Tag Archives: social issues

Black Lives Matter books for First Graders

A teacher friend recently asked me for books for (her colleague’s) first grade class to read aloud. The class was pretty vocal in their rejection of the picture books she’d tried being too babyish, and she wanted something a bit more concrete about the unrest happening around the country. Here were my suggestions – by far not a complete list:

Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters – better for slightly older kids (School Library Journal lists it for grades 4-7) but I really like it – the poems tell a story of a black boy and a white girl, especially with microaggressions that younger kids may be able to understand as a way to ease into the more blatant examples of racism, for starting a conversation.

The Breaking News by Sarah Lynne Reul. This is my favorite for littler kids who don’t know the exact issue (and adults may not want to get into details for a variety of reasons) but are picking up on the adults’ anxiety.

Something Happened In Our Town by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard. Shows how a white girl and a black boy talk about the same police murder of a black man with their families in slightly different ways.

Not My Idea by Anastasia Higgenbotham. This is less of a story and more of a nonfiction read. I don’t love the illustrations, especially as a read-aloud for a class, I think collage illustrations are hard to see, though a virtual read-aloud could be different since each child could conceivably be close enough to see. I read this one a while ago and remember not loving the text either, but that it could be a good jumping-off place for a conversation about recognizing white privilege.

The Wall In the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee and The Sad Little Fact (click link for my review) by Jonah Winter are a bit off-topic but excellent political satire for this moment in history.

Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed

9780062937049by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Rising seniors Jamie Goldberg and Maya Rehrman were once childhood friends who reconnect when Maya’s mother signs her up to canvass for a political candidate, Jordan Rossum. Jamie’s cousin Gabe is a muckety muck in the Atlanta campaign, and his little sister Sophie is preparing for her Bat Mitzvah. Maya’s parents are getting divorced and her best friend is mentally already at college (and finally moves there and officially leaves her behind). As she and Jamie grow closer, her mother’s bribe of a car in exchange for volunteering falls to the side.

It’s not surprising that Jamie and Maya fall for each other, though it takes Maya longer to realize it. I loved the subplot with Sophie’s sexuality, and how Jamie handles it. I loved everything about Jamie, except that he seemed a little *too* perfect. Albertalli, I assume, wrote the Jamie chapters, and Saeed wrote the Maya chapters. One thing that bothered me about Maya is that she was not up front with Jamie about her not being able to date. Though on balance maybe it was more of a reflection of how deeply in denial she was about her feelings for him. In the Jamie chapters, it is clear how much she is flirting with him, even if she thought of him just as a friend. It reminded me of Does My Head Look Big in This? in which the main character sticks to her convictions to wear hijab and not to date. But then, those are her convictions, whereas in Maya’s case it’s her mother’s conviction that she’s trying to follow. Maya also doesn’t wear hijab, but her mother does, and the proposed passage of a bill to ban head coverings while driving really ramps up both her and Jamie.

Social media and white supremacy both play big roles in this story. Rossum’s opponent is the one sponsoring the bill, and his supporters vandalize cars with Rossum bumper stickers by putting their own over them, which are impossible to remove or cover up. But Jamie and Maya figure out a clever way to deal with them. Jamie’s grandma, inexplicably some sort of Instagram celebrity, uses her platform to promote Rossum. At one point, someone posts a photo of Maya and Jamie, and there’s also a campaign video of them, that garners a lot of comments, both negative and positive. Teens today have quite a lot to deal with in terms of internet harassment, it’s really very troubling to me. But Jamie and Maya manage to get through it and the ending is sweet and hopeful, but also realistic. Jamie even overcomes his immense self-consciousness and makes a sweet speech at his sister’s bat mitzvah party. Another interesting note is that their father is largely absent from their lives, and they are largely okay with it.

 

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 Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

mlg-colorfixedby Stacy McAnulty
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

12-year-old Lucy Callahan has been homeschooled since she got struck by lightning at age 8 and became a super math genius. She’s academically ready for college, but her grandmother, who is her guardian, is insisting that she spend a year in the seventh grade to help her social skills. Lucy resists, of course, but eventually makes friends: an assertive, gossipy girl named Windy and a quieter, insightful boy named Levi. Windy actively recruits Lucy from day 1, despite being labeled an outcast because of her OCD, and Levi is put into their community service project group, for which they decide to help a local animal shelter. Lucy’s grandmother also gets her an interview at rigorous high school boarding school a couple of hours away, reasoning that high school feels like a compromise between seventh grade and college. Lucy’s friend situation, and her love of a dog at the shelter, finally come to a head.

I was a little surprised at how easily Lucy made a friend, but Windy had her own background issues going on with her fragile friendship with the popular girl, which plays into her revealing Lucy’s math-genius secret. One thing I look for in middle grade novels is how realistic is the protagonist’s decision to keep information from their parents/teacher/friends and solve their problem independently. It can be hard to justify well, and Lucy’s justification makes perfect sense. I love that she feels more comfortable talking to Levi and telling him her secret than Windy, and how their friendships develop and are tested. I also especially love that Lucy decides in the end to stick out the year in middle school instead of transferring to the boarding school. And the sad, sad story of the dog she falls in love with at the shelter has a semi-happy ending that wraps up neatly. Satisfying!

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

bk_long_walk_200pxby Linda Sue Park
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I picked this one up because it’s been on our 6th graders’ summer reading list for a while and I’ve never read it. I was also looking for a quick easy read because it’s been a while since I’ve posted, which leads me to a quick update: I’m away for the majority of 2020 and while I’ll try to keep posting regularly, my book access seems limited to what I can snag as an e-book. I’ll still try to get to newer stuff, but might have to rely on whacking through the huge to-read list of older titles.

However, this book was hardly easy – sure, it only took me a little while to read it, but Salva’s story is a tough one. I did not realize, going in, that this was based on a single true story; I thought it was a composite story. Park knows Salva and had read his written accounts of his life to write her book. The story opens in 1985, when Salva is almost 11 years old and war comes to his village in southern Sudan, and is told alongside the story of a girl in Sudan in 2008, Nya, facing the same water struggles from when Salva was young. War comes to Salva, finally, and all at once, while he is at school and the teacher sends all the young boys into the bush – run away from the village, he says, fearing that the boys would otherwise be forced to become soldiers on one side or the other.

Salva, on his own, meets up with a group of people walking east toward Ethiopia. He meets his uncle along the way, who helps him come to terms with the fact that his family is likely all dead. His uncle and his new friend both die along the way, in pretty gruesome ways that are described quickly and pretty matter-of-factly, but still disturbing especially once you know that this is a true story. Salva’s story includes accounts of life in refugee camps, but at that point the story picks up a lot in pace and much of the interesting narrative elements are lost as we speed through the years to the end of the story. Salva moves to a few different refugee camps, in Ethiopia and then Kenya (when the Ethiopians kick them out), becoming a leader of a group of Lost Boys, and then gets sent to the US to live with a family in Rochester, NY, even though he is no longer a minor. He goes to college and returns to Sudan to help build wells – including the well that Nya’s community gets. Salva is eventually reunited with his father and learns that most of his family survived as well.

I appreciated that there was a note from Salva and an author’s note, both from 2010/2011, and then an updated note from 2015 about the publicity that the books has generated for Salva’s organization, Water for South Sudan. The book is so short that I would have loved more fleshing out of the second half of the story, instead of nearly straight narration. However, the shortness of the book means that a lot of kids choose it for summer reading, and I think it describes a world so utterly unfamiliar to most kids in my community that I really appreciate its inclusion in the curriculum.

Follow Your Stuff by Kevin Sylvester and Michael Hlinka

9781773212548by Kevin Sylvester and Michael Hlinka
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

I am very interested in how things are made and this book does not disappoint. I loved their other book, Follow Your Money, and this one is even better, though possibly for slightly older kids. I’d say this book is great for middle schoolers; one of the items they track is cell phones and there’s a lot of references to “your phone.” Around Boston, kids seem to get a phone sometime in middle school; also some of the detail they get into would best be understood by a middle school-aged kid.

Sylvester and Hlinka track 4 different items: a t-shirt, an asthma inhaler, a book, and a smartphone. They do a really good job of simplifying the process and introducing it. Along the way they insert really thought-provoking questions and at the beginning of the book they said they wouldn’t try to answer them, but they’re questions you should be asking yourself as you buy things. Questions like, should workers be paid a fair wage, do you know the working conditions where [x] was made, and so on. Only at the end do they get outright preachy and say that you should never steal an artist’s work. They take some time to talk about how each of the links in the chain is a real live human being and even though the cost of living may be much lower in some places, that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be paid for their work. They also talk about how the artist might be a millionaire but the person who helped produce their CD isn’t and that person depends on their 50-cent earning from each CD.

The authors talk about how you are part of the system, and how you will someday enter it as a worker. Two questions are posed at the end: “How Big is Too Big?” (about monopolies) and “How Much Profit is Too Much?” (which raises one of my pet issues, shareholders). They also get into a fifth product, eyeglasses, and explain why they couldn’t, in the end, include it – because most eyeglasses are made by one company and it wasn’t possible to accurately calculate how much it would cost to make. This is interesting in itself and I’m glad they included it.

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

3900147_origby John David Anderson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Sixth-grade teacher Maggie Bixby announces to her class near the end of the school year that she won’t be finishing out the year with them. She has cancer and needs to take some time for treatment. The class plans a last-day party for her but she ends up leaving before it happens. So when best friends Steve, Topher, and Brand overhear that Ms. Bixby is going to Boston for urgent intensive treatment, they decide to skip school and bring her all the elements of her perfect last day. However, things go quickly awry, and in the ensuing adventure, they learn a lot about each other, their individual relationships to Ms. Bixby, and their friendship. Spoiler: They do eventually make it to her hospital room and manage to have their last moments with her, which was touching and I wasn’t sure it was going to happen.

Steve and his sister Christina are pressured to be perfect children, students, musicians, etc. Steve frequently feels inadequate and is possibly on the spectrum, given his lack of understanding of social cues and jokes, but ability to regurgitate facts on a moment’s notice. Topher was an only child until a few years ago; now his parents barely have time to look at his art between caring for his kid sister and taking on extra jobs to support their larger family. These two have been best friends for years but only Steve can really explain why; Topher just doesn’t seem to need Steve as much, or so he thinks. Brand moved to town a year or so ago, after his father was paralyzed on the job. Brand takes care of his father, who is spiraling into depression after the accident, but it’s a lot for a sixth grader to handle. Enter Ms. Bixby, who was especially important to him for the help and attention she gave him. The boys’ adventures have them asking a stranger to buy them wine and he then takes off with their cash; they later get into a physical fight with him in an alley. Steve takes a punch to the face and Topher trips and sprains his ankle chasing after him. They also ask Christina to lie to her and Steve’s parents for them, and smuggle Ms. Bixby out of her hospital room, against the hospital’s rules. And that is basically the extent of their shenanigans. There is plenty of what I call “extreme foreshadowing” but it looks like Anderson toned it down a bit from Posted (though Ms. Bixby’s Last Day was published earlier).

I had seen this book come in and out and didn’t really give it much thought until I was browsing recently and came across it. Upon reading the flap, I wasn’t sure I would get through it without being a sobbing mess, given that I just lost a librarianteacherfriend to cancer a few months ago who similarly had to tell her students (a whole school full of them) that she wasn’t finishing out the year with them. The entire town turned out to her memorial service, which was quite a testament that she was the same kind of teacher and person that Ms. Bixby was, only a bit older and more embedded in the community. However, this book was much more about the boys and their stories than about Ms. Bixby, so I made it through relatively dry-eyed. But Ms. Bixby sounds like a hell of a teacher, and they were lucky to have her.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood by Mister Rogers

9781683691136by Mister Rogers
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

What a lovely little collection of Mr. Rogers’ songs. Luke Flowers’ drawings are charming and reflect diversity in the world. This collection would not be nearly as delightful without the illustrations. My only real critique is that these were originally songs and they do not really work as poems, words on paper. I would have loved a CD or DVD with the songs to listen to as you read. (It apparently does exist as an e-audiobook.)

YA Graphic Novels like whoa, part 2

9781596436206Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity by Dave Roman
Overall: 1 out of 5 stars (unfinished)

I had to stop reading this one because it gave me a headache. I mostly picked it up on a recommendation from a colleague, and because Roman was married to Raina Telgemeier (not just gossip – this GN spree was brought to you by a spunky 8-year-old who loves Raina so I’ve been looking for other graphic novels that she could read while she waits for Raina’s next book HURRY UP RAINA). Anyway, plot. Was there a plot? I’m not sure. A kid starts school at Astronaut Academy. There are other kids. There are teachers. There are dinosaurs you learn to ride…? There are magic flying buses that join up Power Ranger / Transformer style to create Metador. I couldn’t really follow what was going on because it reads like a little kid wrote it and makes no sense. But maybe some kids would like that? Probably kids who like Captain Underpants. I feel no need to finish this.

9781608868988Goldie Vance, Volume 1 by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Goldie Vance has been compared to Nancy Drew, and very rightly so, but with a modern feel. Goldie still lives in the 1960s, but is interested in (and holds hands with) a girl. She is very precocious and also a very good detective. She gets into far more action-movie sequences than Nancy, which were exciting to read (if you like suspending belief). Goldie is also in high school (she works as a valet at the hotel her dad runs) and has a vendetta with the daughter of the owner of the hotel. She races cars like in Grease, which was also fun. I liked that the mystery wasn’t straightforward and took actual brainpower and observational skills to solve.

9780375865909Peanut by Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Peanut tells the story of Sadie, who wants to stand out at her new high school and decides to tell everyone that she’s deathly allergic to peanuts. However, her lie soon gets much more complicated than she imagined, having to lie about epi-pens and reading ingredients carefully and even keeping her boyfriend away from her mother. Eventually, as you might guess, she gets caught in rather a dramatic way when someone catches her eating something suspected to have nuts in it. EMTs are called and the school nurse and teachers are panicked. Sadie, who has wanted to come clean at least with her close friends, is left a laughingstock, especially by the popular girls she had once wanted to befriend. The story ends with hope, though, of her earning back her boyfriend’s trust, if not exactly all her new friends. I thought this made for an excellent cautionary tale about the very likely outcome of a lie like this. The flipside, where real allergies are not taken seriously, is not really addressed, which is too bad. I was right with Sadie as she made every decision and felt for her desire to fit in, even as I knew where this was heading. We squirmed uncomfortably together as she realized how much she had to lose by confessing her lie, and just had to sit and watch it play out.

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!