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.

Being a Dog: A Tail of Mindfulness by Maria Gianferrari, illustrated by Pete Oswald

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  Can you be like a dog?  Dogs are always in the present, not the past or the future. They stretch when they wake up, then greet the day and the people they love.   Dogs feel their feelings, then let them go.  They play every day, and sniff deeply wherever they go.  And at the end of the day, dogs notice the night, feel their fatigue, and drop and dream.  Includes lists of ways to use each of your senses on a mindfulness walk and a mindful breathing exercise.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A delightful way to teach mindfulness that kids will easily understand and relate to, with Pete Oswald’s fun dog illustrations providing the visuals.

Cons:  Not everyone lives in a climate where they’ll be able to find the things listed on the mindfulness walk.

Let’s Go to Taekwondo! A Story About Persistence, Bravery, and Breaking Boards by Aram Kim

Published by Holiday House

Summary:  Yoomi is a dedicated taekwondo student looking forward to earning her yellow belt.  On the day of the test, she and the other white belt kids kick and punch with no problem.  When it comes to breaking a board, though, Yoomi is afraid of getting hurt and stops just short of the board.  Her teacher assures her she can try again, but Yoomi becomes so anxious about not being able to break the board that she stops going to class.  Her grandmother doesn’t try to force her to go but tells Yoomi that she is going to stop trying to learn how to use the computer to call her sister in Korea.  Yoomi encourages her to keep trying, and eventually Grandma succeeds.  Yoomi gets the point and returns to class the next day, where she finally breaks the board and gets her yellow belt.  Includes additional information about taekwondo.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This story of persistence is populated with adorable animals.  Grandma wisely shows rather than tells, and Yoomi shows courage in continuing to try something that is difficult for her.

Cons:  Master Cho is a scarily large rabbit…approximately the same size as one of the adult judges, a tiger, yet the mouse adult judge fits into the palm of the tiger’s hand (paw). 

Pink, Blue, and You! Questions for Kids About Gender Stereotypes by Elise Gravel with Mykaell Blais

Published by Anne Schwartz Books

Summary:  The book starts off with a series of questions: Are some things more for girls and some for boys?  Who made those rules?  What happens if we don’t follow them?  The text and pictures then show differences in sex and explain what gender identity is.  Different families and gender roles are portrayed, with an emphasis on treating others with respect and love, no matter how they identify or choose to raise a family.  A few people are profiled, like the Army’s first male nurse (Edward T. Lyon), the first openly transgender state senator (Sarah McBride of Delaware), and the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshokova).  The final page asks, “Won’t it be nice to live in a world where we can all just be ourselves?”.  Includes two pages of fun facts about gender and clothing.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  The authors do an excellent job of presenting a complicated subject in a way that young children will understand.  Elise Gravel’s illustrations are fun and help to further illuminate the topics covered.  An outstanding resource all around (although I wish it had a list of additional resources).

Cons:  I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before the cultural warriors get this into their book-banning crosshairs.

Rodney Was a Tortoise by Nan Forler, illustrated by Yong Ling Kang

Published by Tundra Books

Summary:  Bernadette’s oldest friend is Rodney, a tortoise is older than she is, older than her dad, even older than her Great-Aunt Clara.  Bernadette loves to play games with Rodney, to bring him to school for show and tell, and to read to him before bedtime.  Rodney has always been slow, but he gradually gets slower until one day he dies.  Bernadette brings her grief with her to school, where it feels like the other kids don’t really care.  Like Rodney, she sits on a rock at recess, drawing deeper into her shell.  Then one day, a boy named Amar climbs onto the rock with her, acknowledging her sadness about Rodney and remembering some good things that he remembers about the tortoise.  Amar used to have a budgie named Samuel, so he’s not unfamiliar with loss.  Bernadette responds by inviting Amar over for a game of Crokinole, something she used to enjoy with Rodney.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This gentle tale of love and loss will resonate with anyone who has ever experienced grief.  

Cons:  I had never heard of Crokinole and had to use my context clues to figure out what it is.