and white with touches of blue and gold.  Most of the story feels realistic, but the underwater scenes have hints of fantasy to them.

Cons:  I was thinking that this book should be considered for a Caldecott until I realized that the author-illustrator lives in South Korea.

Music Is a Rainbow by Bryan Collier

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  A boy struggles between forces of light and darkness in his life, starting with his feelings when his father leaves each day for work and when his mother gets sick and has to go away on his seventh birthday.  His father tells him to always “leave room for that rainbow to find you.  Broken is beautiful.”  The boy discovers the rainbow through music, but the magical feeling doesn’t last long.  He’s tempted into trouble by a group of friends known as the South Side Bandits, and before long they’re taking joy rides on the ice cream truck.  One day they decide to break into the rec center.  While his friends are trashing the place, the boy discovers a piano and sits down to play.  “The sounds became music, and the music changed into colors.  The rainbow had found him.  And then that feeling lasted forever.”  Includes an author’s note citing the influences of Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, and Quincy Jones on this story.  48 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  Bryan Collier’s beautiful collage illustrations illuminate this story of a boy trying to find his way through difficult times.  I’m excited that I may actually get to meet Bryan Collier today at the Eric Carle Museum’s Collage Day!

Cons:  I found the story a little confusing, and I think that younger kids would definitely need some guidance to understand what’s going on.