Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Julia Iredale

Published by Candlewick

Amazon.com: Amber and Clay (9781536201222): Schlitz, Laura Amy, Iredale,  Julia: Books
Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, Julia Iredale, Hardcover | Barnes &  Noble®

Summary:  Rhaskos is a slave in ancient Greece, separated from his mother at an early age.  His mother is taken away to live in a household that includes Melisto, a girl whose wealthy father loves her, but whose mother despises her.  When Melisto joins a group of young girls serving the goddess Artemis, her life takes an unexpected turn and becomes entwined with Rhaskos’s.  Rhaskos’s mother finds a way for Melisto to obtain Rhaskos’s freedom…but it will take years and many strange turns that involve gods, goddesses, and the great philosopher Sokrates.  Includes exhibits of ancient Greek artifacts with museum-type descriptions interspersed throughout the book; each of these plays a role in the story.  Also, an author’s note with additional information about Greek words, verse, and history; and an extensive bibliography.  545 pages; grades 5-8.  ó

Pros and Cons:  I honestly don’t know where to begin with this book.  It truly is a masterpiece, written mostly in verse, but with some sections in prose, and an incredible attention to historical detail.  I can’t even fathom the research that must have gone into writing it, and I can’t imagine any other publisher besides Candlewick producing this.

Having said that, I feel like this is a book with very, very limited appeal.  Looking back over my 21 years of being a school librarian, I can think of two middle school girls who might have been interested in this book.  I had to really push myself to read it (it’s over 500 pages!), although it was pretty absorbing once I started.

Will this book receive Newbery consideration?  Absolutely, and there is no question that the writing and research of that caliber.  Do I hope it wins?  To be honest. Call me a simpleton, but I would rather see a book win that is going to appeal to a much greater audience of young readers.

Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac

Published by Dial Books

Rez Dogs: Bruchac, Joseph: 9780593326213: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Malian has been visiting her grandparents on a Wabanaki reservation when Covid hits, and she can’t go back home to Boston.  She loves her grandparents and the reservation, but sometimes gets bored, lonely, and frustrated by the spotty Wi-Fi.  When a rez dog appears one morning, Malian names him Malsum (meaning wolf), and welcomes his company.  Malsum never comes into the house, but his presence brings joy to Malian and her grandparents as they go about their daily lives.  In between school, gardening, cooking, and Star Trek episodes, Malian and her grandparents share stories: folklore, and tales of her grandfather’s time at an Indian boarding school, and how her mother was taken away from her parents and put into foster care as a child.  By the time summer comes and Malian can return to Boston, she has learned how much her Wabanaki heritage is a part of her.  While she’s sad to say goodbye to Malsum, she knows she’ll be back.  “Just like us, you’re a rez dog, too,” her grandmother tells her.  192 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This timely novel-in-verse introduces readers to contemporary life on a reservation while beautifully weaving in folktales and indigenous history.  

Cons:  I am curious about the Wabanaki reservation; I am guessing it’s in Maine (or somewhere in New England), and I would have liked to have learned more about it, maybe in an author’s note.

Unsettled by Reem Faruqi

Published by HarperCollins

Amazon.com: Unsettled (9780063044708): Faruqi, Reem: Books

Summary:  When Nurah’s father announces he has taken a new job and is moving the family from Karachi, Pakistan to Peachtree City, Georgia, Nurah is heartbroken to leave her best friend and her grandparents.  At her new school in Georgia, all she wants to do is blend in, but eating lunch by herself under a stairwell is lonely.  Joining the swim team leads to a new friendship that changes Nurah’s feelings about school, and she’s motivated to work hard to become a champion swimmer like her older brother, Owais.  When Owais is the target of a bullying incident at the pool that turns violent, and her father is questioned by the FBI following a terrorist incident, Nurah learns some difficult truths about being Muslim in America.  But she also learns to help her brother overcome his trauma to get back in the pool and to be true to herself and her heritage. Includes an author’s note tying her personal experiences to the story; a glossary, and a recipe for aloo kabab. 352 pages grades 3-7.

Pros:  A beautiful novel in verse that delves into many different issues, not only with Nurah and her family, but with her new friend Stahr, who has an abusive father.  While not every reader has had Nurah’s experience of moving to an unfamiliar new country, many will relate to her wish to blend in while at the same time learning to appreciate her unique qualities.

Cons:  I appreciate the brevity and economy of words of a novel in verse, but it’s also a format that makes it difficult to explore in depth the many topics (immigration, bullying, racial profiling, miscarriage, domestic abuse, etc.) that were included in this story.

Starfish by Lisa Fipps

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

Amazon.com: Starfish (9781984814500): Fipps, Lisa: Books

Summary:  Eleven-year-old Ellie has been bullied about her size for many years–by her classmates, her brother, and her mother, who is pushing her to have bariatric surgery.  Things get worse when her best friend moves away the summer before sixth grade, and Ellie has to face middle school alone.  Fortunately, a new girl next door becomes a friend, and Ellie’s sympathetic dad takes her to a therapist who helps her explore her emotions and learn to stand up for herself.  It’s clear there’s still a lot of work to do for Ellie’s family, but by the end she is feeling empowered to confront some of the bullies and to stop hiding who she really is.  Includes a brief author’s note explaining how she based Ellie’s bullying on her own experiences.  256 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  I inhaled this novel in verse in a single sitting and can’t wait to share it with students at my school.  I commend Nancy Paulsen (mentioned in the author’s acknowledgements) for seeing this as a middle grade book instead of YA.  I think it will be a story that many fifth, sixth and seventh graders will take to heart and that will be invaluable to them as they navigate middle school and body image issues.

Cons: As much as I loved the verse format, I think its brevity made some of the work done in therapy seem a little quick and easy. 

Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It: Pinkney, Andrea Davis,  Pinkney, Brian: 9780316536776: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  The three voices that “tell it” belong to Loretta Little, a sharecropper’s daughter growing up in Mississippi from 1927 to 1930; Loretta’s younger brother Roly, who narrates from 1942 to 1950; and Roly’s daughter, Aggie B., whose years span 1962 to 1968.  Inspired by the oral tradition, their narratives of hardship, poverty, love, and fights for civil rights are told in their own voices, supplemented by poems and illustrations.  Includes an author’s note; an illustrator’s note; additional information on the dramatic form; information on sharecroppers; thumbnail portraits and descriptions of real-life people who appear in the Littles’ stories; and a list of resources for further reading and sharing.  224 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  The Pinkneys have produced another work of art that is sure to get some attention at awards time.  The monologues are designed for reading aloud, and could be performed all together, or as individual pieces.  The poems and illustrations tie all three narratives together beautifully.

Cons:  I would have liked the information on the dramatic form at the beginning of the book.  I read this as one would a regular novel, and found it a bit of a slog.  It’s much more lively when considering it as a performance piece.

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Becoming Muhammad Ali by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile

Published by Jimmy Patterson Books (Little, Brown)

Becoming Muhammad Ali - Kindle edition by Patterson, James, Alexander,  Kwame, Anyabwile, Dawud. Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Summary:  Round One: Cassius Clay’s friend Lucky and the rest of Cassius’s friends and family are awaiting the results of the 1958 Golden Gloves championship.  16-year-old Cassius is in Chicago, 300 miles from his home in Louisville, KY.  The phone rings, and the story shifts to Cassius’s voice, told in verse.  Clay didn’t win that championship, but he relates how he got there: the friends and relatives who influenced him, the events that led him to boxing, the unflagging discipline and confidence that helped him in his training.  By the time we get to Round Nine, Cassius is ready to return to the Golden Gloves competition and become a champion.  Lucky introduces each round, then finishes with a Final Round, in which he tells what happened to Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali, during the rest of his career.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Apparently, Kwame Alexander has been a Muhammad Ali fan since he read Ali’s autobiography as a kid, and he uses his considerable poetic talents to bring the boxer life.  I wasn’t sure I liked Lucky’s prose sections at first, but they did flesh out the story, setting up the action for the poetry parts. This is sure to be an enormously popular choice for kids.

Cons:  I’m curious about the collaboration James Patterson, who seems more like a brand than an actual author these days.  I would have preferred this to be the sole work of Kwame Alexander, whom I’m sure could have pulled it off without any help.

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The Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

The Canyon's Edge: Bowling, Dusti: 9780316494694: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Nora and her dad are going for a hike on her birthday.  It’s the first time they’ve gone hiking since her mother was killed by a gunman exactly a year ago when the family was celebrating Nora’s birthday at a restaurant.  Her father was also injured, but the greater trauma to both of them was psychological.  Nora’s ready to return to school, but her dad’s afraid to let her out of his sight.  The two of them argue about it as they start their hike; seconds later, there’s a rumbling sound, and a flash flood sweeps into the canyon, washing her father away.  Nora’s left on her own to survive two nights in the desert, battling snakes, scorpions, heat, thirst, and her own demons.  Determined to find and rescue her dad, Nora draws on inner resources and discovers she is stronger than she’s believed for the past year.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Warning: once you pick up this novel in verse, it’s hard to put down. It’s equal parts survival tale and a story of healing from a horrific trauma, told in flashbacks as Nora grapples with nightmares and other reminders of her mother’s murder.  Although it may not sound so from this description, this is a book appropriate for upper elementary kids, who will undoubtedly find it as difficult to put down as I did.

Cons:  If you’re seeking a little light reading, you should probably look elsewhere.

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All He Knew by Helen Frost

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Amazon.com: All He Knew (9780374312992): Frost, Helen: Books

Summary:  When Henry arrives at Riverview in September of 1939, he is six years old, and has been deaf from an illness since the age of 3.  His parents have been advised to institutionalize him, and after he failed the admissions test for the state school for the deaf (he refused to blow out candles when an administrator tried to communicate that instruction to him), he’s been placed at the Riverview Home for the Feebleminded.  Unable to communicate or to understand what is happening to him, Henry tries to make friends and survive his days there, witnessing the abuse that other boys suffer for minor infractions.  His family tries to visit him once a year, but is not always able to afford the bus fare.  After World War II starts, a conscientious objector named Victor is assigned to Riverview, and befriends Henry.  Victor reaches out to Henry’s family, and is instrumental in convincing them that their son belongs at home.  Henry’s older sister learns about sign language, and after five years at Riverview, Henry is finally able to come home again and begin to learn to read, write, and speak.  Includes notes on the poetic forms used in this novel in verse; a lengthy author’s note about the boy in her husband’s family who inspired this story, as well as poems written by another family member about this boy.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Both Henry’s story and Victor’s were fascinating, and the intersection of their lives was a great relief after the first part of the story at Riverview.  Helen Frost’s poetry brings the story to life, and the back matter makes it even more poignant.

Cons:  I would have been interested in learning more about how Victor became a conscientious objector.  It sounded pretty simple from the story, but as a Quaker, I know this is not always an easy process.

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Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books (Released September 1)

Before the Ever After - Kindle edition by Woodson, Jacqueline ...

Summary:  ZJ can remember “before the ever after” when his NFL star dad was a football star, and he and his parents lived a happy life in suburban Maplewood.  But his father has started having severe headaches, memory lapses, and irrational behavior that have put an end to his football career.  Doctors are baffled by his case, and by similar cases of some of his NFL teammates.  12-year-old ZJ finds support from his mom and three close friends, as he tries to enjoy his dad’s more lucid moments, and worries when things start to fall apart.  A crisis near the end of the story results in Dad being admitted to the hospital, with the hope that he’ll get the care he needs, but nothing guaranteed.  176 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  This novel in verse by superstar Jacqueline Woodson will appeal to fans of Kwame Alexander and K. A. Holt.  Set in the early 2000’s when doctors were just beginning to understand the effects of multiple concussions for NFL players, there’s no happy ending, but ZJ’s voice hits just the right note between hope and despair.  An awards contender, for sure.

Cons:  It seemed surprising that none of the four 12-year-old boys in the story had any crushes or mention of romance.

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Blue Daisy by Helen Frost, illustrated by Roy Shepperson

Published by Margaret Ferguson Books

Amazon.com: Blue Daisy (9780823444144): Helen Frost, Rob ...

Summary:  Neighbors Sam and Katie want to befriend the stray dog that’s been wandering around their neighborhood.  She’s starting to trust them when one afternoon she falls asleep under a table that Sam’s dad has been painting.  Thoughtlessly, the kids experiment with using some of the paint on the dog, who wakes up in the middle of their fun.  She’s then marked with a “blue daisy” which gives her her name, but causes her to be mistrustful of the two kids.  They immediately regret their actions, and are dismayed when Blue Daisy starts hanging out with the mean Tracy twins.  The two have to come up with a way to win back the dog’s trust…and that just might mean reaching out to their enemies as well.  Includes recipes for the snickerdoodles and dog biscuits that are part of the story.  96 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Sam’s narration is in the form of poetry, while Katie’s is prose (although quotes are in italics without quotation marks, more like poetry), making this a good introduction to reading novels in verse.  Readers will relate to Sam and Katie’s mistake, and who doesn’t like a dog story with a happy ending?

Cons:  Kids who have only read traditional chapter books may struggle with the unusual format at first.

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