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.

I Forgive Alex: A Simple Story About Understanding by Kerascoët

Published by Random House Studio

Summary:  Recess begins with different groups of kids doing different things: running, stomping in puddles, and hanging out with friends.  One boy pulls out his artwork and displays it for his friends. Alex is bouncing a basketball around the playground, teasing other kids who are trying to get it away from him.  When he throws it, it bounces on the bench where the art is set up, sending the papers into a nearby puddle.  The artist is sad, and his friends take his side, ostracizing Alex.  This continues until the next recess, when Alex tentatively smiles and waves at the boy, who walks over to him.  The two of them talk, then shake hands, and everyone joins in a friendly game of basketball.  The next day, Alex greets his new friend and gives him a drawing of the boy dunking the basketball while Alex cheers him on.  Includes a page with tips for handling similar misunderstandings for kids who have hurt someone, kids who have been hurt, and adults who are helping them.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The creators of I Walk With Vanessa (look for Vanessa and her friend in the illustrations) have produced another wordless masterpiece perfect for SEL education.  Kids will enjoy figuring out what’s going on in the story, and the backmatter makes it a useful tool for parents and educators.

Cons:  The title is kind of didactic.

If You’re a Kid Like Gavin: The True Story of a Young Trans Activist by Gavin Grimm and Kyle Lukoff, illustrated by J Yang

Published by Katherine Tegen Books

Summary:  There are some choices kids get to make and others they don’t.  Gavin Grimm didn’t choose to be a boy or a girl, but as a transgender kid, he chose to talk about it, to tell his family he was a boy, and to start high school as a boy with a new name.  At school, though, he didn’t have a choice about what bathroom to use; he had to use the bathroom in the nurse’s office.  As months went by, and no one seemed to care, Gavin started to use the boys’ room.  A teacher objected, and kids started bullying.  So Gavin decided to speak up.  When this didn’t work at his school, he went on the news and to the ACLU and has continued to fight for his rights and those of other trans kids.  And “since you’re a kid like Gavin Grimm, you can always decide to believe in yourself and fight for what you believe in.”  Includes notes from both authors and a link to the ACLU’s webpage for students about their rights.  40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Kids will relate to Gavin’s personal story which lays out his choices in terms that are understandable for an elementary audience.  An excellent resource for trans kids and those who work or go to school with them.

Cons:  A list of resources (besides the ACLU site) would have been useful.

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. 

Tisha and the Blossoms by Wendy Meddour, illustrated by Daniel Egnéus

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  Every time Tisha tries to slow down and enjoy something, someone tells her to hurry up: catch the bus to school, go to an assembly, get to lunch, clean up at the end of the day.  When Mom picks her up and says they have to catch another bus, Tisha finally rebels against all the hurrying.  Her mother suggests they walk home instead. As they do, they notice everything around them.  At home, when her father says he has to hurry up and get dinner Mom suggests a picnic.  They eat under a tree, savoring the food and the blossoms that blow off the branches.  “I think my favorite days,” says Tisha, “are full of blossoms and a bit of slowing down!”  32 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  A story of mindfulness and slowing down that both kids and adults will relate to and embrace.  The illustrations are gorgeous, especially the big, colorful flowers. 

Cons:  A little more information about mindfulness at the end would have been nice.