Will, by Will Smith

Will Smith: rap singer, TV star, movie star, and now Man of Letters. What a life this guy has led! His father was a military man and expected rigid obedience, and his sweet grandmother called him Lover Boy. Although his dad was not always a good husband or father, he gave him discipline, while his Gigi let him know he was beloved. It was probably both of these influences together that propelled Will through his high-pressure life and allowed him to achieve great things.

I only became aware of Will Smith when he started making movies in the ‘90s, so his entire earlier life was a mystery to me. He had a hardworking mother and father, and he loved to make people laugh. He started rhyming and performing hip-hop for fun with some friends, and then they decided to make a go of it. They made some rookie mistakes, and then Will made some mistakes that only a young, suddenly rich man could make. He was climbing to the top, and the fall was a resounding crash. He was determined to regroup and succeed, and he always wanted to be the good guy. He never cursed in his songs, which is rare in the hip-hop world, and he recognized and used his gift for humor. He wanted to get married, to be a great husband and a great father. He expected a lot from the women in his life, but he wanted to give them everything he could. He also wanted to be the biggest movie star in the world. Life never turns out the way we expect, but by this point, he has been everywhere, met many amazing people, and had experiences that few people on this planet are able to enjoy.

There are passages in the book that were uncomfortable to read, because it seemed that Smith had huge blind spots when he was bragging openly about events or achievements that were not as kind or generous as they could have been. Often, however, that would be followed by a candid confession of his own faults or how his hubris caused him to fall on his face, sometimes publicly. He was, and continues to be, earnest in his pursuit of self-improvement.

Many successful people write name-dropping, tell-all memoirs, but the defining feature of this autobiography is the thoughtful consideration of lessons learned and wisdom gained. Smith works hard at learning from his mistakes, and his conclusions often have universal application, so that those who can’t spend millions of dollars on therapeutic endeavors can learn from him, instead. All of this without sacrificing the fun of reminiscing about younger days and super-cool movies. Tremendously entertaining.

This book was recommended to me as an audiobook, and I recommend it to you in this format, as well. Not only is it read by Will Smith in his own affable voice, but when he mentions a song, it is inserted into the narrative. Smith is also great with impressions, and he changes his voice for all the characters in the book, which is often hilarious. The language is blistering, especially for the parts with rappers, and many of his rapper friends from Philly stay with him his whole life as managers, producers, and bodyguards. It’s one of the best new audiobooks out there, but don’t play it in front of the kiddos.

Great fun.

Disclaimer: I listened to an advance audiobook from Volumes. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Watercress, by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Jason Chin

A young girl in Ohio is embarrassed to pick watercress from the side of the road with her immigrant parents. She hopes that no one they know will drive by. Once they are home, sitting at the dinner table, she refuses to eat the watercress, saying that she only wants to eat vegetables from the grocery store. Her parents are flabbergasted that anyone would reject food that is fresh and free. Any parent reading this picture book will recognize the look on the girl’s face: it is the universal refuse-to-eat-vegetables face. Mom goes into the bedroom and retrieves a photo of her family when she was a little girl in China. During the great famine, they ate whatever they could find, but it was not enough. In the picture is a pitifully thin little boy, and the girl realizes that her uncle is not alive today.

Andrea Wang won an Asian / Pacific American Award, Boston Globe / Horn Book Award, and a Newbery honor for Watercress. The mark of a great picture book is the ability to convey great meaning and emotion in a few words while keeping the book appropriate for and appealing to children. Wang does exactly that here, in a story that she confesses in her author’s note is somewhat autobiographical. In just a small amount of text, she brings her first-person narrator from anger to understanding, and her readers will have their eyes opened to the depth of their own older relatives’ experiences. Wang encourages everyone to tell their stories to their children.

Jason Chin won a Caldecott medal for this book. In his note, he says that he used misty, soft blue, green, and ochre tones as if to evoke memories, like the ones the parents have of growing up in the Chinese countryside. With just a stroke or two, he shows the girl’s anger and disgust at living differently from all of her friends and classmates. Later, her face is a picture of shame when she comes to understand her perfectly practical parents. Chin also won awards for his previous book, Grand Canyon, and his work has a distinctive and pleasing style.

Watercress is a lovely picture book for every child that will foster understanding of different cultures as well as encouraging gratitude for their blessings and honor for older people.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Rashad left his ROTC meeting, stopping by the convenience store for some chips on his way to the party. Now, what flavor was least likely to ruin his breath, just in case he met that cute girl there? He made a selection, then went to text his friend that he was on his way, when he remembered that he had left his phone in his backpack, so he tucked the chips under his arm and knelt down on the floor to open his backpack. The lady who had been picking out beer in the refrigerator behind him took a step back and fell over him. She went flying, the chips went flying, and so did Rashad. Immediately, a young cop in the store accused him of assaulting the woman, and the store clerk accused him of stealing the chips. Before he knew what was happening, Rashad was in handcuffs on the sidewalk in front of the store being beaten almost to death. Rashad was black. The lady was white, the cop was white, and the clerk was white.

Quinn’s dad had died on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Grown-ups often spoke to Quinn in hushed tones, sure that he would live up to the hero image that his dad had left behind. Quinn was told that he was an all-American boy: clean-cut and handsome, a star on the basketball team, and an exemplary older brother. He never knew what to say to them. He and his friends were headed to a party after school, and Quinn wanted to stop by the store on the way there. They waited in the alley while he rounded the corner and stopped short. Some kid lay on the ground in handcuffs with blood all over him, while a cop was beating the snot out of him. The kid looked familiar, but Quinn recognized the cop immediately. It was Paul, his friend’s older brother, who had been like a surrogate dad to him since his father’s death.

Since All American Boys was written by two authors, the audiobook is narrated by Guy Lockard and Keith Nobbs, who do a stellar job alternating chapters between Rashad and Quinn, showing a realistic reaction to the chain of events from a black and a white high school kid’s perspective. Quinn’s English teacher has just come to the end of a unit on Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, and Quinn slowly realizes that, although Rashad is on his basketball team, he hadn’t even known his name. Paul automatically expects Quinn to be on his side, since their families are so close, but once the video of the beating hits the internet and then the news, Quinn is forced to rethink a lot of things.

All American Boys was written in 2015 and won a Coretta Scott King Author Honor and the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature, so why is it being challenged today? The authors depicted a society that was already sick of these incidents, and this was five years before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Both of these boys are good kids; they are both All American Boys.

Reynolds and Kiely

Lest we think that all of racism has been dealt with, and that it’s about people “out there,” and not people near us, here’s a little, tiny incident that happened near me last week. I was in Walmart, scanning the shelves in the wine aisle, when I looked ahead and thought, “Wow, that’s a terrible label. It’s so covered with writing you can’t even tell the name of the wine.” I got up to the bottles and realized that they were turned around to the back. I picked one up and turned it to see BLACK GIRL MAGIC on the front. At first, I was disgusted to think that someone had gone to the trouble to turn the bottles around, so I started turning them back when I saw that all of the bottles, all the way to the wall, were turned around. Then, I was furious. It was either the stocker or someone who had taken a lot of time and energy to make sure that no one saw the name of the wine. How could there be so much casual racism still out there, right in my neighborhood? As I walked to the end of the aisle, I saw a young black woman across the way, choosing orange juice. I was immediately crushed in my spirit, thinking of how it would feel to be just shopping for your family and suddenly be confronted with the fact that someone found your race and gender so offensive that they felt compelled to hide the fact of your existence, as if to make you invisible.

All American Boys, like so many books these days, is being challenged because it might make someone uncomfortable. As if it’s important to make racists nice and comfortable. Book challenges are not just news stories to me; they’re personal. It’s my job to put kids’ books into libraries. I spend my days searching out great books like this one that will build children’s character, to help them to live someone else’s life for a while so that they will develop empathy and become good neighbors to one another, so that they would never, ever try to erase another human being.

This book is highly recommended, although the language is high-school-boy dreadful. Let’s get uncomfortable.

Disclaimer: I listened to a library audiobook of this title—which I put there, by the way. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. Authors’ image originally appeared in the NY Times.

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The Latest in Science

We are naturally curious, and for human beings, to live is to learn. Children are especially ready to learn new things, and our world is full of wonder. Science can be about creating the latest technology or discovering ancient mysteries, and children’s science books should nurture their natural curiosity and help to develop the next generation of brilliant minds. Here are three new books that will do just that.

Pando: A Living Wonder of Trees, by Kate Allen Fox. Illustrated by Turine Tran

When we think of the largest living things in the world, we probably think of blue whales or redwood trees. Another giant is Pando, a 12,000-year-old quaking aspen grove that is completely connected underground and covers 106 acres in Utah. There are 47,000 trees, all clones, comprising one organism. Development is currently shrinking the grove, though, and author Fox helps kids to understand the dangers. The paintings that fill each page shimmer in pale yellow and gold, brown and green. Back matter includes photographs, a glossary, a bibliography, and suggestions about how children can help preserve this natural wonder.

The Message: The Extraordinary Journey of an Ordinary Text Message, written and illustrated by Michael Emberley

A young boy in Australia sends a text to his mom, who is on a trip to Ireland. Click, click, click, tap! And it’s off. Where does it go, and how does it get from one phone to another across the earth in just seconds? This is a phenomenally informative and child-friendly book that taught me so much! I really thought that text messages went from cell tower to cell tower, but the answer is much more complicated than that. Emberley also shows how our brains interpret writing and how our hands interact with glass screens. Although it is in picture book format with full-page color illustrations, this title is on a mid- to upper-elementary level with details about glass fibers in the ocean and salt channels in the body. The inside back cover offers even more information, along with suggested books and websites for further exploration. Fantastic.

Inside In: X-Rays of Nature’s Hidden World, by Jan Paul Schutten. Photography by Arie van ‘t Riet

Who would think of x-rays as fine art? Arie van ‘t Riet was able take home an old x-ray machine from the hospital where he worked, and he spent years perfecting his images of objects as hard as a turtle shell and as soft as a flower petal. He sometimes flipped the image so that the bones were dark and the soft tissue was light or transparent. He staged them against various backgrounds: black, white, or colorful. The animals came to him as roadkill or friends’ dead pets, which sounds repugnant, but in this way, he was able to gather specimens of all kinds of animals without harming anything. Author Schutten has gathered the animals into classifications and added explanations and descriptions that elevate these pictures into a fascinating educational experience. This title is on a higher level than the two books reviewed above, probably upper elementary through early teen, because of the scientific nature of the text. However, younger siblings will be absorbed in the eerie beauty of the x-rays. Schutten begins with mollusks and arthropods, such as scorpions and bumblebees, and ends with mammals, including a hedgehog and a squirrel monkey. Back matter includes a story about the inventor of the x-ray machine and an extensive index. Unique.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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These Precious Days, by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is one our greatest living writers, and her novels have won copious awards. She is also prolific, and always seems to have a new novel in the works. However, when the pandemic took over our lives in 2020, Patchett realized that—like many of us— she did not have the mental bandwidth for an extended project, but she found solace in short memoirs and essays. Some of the selections in this volume have appeared in a different form in the past, but some are new, including the longest piece in the book, the title story.

Patchett’s topics vary widely, from a clear-eyed tribute to her three fathers—one biological and two stepfathers—to another generous piece about growing up with an exceptionally beautiful mother. There are references to becoming a bookstore owner, being inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and an address to the Association of Graduate School Deans. As a children’s librarian, I found her essay about reading Kate DiCamillo’s books to be especially heartwarming. It was like having two of my best friends meet for the first time and discover that they really like each other.

I read her piece about her husband’s exploits as a pilot out loud to my husband, and we both enjoyed it thoroughly. We both laughed at the funny parts, but I think I understood her distress about his safety more than David did. Her story entitled, “How Knitting Saved My Life. Twice,” hit a deep chord. She related how she had learned to knit as a child, but never appreciated it as much as when a close friend died recently. I learned to knit just a few years ago when I knit a blanket for my first grandson, who then died. My second project was an extravagant shawl for myself, far beyond my skills and with yarn I couldn’t afford. I made a mistake about halfway through and left it in, because there are some scars that never disappear. Knitting saved my life, too.

Ann Patchett is blessed with many good friends, and she writes funny and loving stories about them. Her title story relates how she came to know Tom Hanks, and how he later agreed to narrate the audiobook of her beautiful novel The Dutch House (reviewed here). Through a series of coincidences, Hanks’ assistant, Sookie, came to live with Ann and her physician husband in Nashville while she underwent clinical trials to treat pancreatic cancer just as the pandemic shut everything down. The memoir explores the discomfort of sharing spaces with a virtual stranger, the desire to do good when good is hard to discern, and the anguish of the terminally ill when they are forbidden to say goodbye to loved ones.

Although very little of this collection is about the pandemic, it is perfect reading when our thinking is scattered and we need books that don’t require an extended attention span. All of the pieces are written in Patchett’s exquisite style that won the PEN/Faulkner Award and made her a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Of course, if you’re tucked in for the winter, you can’t do better than The Dutch House, Bel Canto, State of Wonder, or any of her other brilliant novels.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which is now available to the public. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Leaving Church, by Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara Brown Taylor became a priest in the Episcopal Church in the years when few women thought of such things. She became a clergyperson in Atlanta, where she was worn out by the constant demands of urban church life. Eventually, she admitted to herself that her marriage had been on the back burner for so long that it was cold and her heart had become numb toward those to whom she was ministering. All the while, she had been expending all of her energy in performing the good deeds that were expected of her. She couldn’t remember her spiritual passion.

Barbara found a new position in charming Clarkesville, Georgia. The tiny, historic church building spoke to her, and after she and her husband had been there for a few years, they built a home in the gentle mountains nearby. The challenges of a small, rural congregation are different from a city parish: more intimate, but often claustrophobic. Over the years, Barbara won many accolades for her preaching and writing, and the congregation grew exponentially, to the point that she and her assistant were holding several services each Sunday and talking about a building program. After finding herself frazzled and exhausted again, Barbara began to question the role of the church. Was this what Jesus intended for his followers? For that matter, was she even making disciples for Jesus? After many years of dedicated service, Barbara decided to leave her position. Since the Episcopal church advises their separated priests not to visit their former churches, and Barbara and her husband wanted to stay in their beloved home, she left the church entirely.

Despite the title, most of this volume is more of a memoir of Ms. Taylor’s years as a priest, and she only comes to the questions about faith, the Bible, and the modern church in the last part of the book. After leaving the priesthood, she became a religion professor at a university nearby, and she approached spiritual studies with a wide-open point of view. Her husband had always been a spiritual adventurer, and he once invited some local tribes to use their property for a multi-day religious observance. Barbara began her questioning with that experience, and then she committed to acquainting her students with world religion in ways that they would not typically encounter in rural Georgia.

David and I lived in northern Georgia for a number of years, and we often spent Saturday afternoons strolling through the antique shops of Clarkesville. I now know that Ms. Taylor was priest at Grace-Calvary Church during that same time period in the 1990s. Although the book cuts off very shortly after she left Grace-Calvary, she has gone on to write many others that continue her story and delve more deeply into the issues. I was surprised to discover that I already own two other books by Barbara Brown Taylor, the newest in my teetering pile of to-be-read titles and another, older title on my bookshelves. Clearly, I need a cataloger. Taylor’s approach to life is so thoughtful and her writing so accessible that I will surely move her other books to a higher spot on the list.

A moving and candid memoir by a woman of faith.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own.

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December Reading

December passed in a blur of decorating and frantic knitting, but there was also reading! Audiobooks are perfect for needlework and cooking times. Here are some fiction and nonfiction adult books, two of which were terrific on audio. Someday, I may blog about podcasts, which accompany hours of my handcrafts, too.

How the Word Is Passed, by Clint Smith

The history of our nation cannot be told without talking about slavery, but a great deal of that history is hidden by the “official” story we all learn in school. Clint Smith takes a unique approach to the history of slavery by traveling to various locations that are integral to the story, interviewing local people, and relating the memories passed down by the slaves’ descendants as much as possible. Some of the places are well known, such as Monticello and New Orleans, but it may be a surprise to find out that the second-largest slave market in America—second only to Charleston, SC—was in Manhattan, and that, at a certain point in time, the rate of slave ownership in New York was higher than in the South. Smith also visits such places as Blandford Cemetery, a resting place for Confederate soldiers, during a remembrance ceremony where he holds very difficult conversations with those who cling to memories of the Old South, and Angola, a maximum-security prison that used to be a plantation and now houses thousands of black prisoners. Their unpaid labor blurs the line between slavery and incarceration.

We visited Monticello for the first time in late November on the way home from my niece’s wedding, and this book—along with other excellent new works on the topic— was prominently displayed in the gift shop. We were impressed by the Jefferson Foundation’s ability to continue to showcase the great accomplishments of the former president while being completely open about his unapologetic enslavement of hundreds of human beings. Jefferson may have written about the horrors of slavery, but he did nothing to free the slaves that he owned, except for his own children. Great care has been taken to represent Sally Hemings’s life and the stories of all her children and their descendants. In the 1990s, the foundation started the Getting Word project to gather the life stories of the 607 enslaved people of Monticello and their descendants. We hoped that Clint Smith would talk about Monticello in his book, and indeed, it is the first chapter. Smith agreed that the Jefferson Foundation was making progress in opening up the history of slavery in our country’s founding, but apparently, this has not always been the case. Until the DNA results of the Hemings descendants were confirmed to be related to Jefferson in 1998, the Monticello guides would not discuss the possibility of the president’s relationship to an enslaved woman.

We listened to an audiobook edition of the book, which is read by the author. Some of the chapters show hopeful progress in our reckoning with our past, while others reveal the dark underbelly of our history, still churning with hatred and division to this day. Fascinating and important.

Once Upon a Wardrobe, by Patti Callahan

Megs’s little brother, George, has a weak heart, and in 1950s England, there is no treatment. George has just read the new book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and his greatest wish is to find out where Narnia comes from. Megs is a brilliant maths scholar at Oxford, and she sets out to find the answer to her brother’s burning question. Walking to The Kilns in the middle of winter, Megs meets the Oxford professor, C.S. (or Jack) Lewis, and his brother, Warnie. Over many chats by the fireside, Jack and Warnie tell the tale of their sometimes difficult childhoods, their early stories, and the fantasy world they created. The next Narnia tale is coming out soon, but George will probably not live to read it. Her parents worry that George gets too excited about this fantasy land, but the stories that Megs retells from her notebook are the very things that give George’s life meaning.

Solitary walks in the snowy wood, cozy teas at The Kilns, and an impetuous trip to a ruined Irish castle: this is a perfect winter’s tale with a sweet romance mixed in. Callahan’s Becoming Mrs. Lewis (reviewed here) is probably a stronger story, but Once Upon a Wardrobe is a sort of prequel that fills in the blanks in Lewis’s young life.

Adorning the Dark, by Andrew Peterson

Since I am a children’s book selector, I knew Andrew Peterson as the author of the wildly popular “Wingfeather Saga.” His book for adults, Adorning the Dark, is a meditation on the creative imagination and an encouragement for those who wish to be sub-creators, as Tolkien would say, after the great Creator of all things. It is also a memoir of someone who considers himself primarily a songwriter, recounting his struggle to put words and melodies together in a way that would support himself and his growing family. He and his wife found an idyllic piece of land outside of Nashville, Tennessee, and one of my favorite stories is of an English master gardener who came to stay with them during a conference, then mailed back a detailed schematic of their property with outdoor “rooms” designed to make even more beauty in the wilderness. This volume is an inspiring, thoughtful read.

N.D. (Nate) Wilson is one of the contributors to the latest addition to the saga, Wingfeather Tales. If you can find it on YouTube, Wilson’s conversation with Betsy Bird and Jeanne Birdsall on this topic of creativity is not to be missed. Ditto Wilson’s children’s books, beginning with 100 Cupboards.

If you have children in late elementary or middle school, the “Wingfeather Saga,” beginning with On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, is a fantastical yet homely tale in the style of C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.” Peterson is also the founder of the Rabbit Room Press, publisher of the beloved book of everyday liturgies, Every Moment Holy.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of Adorning the Dark, and I listened to library audiobook copies of the other two books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Beautiful Banned Books

I have been following with interest and fury the efforts of parents and school boards to remove every book written by any author of color from school libraries, and sometimes even public libraries. Here are two award-winning children’s books that— I was flabbergasted to find out— were removed from school libraries in Texas. Both of these beautiful books tell the tale of the authors’ childhoods in which they were oppressed by white people and others. Keeping our children ignorant does not make the world a better place, even for them. Please read them yourself, and if they make you uncomfortable, read them twice.

Front Desk, by Kelly Yang

Mia and her family have just moved to the United States from China, and they are disappointed at how much more difficult it is to survive than they had been told. They think they’ve found their lucky break when Mr. Yao offers them the management of one of his motels, but their fellow countryman turns out to be a cheat and a bully. Mia and Jason Yao are the only two Asian kids in their class, but they are not the only ones hiding secrets about their families.

Mia is a spunky girl with a precocious understanding of business and finance, and her optimism often keeps her parents’ spirits up when their mounting debt threatens to force them to despair. On the other hand, she is a child, so sometimes her I Love Lucy schemes fall to pieces and put them in danger. She makes friends easily with adults and children alike, leading to a hilariously varied cast of characters.

This semi-autobiographical novel details Kelly Yang’s early years in California, the bigotry she encountered, and the poverty and hard work her parents endured to secure a better life for their daughter. She has written a sequel called Three Keys. Although it is highly readable and enjoyable, the story of Mia’s journey was more heartbreaking than I had expected. It all works out, though, as Ms. Yang went to college at age 13 and later became the youngest woman to graduate from Harvard Law School. Front Desk won the Asian / Pacific American Award for Literature in 2019 and the Parents Choice Award in 2018, as well as appearing on many “Best Book of the Year” lists. Illuminating.

New Kid, by Jerry Craft

Jordan wants to go to art school, but his mom wants him to go to the very best prep school she can find, even though that means extra work for his parents. When Liam— the student assigned to show him around— and his dad pick him up in their limo the first day, Jordan is sure that he will not fit in to this new school: he is not white, he is not rich, and he really doesn’t like school. He just wants to draw.

As it turns out, there are several other black students at Riverdale Academy Day School, and white Liam is a really great kid. The racism that Jordan encounters is mostly the liberal elite, microaggression type. One of the coaches is so afraid of making a racist remark that he can barely get out a sentence without apologizing for it. Many characters hurt the minority students unintentionally out of ignorance, since they rarely interact with anyone outside of their rich, white bubble.

On the other hand, one of the white teachers calls all of the black kids by the same stereotypical names because she can’t be bothered to learn their real names, and while this is annoying and insulting, Jordan and a friend make a game of it and start calling each other by a different name every time they talk. Eventually, they confront her, and she is surprised to come face to face with her own racism. The students have frank and productive discussions of bigotry, and Jordan has friends of every ethnicity.

Jordan’s parents are joyfully loving and supportive, especially his delightfully gushy mom. After his initial disdain, Jordan discovers that the art teacher at Riverdale really does have things to teach him, and the book has occasional breaks to show young Jordan’s sketchbook pages, drawn in a different style from the rest of this appealing graphic novel.

Another autobiographical work by a person of color, New Kid was the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Award in 2020 and is followed by the sequel, Class Act. It also won the Coretta Scott King Award and the Kirkus Prize. Jerry Craft combined his own and his two sons’ experiences in this work, which shows that even in our day and even among very “nice” people, the playing field is not even and there is still work to be done. You’ll want to read the sequel.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of these two books. Opinions expressed are solely my own, I swear, and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Beatryce Prophecy, by Kate DiCamillo

Brother Edik approached the goat’s stall warily, since Answelica had a very hard head and was not hesitant to use it on any of the monks’ backsides, but what he did not expect to find was a young girl curled up fast asleep, holding on to Answelica’s ear as if it were a lifeline.

Beatryce could only remember her name, not her parents nor where she lived, but she could easily read anything put in front of her, which was a crime. Girls were not allowed to read. As a matter of fact, Edik had not even known that it was possible for females to read, so he shaved her head, put her into the smallest monk’s robe he could find, and took her into the monastery of The Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing in order to protect her life, whatever that life might be.

Of course, Brother Edik knew what Beatryce did not: that there was a prophecy that read, “There will one day come a girl child who will unseat a king and bring about a great change.” The king and his counselor knew it, however, so Beatryce’s life was in danger, although no one knew why.

Every tale Kate DiCamillo spins turns to gold, and this one is no exception. Folded into this medieval story of a lost girl and a charmingly wicked goat are glimpses of glory, a good dose of feminism, nuggets of wisdom, and a stubborn hope for a brighter future. When it came time for Beatryce to prove that she could write, she slowly inscribed: “We shall all, in the end, be led to where we belong. We shall all, in the end, find our way home.” Indeed, we shall.

Don’t miss DiCamillo’s other works, especially The Tale of Despereaux, and those reviewed in this blog, Flora & Ulysses, Raymie Nightingale, Louisiana’s Way Home, and Beverly, Right Here.

A luminous tale for ages eight to eighty-eight. Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Kaleidoscope, by Brian Selznick

When we look at an object through a kaleidoscope, it is fractured and scattered around our field of vision, almost unrecognizable, yet glittering and beautiful. Afterward, when we see the whole object, it is a revelation.

What if we did the same thing with a story?

In a series of tales told out of time, Selznick gives readers a kaleidoscopic view of the first-person narrator’s relationship with James. Some are fairy tales, while others are stories of an ordinary boy’s life. And who is James? He could be a friend, or perhaps an imaginary friend. At other times, he seems to be the ghost of a departed friend or the King of the Moon. James and the main character sail a ship to the moon, explore a dark cave, break into an ancient castle, and live in a house in Kensington.

Each story begins with a two-page spread of a view through a kaleidoscope, followed by a one-page sketch of the normal appearance of the object. On a webinar about the book, Selznick discussed the depression he experienced in his isolation during the pandemic, and how he decided to experiment with a kaleidoscope he found. Each of Selznick’s books, beginning with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, has showcased his artistic talent in a different way, but I would say that this volume takes his storytelling to new heights. The prose is scintillating, and the dreamlike stories hint at deep mysteries bound by ties of a love stronger than death.

Not the usual fare for middle grades, but a jewel that will especially enjoyed by children who love fantastical fairy tales.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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