Tag Archives: bullying

Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! by Sarah Kapit

by Sarah Kapit
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Vivy Cohen is an 11-year-old knuckleball pitcher. See, three years ago, she met the great VJ Capello, her hero, who showed her the knuckleball hold, and she’s been practicing it ever since. She’s gotten pretty good and even gets herself on a team! Her mom isn’t quite so enthusiastic, because she’s afraid to let Vivy do things that are risky, either physically or socially, since Vivy has autism and needs to work on her social skills. Part of that is going to social skills group, which she hates, but one assignment the kids get is to write to their hero. Of course she chooses VJ Capello, who to her surprise writes her back! This begins a correspondence that carries the whole epistolary novel. Mostly they talk about pitching, but also Vivy’s family, including her brother (spoiler alert: he comes out as gay), and her best friend, who is also the catcher on the team she plays for. When Vivy gets pretty seriously hurt, her mom bans her from playing and her great challenge is to convince her. The way she finally does (oops, I mean, spoiler alert) was a little surprising and gratifying – everyone in the story grows a little as a result: mom, dad, Vivy, even VJ, but nothing comes of the coach’s son bullying her. One additional aspect to the story is that VJ is Black and has some reflections on being a Black knuckleball pitcher, a minority of minorities, in a sense.

I won’t make the mistake again (see the comments) of claiming that an author who is writing about an autistic character is not themselves autistic, but it is not clearly the case whether Kapit is autistic or not. So the jury is out on the authenticity of the experience, though it certainly felt very real from an outsider’s perspective, especially the descriptions of Vivy’s emotional meltdowns and her hand flapping of excitement, even if Vivy seemed a bit too in tune with others’ body language and with her own mental process. Regardless, Kapit certainly has down the non-autistic adults in Vivy’s life, especially her mom, who arguably does the most growing. One argument that Vivy makes about making her own decisions is that next year she will have a Bat Mitzvah and “doesn’t that mean something? I think that it should.”

Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram

by Adib Khorram
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

My favorite gay Persian teen is back! This time he’s dealing with his first boyfriend, his first real job, and the mysterious tensions in his house, especially when his dad travels for work for a month and his grandmothers come to visit. And by “dealing with his first boyfriend,” I mean everything from feeling not ready for sex, to feeling attracted to someone else, to doubting whether the relationship is a good fit for him. He’s attracted to a former nemesis, now a soccer teammate and friend, who is not out for most of the story and yet surprisingly bold with Darius.

As always, I loved Darius’ relationship with his father, and especially that they talk about all this sex and relationship stuff. I mean, it’s awkward, but his dad does a really good job. It’s actually Darius’ mom who he thinks has a harder time with it. Darius’ grandfather passes away, his grandmothers don’t say much so that’s always awkward, and his best friend Sohrab goes silent on the other end of Skype (spoiler: turns out he and his mom are applying for asylum). Throughout it all, Darius is himself, struggling with depression, super into watching Star Trek with his dad, sweet and caring and protective with his little sister Layla (and the same with his new friend’s 2-year-old niece), trying to figure out what he wants from his job, from a boyfriend, from life.

Khorram does an exceptional job of especially showing the nuances of a relationship and what would cause someone (or both someones) to be rethinking it, even in a high school relationship. I also loved that he gets into the grandmothers’ backstory – this is Darius’ father’s parents, and it turns out one is trans. They open up to Darius a bit about their history, but he – and I – were left wanting a lot more. Khorram also shows Darius making some big realizations about hobbies vs. careers, which is not something many teen books grapple with and it was nice to see.

Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian

by Zanib Mian
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Omar is an elementary schooler of indeterminate age (though his siblings are 3 and 13 so I am guessing he’s 8-ish). His family is Muslim and lives in London, though they move at the beginning and he has to change schools. He quickly makes a new friend and a new enemy, but by the end of the book, the enemy has been won over with just a little compassion and understanding (turns out his little sister is very ill and gets all the attention). Omar’s new next-door neighbor is anti-Muslim when they first move in, but their efforts to be friendly finally win her over, too. All’s well that ends well!

This book has lots of illustrations and different text, in a Geronimo Stilton type way, but fewer different fonts and no colors, so it gave me less of a headache to read and might be a good stepping stone book between Geronimo Stilton and more traditional chapter books. This book also seems to be more of a window for others into Pakistani Muslim culture and less of a mirror for Muslims themselves as almost all of the terms are explained or at least given some context. I’m not sure I’ve seen any books like that for this age level but I’ll keep looking because mirrors are so important. I really enjoyed this one, but docked it a star because the title seemed to suggest more cohesion around the fact that Omar is an accidental trouble magnet, but the story seemed to meander a bit more than that (or be straight-out more about the bully storyline).

Rick by Alex Gino

Rick by Alex Gino
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

6th grade is full of changes for Rick. His beloved older sister is off to college, Rick starts visiting his Grandpa Ray for some one-on-one time, and he’s coming to terms with how he feels about his best friend, Jeff, who he’s realizing is kind of a jerk. At first, Rick judges Jeff on past behavior and on comparing him to others, but eventually realizes that he needs to look at Jeff’s behavior on its own.

6th grade also introduces Rick to the Rainbow Spectrum, an after-school group of LGBTQIAP+ kids and allies, including Melissa, the heroine of Gino’s novel George. (The cover is also similar to George’s, so I knew at a glance this would be a similar, if not companion, book to that one, and was pleased to see Melissa here.) Jeff is pretty vocal about his disdain for the Rainbow Spectrum, and at first Rick doesn’t say anything, even while standing as lookout for Jeff to deface the group’s posters. But eventually he comes into his own, with some subtle peer pressure from another kid in the Rainbow Spectrum and some good advice from Grandpa Ray. Rick also, importantly, learns about asexuality and is sure that he is ace too, even while others tell him he’s too young to know. Grandpa Ray and the Rainbow Spectrum’s advisor, Mr. Sydney, reinforce that the Q means both queer and questioning, especially in kids that age. Rick asks, “what if it changes and I like girls at some point? Or boys?” and Grandpa Ray responds, “Then it changes and you like girls at some point. Or boys. Or both. Or other people too” (p144-145).

Grandpa Ray has his own gender identity stuff going on, which I’ll let you discover on your own. I loved his and Rick’s relationship and Rick’s overall character development. I really liked that Rick didn’t just think (or be told) that Jeff is a jerk and dump him. Rather, we get to see him be an accomplice to bullying / hate crime and struggle with not speaking up, and then get the courage to actually speak up. I think that could be really powerful for kids to see their own struggles modeled, even if they don’t recognize them at first, and take the next step to speaking up.

Stories about ace characters are so few and far between and I’m so glad this one exists! I also loved that even Rick’s beloved older sister isn’t perfect and dismisses his sexuality questioning based on his age. I too would be tempted to tell a 6th grader, especially a boy, that they might just be a late bloomer, but after reading this story I will be more careful about validating them. As Grandpa Ray says, you know yourself best!

The Cool Bean by Jory John

thecoolbeanby Jory John
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Our hero once had a tight group of friends, but something happens and the other three somehow become “cool.” Our hero (who is unnamed but who I will call Garbanzo) isn’t sure what happened or how to also be “cool.” Garbanzo becomes so self-conscious and distracted that they do embarrassing things. Finally the other beans step in to help Garbanzo, and Garbanzo realizes that helping others is what really makes you cool – not sunglasses or swagger – and gets their friends back.

Sweet message, and way better than The Bad Seed, but still a bit didactic and not quite as good as The Good Egg. I was wondering who the target audience for this picture book would be. It talks about being “cool” which I don’t think the typical picture book audience would be quite tuned into. But you could probably use it with kids as young as third grade, and as old as fifth grade, depending on the class dynamics. It might even make a good all-school read to kick off the year, though again, I’m not sure the younger kids would fully grasp it, and the older kids might be too deep into the throes of coolness to listen.

The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad

9780316519007by Ibtihaj Muhammad
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Faizah is in awe of her big sister Asiya on the first day Asiya wears hijab to school. They pick the proudest, bluest blue for her first hijab and it serves as a beacon for Faizah to find her sister in tough moments. Asiya gets bullied by a boy in her class, and the endnotes reveal that this reflected Muhammad’s own experience (even featuring her own sisters’ names as the main characters). I also loved the mother’s remembered advice when the teasing starts, as a way to stay strong. As a prominent Muslim celebrity, Muhammad felt strongly about using her voice to advocate for and include Muslims and people of color in a new children’s book. This is a wonderful #ownvoices addition to any library, public or personal. I am looking forward to using it in another storytime about different cultures’ cloths.

Guts by Raina Telgemeier

guts_cover_shadowby Raina Telgemeier
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Another autobiographical story by the fabulous Telgemeier. At first I wasn’t sure how relatable Raina’s story of her anxiety and obsession with food was, but by the end, when she shares at a sleepover that her “deepest, darkest secret” is that she goes to therapy, her friends’ reactions convinced me otherwise. Her eventual friendship with the mean girl showed that she too had her struggles that were similar in their own way to Raina’s. Raina’s story also included a friend who was stressed about moving to a neighboring town. The friend is also teased for bringing “weird” food (I think she is Korean and brings things like kim chi for lunch) and Raina and her friend stand up to the teasing. Overall, a solid story about an unpleasant aspect of growing up. I could see this story helping other kids with anxiety feel less alone, and kids without it feel more empathy toward their classmates. It kind of reminded me of Because of Mr. Terupt in that way.

Cardboard by Doug TenNapel

Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
Cam’s dad needs a birthday present for his son that doesn’t cost anything. A mysterious man gives him some cardboard and challenges him to use his imagination. The cardboard comes with specific, if odd, instructions: to return every scrap they don’t use, and they cannot ask for more. Cam’s dad lugs it home feeling despondent, but Cam is surprisingly game to try it and they make a man who then comes to life. Things quickly spiral out of control when the evil kid next door, Marcus, gets hold of the cardboard replicator they’ve also built (out of the magic cardboard) and starts building his own army of cardboard people. They build a whole world and then turn on the humans and it gets very dark, very fast. Marcus and Cam also have a moment of connection at one point, and Cam’s dad comes around and opens up to the woman next door who has expressed her interest in him, but he has previously been too absorbed in grieving his late wife. All in all, a surprisingly deep story full of adventure and suspense!

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

9781368022828by Carlos Hernandez
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

This book starts with a bang and never looks back or slows down, which is partly due to a forward by Rick Riordan, though beginning the story with Hernandez’s skillful first chapter would be plenty gripping. Our hero, Sal Vidon, is always at the center of the action, of which there is plenty. Sal is able to reach through some sort of wormhole to other parallel universes and bring things or people through to our universe. Sometimes they come with things that then disappear back with them when they return, which is inconvenient (or in the case of food already in your tummy, very sad). Sometimes it’s your dead Mami or a sick baby you’re trying to make better and you wish you could keep. Sal’s father works on fixing wormholes.

There’s a lot to love about this book. We open on a scene with new-kid-at-school Sal, bully Yasmany, and Yasmany’s “lawyer” and student council president Gabi (like a 7th grade Cuban Hillary Clinton). The relationships between the three of them are very rich. Gabi’s family is fascinating and includes many adults she refers to as Dad, some of whom are male, plus a mom, and Sal doesn’t make a big deal of this when he learns it, so we never learn more. Gabi also has a baby brother who is in the NICU, so a fair amount of the story takes place there. Sal himself has type-1 diabetes, which is one reason my (also type-1 diabetic) boss shoved it in my hands to read. The information about diabetes is skillfully, if not own-voices-y, presented, not really didactic. Sal is a magician, which is how he gains entry into his performing arts magnet middle school in Miami, and magic plays a large role in the story, not just a quirky thing about him. Sal’s mother passed away several years ago and his dad married his vice principal – again, not incidental to the story. Sal loved his mother and loves his American Stepmom (which is how he refers to her almost always). He also has a habit of bringing back his mother from other universes (part of why they moved). Finally, Yasmany’s home life is, predictably, rough – and it’s his mother who is the abuser (unclear if his father is in the picture).

There are also relationships with teachers and other kids, as well as the same cast of characters from other universes with whom Sal and Gabi interact, all of which add richness and depth to the story. There’s also a fair amount of Spanish and spanglish, and some interesting slang (apparently in Sal’s world, being called a “sandwich” is an insult?). Altogether very well done and I’m looking forward to book 2, which should be out next year!

Crush by Svetlana Chmakova

9780316363242

by Svetlana Chmakova
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Chmakova has done it again. I devoured most of this graphic novel on my lunch break and it had me blushing and laughing along with the characters (ok, mostly blushing). I don’t know how she does it, but Chmakova perfectly captures the awkwardness of burgeoning middle school relationships. Jorge, who we’ve seen before as a minor character, stars in his own story of realizing he’s crushing hard for Jazmine – so hard, in fact, that he can’t even talk to her. He’s a big guy, and athletic, and quiet, which tends to hide his kindness. His mere presence acts as a deterrent for bullies, and he uses his power for good. When his friend Garrett gets in with the football team, a clique led by James, Garrett is psyched, but James gets Garrett to do mean and thoughtless things to others, including his best friends, Jorge and Liv. It culminates in some online bullying that Jorge is wrongfully accused of participating in. It all ends well enough, and even though they’re in middle school I could easily see Jorge and Jazmine staying together forever. There were also some awesome feminist tidbits that caught my eye: Jazmine talks about physically handling her own tormentor, which is awesome itself, and Jorge thinks she’s awesome for it, which is even more awesome (did I win for most uses of that word in one sentence?). The girls band together and really stick up for each other. One of the teachers (the drama teacher, I believe) brings her wife to a school event, the gym teacher wears a hijab, and there’s a character whose gender is unknown. I love all the representation in this series so far, and I hope she keeps writing it!