Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Exciting Afrofuturistic middle grade reading: Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun

Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun, by Tolá Okogwu, (June 2022, Margaret K. McElderry Books), $17.99, ISBN: 9781665912617

Ages 8-12

Onyeka is a tween living in the UK with her mom. She’s got a thick head of hair that makes people stop, stare, and whisper, but her best friend, Cheyenne, couldn’t be bothered what other people think, which helps calm Onyeka’s anxiety. When the two head to the pool for some swimming, Cheyenne almost drowns, until Onyeka – or, is it Onyeka’s hair? – saves her. Everything moves quickly from here: Onyeka’s mother reveals that she is Solari, a secret group of people with unique powers, unique to their home in Nigeria. Her scientist father has disappeared while trying to research the Solari, and her mother brings Onyeka to Nigeria, to the Academy of the Sun, a special school – think the X-Men’s school run by Charles Xavier – for Solari, where they are trained to work with their powers. But nothing’s ever that easy; as Onyeka starts learning more about her family and the Rogues, a group of Solari working against the school, she and her new friends have to figure out where they stand.
Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun is the first in a new series, written by British-Nigerian author Tolá Okogwu and inspired by a lack of representation in children’s books. The decision to empower Onyeka by channeling her power through her hair is a deliberate move, as she notes in her author’s note: “our hair has never just been hair… the lie we’ve all been fed that Afro textured hair is somehow inferior because it doesn’t conform to the Western standards of beauty”. Onyeka’s hair is incredible: it shields her; it saves Cheyenne’s life; it curls around her to comfort her. The characters are African; the Solari are all Nigerian, and the school is organized into different areas, according to student’s Ike – the Igbo word for “power”. The story moves at a brisk pace while still bringing these characters to life, fully-fleshed out with backstories and personalities. The students will empower and inspire readers, and the family relationships are beautifully realistic, with conflict and love often sharing the same space. A glossary of words and an explanation of Nigerian Pidgin English provides even further depth and educates readers. I can’t wait for the second book.
Give this to your Rick Riordan Presents fans; your Black Panther readers (not just the comics! Remember, Shuri and Black Panther have middle grade novels, and Okoye’s got a YA novel, too!), and your Tristan Strong readers. Give this to any of your readers who love reading about different cultures, and are always up for adventure. It’s awesome.

Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun is an Indie Next pick.

Posted in picture books, Preschool Reads

Watch Me is a powerful immigration story

Watch Me: A Story of Immigration and Inspiration, by Doyin Richards/Illustrated by Joe Cepeda (Jan. 2021, Feiwel & Friends), $18.99, ISBN: 9781250266514

Ages 3-5

Author and advocacy powerhouse Doyin Richards brings his father’s story to children with Watch Me.  As a child in Sierra Leone, Joe dreamed of going to America. People told him America wouldn’t accept him with his accent and his dark skin. Joe smiled and said, “Watch me”. It was a phrase he repeated often as he arrived in America and experienced racism and people questioned his intelligence. And Joe succeeded. More of a conversation than a one-sided narrative, Doyin Richards asks readers to think about times they were told they were different, or came up against things they couldn’t control. He asks them to think about times they may have seen kids at school be treated differently, or walk by themselves in the hall at school. He encourages readers to put themselves in Joe’s position – in the position of that classmate, eating lunch in the library alone – and to maybe consider a kind word, a smile, a simple act of kindness. As Richards says, “This land is your land. This land is my land. There is enough for everyone”. There’s no place for racism here. There is enough of everything for everyone; all we need to do is share. Beautiful oil and acrylic artwork makes each spread look like a portrait-worthy painting. A perfect readaloud for children.

Watch Me has a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Doyin Richards is a TEDx speaker who has spoken on anti-racism, and his book and blog, Daddy Doin’ Work, became a book that encouraged women to help dads become more engaged, hands-on fathers.

Posted in picture books, Preschool Reads, Toddler Reads

Akashic’s LyricPop series: sing to your kids!

Leave to Akashic to come up with LyricPop. After giving us board books like What is Punk and What is Hip-Hop?, assuring that the next generation will grow up far cooler than mine, Akashic has gone one better and created a series presenting song lyrics, set to pictures and situations that kids and parents will love. The first four titles hit shelves on Tuesday. Check these out:

African, Song Lyrics by Peter Tosh/Illustrated by Rachel Moss, (June 2020, Akashic Books), $16.95, ISBN: 978-1-61775-799-0

All Ages/Birth-7

The classic reggae song by Peter Tosh lives on as a gorgeous story of unity. Peter Tosh wrote this song to remind all black people that they were part of the same community; the message powerfully resonates today. Rachel Moss uses earthy and vibrant colors to bring the world and people of Africa alive on the pages. Endpapers show proud African animals strutting across the pages, and interior artwork celebrates African culture all over the world: if you’re from Trinidad or Nassau; Cuba or America; Canada, or Taiwan. Different faiths, different colors, no matter. In Tosh’s words, “No mind your nationality, you have got the identity of an African”. Beautiful artwork, powerful lyrics to instill pride, power, and understanding. Add African to your Black Experience collections, your storytime collections, and your storytime rotations.



Good Vibrations, Song Lyrics by Mike Love and Brian Wilson/Illustrated by Paul Hoppe, (June 2020, Akashic Books), $16.95, ISBN: 978-1-61775-787-7

All Ages/Birth-7

Wow, is my stepfather smiling down from wherever he’s spending the afterlife these days. He was the biggest Beach Boys fan I’ve ever met, and seeing Good Vibrations out in children’s book form makes me miss him all the more, because he’d have sat my kids down – yeah, even the 21- and 16-year-olds – and sang this to them. A summertime classic brought to picture book, Good Vibrations is all about a girl and her dog heading off to surf, spreading their good vibrations and excitations all around as they encounter a cast of wacky animals and people alike, from a theremin-playing alien to a polka dotted horse, to a thumbs-up giving cactus. It’s a beach party waiting for you and your little ones to dance along, and the bright, bold artwork and bubble-fonted lyrics make this just too much fun. Two-color endpapers offer a glimpse at the coast, just waiting for our main characters to jump in and surf some waves. So much fun for storytimes.



Don’t Stop, Song Lyrics by Christine McVie/Illustrated by Nusha Ashjaee, (June 2020, Akashic Books), $16.95, ISBN: 978-1-61775-805-8

All Ages/Birth-7

Another rock classic, Don’t Stop is a never-give-up song that we all need these days. Illustrator Nusha Ashjaee creates the story of a sweet little rabbit who’s just not having a good day. Rabbit’s wakes up to see the first spring flower poking through the snow and heads out to coax all her woodland friends out of hibernation to enjoy the spring, enduring winds and snowdrifts; eventually, though, all Rabbit’s animal buddies gather ’round to provide some encouragement and head off to have some fun. Soft colors and gentle artwork make this a good bedtime story, a pick-me-up for a hard day, or a perfect cuddle time storytime. Endpapers show Rabbit’s home in the winter, and in the spring. Gather some stuffed friends of your own around for some atmosphere, and invite your little ones to get up and dance with you – make sure they all cheer “Don’t Stop!”



We’re Not Gonna Take It, Song Lyrics by Dee Snider/Illustrated by Margaret McCartney, (June 2020, Akashic Books), $16.95, ISBN: 978-1-61775-788-4

All Ages/Birth-7

Is there a more perfect song for babies and toddlers than Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It? Hilariously and adorably brought to life by illustrator Margaret McCartney, We’re Not Gonna Take It shows a group of babies in full rebellion: the shenanigans start on the cover, with toddlers gnawing on letters, whacking them with mallets, and shoving them out of alignment. These kids don’t want to eat the food being shoved at them; they’re organizing a jailbreak from the baby yard they’re stuck in. But when the Mommies catch them and try to put them down for a nap, they have just enough energy for one… more… push… YAWN. There are such fantastic little details throughout this book, including the alphabet blocks spelling out the book title on the title page; the “I’m the little sister” tee shirt one toddler is rocking in a font similar to the music group’s lettering; the complete looks of disgust on our little rebels’ faces as lyrics like, “Oh, you’re so condescending / Your gall is never-ending / We don’t want nothin’ / not a thing from you”. Endpapers are fantastic, with pictures of the babies and their duckies teddies, and toys in colorful, explosive backgrounds, and the very ’80s metal horns decorating the back endpapers. The colors are bright, popping off the page, and will definitely set a mood. This book makes my aging Gen X soul very happy, and it’ll be a perfect storytime read for your little ones – just watch out for signs of revolution afterwards.


The next round of LyricPop books is due out in October. To see those, check out Akashic’s LyricPop page, and get your pre-order fingers ready to click.