Elbert in the Air by Monica Wesolowska, illustrated by Jerome Pumphrey

Published by Dial Books

Summary:  Shortly after Elbert is born, he floats into the air.  His mother gets all kinds of advice from so-called experts: catch him in a net like a butterfly, reel him in like a kite, or deflate him like a balloon.  But Elbert’s wise mother ignores all the suggestions and lets him be himself.  This pattern is repeated as Elbert gets older and starts school, then grows into a teenager.  When Elbert feels lonely, his mom assures him that he will find his place in the world.  Finally, with his mother’s support–and a full picnic basket she’s supplied–Elbert floats higher and higher until he finds a whole community of floating people just like him.  Happy in the world he’s always wished for, he sends a rope down to his mother who climbs up and joins them.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This is a sort of how-to manual for raising a child who doesn’t always fit in.  Elbert’s mother is steadfast in her support, and consequently, Elbert grows up to find his people without having to compromise who he really is.  As always, Jerome Pumphrey’s unique illustrations are a delight.

Cons:  I hope if one of my children is ever in this position, she sends me an easier way to ascend than climbing a rope.

Beneath by Cori Doerrfeld

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Finn is in a horrible mood, sitting on his bed completely covered by a patchwork quilt.  Grandpa wants to talk, but Finn tells him that he won’t understand.  Finally, Finn agrees to go for a walk, but only if he can stay underneath his quilt.  “Don’t worry,” says Grandpa, “I’ll remember to think of what’s beneath.”  As they walk, Grandpa points out that beneath the trees, there are roots; beneath the still water, there are fishing swimming around; beneath appearances are experiences, and beneath what’s different is what’s the same.  “And sometimes,” says Grandpa, “Beneath someone who looks like they won’t understand…is someone who knows exactly how you feel.”  The illustrations reveal that both Finn and Grandpa have broken hearts, maybe from the loss of the person who made the patchwork quilt.  As night falls, the quilt is transferred from Finn’s head to Grandpa’s shoulders, and both of them are shown with hearts that are no longer broken.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  There are many layers to this little story, and it will take an astute reader of both the words and the illustrations to catch them all.  Grandpa is truly a wise man who sees much more than meets the eye, and Finn is lucky to have him as they both process loss and grief.

Cons:  It would be difficult to get everything from this book with just one reading.

In Every Life by Marla Frazee

Published by Beach Lane Books

Summary:  Based on a call-and-response version of a baby-naming blessing Marla Frazee heard at a church service, this book seeks to honor aspects of life that we all experience.  “In every birth, blessed is the wonder,” the book begins, showing two pages of newborn babies with their families.  The next wordless page depicts a family enjoying the wonder of a sunset, the sky filled with pink clouds.  That format continues with sentences that begin “In every…” and show a blessing, followed by a wordless page depicting the blessing.  Smiles, hope, sadness, comfort, mystery, tears, love, and life are all parts of life and parts of this book.  32 pages; ages 3+

Pros:  This beautiful book should be considered for a Caldecott and would make a lovely gift for a new baby, graduate, or anyone going through a life transition. Despite the serious topics, the illustrations add a light touch with plenty of humor.

Cons:  The author’s note at the beginning is in a gold font so light that I missed it the first time I read the book.

Abuela’s Super Capa by Ana Siqueira, illustrated by Elisa Chavarri

Published by HarperCollins

Summary: Luis loves Saturdays, because Abuela comes to visit and plays sidekick to his superhéroe. When his sister Isabel tries to join in, he pushes her away, telling her that she’s too little. One Saturday, though, Luis’s parents tell him that Abuela is in the hospital. They visit her there, but even after she comes home, Abuela isn’t “superhéroe ready”. Luis tries everything he can think of to help her feel better, but nothing works, and eventually Abuela tells him she has to hang up her capa. One day, Luis is with Abuela when he sees Isabel running around with both capas. At first, he tells her no, but then he notices Abuela’s eyes are shining “like estrellas.” He puts his own capa on Isabel and Abuela’s around his own shoulders, and the two of them become superhéroes who can push Abuela in her wheelchair. Includes a glossary of Spanish words. 40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros: A touching story about a kid dealing with a grandparent’s illness and figuring out a way to still enjoy his time with her. The illustrations are colorful, joyful, and also manage to convey Abuela’s decline in a way that feels realistic.

Cons: I was worried that Abuela was not going to make it to the last page.

The Talk by Alicia D. Williams, illustrated by Briana Mukodiri Uchendu

Published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books

Summary:  A young boy tells of his happy life with his parents, grandparents, and three best friends.  He is clearly loved by all and enjoys being a kid while also dreaming of what he’ll do when he grows up.  As he gets older, his parents and grandparents start to tell him things like not to hang out in groups of four or more and to be quiet and keep his hands out of his pockets in the store.  One day, he’s heading out to meet his friends in his new college hoodie when his parents stop him.  It’s time to have The Talk. The book doesn’t share what they tell him, but two pages of illustrations show young Black men and women experiencing racism from white adults, including a police officer.  At the end, he’s embraced by his parents and grandparents, reminding him he’s done nothing wrong.  “This is me and my friends,” he concludes. “We want to hang and run, joke and laugh…race and soar, skate and flip, be chill and wild…and just be us.”  40 pages; all ages.

Pros:  This book amazed me in the way the text and illustrations worked together to capture the young boy’s joy, but to also show hints of what his parents and grandparents worry about and their bittersweet emotions watching him grow up.  The way the actual talk was presented was brilliant, with a realistically empowering finale.

Cons:  Obviously, that this book needs to even exist.

Mama and Mommy and Me in the Middle by Nina LaCour, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  A girl misses her mother, Mommy, when she goes on a week-long trip.  Her other mother, Mama, stays home with her and helps make things easier with special treats like a movie night and goodies at the local café.  A phone call and a snuggle with Mama help, but things aren’t really right until Saturday when Mommy finally returns to a welcome banner and a bouquet of flowers that the girl has picked herself.  It takes a few minutes to reconnect, but finally things feel right again: “Mama and Mommy and me in the middle.”  32 pages; ages 3-7.

Pros:  A great discussion starter about missing people; the girl has several classmates who are missing family members and pets.  The illustrations are beautiful–clearly this is a family who values fashion and style–and the representation of a biracial family with two moms makes a valuable addition to kids’ literature.

Cons:  Some additional resources would have made this even more valuable for a social emotional learning book.

Some Bodies by Sophie Kennen, illustrated by Airin O’Callaghan

Published by Sleeping Bear Press

Summary:  “Our bodies can get us from here to there/When we have big feelings, it’s our bodies that share.  So bodies are useful, you’ll surely find/but they’re also unique–one of a kind!”  The rhyming text and illustrations explore all sorts of different bodies.  Size, color, wheelchairs, prosthetics, glasses, tattoos, top surgery, hair, and the amount covered by clothing are all touched upon in a light-hearted body-positive way.  The author is an elementary school teacher who based the book on questions and comments she’s heard in the classroom, and she includes some sample scripts for answering children’s questions, encouraging adults to have those conversations in a positive manner.  32 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  Both the text and the illustrations celebrate all kinds of bodies in a way that will both engage young children and encourage them to talk about what they notice about their own bodies and others’.  

Cons:  Although one of the sample questions is “Why is that man fat?” fat people are not represented in the illustrations.

Skater Cielo by Rachel Katstaller

Published by Orchard Books

Summary:  Cielo loves to skateboard and is excited when she discovers a new park with deep pools (ramps in the shape of swimming pools) opens in her town.  She tries the biggest one, called The Whale, and ends up falling harder than she ever has before.  Her confidence shaken, she finds she can’t do her usual tricks and tearfully shoves her skateboard in a closet when she goes home.  Yet she can’t help walking past the park and watching others on The Whale.  One day a girl invites her to try again, and once again Cielo falls.  But her new friends encourage her to keep trying, and after many, many falls, Cielo finds herself flying higher than she ever has before.  Includes a glossary and an author’s note.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  I’ve found skateboarding books to be popular with kids and this one delivers a great message about persistence, with lots of action-packed illustrations.

Cons:  Some of those falls looked pretty painful.

Everything In Its Place: A Story of Books and Belonging by Pauline David-Sax, illustrated by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow

Published by Doubleday Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Nicky prefers helping out in the library to joining the other kids at recess.  When Ms. Gilliam tells her she’s going to a week-long conference, Nicky starts to feel anxious about having to go outside for recess.  After school, she hangs out at her mom’s cafe, where one of her favorite customers is Maggie, a woman who is fearless about being herself and riding a motorcycle.  The weekend before the library conference, Maggie comes in with a group of women she calls her “motorcycle sisters”.  They don’t look like sisters, but they eat and laugh together in a way that Nicky admires.  On Monday, Nicky sits against the wall at recess reading a book of poetry that Maggie gave her.  A girl walks over to her and tells her that she loves poetry.  Nicky remembers something Maggie told her about taking a risk, and she replies, “Me too.”  40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  An understated story about taking risks and finding your people.  I love the illustrations which include elements of collage including library stuff.

Cons:  I wish the poem Nicky reads (“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver) had been included.  Also, Nicky’s question “Who needs recess when you can reshelve books?” hit a little too close to home.

Out of a Jar by Deborah Marcero

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons

Summary:  Llewelyn the rabbit, who first rose to prominence as a collector in In A Jar, has taken to stuffing his feelings into jars and storing them in his basement.  Any time he feels an unpleasant emotion like fear or anger, he bottles it up and locks it into a closet, “and that was that”.  Even more enjoyable feelings get tucked away, like the excitement he feels at school when he’s supposed to be listening.  Finally, the closet is full, and Llewelyn isn’t feeling much of anything.  When he tries to force one more jar in, all the jars tumble out and crack open, overwhelming Llewelyn in a mix of all the emotions.  Amidst all of the feelings, he’s surprised that what he mostly feels is relieved.  From then on, whenever Llewelyn has a feeling, “he mustered up the courage to feel them.  To share them.  And when he was ready, to look each feeling in the eye, give it a hug, and let it go.  And that…was that.”  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This gorgeously illustrated book is an excellent tool for teaching kids how to deal with strong emotions.

Cons:  I couldn’t figure out why Llewelyn felt like he had to store away his feelings of joy.