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"If all the heroes in our stories are white, what does that make us?"
Set in Los Angeles in the 90s, The Black Kids tells the story of Ashley, an affluent teen spending the last days of high school hanging out in her friends' pools, with little more to worry about than who's taking who to prom. Then the police officers in Rodney King's trial are acquitted and the city explodes with hurt and anger. As the city quickly spirals out of control, so does Ashley's cozy, sheltered life. From her sister, whose activism is becoming more and more dangerous, to her friends, who don't all seem to see her the way they used to, to the other black kids at school, who wonder what took her so long, Ashley must come to terms with the fact that she is, in fact, one of the black kids and that means a lot more than she realized.
Set during the riots that broke out in Los Angeles around the time of the Rodney King beating, this book will resonate with today's teens as they grapple with the complexities of race relations in their world. Although I found some parts a bit contrived, the story of the rich black kid who has grown up in suburbia surrounded by white kids is definitely a mirror in which many people will see themselves and is a good counterpoint to all the books about black kids that are set in poor areas (don't get me wrong, those stories need to be told too. It's just nice to see a book that brings a different perspective). The way that Ashley starts to recognize the micro-aggressions she has been shrugging off in the name of friendship is really well done, slowly pushing her to realize how she has been ignoring these types of comments and actions for years. I also really appreciated how her growing relationships lead her to understanding privilege as a very multi-layered construct, one that she has simultaneously benefited from and been disadvantaged by.
The style will appeal to teen readers looking for an easy read but the content provides lots of fuel for deep, meaningful discussions.
Recommended for Gr 8+.
13 year old Aster wants nothing more than to be a witch. He comes from a family of witches and shapeshifters and he has been secretly learning to be a witch for years. The problem? Boys aren't witches. Boys are shapeshifters and that's just the way it is. Or is it? As Aster pushes the boundaries of what is possible versus what is supposed to be he, along with his friends and family, learn about love, acceptance and the dangers of forcing someone to be who they are not.
These graphic novels were quickly devoured in our house! My kids loved them and so did I. Each book tackles deep topics like conformity, gender norms and personal identity sensitively and without judgment, even when looking at some of the darker sides of the human psyche. The characters are well developed and relatable, wanting what most teens want - acceptance, belonging and a sense of self. Supported by gorgeous illustrations that beg as many questions as they answer, these books are a great jumping off point for a whole host of conversations about identity.
Recommended for Gr 3+
I first came across The List in a bookstore a few years ago. I loved the cover and couldn't resist a book about words. Once I settled in to the book, I was rewarded with a beautiful, yet haunting, dystopian tale about the power of language, the power of fear and the power of courage.
The List is set in a time after the polar ice caps have melted and the world as we know it has been destroyed by climate change. Few survived The Melting and those that did live in (or around) a community known as Ark, led by a man named John Noa. Noa, an outspoken climate change activist before The Melting, believes that it was language that allowed politicians to convince the people that climate change was not something to be concerned about. As a result, he has decided that language in Ark must be limited to The List - 500 words that people are permitted to speak, with few exceptions. As the wordsmith's apprentice, Letta is tasked with writing out word cards to be given to schoolchildren and tradespeople so that they may learn List. Letta believes firmly in the community of Ark and the existence of List, although she secretly hopes that one day people will be deemed responsible enough to have language restored to them. When her master disappears and a young man appears on her doorstep, speaking all of the words that have been banned, Letta's confidence in Ark, and John Noa, is shaken. As the new Wordsmith, she is tasked with shortening List to fewer and fewer words, while at the same time, the young man draws her in to a world of secrets, a world in which she must choose between the life she knows and the possibility of freedom.
The Last Lie continues the story where The List left off. If you haven't read The List yet, you may want to stop reading here, as there are definitely going to be spoilers from here on out.
Letta now lives with The Creators, teaching hedge school (a secret school to ensure that young children learn more words than List) and working to secure freedom for Ark, now ruled by Noa's wife, Amelia. Amelia continues to shorten List and finds ever more brutal ways to control the people of Ark, including trying to destroy The Creators. When the Creators' safehouse is raided, Letta and Marlo flee to forest, where they meet another band of rebels and uncover a sinister plot to silence the people of Ark forever. Letta now faces another choice - flee to freedom or stand and fight for the community, and the words, she loves so much.
I loved both of these books, separately and together. Much of the world-building takes place in The List so I highly recommend starting there as the story arc and characters will make a lot more sense. Patricia Forde's writing style is gentle and beautiful, even while describing fights and kidnappings, which makes the book a great introduction to dystopian fiction for younger readers. Although The Last Lie was a bit slow to start, the action picks up quickly and continues right through to the end of the book (and I suspect that if I had read them back to back the start would not have seemed quite as slow). Letta is a wonderful young woman, full of spunk and indignation and I appreciate how Forde infuses her with a healthy dose of self-doubt, without her seeming annoying or whiny. The book's foundational ideas of climate-change, power and the importance of language are timely and provide many opportunities for rich discussion in the classroom and at home.
Thanks to @NetGalley for the The Last Lie ARC.
Suitable for Gr 4 and up.
A fitting addition to the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, Paola Santiago & the River of Tears is an adventure story for lovers of ghost stories, magic and fantasy in the vein of Rick Riordan books and Kelly Barnhill's The Girl Who Drank the Moon.
Paola and her friends, Emma and Dante, are average 12 year olds living in the small town of Silver Springs, AZ. But when Emma goes missing, Paola and Dante are determined to find her. As they venture into the unknown, Pao & Dante begin to discover that all is not quite as it seems in their sleepy town. As they slip through the barrier dividing the real world from the world of ghosts and demons, Paola is forced to admit that her mother's Latinx ghost stories, so frustrating and quaint to her scientifically-minded daughter, might just be true.
I love that this #ownvoices story brings traditional Latinx folktales and ghost stories to life. Pao is every teen with superstitious parents or grandparents, struggling to reconcile her love for the people with embarrassment at the silly stories they tell, while at the same time wondering if there might be some truth to the stories after all. (turns out, there is!).
Several subjects ripe for discussion are raised throughout the book, including systemic racism within the police force, class differences (and what that means for friendship) and Pao's changing feelings for Dante. These legitimate concerns, primarily on Pao's part, are all threads woven in to the fabric of the story, giving the reader food for thought without interrupting the flow of the story. Paola Santiago & The River of Tears could easily be included as a choice for a social justice book club or it could simply be an entertaining fantasy read for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Thanks to @NetGalley for the ARC.
Recommended for Gr 5 and up.
I couldn't put this book down! Brittney Morris artfully weaves some very complex topics in to a story about regular suburban teens. A nuanced look at what it means to be Black in a primarily White community, to search for belonging, to grow apart from someone and closer to others, to create something that is both life-giving and controversial.
Kiera Johnson, a 17 year old honors student, is one of the few black students at a suburban, predominantly white high school. Sick of being the authority on all things "black", she creates a MMORPG game specifically for Black gamers. Played by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, it's her chance to just be her. When a teen is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, her creation is dubbed racist, exclusionary and violent. As Kiera's secret unravels she is forced to examine not only this world she has created but her place in the real world as well.
Even if you aren't a gamer (I'm not) this book is well worth the read. The descriptions of the game are so well done that you really don't need to "get it" to enjoy the game; I was almost more immersed in the sections that took place within the game because of how vividly Morris describes the characters and settings within it. I loved Kiera as a character but wanted some of the other characters to be a little bit better fleshed out as sometimes it felt like their sole role was to place Kiera in positions where she could ponder the meaning of being black in a primarily white suburb. That being said, I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.
As usual, I was not the first person in my house to read this graphic novel. My 10 year old snapped it up before I could even lay a hand on it; 2 hours later she turned to me and said "You should read this one, mom. You'll like it." She was right, I did like it. Robin Ha's memoir of moving from Korea to the United States as a teenager made me think of every immigrant student I've taught, new to English, new to the culture, struggling to make friends and fit in. Her descriptions of life at school tugged at my teacher heart strings, hating the kids who were mean to her, wanting to hug the teacher who was kind. Ha tells an immigrant story that will be familiar to many kids and their parents; at the same time, it is a story that will educate many who have never been in a place of leaving their home for something completely new and completely different.
Book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8cuR1d_L-Y
Recommended for Gr 4 & up.
I have to admit, I haven't actually read the first book in this series. My mom got it and read it to my girls while they were camping this summer and they were hooked! We quickly picked up the next two books and I was lucky enough to be the one to read them to the girls.
The Menagerie, a secret refuge for mythical creatures, is a magical place that few know about. It is also a place of adventure, mystery, friendship and fun. Fans of (early) Harry Potter, Spiderwick, FableHaven, animals, unicorns, dragons, mermaids, griffins, wooly mammoths, giant hellhounds, yetis, even werechickens (who knew that was a thing?), will find something to love in this trilogy. Written right at that middle-grade sweet spot where the book appealed to both my 7 year old and 10 year old equally well; the adventures and mysteries are intriguing without being scary, the relationships between the characters are complex without being overly confusing and there is just enough magic and silliness to keep the whole thing light and fun. We laughed, we worried, we gasped, we cried. Most of all, we just couldn't put any of these books down. Logan, Zoe, Blue, Captain Fuzzbutt and the crew at the Menagerie had us hooked and kept us coming back for more. I highly recommend this one.
Recommended for Gr. 2+
It is no secret that we love Raina Telgemeier in our house. We own every single one of her books, so of course we had to buy her latest, Guts, as soon as it came out. As usual, I was blown away by Raina's ability to tell a story simply and straight from the heart, taking tough topics and introducing them in such a way as to be completely digestible for the kiddos that most need it.
Guts is the true story of Raina's struggles with a sensitive stomach and anxiety, which began in grade 4 and have continued throughout her life. The book also tackles the shifting landscape of friendships at this age, from friends moving away to the seemingly mysterious formation of new friendship groups. These big topics are handled with humor and sensitivity, from Raina's tummy troubles to her descriptions of what anxiety feels like to having to give oral presentations in front of the class. Guts provides a mirror for kiddos who are struggling with similar issues, allowing them to see that they are not alone and that there is a lot of support out there. It opens the door to conversations about anxiety, counselling and friendships in a gentle, age-appropriate way. As with Raina's other books, this one left me feeling like Raina could have been my friend in middle school; her experiences are unique but universal all at once. As with all of Raina Telgemeier's books, this one is definitely worth the read and deserves a spot on every middle school bookshelf.
Magic, time travel, long lost brothers, evil magicians, good magicians, even a magician who doesn't know he's a magician...the list of intriguing characters and events in The Greatest Magician is long. The story follows young Jack as he reluctantly attends his first magicians' convention. Jack, you see, is not particularly magically inclined, despite having a mother who is known as the Great Linda, a father who is a healer and a sister who can bend others to her will. Once at the magicians' convention, events quickly begin to slide out of control and Jack becomes embroiled in a battle of good versus evil (although he is never quite sure where everyone stands), learning a lot about his family and himself along the way.
I enjoyed this book more than I expected to, as I wasn't initially drawn to the premise. It moves along quickly and the characters are reasonably well-developed for the length of the book. I did find the plot line a bit "noisy", with so many twists and turns that at times it was hard to tell who and what were important details. There wasn't a lot of opportunity to predict coming events or the importance of certain characters or relationships, which might have slowed the storyline down but also given it more depth. As it was, I found that just as the author developed a sense of intrigue around a character she either abandoned that character (often temporarily) or quickly explained their raison d'etre, leaving little space for the reader to follow the tracks and make connections on their own. I would have preferred fewer characters, slightly less action and a little bit of time to draw some conclusions of my own. Nonetheless the book is a good, fast-paced read the will appeal to fans of Rick Riordan and Gordon Korman.
Thank you to Book Sirens for the free advance review copy. All opinions are my own and voluntarily given.
Recommended for Gr 4+.
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