Friday, September 30, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices: First Snow

By Bomi Park. Chronicle, 2016. 32 pages ISBN 978-1-4521-5472-5 Click to purchase

First published in South Korea in 2012, Bomi Park's debut is a dreamlike picture book that celebrates the wonder of the natural world. 

When an unnamed small girl awakens to the first snowfall of the season, she puts on her boots, coat, scarf and hat and heads outside. Never mind that the sky is still pitch black. That's all part of the sense of wonder we get from the pictures, shown in black, white and shades of gray. The only color initially is the red scarf the little girl wears around her neck, and the red stripe across her knitted mittens. The textured paintings are quiet and subtle and striking. 

With her puppy companion at her side, she begins to roll a snowball. She rolls and rolls, it gets bigger and bigger, and she gets further and further from home. Through a field, past an early morning train, through the dark woods -- there is nothing threatening in her snowy world. Rabbits, a fox, a deer, and even a bear watch her with curiosity, even reverence, as she steadfastly rolls, rolls and rolls. 

An interior spread from First Snow by Bomi Park
By the time she reaches a clearing, her snowball is twice as big as she is and it almost blocks her view of the dozens of other children who've had the same idea. They combine their snowballs to create a village of snowmen, all decked out in the children's hats and scarves. And then the children and the snowmen mysteriously lift off the ground and start to float away.  

But was it all a dream? Or her active imagination at play? The final page showing one tiny snowman in the little girl's back yard suggests that she didn't really roll all that far away from home. Unless, of course, the snowman floated down from the skies...

Bomi Park is an amazing new (at least to the U.S.) talent, and I hope this will be the first of many picture books we'll see from her. Kudos to Chronicle for finding and publishing this gem of a book, and for making it possible for a small girl in South Korea to roll her snowball all the way to the United States.

Reviewed by KT Horning

Thursday, September 29, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices: Eighth Grade Superzero

As part of our Spotlight on #OwnVoices in September, we will feature books not published in the last year on Throwback Thursday. Today Sam looks at a novel published in 2010.

By Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. Arthur A. Levine Books, an Imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2010. ISBN 978-0-545-09676-8 Click here to purchase.

On the first day of eighth grade, Reggie McKnight is picked to say the school pledge at a whole school assembly, but when he opens his mouth to speak... he throws up. In front of everyone. Now “Pukey,” as he is known, is the subject of teasing (mostly from his former friend, Donovan) at his Brooklyn school. Plus, Reggie pines over a girl who seems to be out of his league (“A cool wind blows in when the doors opens; it’s Mialonie”) and things are rough at home, with his long out-of-work dad moping around the house and his mom working extra hours to help make ends meet. Luckily, Reggie’s best friends — civic-minded Ruthie and aspiring DJ Joe C. — have his back, even when he finds himself managing the class presidential campaign of hard-to-love Vicky. But self-conscious Reggie starts to come into his own when his church group begins a service project at the Olive Branch Shelter, where he begins to discover his own superpowers — kindness, decency and leadership.

Rhuday-Perkovich’s debut works on many levels. It’s a classic school story with engaging middle school characters (though Donovan’s bad guy act is a bit over-the-top). Reggie’s family is supportive and the problems they face ring true. But the volunteerism central to the story is something that we don’t see as much in fiction for young people. The descriptions of the student experiences at the Center are nuanced and believable — Reggie is disturbed at first (“bleach and homeless people take funk to a whole new level”), but eventually finds his comfort zone and weaves himself into the fabric of the place to become a catalyst for positive change.

Rhuday-Perkovich has an ear for dialogue — how many books for older middle grade readers have realistic discussions about God and spirituality? But Reggie and Ruthie question each other in more than one memorable exchange on the subject, and their youth group leader Dave is a believably affable adult (“Only Dave laughs at his Bible jokes”).

Rhuday-Perkovich just released her second novel, Two Naomis (co-written with Audrey Vernick), which has garnered two starred reviews as of this writing. Two Naomis is surely on your radar (perhaps you’ve fallen in love with it already!), but don’t miss Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich’s debut; Eighth Grade Superzero is an overlooked gem of a novel.

Reviewed by Sam Bloom

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices: We Sang You Home

by Richard Van Camp. Illustrated by Julie Flett. Orca Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4598-1178-2  Click to preorder

The same team who brought us Little You has created another beautiful board book that celebrates a new baby. 

Richard Van Camp, a member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation, has a special gift for writing short but eloquent board book texts aimed at the very youngest of listeners (and their parents).  The second person narrative here is the voice of parents speaking to their infant: 

We sang you from a wish
We sang you from a prayer
We sang you home
and you sang back...

The words are simple yet sophisticated in their meaning as they communicate the unconditional love parents feel for their child. They also communicate a deep respect for the child, something you don't often see in picture books when a parent speaks to a child. 

Thank you for joining us
Thank you for choosing us
Thank you for becoming
the best of all of us

It's as comforting as a lullabye and the elegant illustrations by Cree-Metis artist, Julie Flett, complement Van Camp's text perfectly. They initially show a mom and dad sitting outside, singing up to the sky. Next we see them with a tiny baby in a carrier, watching a flock of birds move across the sky. Succeeding pages show the baby growing just a bit older until he or she is crawling. And the final wordless page the parents in the same outdoor setting as the first page, this time the baby is joining them in their singing to the sky. A sibling on the way, perhaps? Or just a song of thanks. 

If you haven't yet added the Van Camp/Flett board books to your go-to list of new-baby presents yet, this would be a good time to do so. After all, how many copies of Goodnight Moon does one family need?  Little You and We Sang You Home would make welcome baby gift.  They should also be basic purchases for all libraries serving young children.

Reviewed by KT Horning

See Debbie Reese's review at AICL 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices:
How to Build a Museum

By Tonya Bolden. Smithsonian/Viking, 2016. 53 pages ISBN 978-0-451-47637-1 Click to purchase

The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture had its grand opening just a few days ago, so this book is especially timely. 

Bolden recounts the 100 year (100 years!) history behind getting the museum built which started at a GAR gathering of African-American Civil War veterans in 1915 (1915!) with a desire to build a national monument to honor these men. With little to no power to lobby Congress, the members of the National Memorial Association didn't make much progress but kept going. All the while their dream was growing until it had expanded into a full museum to honor African-American history. By 1929 a bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge on his last day in office. Yes, they could build a museum --  if they could raise half a million dollars to help fund it. 

The dream was put on hold from several decades but always had its champions, including Senator John Lewis who, starting in 1988, introduced the modern version of the bill for the first time. It wasn't until 2001 until the bill finally passed and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

After that, plans were submitted, an architect and builders were selected, and collections were acquired. Bolden describes each of these steps in vivid detail, showing how each one relates back to the original vision.  Her text is generously illustrated with photographs of the people involved from 1915 to present, as well as some of the amazing artifacts that have been acquired. They include a plane that was used for training by the Tuskegee Airmen, a train car from the Jim Crow era so visitors can experience what the segregation felt like, and Louis Armstrong's trumpet.

Individuals have also donated treasured family heirlooms. Most moving perhaps is the plain cloth sack that had been in one South Carolina family for five generations. It has been sewn in the 1850s by a woman named Rose, packed with a few belongings for her nine-year-old daughter, Ashley, who was being sold. On parting her mother told her "It be filled with my love always."  This one artifact illustrates the vision of museum Director Lonnie G. Bunch: "We want to bring everything to a human scale. Rather than coming here ans saying I've learned about slavery, you'll say, 'I've learned about the people who went through that experience.'" 

This book will be an excellent resource for anyone planning to take children to visit the museum. And for those who can't make the trip in person, it offers a bit of vicarious experience. 

Last week Edi Campbell wrote "a somewhat biased opinion piece" on the book; that can be found here.

reviewed by K. T. Horning

Monday, September 26, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices: Salsa - Un Poema Para Cocinar / A Cooking Poem

Salsa by Jorge Argueta, ill. Duncan Tonatiuh
Salsa: Un poema para cocinar by Jorge Argueta, Illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh. Groundwood Books, 2015. 32 pages. ISBN 978-1554984428.  Click here to purchase.

“In my house / there is a stone bowl. / It’s black as the night / and stands on three little feet. / It’s called a molcajete.”  So begins this most crave-worthy of books.  Bilingual poetry instructs the reader on how to make red salsa; metaphors and similes connect the cooking process to music and dance (salsa dancing, naturally).  Since I am not a competent Spanish-speaker, I review only the English.

The first-person narrator (who does the cooking) has a child's voice, and teaches readers about the history and culture embodied in red salsa.  "[M]olcajetes were / our ancestors' / blenders", the narrator tells us, and later references Nahua, Aztec, and Mayan ancestors (who Tonatiuh also includes in the illustrations).  Music lives in the text and illustrations, both in the salsa dancing and in the metaphors to a symphony of flavors (“I am ready with four tomatoes. / They are bongos and kettledrums. / My onion is a maraca. / Cloves of garlic are the trumpets, / and the cilantro is the orchestra conductor / with his shaggy, green hair”).  

The big family in Duncan Tonatiuh's illustrations clearly loves food, music, dancing, and each other.  Tonatiuh's art draws on Mixteca techniques and is a joy to behold.  Figures are flat silhouettes and highly stylized; red splashes through the book both in the ingredients and in characters' clothing.  The vegetables in the recipe (tomatoes, onions, peppers) line the tops and bottoms of pages.

“I squeeze a river of lime into the salsa, / and we stir / with my saxophone spoon.”  With its musical language and expert use of poetic devices, Salsa could be useful to poetry teachers, chefs, or enjoyed on its own.  Beware subsequent cravings--you may wish to stock up on ingredients before you read the book.

Reviewed by Allie Jane Bruce

Sunday, September 25, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices: Marisol McDonald and the Monster / Marisol McDonald y el monstruo

By Monica Brown. Illustrated by Sara Palacios. Spanish translation by Adriana Dominguez. Lee & Low, 2016. ISBN 978-0-89239-326-8.
Click here to purchase.

Marisol McDonald loves the letter m, but there is one “m word” she does not like: ¡MONSTRUO! She knows that monsters are not real, but she hears them beneath her bed and her vivid imagination gets the best of her. After begging family member after family member to stay with her before she falls asleep, she tempers her fears by crafting her own monster out of an assemblage of soccer socks, knitting yarn, a purple polka-dot skirt, and a green-striped shirt. She names it Melody and fits it in a box beneath her bed. (“I know there’s a monster under my bed, but it’s my very own monster.”) But the bumps in the night don’t disappear! After Marisol’s family tiptoes downstairs together, they discover the source of the noise. SPOILER ALERT: the family’s dog, Kitty, is bouncing a ball against the wall. (“It turns out the monster...does have eyes and fur and teeth, but he isn’t scary after all.”)

The mixed-media illustrations are vibrant, textured, and reflect the family’s Peruvian-Scottish-American background by the possessions included in each scene as well as the blended nature of the medium itself. The images are presented at straightforward, predictable angles (almost like a television sitcom). Marisol’s energy and creativity are further communicated on the endpapers, which bookend the story with pale yellow backdrops featuring child-like crayon drawings of monsters and other fantastic beings.

The title, author’s note, glossary, and creator biographies are displayed in a balance of Spanish and English, with each language drawing attention. English words are introduced in the Spanish narrative, and vice versa. This, as well as Marisol’s endearing first-person voice, will come as no surprise to fans of other books by Dr. Monica Brown and Sara Palacios, including Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald no combina and Marisol McDonald and the Clash Bash / Marisol McDonald y la fiesta sin igual. This book’s smaller trim size (relative to the other Marisol books, at 8.5 x 9.9 inches) makes it just right for shared reading—and a perfect before-bedtime pick. Find this book and start sharing tonight.

Reviewed by Elisa Gall

Saturday, September 24, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices:
Rudas: Niño's Horrendous Hermanitas

by Yuyi Morales. Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, 2016. ISBN 978-1-62672-240-8 Click here to purchase

Niño's back and this time he's completely upstaged by las hermanitas -- the lucha queens. In lucha libre there are two kinds of wrestlers -- the Técnicos, those who play by the rules, and the Rudos, those who don't. The toddler twins are definitely in the second category. 

First introduced at the end of the popular Niño Wrestles the World when they awakened from their nap, here they are fully awake and running the show. 

The story opens with Niño quietly minding his own business, creating the drawings for a picture book, when the twins show up, ready to take on all comers. And the same cast of adversaries returns: El Extraterrestre, Cabeza Olmeca, El Chamuco, La Momia de Guanajuato, and La Llorona. None of them, not even Niño, can defeat the Rudas. 

The genius here is that all the Rudas' tactics are typical toddler behaviors. They defeat El Extraterrestre with the Poopy Bomb Blowout, and when the Olmec Head steps in to vanquish them with a diaper change, they go for the famous Nappy Freedom Break.  They teethe on El Chamuco's tail and then point to the Guanajuato Mummy as the culprit and, most hilariously, grab two of La Llorona's children, saying "Gimme!" and "¡Mio!"  In the end, only Niño can defeat them by employing a classic older sibling move. 

As with the first book, there is a playful blend of Spanish and English, and plenty to look at in the illustrations -- El Extraterrestre trying to sneak up on Niño with his net, the perpetually open onesie that results  from the Nappy Freedom Break, and a clever cameo appearance by Señor Calavera, just to name a few.  What I most appreciate about the book, in addition to the brilliant artistry, is the way in which it captures young children at play, working things out for themselves without any adult interference. ¡Vivan Niño and his hermanitas!

Reviewed by KT Horning

Friday, September 23, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices: It Ain't So Awful, Falafel

It Ain't So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas. Clarion Books, 2016. 978-0-544-61231-0. Click here to purchase.

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  When Zomorod Yousefzadeh reads this line from A Street Car Named Desire during her 6th grade drama class she stops and returns to it several times.  Tennessee Williams perfectly describes Zomorod’s (aka Cindy because no American mouth seems capable of producing her Iranian name) experience as an immigrant in the United States in the late 1970s. The most recent move from Compton to Newport Beach, California has produced another town of strangers for Cindy and her family to encounter.

These interactions are often difficult, embarrassing, and scary – the perfect mixture of emotions to make middle school in a new town an anxiety filled journey. The first such meeting happens immediately upon arriving at their new condo in Newport Beach.  The condo manager (who reminds Cindy of Mrs. Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island) responds to the accented English of Cindy’s father by speaking slowly and loudly and repeating phrases. Introductions with new peers and neighbors usually follow a predictable pattern:

Cool person:  “Hi, what’s your name?”
Me: “Zomorod Yousefzadeh.”
Cool person (stepping back, looking scared): “What kind of name is that?”
Me (being extra cheerful and not scary): “I’m from Iran.”
Cool person (looking more scared): “Where is that?”

Cindy is again put in the role of needing to educate American's about the history and geography of the wider world.  This changes when she meets an aspiring (sixth grade) journalist Carolyn.  Carolyn is sincerely interested in Cindy’s life and background and they become fast friends. Trips to Carolyn’s house become a reprieve from the gloom of Cindy’s mother who refuses to learn English and sits at home watching everything from Three’s Company to The Brady Bunch (contemporary middle grade readers will need to reach for Youtube or reference the memory of an adult to understand some of the references to these shows). Carolyn even interviews Cindy’s father, a petroleum engineer, for a social studies project.   These conversations provide a vehicle for Dumas to trace the history of Iran.   That history takes an unexpected turn during their 7th grade year when Ayatollah Khomeini leads a religious revolution in Iran.

These events throw the Yousefzadeh family into turmoil. Updates from relatives still in Iran report a complete restructuring of the social order. Women have less rights and career options, wealthy people are being harassed and their belongings are seized, and many Iranians are being imprisoned and tortured.  Not long after Khomeini’s rise to power several Americans are taken hostage.  The Iran hostage crisis is covered every night on the evening news and suddenly many of Cindy’s neighbors and peers are very aware of her family’s home country.  The tension of the crisis drags on into the 8th grade year of middle school. Cindy’s father loses his job; her mother falls into a deeper depression, and now outright hostility begins to bubble up from neighbors and other kids.   When the crisis finally ends the kindness of strangers comes to the rescue of Cindy and her family.

Firoozeh Dumas has created a middle grade character with boundless humor and hope. The events of the late 70s are now historical fiction for contemporary readers.  Dumas deftly weaves the geopolitical facts and pop culture aesthetic of the time into this immigration story.

Reviewed by Ernie Cox

Thursday, September 22, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices:
Super Indian

Super Indian Vol. 1 by Arigon Starr
As part of our Spotlight on #OwnVoices in September, we will feature books not published in the last year on Throwback Thursday. Today Allie looks at a graphic novel published in 2012.

Super Indian by Arigon Starr. Wacky Productions Unlimited, 2012. ISBN 978-9870985952. Click here to purchase.

Super Indian opens with an image of a lone figure on horseback. This "mighty Native warrior", who seems to speak Bear and levitates during meditation, "holds the mystical knowledge and secrets of the ancient shamans".  The stereotypes last only one page, however, as the narrator abruptly informs us, "That warrior and his story are told in another comic book."

Cut to mild-mannered Hubert Logan, who as a child ate some government-provided cheese tainted with "rezium" and subsequently developed super strength, fire breath, and more ever-emerging super powers. After escaping from the clutches of an evil anthropologist who traveled to Leaning Oak Reservation in search of ancient artifacts, Hubert decides to try his hand at blogging.  Big mistake.  Three identities--Hubert, Super Indian, and Rez Boy--prove too much even for Super Indian, especially when an imposter starts tagging as Rez Boy.  All will be resolved, but not without the help of Hubert's dog, Diogi, and his friend General Bear/Mega Bear, who help Super Indian save the day.
"At last... everything I wanted to know about
string theory but was afraid to ask..."

There's so much to love in this uproariously funny comic.  Stereotypes are flouted at every turn, the Twilight series is parodied, and Diogi--the dog--loves string theory.  Villains include Wampum Baggs, who possesses a magical Wampum belt, and Cal Van Erik, who "despite his suspect Native heritage [is] the most well-known 'Indian' actor".  One-page bonuses include information about Real Super Indians, e.g., Maria Tallchief, an internationally-renowned ballerina.

As an outsider to Native culture, I can tell that there are many in-jokes and references that I miss when I read Super Indian, and that's a good thing.  Despite the inclusion of a "guide to rez speak", Super Indian firmly centers Native experiences and counters, rather than comforts, White ideas about Native identity.  For that reason, it's something that every library--especially those serving primarily-White populations--should have.

Reviewed by Allie Jane Bruce

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices:
The Sound of Silence

Goldsaito, Katrina.  The Sound of Silence. Illustrated by Julia Kuo.  Little, Brown. ISBN 978-0-316-20337-1. Click here to purchase.

Walking through the noisy, busy streets of Tokyo, young Yoshio comes upon a koto player.  “The notes were twangy and twinkling; they tickled Yoshio’s ears!”  Talking to the older musician, Yoshio asks her, “Do you have a favorite sound?” Her reply surprises him. To her, the most beautiful sound is ma, the sound of silence.  

Yoshio begins listening for ma.  He can’t find it at school, not even in the bamboo grove at recess.  On the way home, “He could hear the horns of buses and the whoosh of bullet trains and the beep-beep-beep of the traffic lights, but no silence.” At dinner there is the sound of chewing and chopsticks, and even in the stillness of his bath he hears small droplets falling off his nose: “Drip. Drip. Drip.

The next morning, Yoshio arrives early to school and sits alone in his classroom, reading. “Suddenly, in the middle of a page, he heard it. No sounds of footsteps, no people chattering, no radios, no bamboo, no kotos being tuned. In that short moment, Yoshio couldn’t even hear the sound of his own breath. Everything felt still inside him.”  Yoshio realizes ma had been there all along, “between the thumps of his boots when he ran; when the wind stopped for just a moment in the bamboo grove; at the end of his family’s meal, when everyone was happy and full; after the water finished draining from his bath; before the koto’s player music began—and hovering in the air, right after it ended. It was between and underneath every sound.”

There is something just right about the sensory-rich lyricism of this picture book about finding silence and stillness within. It reads aloud beautifully, full of playful language, alliteration, and onomatopoeia as it gradually builds toward a breathless climax of … quiet.

Yoshio’s quest is one that readers and listeners will follow effortlessly even as it invites them to consider the sounds and silences around and within them.  

From scenes showing the busy, chaotic streets of the city to those showing spaces and places where Yoshio pauses to reflect and to listen, the illustrations of this story set in contemporary Tokyo are exquisite. The detailed pen and digitally colored scenes are both expansive and intimate, a perfect match for a story full of both bustle and stillness.

An Afterword gives additional information about the Japanese concept of ma and the seeds of this story in the friendship of the author’s father with Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, who, when her father asked, said his two favorite sounds were “the wind through bamboo and the sound of silence.”

Reviewed by Megan Schliesman

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices: Frazzled

By Booki Vivat. HarperCollins, 2016. ISBN: #978-0-06-239879-6.
Click here to purchase.

Abbie Wu is starting middle school, and she desperately needs to figure out what her THING is. She’s not perfect like her big brother Peter, or adorable like her little sister Clara (who can get away with anything). She’s not a master gamer like her best friend Logan, or a super actress like her other best friend, Maxine. When Maxine and Logan get assigned to the same homeroom, Abbie’s anxieties skyrocket. To make things worse, the lunchroom is corrupt, with the 8th graders dominating the only line providing delicious food. When Abbie overhears her study hall companions complaining about the cafeteria, she realizes that they have shared problems, and that they can work together towards a solution. Abbie leads her new friends (and soon all of Pointdexter Middle School) in a “lunch revolution,” where the kids exchange food. When parent pushback puts an end to the lunch trade, big brother Peter takes her out for pastries and provides encouragement, reinforcing that “not everything has to work out” all the time. Setbacks aside, Abbie learns that she makes a decent “voice of the people” and that maybe she isn’t “100% doomed” after all.

Although Abbie’s Asian American identity is not mentioned specifically (Wu is a name with Chinese origins), readers will find themselves relating to and learning from various aspects of Abbie’s story—especially her status as “middle child” and the stress and anxiety she carries. Vivat’s simple, black and white illustrations bring to mind notetaking and doodling in the margins, which is appropriate for this hybrid novel about school. The pictures add humor and support the plot, too. For example, as Abbie reflects on how middle school “changes everything,” she watches her friends float away while holding onto helium balloons, denoting the distance growing between them. Abbie speaks openly about her emotions, but she casually uses ableist language (like “crazy”) and pokes fun at a teacher rumored to be “shipped off to a psych ward” after a mental breakdown.

All in all, Frazzled is a back-to-school story that will appeal to fans of Rachel Renée Russell’s Dork Diaries and Grace Lin’s Pacy Lin Novel series. The story wraps up at the end, but the sequel possibilities are wide open. I suspect young readers, after getting a chance to read Frazzled upon its release on 9/27, will be asking for more.

Reviewed by Elisa Gall

Monday, September 19, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices:
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

by Sonny Liew. Pantheon Books, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-101-87069-3. Click here to purchase.

A day before The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye’s publication, the National Arts Council of Singapore rescinded a $6000 publishing grant it had originally given to graphic novelist (and Singapore resident) Sonny Liew. The Council’s reasoning: “The retelling of Singapore’s history in the work potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the government and its public institutions, and thus breaches our funding guidelines.” We book lovers tend to get our knickers in a twist when any hint of censorship wafts our way, and so it was that I indignantly picked up Charlie Chan Hock Chye based entirely on the surrounding controversy, with little to no background knowledge of Singapore or the cartoonist himself.

One of Chan Hock Chye’s cartoons with
a cartoon-version Sonny Liew’s
commentary along the bottom
Years before Charlie Chan Hock Chye was to become “Singapore’s greatest comics artist,” he was just a boy helping out at his parents’ provision shop in Singapore. During breaks at the store he would draw; eventually one of Chan Hock Chye’s comics was circulated in a literacy magazine. This was during a time of revolution in Singapore – there were uprisings, protests, and a general sense of unrest. Chan Hock Chye’s work grew ever more political in its scope – in a way he (and his comics) grew up along with the country of Singapore. And though Chan Hock Chye’s story and work certainly show his great affection for Singapore, taken as a whole this is a warts-and-all look. (I’d bet the National Arts Council of Singapore would consider this a great bit of understatement.)

Speaking of Singapore and its history, I think it would be safe to say that we Americans tend to know a decent amount about our own country’s history and maybe that of a few other countries (mostly those whose story is intertwined with ours through wars, such as England, Vietnam, and Germany). But I am guessing that not many Americans know much about Singapore’s tumultuous history. Like so many other nations, colonialism and racism played a huge part in Singapore’s story. So while many readers will see similarities to many other countries’ histories, this book will most certainly be an eye-opening work for most readers nonetheless.

It is next to impossible to review Liew’s latest without mention of a pretty huge spoiler, so look away if you want to go into this book clean. (Highlight the next paragraph if you prefer to live life on the edge.)

Charlie Chan Hock Chye wasn’t a real person. His life – including his cartoon career – is Liew’s creation. That Chan Hock Chye’s story (and his comics!) feels so authentic is a testament to Sonny Liew’s amazing storytelling. But though the character of Chan Hock Chye were created by Liew, the story is steeped in Singapore’s history (just check out those extensive end notes).

Liew’s storytelling is so nuanced, so sure-handed. Frequently shifting perspectives give the reader an insider’s view to history in the making. The phrase “epic” is arguable overused to describe things of all sorts, but that is really the best word for Charlie Chan Hock Chye; John Lewis’s March trilogy (written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell) is a good comparison, but this is a single volume where March is separated into three. Graphic novel fans, history buffs, lovers of creative presentation and compelling true stories – this is for all of you.

Reviewed by Sam Bloom

Sunday, September 18, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices: Allie, First At Last

by Angela Cervantes. Scholastic, 2016. 208 pages. ISBN 978-0545812238. Click here to purchase.

I live in a town of high achievers.  The schools are top rated and kids participate in dozens of activities to boost their chances of going to the best schools.  But, more and more, I realize that many “kids today” deal with a certain kind of pressure to achieve and succeed. We as adults might not always key into it, but it is there.  That pressure runs through Angela Cervantes’s second novel Allie, First At Last like a heartbeat.   

Have you ever wanted to be the best at something or win something?  I have!  And so has Allie. And she really wants to be the best at something because everyone else in her family is famous and successful and heroic. Her older sister is going to Harvard, her older brother is a soccer star, and her little sister stars in commercials and models.  Allie is so … normal compared to them.  But if she can win the Kansas Trailblazer Contest she can FINALLY stand out. She even has the perfect person to write about: her beloved bisabuelo, the last surviving WWII Congressional Medal of Honor winner in Kansas. The only problem is her ex-best friend Sarah is her biggest competition.  Is Allie destined to be friendless and in last place forever or will she be able to win the Trailblazer contest and finally show everyone she’s outstanding?  And is it possible that being first might not be the most important thing?

This is the booktalk I’ve used this year for Allie, First At Last (and you are free to use/modify it for your class visits and outreach) because I love sharing this book with my community of high-achieving kids who feel pressure to always be first and best.

Cervantes’s has cleverly made Allie the third of four children, the one who always feels like she’s a little bit left out, the heroine of this story about finding out what a real “trailblazer” is. This makes it easy for kids to connect to Allie because all kids can relate to the feeling she has that she’s just not “different” enough. But Allie also has grand plans to succeed and a determination so Cervantes neatly sidesteps clichés and worn plots about so-called average kids.

This is an amazing look at a multi-generational Mexican-American family with deep roots in our country’s history and present.  The way Cervantes makes this the matter of fact truth of the story is effortless and natural.  A lot of this is rooted in Allie’s bisabuelo, a fantastic character who loves and dotes on Allie and his other great-grandchildren.  He helps Allie think about what being “first” really means. Another highlight of this book is that it not only looks honestly at how competition can drive kids but gives readers ideas for how they can move past their negative competitive urges.

Another superb element of this book is how Cervantes explores the multiplicity of the Latinx experience.  Allie, who is obsessed with trailblazers and people who are the “first” to accomplish great things, befriends Victor, a new kid. Victor is a child of immigrants and he plans to be the first kid in his family to graduate from high school and go to college – the kind of first Allie, a third generation kid from a high-achieving family hasn’t given  a second thought to. They both grow and learn through their friendship, which is just another strong element in this book.  Through Allie and Victor, Cervantes does a wonderful, non-didactic job of showing that there isn’t a “single story” of Latinx life in America in 2016.

I highly recommend Allie, First At Last – it’s been very popular in my booktalking and it’s a fast, engaging read for fans of contemporary school stories. Allie, First At Last has fabulous sibling dynamics, awesome older adults, and friendship drama, everything readers are drawn to! It has short chapters, humor, and characters like Allie who are easy to relate to, even when they are being stubborn or selfish. I also recommend Angela Cervantes’s first book, Gaby, Lost and Found (2013) another fantastic title, this one dealing with a girl whose mother has been deported to Honduras. I can’t wait to see what Cervantes writes next! 

reviewed by Angie Manfredi

Saturday, September 17, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices:
Dive Into Reading! series

Lily's New Home. By Paula Yoo Illustrated by Shirley Ng-Benitez. Lee & Low, 2016. 32 pages ISBN 978-1-62014-249-3 Click to purchase
Want to Play? By Paula Yoo. Illustrated by Shirley Ng-Benitez. Lee & Low, 2016. 32 pages ISBN 978-1-62014-250-9 Click to purchase

It's a sad fact that the vast majority of easy readers are about cute little animal characters. Cute little male animal characters, in fact.  I've got nothing against Frog & Toad and Elephant & Piggie -- I've recommended them to countless parents and kids and bought them as gifts for many of the children I know who are learning to read. 

But not all kids like animal fantasies. Many children develop clear reading preferences for nonfiction, for science fiction, for realism, for the anti-cute, at an early age, some as young as three or four. So what do we have to give them when they are just learning to read? If they don't like animal fantasies, not much. If you are looking for books about female characters (other than Amelia Bedelia), even less.  And if you are looking for any easy readers reflecting diversity, almost nothing.

That's why I was so excited to see the new easy reader series just launched this year by Lee & Low. In addition to reissuing two older books by Lulu Delacre about two little coquís named Rafi and Rosa, we have two brand new volumes by Paula Yoo and Shirley Ng-Benitez about a diverse group of playmates: Lily, Pablo, Padma, Henry and Mei.

In the first volume, Lily has just moved to a New York City apartment building from a home that had a yard with flowers. She's not sure she's going to like big city life -- it's not at all like what she's used to. But her parents show her parts of her new neighborhood that remind her of home -- a flower stand and a public garden, for instance. And they introduce her to some of the rich multicultural elements a big city can offer, such as Italian pizza, signs in Spanish, a store with Kenyan artwork, and a shop selling saris from India. Finally they go to the public library where Lily finds many of the same books she loved in her previous home. And she also meets a new friend -- Pablo, who also loves to read. 

In Want to Play? Pablo takes center stage as he leaves his book behind for a while and ventures out to play with Lily, introducing her to new friends along the way. They join Mei and Padma on the swings and then join Henry for a game of basketball. Before long, the playground equipment turns into the setting for their imaginary play, as they climb a mountain (the slide), spend time at the beach (the sandbox), and board a spaceship (the merry-go-round).  

Both books have the simple, episodic story lines that are the hallmark of good easy readers, as well as short sentences, large font, and plenty of white space. The watercolor illustrations offer both context clues and cultural specificity. There is a large cast of characters (this is a big city after all) but you can always tell who is who, and which children are the five main characters. 

While Paula Yoo has written excellent books for older readers, she proves herself to be just as good at writing for new readers, which is no easy task. Although the story lines are simple, she adds depth to each one. In Lily's New Home the diversity that defines the city becomes part of the story line, and in Want to Play? the children's imaginary play (so well reflected in Shirley Ng-Benitez's illustrations) makes the playground even more fun.

Most remarkably, Yoo and Ng-Benitez together have created truly engaging child characters living in a vivid realistic world with just a few masterful lines of text and ink.  I hope these will be the first two volumes of a long and successful series about the five friends. What a great beginning for Dive into Reading! -- and for brand new readers.

Reviewed by KT Horning

Friday, September 16, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices:
Outrun the Moon

Lee, Stacey. Outrun the Moon. Putnam, 2016. 391 pages. ISBN: 978-0-399-17541-1. Click here to purchase.

“Licking her fingers, Ma tucks my chin-length hair behind my ears. Her fingers drift to my bossy cheeks and press, a not-so-subtle reminder to keep my authoritative bumps in rein.”

Fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong lives in San Francisco Chinatown in 1906. Mercy is smart, independent, and determined, qualities her mother nurtured even as she cautions Mercy to take care in the world. But Mercy may be overreaching in trying get into St. Clare’s, an all-White, private girls’ boarding school. Still, like any good businesswoman—and that’s exactly what she plans on being—Mercy has a plan. She offers to set up a meeting with the Chinese Benevolent Association for a business owner on the school’s governing board, knowing the man would like to expand his chocolate business into Chinatown. In exchange, she gains his support of her entry to the school.

Mercy arrives at St. Clare’s a social and cultural outsider. She isn’t welcomed warmly. The lack of friendly reception at the school doesn’t surprise Mercy, or even necessarily bother her; she’s less interested in friendship than securing her family’s financial future by getting a good education.

Then the earthquake hits.

Mercy and her schoolmates become essential to one another’s survival as they escape the school and make their way to one of the city parks where people are seeking refuge. Terrified for her family, Mercy tries to go home to Chinatown, but it soon becomes clear the news is grim: Chinatown has been devastated. She is not alone in grief and worry among her classmates. But figuring out how to survive is paramount and the girls have no choice but to work together. In doing so, they eventually make the decision to help others, too, sharing the food they find and the companionship they are beginning to rely on with other refugees. Distinctions of class and race become, briefly, meaningless, and a few real friendships begin to form.

Outrun the Moon is a vivid work of historical fiction, its rich sensory details making time and place come alive. But it’s just as richly detailed when it comes to the cultural and social context of the story.  One of the most striking aspects of the book is the way that racism is presented as a fact of Mercy’s life. It doesn’t weigh down the narrative, but it also can’t be ignored by the reader. It’s in assumptions and attitudes Mercy’s faces; it’s in direct comments made to her (“The board of education provided your people with a public education.”) and quieter asides she overhears. It’s in the very fact that St. Clare’s is considered off-limits to her, as well as in countless other moments and elements of the storytelling.

Yet in spite of the racism, the hardship, and tragic events that are part of the telling, Outrun the Moon is a book full of optimism. This balance—of authenticity, honesty, and optimism—broadens its appeal. Middle school readers drawn to stories about strong, spirited girls or who liked boarding school-type stories when younger will not be disappointed, but neither will those who look to works of historical fiction for a generally truthful accounting of the times in which they are set.

But Outrun the Moon is historical fiction, and author Stacey Lee includes an informative author’s note (two of them, actually!) acknowledging where she took liberties, and where she didn’t. There was, indeed, a coming together in the aftermath of the earthquake “without regard to class distinctions, race, or creed. It was a time of goodwill and inclusiveness. It did not last forever.” She states it is unlikely, however, that a girl in Chinatown would have gained admittance to a White school.  “However, history is a general overview, and overlooks the story, the possibility of the individual.” 

The possibility of Mercy Wong is one that readers today can revel in.

Reviewed by Megan Schliesman