Summary: It’s 1885, and 13-year-old Mei is working as an assistant cook, helping her father in a logging camp in the Sierra Nevadas. The stories she makes up about Auntie Po, a larger-than-life character inspired by Paul Bunyan, entertain the other kids and help her to celebrate her Chinese heritage. Prejudice against her father and other Chinese workers leads to their dismissal and Mei’s anger at her helplessness. When the White workers strike to protest their bad food, the boss is forced to hire back Mei’s father. The two men are friends, as are the boss’s daughter and Mei (who sometimes dreams of something more than a friendship), but Mei and her father frequently have to remind the White man and his daughter of the privileges they have that the Chinese don’t. A tragedy forces Mei to question her belief in Auntie Po, but eventually brings about a chain of events that give her and her father hope for a brighter future. Includes an author’s note and bibliography. 304 pages; grades 5-9.
Pros: It’s not often that I’m actually reading a book when it’s announced as a National Book Award finalist (okay, that has never happened to me before and probably never will again). There’s so much here: historical fiction, folklore, explorations of racism and privilege, coming of age, LGBTQ issues…plus a great story with outstanding artwork. I’m guessing this will be considered for a Newbery or maybe a Printz award. It would definitely have appeal for either age group.
Cons: There are a lot of characters and storylines to keep track of, and I felt like I missed some of the subtleties in my first reading.
Summary: A boy and his father take a Saturday morning trip over the border to Mexico, something that is obviously a familiar routine for them. As they approach the bridge, Dad reminds him that the land once belonged to the Coahuiltecans before it became two countries. They enjoy coffee and hot chocolate in a restaurant, then head out for their errands, visiting relatives and shopping for friends. When it’s time to go back home, they have one more stop to make part way across the bridge. It’s lined with people camping there, refugees from the Caribbean and Central America who can’t get into either Mexico or the U.S. The boy and his father distribute much of what they’ve bought that day to the people on the bridge: food, medicine, comics. “All the way home I imagine a wonderful day, when all my friends from the Other Side can go back and forth between my two border towns, just like me.” 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: An uplifting but realistic look at the life of an American boy who still has close ties to his Mexican heritage–and who is being taught empathy and compassion as he and his dad consider the plight of their friends waiting to gain admittance to one country or another.
Cons: A little back matter with additional information about the border and/or refugees would have been a nice addition.
Summary: In this follow-up to One Last Word, Nikki Grimes focuses on the women poets of the Harlem Renaissance. The book begins with an introduction to the history of the period and to the poetry form Grimes uses called The Golden Shovel, in which she uses the poems of others to inspire her own poetry. The poems are presented in three sections: “Heritage”, “Earth Mother”, and “Taking Notice”. They’re bookended with poems in the voice of a middle school girl, skeptical when her teacher hands her books on the women of the Harlem Renaissance, then empowered after she reads them. Includes biographical information about the poets and the illustrators, sources, and an index. 144 pages; grades 5-9.
Pros: Like One Last Word, this book is an amazing resource for learning about poets of the Harlem Renaissance, in this case women who have pretty much been forgotten. The Golden Shovel seems incredibly difficult, but Nikki Grimes proves herself a master of the form. The artwork by so many different illustrators perfectly illuminates the poems.
Cons: How did One Last Word not win any Coretta Scott King recognition? I’m rooting for this book to remedy that.
Summary: Sixth-grader Hugo is dismayed about his father’s decision to quit his corporate job and move the family to become a ski instructor. Hugo, small for his age, has finally found friends and doesn’t relish the idea of having to start all over again at a new school. Sure enough, a boy named Chance seems to delight in bullying Hugo about his size. Fortunately, Hugo’s cool cousin Vijay goes to his new school, and introduces Hugo to his surprisingly uncool but interesting friends. The group is working on a new school newspaper (or newsletter, since it’s only a single sheet of paper), and Hugo gets drawn into this activity. When he shows a talent for interpreting people’s trash to get insights into their personalities, he finds himself with a certain middle school celebrity status. But superpowers must be used for good, and when Hugo uses his to get back at Chance, he finds himself in big trouble with both his family and his new friends. 240 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: Familiar middle school concerns of bullying, family tensions, and starting a new school are all explored here with a cast of engaging characters. From the eye-catching cover to the satisfying conclusion, this book is sure to appeal to a wide range of readers.
Cons: Hugh’s trashy grand finale felt a little anticlimactic.
Summary: In this companion to Green and Blue, Laura Vaccaro Seeger creates the story of a lost fox told with the color red: “Dark red/light red/lost red/bright red” takes the fox from traveling through a forest to sleeping in a field to getting caught in the headlights of a blue pickup at a railroad crossing. Die-cut pages give a glimpse of the red on the next page, as the fox discovers more man-made barriers. Rusty nails cut its paws, a chain link fence and brick wall block its path, and finally a raw steak lures it into a trap. A neighbor girl finds the trap and frees the fox, who finds its way back to its family. “Just red” shows an adult fox and a kit happily nuzzling one another. Includes an author’s note. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Caldecott honoree Laura Seeger works her magic again, perfectly portraying a range of strong emotions through color, illustrations, and a few words. Be sure to read the author’s note which links the human characters in all three of her books, and places this book in the context of our political times. A Caldecott consideration for sure.
Summary: A subway train that is part of the Seoul network (one of the longest in the world) tells the story of its travels. At each stop, a new person gets on and tells a bit about their life. There’s a grandmother taking fish to cook for her daughter and granddaughter, a shoemaker who can tell about people’s lives from studying their shoes, an overwhelmed high school student, an unemployed 29-year-old man, and more. As each one boards, the narration switches to their voice, and a two-page spread gives us a bit of their story. The voice of the subway closes the book: ‘The unique lives of strangers you might never meet again are all around you, every time you take the train.” 52 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: At first glance, this might look like a book for someone who likes trains, and it is that, but it’s also an invitation to slow down and notice the people all around you and to contemplate what kind of life each one of them might be living. The watercolor portraits are beautiful renditions of the different people, and the poetic language could be used as a mentor text for narrative writing. I was kind of blown away by all that’s contained in this one picture book.
Cons: The narrative structure of this book is different from most, with six pages of text before the title page and so many different voices, that it might be difficult for younger kids to understand all that is going on without some extra help.
Summary: Before 9/11, the Callery pear tree stood, mostly unnoticed, in the shadow of the Twin Towers. “One September day, the perfect blue sky exploded,” and the tree was buried in the rubble. Workers noticed a green sprout growing out of it, and the tree was taken to a nursery where it gradually came back to life and flourished for the next ten years. Eventually, it was transplanted back to the 9/11 Memorial, where people now stop and marvel at the tree, now known as the Survivor Tree, the last living thing pulled from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Includes additional information about the tree, an author’s note, an artist’s note, and a photo. 48 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: This beautiful book tells the story of the Survivor Tree in sparse, poetic language, with watercolor illustrations by Caldecott honoree Aaron Becker. The same tale is told from the tree’s perspective in another 2021 book, This Very Tree. I’d be hard-pressed to choose one over the other; both offer stories and illustrations that will engage younger readers with enough back matter to make them excellent resources for older kids.
Cons: I wish this book had been released prior to August 31 so I could have reviewed it in time for the twentieth anniversary of 9/11.
Summary: Harry is super nervous on his first day of first grade: he worries about his too-short haircut, having a guinea pig in the classroom, strict teachers, and making friends. As the story unfolds day by day, Harry learns to overcome all of these concerns. His teacher is strict, but kind, gently guiding Harry to do the right thing. His older sister introduces him to her class’s guinea pig, and he learns that they aren’t scary after all, but pretty adorable. He meets Mason, who becomes his best friend. And he learns to stand up to the class bully, who eventually turns out to be a friend as well. By day 100, Harry considers himself a first grade expert, with these words of wisdom: “Try to make new friends. Keep reading even when the words are hard. Speak up when something’s wrong. And help when someone’s sad.” 240 pages, grades K-3.
Pros: I zipped through the first half of this book in one evening, then held off on the rest so I could savor it later. It’s such a realistic look at what first grade is like, and Harry is an imperfectly perfect narrator (he gets in trouble for talking, pukes all over his desk, and isn’t always nice to the other kids at his table). There’s plenty of classroom diversity, and lessons about Columbus Day and Thanksgiving that are a bit different than what I remember from first grade but well-delivered by his compassionate teacher. Pete Oswald’s illustrations add plenty of humor. This would be a perfect first-grade read-aloud, and I hope it captures the attention of the Newbery committee.
Cons: I would have liked a little more background on Harry’s guinea pig phobia.
Summary: Alaina wakes up feeling excited about the day ahead. The second graders are putting on a play, and she, a kindergartener, gets to deliver the last line, “Thank you for coming. Goodbye.” She reviews her line with her mother as they walk to school, then goes over it in her head throughout the day. Finally, it’s time for the big production. Alaina watches in the wings, getting caught up in the different emotions that the actors portray. When it’s time for her line, she is too excited to stay on script, and instead improvises: “Wasn’t that great? Wasn’t it stupendous? What about those jokes, and the yelling, and the crying, and the dancing, and…?” The teacher cuts her short by closing the curtain, but Alaina sticks her head out for her final, “Thank you for coming. Goodbye!” 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Eloise Greenfield, who died this year at the age of 92, once said she wanted her books “to enable Black children to realize how beautiful and smart they are”. She realizes that vision in this posthumously published story about Alaina. The story and the gorgeous illustrations capture the excitement of the theater, and Alaina’s delight in the production is infectious. This would make a great introduction to read before attending a play.
Cons: Seems like someone could have thought of a slightly catchier title.
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Summary: A boy tells the story of his family in the present and through a series of flashbacks. His older sister Laetitia, growing bored with life on the Blackfoot reserve in Alberta, moves to Salt Lake City. The boy and his mother decide to visit her. At the border, they’re asked for their citizenship, and the mother replies, “Blackfoot.” This is not an acceptable answer for crossing the border into the U.S., nor will it allow them back into Canada, and the two of them are stuck at the crossing for days. Finally, after the media descends on the station, the boy and his mother are allowed to cross into the United States. They visit Laetitia, who has come to appreciate her family and heritage more and is considering returning home, before an uneventful trip back to Canada. 192 pages; grades 5-8.
Pros: This brief but powerful graphic novel, based on a short story by the author, provides plenty of food for thought about the artificial nature of nations and borders and the impact they have on indigenous people who lived in those places long before the nations existed.
Cons: Several reviews recommend this for grades 3 and up, but in my opinion, the language and content make it more of a middle school book. It’s a deceptively simple story that younger kids may not fully grasp.