Posted in picture books

Sensitive Storytelling: A Place to Stay

A Place to Stay: A Shelter Story, by Erin Gunti/Illustrated by Estelí Meza, (Aug. 2019, Barefoot Books), $16.99, ISBN: 9781782858249

Ages 5-9

A young girl and her mother seek housing at a shelter. The girl is uncomfortable with her surroundings: this isn’t her home, her bed, her kitchen, but her mother tries to smooth over the situation using positive visualization and imagination. No, it’s not her home; it’s a grand palace! The beds become rocket ships that shoot into space, and the dining room becomes a banquet hall, where people from all over come to break bread together. In between fantasy trips of the mind, the girl’s mother tries to put her daughter’s mind at ease, telling her that they are lucky to have a place to stay, encouraging her to greet others she meets at the shelter. Mother and daughter befriend another mother and her children at a nearby table; the two girls discover they are reading the same book at school. The protagonists are white, but there is a multicultural group of residents at the shelter, and the family she and her mother meet are brown-skinned.

A Place to Stay is sensitive to a child’s concerns over staying in a shelter, using the main character to communicate those fears, and her mother, to assuage them. A Place to Stay also explains what a shelter is, what purpose one serves to the communities, for those families that may have a pre-existing notion of the “kinds of people” that stay in shelters. Back matter includes notes on shelters and homelessness, including how shelters help and why people stay in shelters. A Place to Stay is an important addition to your libraries.

Author Erin Gunti wrote A Place to Stay: A Shelter Story after working as a child abuse and neglect investigator, to open a dialogue between adults and children about childhood homelessness. Her experiences come through with subtle nuances throughout the book: the use of creative visualization to ease anxiety and fear; having moments like the “treasure room” for kids in the shelter, where they can play and be children not defined by their situation; meeting other families and bonding over common ground like a book from school. Artist Estelí Meza uses soothing, soft colors to bring her story to life.

Posted in picture books, Preschool Reads

Miss Pinkeltink’s Purse holds a lot of love!

Miss Pinkeltink’s Purse, by Patty Brozo/Illustrated by Ana Ochoa, (Dec. 2018, Tilbury House), $17.95, ISBN: 9780884486268

Ages 4-7

Miss Pinkeltink has a ginormous purse that knocks people down and causes general mayhem, but she’s always got something to give: some tape to repair a bike wheel, a comb, or a rake; anything to help someone out. When Miss Pinkeltink’s purse is empty, she’s filled with the wonderful feelings of sharing. Miss Pinkeltink is homeless, and beds down on a park bench, or on the grass at night, her pink cape as a blanket and her purse for a pillow; Zoey, one of the kids Miss Pinkeltink’s generosity touched, spies her outside her window one night and determined to do something. She gathers the town together to give Miss Pinkeltink new things for her purse, one by one, leading up to a lovely final gift for her purse: a home.

This is an earnest, sweet introduction to the concept of homelessness and taking action for younger readers. The rhyming text introduces ideas in a simple, softened light; the bright daytime colors and expressive characters convey a sweet, if slightly dizzy, older woman who will give her last possession away – even if it it a bone, to a cat – with patchworked, layered clothing, who looks like she could be someone’s grandmother. Zoey, a brown-skinned girl, gets her town behind the effort to help Miss Pinkeltink out; the town is a multicultural mix of families and individuals. It’s a simple, warm-hearted story about how a group of people can come together to take care of someone less fortunate, and a good way to start a discussion about homelessness, empathy, and taking positive action. The back matter includes links to organizations, created by young people, to raise money to help and house the homeless. There are also tips for positive action, from fundraising to volunteering.

Miss Pinkeltink’s Purse is a strong addition to empathy collections and would be a good readalike for fans of Maribeth Boelts’ books and Lois Brandt’s Maddi’s Fridge.

Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Dusti Bowling spends 24 Hours in Nowhere

24 Hours in Nowhere, by Dusti Bowling, (Sept. 2018, Sterling), $14.95, ISBN: 9781454929246

Ages 9-12

Gus is a 13-year-old kid, abandoned by his parents, living with his grandmother in Nowhere, Arizona. When Bo Taylor, the worst bully in town, tries to force him to eat a spiny cactus, Rossi Scott interferes. She’s one of the best dirt bike racers in nowhere, and she’s got designs on winning the big race the next day – until she gives up her bike to save Gus. Now Bo has the bike, and Gus heads to Dead Frenchman’s Mine in the hopes of finding a piece of gold to get the bike back. Matthew, one of Bo’s cronies, is along for the trip, making sure Gus doesn’t spray paint a rock; Jessie, Gus’ former best friend, and Rossi show up to talk some sense into Gus, but a cave-in traps the four friends, leaving them to seek a way out and avoid mountain lions.

I loved Dusti Bowling’s fantastic debut, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (2017), so I immediately requested the ARC for 24 Hours in Nowhere. I am happy to say, there’s no sophomore slump here! Dusti Bowling continues writing smart, empathetic books about kids who are just doing the best they can in the face of everyday life. The teens share stories about their Worst Day Ever, giving us a glimpse into poverty, abuse, neglect, abandonment, race, (Jessie is Mexican-American, and Rossi is Native American, from the Tohono O’odham Nation) and white privilege, all within the greater examination of life in poor, rural America. Gus is a first-person narrator and alternately has moments of introspection, empathy, and humor. There’s a little bit of Goonies, a little bit of Holes, and a lot of great storytelling to be found here. Psst… teachers… put this one on next year’s Summer Reading lists, please?

Check out Dusti Bowling’s author website for extras (just Cactus for now, but sure to be updated with 24 Hours shortly) and school visit info, including free Skype visits! 24 Hours in Nowhere has a starred review from School Library Journal.

Posted in Fiction, Middle School, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Just Under the Clouds shows us the working poor

Just Under the Clouds, by Melissa Sarno, (June 2018, Knopf Books for Young Readers), $16.99, ISBN: 9781524720087

Ages 10-14

Middle schooler Cora, her Mexican-American mom, and younger sister, Adare, are homeless. After her father died, she and her family have lived in a series of temporary homes and shelters in Brooklyn, New York, while her mother tries to make ends meet at an hourly retail job, giving up her art to keep her family going. Adare sustained brain damage at birth, so Cora must look after her when their mother isn’t around. When they get back to their room at the shelter and discover it’s been broken into, the family heads to Cora’s mom’s childhood friend, Willa, a successful lawyer with an apartment of her own, hoping to stay until a better, safer, placement comes through. Cora loves life in Willa’s stable home, but the girls’ mother is frustrated by what she sees as Willa’s meddling. Meanwhile, at school, Cora struggles with math and bullies, and meets a friend named Sabina, who lives on a houseboat and was homeschooled until this school year. Cora has both parents’ passions within her; she keeps her father’s tree diary with her and searches for a special tree that her father wrote about, paired with her mother’s artistic talent – with an arborial bent. She has the stress of caring for Adare, the stress of being homeless, and being bullied.

Just Under the Clouds is narrated in Cora’s voice; author Melissa Sarno creates a strong, moving narrative where we meet a family that often falls through the cracks in our society: the working poor. Cora’s mother, Liliana, is working at a job that doesn’t cover the cost of living for a family of three, let alone in metro New York, and her daughters are in school, clean, and fed, if not full. It’s a tale of poverty, grief, empathy, and hope. The book addresses childhood stress, which comes with long-lasting fallout, and caring for a special needs child, and how poverty affects those children receiving necessary services to help them. It’s a sensitive, painful look in our own backyards and courtyards, our own classrooms and workplaces, and deserves a space on bookshelves and in readers’ hands. Pair this with 1958’s The Family Under the Bridge, by Natalie Savage Carson, and ask readers how things have changed – and how they’ve stayed the same – over 60 years. Start a booktalk by asking your readers, “How would you feel if you lived in a place that wasn’t safe to go to alone?”

Posted in Graphic Novels, Non-Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads, Young Adult/New Adult

The King of Soccer: Pelè

Pelè: The King of Soccer, by Eddy Simon/Illustrated by Vincent Brascaglia, (Oct. 2017, :01FirstSecond), $15.99, ISBN: 9781626727557

Recommended for ages 10+

The latest graphic novel biography from FirstSecond is Eddy Simon and Vincent Brascaglia’s Pelè: The King of Soccer. From his beginnings as a child growing up in poverty in Sao Paulo, Brazil, readers see Pelè – born Edison Arantes do Nascimento, son of a football player whose career ended with an injury – rise from a child using a ball made from rags, to his dominance in youth leagues, and to his first professional soccer contract at the age of 15. He became a sensation at 17, when he led Brazil to victory at the World Cup, and went on to become “O Rei” – The King – a household name, a worldwide sensation. More than just a soccer player, Pelè traveled the world as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. An athlete worth more than face value, the Brazilian government and the military tried to force him to continue playing when he wanted to play for the U.S., and the United States thought that acquiring Pelè would make soccer the next great American sport. He partied with the likes of Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol, and had a turbulent personal life that includes multiple affairs and illegitimate children. Full-color photos of Pelè complete this solid graphic biography of a sports icon.

Great for middle school and up, display and booktalk with other graphic novel biographies, including Box Brown’s biography on Andre the Giant, and 21: The Story of Robert Clemente, by Wilfred Santiago.

Posted in Animal Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

An imaginary friend will always have your back in Crenshaw

crenshawCrenshaw, by Katherine Applegate (Sept. 2015, Macmillan), $16.99, ISBN: 9781250043238

Recommended for ages 9-13

Newbery winner Katherine Applegate is back, following up the award-winning The One and Only Ivan with Crenshaw, the tale of an imaginary friend who knows when his boy needs him.

Jackson’s family is having a rough time of it. His dad is chronically ill, and his mom is having a hard time making ends meet. They’re hungry and they’ve sold their furniture and are looking at the possibility of living in their minivan. Again.

And just like that, Crenshaw appears. Jackson’s childhood imaginary friend is a huge cat who just shows up when he’s needed. And Jackson needs something to believe in; something to cling to. Will Crenshaw be enough?

Katherine Applegate brought me to tears with The One and Only Ivan, and here, she continues her talent for drawing readers in with an emotional tale of friendship and resilience. Applegate addresses a social issue we don’t read much about, but exists: homeless families, transient families, and the effect this has on the children. She also shows us that all friends matter – even the ones we create to get us through the rough times.

Crenshaw will be out in September. Get it on your classroom and library shelves. This would be a great book to recommend and read for a social issues lesson and discussion. My sons’ elementary school takes part in the annual Penny Harvest program, where students collect pennies (or greater denominations, but every penny helps), and then decides on organizations to donate the total to. Wrapping this book reading around a Penny Harvest program or a canned food drive could lead to a meaningful discussion about helping others and bringing attention to families in need.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads, Uncategorized

Egg and Spoon – Gregory Maguire spins a rich Russian fairytale

egg and spoonEgg and Spoon, by Gregory Maguire (Candlewick, Sept. 2014). $17.99, ISBN: 9780763672201

Recommended for ages 12+

Gregory Maguire is renowned for creating his alternate versions of fairy tales, most notably, Wicked. In Egg and Spoon, he creates a sweeping Russian fairy tale, encompassing historical figures such as Tsar Nikolai Romanov and Rasputin, and fantasy favorites like Baba Yaga, the Phoenix/Firebird, and the Slavic Dragon, to create a sweeping tale that goes from the impoverished Russian countryside all the way to Saint Petersburg and beyond.

At its heart is a tale reminiscent of The Prince and the Pauper: a young peasant girl named Elena meets a spoiled rich girl named Ekaterina, when Ekaterina’s train breaks down in Elena’s village. Elena’s mother is dying, her brothers have been called off either to military service or employment, and her father is dead. She wants to go to St. Petersburg to ask the tsar to send her brother home to help care for their mother. Fate intervenes, and the two girls swap places, where each learns about the other girl’s life by living her life. Baba Yaga shows up, because the chaotic seasons are causing her distress, and she ends up becoming Ekaterina’s guardian as they proceed to St. Petersburg to ask the tsar what’s going on in the world.

The tale, narrated by a prisoner in the tsar’s tower, looks at magic in the everyday world, and what a stabilizing force it is. There are themes of family, friendship, and morality all at play, with a lot of humor – Baba Yaga is hilarious here – and conflict.

My only concern here is that at almost 500 pages, middle graders may balk at reading this. Teens will enjoy the story, and it’s a book that really should be on every library shelf. This one will win awards, there’s no question. The writing is beautiful and there are some incredible themes explored. A semester-long unit on fairy tales for older students would really be enhanced by using this book, and book groups for all ages will never run out of material to talk about.



Posted in Fantasy, Humor, Tween Reads

Book Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl (Bantam, 1977)

Recommended for ages 8-12 (and ageless)

This was one of my favorite books growing up, and reading it again all these years later, I find that I love it as much now as I did when I was 8. Having spent the last few years watching multiple viewings of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder is Willy Wonka), I ended up surprised on a few occasions when I realized that scenes from the movie – such as the Fizzy Lifting Drinks scene when Charlie and Grandpa have to belch their way down from certain doom – were not in the book after all! While the movie retained much of Roald Dahl’s dark comic humor, nothing beats the book, and Dahl’s wry observations on rude children and the parents who indulge them, and how the meek inherit… well, if not the earth, at least a lifetime’s supply of chocolate.

Charlie Bucket is starving – no, really, he is. He lives with his mother, father, and four sickly grandparents, who are so old and sick that they never get out of bed. Father has a menial job screwing the caps onto toothpaste tubes, and they family is very poor. They are so poor, all they can eat is cabbage soup, and Charlie refuses to take more than his share. Every day he walks past the famous chocolatier Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and lifts his nose, inhaling the delicious smells; the only time he gets to enjoy a Wonka bar is on his birthday.

It all changes when Willy Wonka announces a contest where five winners will be allowed to tour the chocolate factory – and Charlie is holding one of the Golden Tickets. Grandpa Joe, his elderly grandfather who retains the joy and wonder of youth, jumps out of bed and insists that he go with him, and they’re off. Charlie meets the four other winners – the gluttonous Augustus Gloop, spoiled brat Veruca Salt, TV addict Mike Teavee, and boorish Violet Beauregarde – and their overly indulgent parents at the gates of the factory, and when Willy Wonka’s gates open for the first time in years, the fun really begins. Who will make it through the factory tour?

Dahl’s writing weaves words into pictures that are enhanced by Joseph Schindelman’s black and white illustrations. From Willy Wonka’s mysterious origins to the Oompa Loompa’s cautionary songs, this book is Mr. Dahl’s morality play. It’s a great reminder of the golden rules as children enter into the middle grades: be polite. Don’t be a bully. Share. Don’t be a glutton or have bad manners. Modesty and a humble demeanor reap their own rewards. Reading Dahl is like Emily Post for kids, but with chocolate rivers and candy flowers.

Roald Dahl is a well-known classic children’s author. There is an inactive wiki that appeared to be the start of a comprehensive body of work  with 106 articles; there is a call to revive it on the home page. There is also a wonderful Roald Dahl website that is animated and features links to the Roald Dahl store, museum, and his children’s charity. The site features a “book chooser” that will match kids with a “splendiferous read” of his, a biography on the author, and a “Wonkalator” – a calculator game that asks kids to help Wonka with his latest magical formula.

Posted in Graphic Novels, Humor, Middle School, Tween Reads

Book Review: Amelia Rules! The Whole World’s Crazy, by by Jimmy Gownley (Renaissance Press, 2006)

Recommended for ages 9-12
Jimmy Gownley’s graphic novels about Amelia McBride and her group of friends remind me of Bugs Bunny cartoons – when you’re a child, they entertain you; when you’re a little older, you get the jokes.
In this first volume, we meet Amelia, age nine. Her parents have just divorced and she and her mom have moved from Manhattan to “the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania”, where they live with her retired pop rock star Aunt Tanner. Tanner provides a ready ear and sometimes, shoulder, for Amelia when she needs to vent.
Amelia’s a wise-cracking tomboy, but she isn’t skin deep. We see the effect of her parents’ divorce on her, be it through the frustration and anger with her father for canceling plans for their weekend together because he has a last-minute work commitment or her discomfort in overhearing her mother berating her dad on the phone. She shakes it off, adapts her hard-as-nails persona, and moves on. We all know kids like Amelia;  maybe we have even been in Amelia’s place at one point, and this is what makes her so accessible to kids and grownups alike.
Speaking of grown-ups, there are plenty of in-jokes for mom and dad to catch. Amelia and her friends go to Joseph McCarthy Middle School (motto: “Weeding out the wrong element since 1952”). Ann Coulter garners a mention on one of Santa’s lists (hint: it ain’t the “nice” list). There are pop culture references aplenty. The dialogue is funny and smart; Gownley doesn’t talk down to his audience, nor does he shy away from sensitive topics.
Amelia’s friends are a mixed bag of personalities. Amelia’s friend Reggie is obsessed with being a superhero, to the point of starting his own league of heroes called GASP (Gathering of Awesome Super Pals). Pajamaman is the most popular kid in school, but never speaks, wears footie pajamas, and comes from a poor family. Rhonda, Amelia’s nemesis (and grudgingly, good friend), has a crush on Reggie and puts herself in competition with Amelia for his attention. The group deals with bullies and crazy teachers, unrequited love and poverty. It’s a group of kids that readers will see themselves reflected in.
The Amelia Rules! website offers even more to Amelia fans. There are book trailers, podcasts, a blog, and links to fan art and fan fiction. Visitors can listen to music in Tanner’s Garage and play games in the Ninja Lair.