Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Published by HarperCollins 

Summary:  12-year-old Mai thinks her summer is ruined when she learns that, instead of getting to hang out at the beach with her best friend and the boy she has a crush on, she has to travel to Vietnam with her grandmother and father.  Her grandmother has heard from a Vietnamese detective that he may have news of her husband, missing in action since the war.  Vietnam turns out to be hot and sticky, mosquito-infested, and overrun with dozens of relatives who never leave Mai alone.  At first, all she can think about is how to get back to California as fast as possible, but as the summer progresses, she learns more about her family and the country they once lived in.  A cousin with a buzz cut, a pet frog, and an attitude eventually turns into a friend.  Most of all, Mai sees the strength of her grandmother who raised seven children alone and left Vietnam during the fall of Saigon to make sure her children would be safe and successful, and the love between her grandparents that survived their long separation.  272 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  A funny coming-of-age novel, a tragic war story, and a love song to Vietnam all rolled into one.  Mai’s voice is perfect, as she slowly matures from a self-centered California girl to a (more or less) compassionate young woman.  I never thought I wanted to visit Vietnam until I read this book.

Cons:  The ending left me wanting more.


Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers’ Journey from Slave to Artist by Barbara Herkert, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Published by Alfred A. Knopf 

Summary:  Harriet Powers was born into slavery in Athens, Georgia.  She grew up on a cotton plantation, watching women spin, dye, and weave cloth.  She participated in quilting bees, where slave women were given a few hours to sew their own creations instead of having to follow directions of the mistress of the house.  At one of those bees, she met the man who would become her husband.  They married and had five children; when the children were still young, the family received word of the Emancipation Proclamation and were free.  Harriet and her husband worked hard and saved enough money to buy a small farm.  When the price of cotton dropped, Harriet was forced to sell two of her beautiful story quilts.  One of them was purchased by an art teacher who wrote down the stories pictured in the different quilt panels.  An author’s note explains that those two quilts still exist today, in the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  Other back matter includes a bibliography, photos of the two quilts with a list of the stories portrayed on each, and the only known photograph of Harriet in existence.  40 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  The beautiful quilts are evidence that art can flourish in any environment.  The illustrations capture Harriet’s spirit as well as her works of art.

Cons:  I hesitate to enter into the controversy over the depiction of slavery in A Fine Dessert, but two of the criticisms I have seen—that the portrayal of a slave girl living with her mother is unrealistic, and that the slave girl shouldn’t be pictured with a smile—are present in this book as well.  So far, I’m not aware of similar criticisms for Sewing Stories.

Moletown by Torben Kuhlmann

Published by NorthSouth Books   

Summary: When a mole discovers a lush, green meadow, he decides to make his home there. He’s not alone for long.  Soon other moles join him, and the underground community grows.  As more and more moles make set up housekeeping, technology starts to move in as well, with machines helping the moles to move dirt, build infrastructure, and entertain themselves.  Eventually, the lush, green meadow has turned brown and barren, except for one small patch of green that still remains.  Is it too late to save it?  The endpapers show The Moletown Times headlining “Agreement on Green”, but it’s uncertain if that will save the moles’ world.  32 pages; ages 4-10.

Pros:  This nearly wordless picture book (there’s text only on the first and last pages) raises timely issues in a mole world that parallels humans’.  The illustrations are stunning, all done in shades of brown, picturing tons of details in Moletown.  Kids will have fun poring over the pictures, and the message is accessible enough to engender discussion with the youngest readers.

Cons:  Little brings me down faster than a global warming allegory.

Published by Candlewick 

Summary:  Seven animals are profiled—the land snail, hummingbird, garden spider, honeybee, potter wasp, beaver, and stickleback.  The emphasis is on what each animal builds to help it stay alive.  A web, a nest, a honeycomb; each example of animal architecture is marvelously illustrated with intricate pop-ups that show the animal with its creation.  The final page, “Neighbors” has one magnificent pop-up that includes all of the animals, and explains how humans and all these creatures are interdependent inhabitants of the “neighborwood”.  16 pages; all ages.

Pros:  The text is interesting and educational, but the incredible pop-ups are the real stars here.  Readers will gasp with delight as each page is turned to reveal an amazing animal habitat.

Cons:  Due to the price and the fragile nature of pop-ups, this may more suitable as a gift for a special child in your life than a purchase for the library shelves.


Game Changer: John McLendon and the Secret Game by John Coy, illustrated by Randy DuBurke

Published by Carolrhoda 

Summary: In 1944, two college basketball teams met for a secret game. The men from Duke University Medical School knew they were playing a game, but had no idea until they arrived, that they were playing an African American team at the North Carolina College of Negroes.  Coach John McLendon had arranged the game, even though he knew he could face death if the local Ku Klux Klan got wind of his actions.  The game started slowly, but pretty soon McClendon’s team started to dominate.  The final score was 88-44, North Carolina College of Negroes.  The teams then mixed it up to make things more even, playing shirts versus skins.  Afterwards, the Duke team members visited the other team’s dorm and sat around talking basketball.  For years, no one ever knew about the game for fear of reprisals.  John McLendon went on to win three national titles at Tennessee State, and was the first African American coach inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. 32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  A fascinating and powerful story about one man’s contributions toward ending racism and promoting greater understanding.  The illustrations have plenty of great basketball action and grow more colorful as the story unfolds.

Cons:  The less colorful illustrations on the first several pages, combined with the typewriter-like font, had an unappealing look.  The second half of the book was better visually.

House Arrest by K. A. Holt

Published by Chronicle Books 

Summary: 12 year-old Timothy is starting a year of house arrest for stealing a wallet. As part of his probation, he has to keep a journal about his feelings.  Writing in verse, Timothy recounts his life with his mother and baby brother, Levi, whose respiratory problems force him to have a tracheotomy.  This life-threatening health issue proved too much for Timothy’s dad, who abandoned the family when Levi was just a few months old.  Their mother works to support the family and takes care of Levi day and night.  Timothy reveals that he took the wallet so he could fund Levi’s medications for a month and try to give his mom a break.  His gruff but kind probation officer and his young, earnest psychologist are just two of the people who help Timothy find his way through a long and difficult year.  It’s a roller coaster ride, but the end holds out hope that all members of the family will make it.  304 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This fast-paced novel is hard to put down.  Reluctant readers will get caught up in Timothy’s life, and the verse format makes the story move quickly.

Cons:  Novels in verse can be a hard sell for kids unfamiliar with the format.

The World in a Second by Isabel Minhos Martins, illustrated by Bernardo P. Carvalho

Published by Enchanted Lion Books


Summary:  What goes on around the world in one second?  This book looks at what occurs at the exact same moment (8:32 a.m. Eastern Standard Time) in 23 different places around the world.  While a boat is tossed on the waves of the Baltic Sea, a volcano erupts in Papua-New Guinea.  A boy in Angola rides his bike for the first time while a girl hurries home from school in Iceland.  Each incident is illustrated with a two-page spread showing a great variety of perspectives.  The final page shows a map of the world with all 23 locations labeled.  Ages 8 and up.

Pros:  This Portuguese import offers an intriguing look at life around the planet.  The illustrations are amazing, large graphic art portrayals of each location, teeming with activity.  Students could use this book as a springboard to research places around the world or to write more about what is going on in the different scenes.

Cons:  Although this looks like a picture book for younger kids, it could be a difficult book to fully appreciate before third grade or so.

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

Published by Candlewick 

Summary:  14-year-old Joan Skraggs lives on her father’s farm with three older brothers, and records daily life in 1911 in a journal.  Since her mother’s death a few years previously, Joan has been doing all the housework on the farm.  Her father is a brute; the last straw for Joan is when he burns her three beloved books that were given to her by her teacher before she was forced to leave school.  She makes up her mind to run away, and in a well-planned escape, makes her way to Baltimore.  Unfortunately, her plans end there.  She is sitting on a bench with night falling, when she is rescued by Solomon Rosenthal, a young Jewish man whose wealthy family runs a department store.  Taken on as the Rosenthals’ hired girl, Joan finds a home filled with love, beauty, and books.  Pretending to be 18, she falls in love with younger son David, and finds innumerable ways to get in trouble with every member of the family.  Joan’s loving heart triumphs in the end, though, and with the help of the Rosenthals, she is well on the way to making a better life for herself as she reaches the final pages of her journal.  392 pages; ages 11-15.

Pros:  Readers will cheer for Joan (who wisely changes her name to Janet when she leaves home), a strong but impetuous girl whose roller-coaster emotions will be familiar to 21st-century teenagers.  The historical details are interesting, too; running a household in 1911, not to mention a kosher one, was not for the faint of heart.

Cons:  The story bogs down a bit once Joan is settled in Baltimore and writes in great details about her longing for David Rosenthal and her religious struggles.

Sail Away poems by Langston Hughes, art by Ashley Bryan

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Summary: 15 of Langston Hughes’ poems, all having to do with the sea or water, are presented here, illuminated by award-winning illustrator Ashley Bryan, still going strong at age 92. The pictures are collages with swirls of bright color that perfectly capture the sea and the ships and people that travel on it.  40 pages; ages 5-10.

Pros:  I confess my knowledge of Langston Hughes is limited to “Harlem” (“What happens to a dream deferred?”).  I was surprised that he wrote so many beautiful poems about the ocean.  They’re accessible for young children, with language and imagery that could be appreciated by older ones.  Readers will love the brightly colored illustrations and may be inspired to try their hands at collage.

Cons:  There was no author’s note.  I would have loved to learn more about Hughes and how he came to write these poems.

North Woods Girl by Aimee Bissonette with illustrations by Claudia McGehee

Published by Minnesota Historical Society Press   

Summary: Grandma doesn’t look like other grandmas. She’s tall and bony, and she likes to tuck her pants into her boots and go tramping through the woods.  She doesn’t bake cookies, but she knows how to grow and can tomatoes and string beans.  Grandma’s daughter worries about her living alone in the woods, but her granddaughter knows she would be unhappy if she had to live away from the animals and birds that she loves.  As the two of them lie in the snow out by the pond on a moonlit night, the little girl hopes that she will grow up to be just like Grandma.  32 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  A beautiful intergenerational story illuminated with lovely illustrations showing Grandma’s cozy cabin and the woods surrounding it.  This would be a great mentor text for characterization.

Cons:  I can’t help thinking there must be a real “North Woods Girl”, but there was no author’s note.