I’ve got two lovely new books taking place in a city, both with different points of view. Let’s wander in.
What a book! This mostly-true memoir of Lexi Haas, a Star Wars and superhero-loving teen, shines a light on a rare – and preventable – neurological disease called kernicterus. Written by Lexi and her mother, Susan Haas, The Year of the Buttered Cat moves between Lexi at ages five and six, when she learns about her diagnosis and waits for the “five gifts, more or less” that an ersatz preacher wishes for her, and the age of 13, on the eve of a major surgery that she, and her family, hope will give her more control over her body and give her a voice. Not a story about kernicterus, Lexi’s story is a story about fandom, friendship, and discovering that the gifts you need are to be discovered within. We read Lexi’s frustrations and her ups and downs – feeling left out by friends; having strangers ask “what’s wrong with her?”; knowing her parents are keeping secrets – and see our own. We read her joyful moments – her laughter, teasing and being teased by siblings, watching Saturday Night Live with her parents, cuddling with her dog – and smile and laugh along with her. Do we find out why the cat was buttered? Yes. Do we want to find Lexi and the next Comic Con and hang out in cosplay with her? Definitely. Lexi’s voice is strong, clear, and focused, whether she’s making us laugh or suggesting we stop, take a moment, and think.
Set in the United Kingdom, we meet Rosie, a 16-year-old girl with Down syndrome who loves her boyfriend, Jack. Jack’s temper gets him into trouble and gets him sent away to a school in Brighton; Rosie’s father hopes this marks the end of Rosie’s and Jack’s relationship, but Rosie is determined to see Jack, and she’s determined to keep her independence. She discovers that Jack’s been writing postcards to her because he smashed his phone in a rage, but her father’s been holding them from her. Angry and set on finding Jack, Rosie runs away, Jack’s postcards and an address of his school guiding her toward their reunion. But the world is dangerous for a young teen girl, and Rosie discovers that not only can people be cruel to someone different, they can be predatory. At times uncomfortable, always consuming, Rosie Loves Jack is an engrossing story that gives readers a strong, smart heroine in Rosie. Readers will identify with Rosie’s struggles with well-meaning, but fearful parents, who may take what they see as extreme measures in the interest of protecting their daughter. They’ll understand the all-consuming love Rosie and Jack have for one another that sends Rosie out into the world, unattended, on a search for him, and the love postcards he sends her give her strength and guide her through some awful scenarios. They’ll see how dehumanizing people can be when encountering someone with special needs. A strong book to consider for a reading group. Rosie emerges as the most realized character, with supporting characters not as fleshed out, but keep her journey moving forward. Publisher Peacthree has a discussion guide on Rosie’s book detail page, as well as an author Q&A, where author Mel Darbon talks about her inspirations for both Rosie and Jack.
(It’s a joke, based on one of the book’s titles. Keep reading.)
Who loves bears? We love bears! Teddy bears, polar bears, brown bears brown bears, bears are children’s book gold. I’ve got three books about bears to crow about today, so let’s start with the inspiration for this post’s title.
I love a story that breaks the fourth wall! Have you ever thought about how many books there are about bears? Did you ever consider that every time a bear stars in a story, that bear may have been in the middle of something “really good – like sleeping, or snoozing, or napping”? Well, the bears have had it and are going on strike! This hilarious book is all about one bear’s fight for justice. The omniscient narrator tries their best to nudge the bear into compliance in a silly series of moments like dressing it up in a tutu or suggesting the bear kiss a frog, but Bear stands firm, even calling up other animals to serve as a proper stand in. Kids will laugh out loud at the deadpan humor, and the ultimate solution that works for everyone is priceless. Originally published in Australia in 2018, Another book about bears is storytime hilarity just waiting to be revealed.
Visit Philip Bunting’s webpage for free, fun downloadables for kids, too!
Gorgeous cut paper and ink artwork presents a polar bear’s meandering through a brilliant white world and a deep blue sea. A polar bear wakes up in the snow and begins walking… but where is he going? What does he want? Award-winning author and illustrator Mac Barnett builds curiosity and excitement as readers follow the bear past seals, through a storm, and as he rebuffs a human in a very polar bearlike fashion, to end up at his destination. Shawn Harris’s illustrations give such texture and motion, layering shades of white upon white and blue upon blue, giving us a feeling of purpose and joy. Simple sentences and facts about polar bears (he clearly eats seals, but he’s not hungry right now; his coat protects him from the snowstorm; he likes to swim) are a wonderful introduction to young readers about the natural science of bears and the Arctic. A final question leaves much open to discussion. There’s so much presented in this book, so beautifully, and respects its youngest readers in its presentation. Teacher Tips are downloadable from Candlewick’s website.
A Polar Bear in the Snow has starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly.
Little Bear can feel the world around him – all its rumbles and shakes, trembles and wobbles – but hearing his world is a little more difficult. He doesn’t hear things clearly, and thinks he hears everyone asking him, “Do bears ski?” Dad takes him to an audiologist one day, and is fitted for hearing aids that make his world way too LOUD. He resists them at first, hiding them around the house, but with his dad’s love and support, he understands that it’s just something new to get used to – and he also learns that everyone has been asking him not whether or not bears can ski, but “Can you hear me?” A touching story about self-discovery, Can Bears Ski? is essential for bookshelves and can start many conversations with children. Author Raymond Antrobus is a Ted Hughes award-winning deaf poet and teacher who wrote Can Bears Ski because “It’s the book I could see myself reaching for as a child, and I can’t wait to have it exist in the world.” Colorful ink and paint artwork made this a gentle, comforting story about a big topic. The CDC’s Kids Quest webpage has helpful facts for kids on hearing loss.
I hope you like these as much as I do. As I’ve worked through my ginormous TBR this year, I’ve gotten to many of the books sent to me by independent and small authors and publishers; the best way to show them off is to give them their own little spotlight. There are some little gems to be found here.
Ollie is a kid who loves to put stuff in his backpack. He knows there’s stuff that’s way too big, like a moose; way too heavy, like a watermelon, or way too cold, like an igloo. The thing is, he starts to collect little things that end up really weighing him down as he goes through his day: a crumpled homework assignment; a broken toy that a bully snatched from him; a granola bar that a classmate refused to share; even a trophy that he won! As Ollie takes a break from carrying all that heavy weight, he realizes that sometimes, you have to get rid of the weight you carry. He sheds the things that made him sad, and displays the trophy, which made him happy. Once he stops hiding everything away, he realizes that he’s not weighed down anymore!
Ollie’s Backpack is a good social-emotional learning story that reminds me of Brian Wray’s and Shiloh Penfield’s excellent Max’s Box. Kids will see themselves both in the packrat stuffing of everything and anything into a backpack, and will understand the meaning of holding onto memories – for better or for worse – and appreciate Ollie’s way of embracing the good and letting go of the bad. The digital artwork is bright and colorful. A nice choice for your SEL collections. Visit author Riya Aarini’s website for more books, including the next Ollie books.
A fun spin on the classic Chicken Little tale, Chicken Little Investigates puts a STEM spin on the story. Chicken Little and Henny Penny are strolling along when an acorn falls on Chicken Little’s head. Chicken Little and Henny Penny do some experimenting with gravity, and decide to go visit the king to find out what he would call their discovery. Along the way, they meet Goosey Loosey, Ducky Lucky, and Turkey Lurkey, all with different ideas on what to call their discovery, when they meet up with sly Foxy Woxy, who has his own ideas. But the gang is too smart for Foxy, and use their new discovery to escape to safety. A cute introduction to physics, with fun sounds like jangles, flops, and plops, this is a cute read-aloud that invites kids to chime in with their own sound effects. I’d use this in a Discovery Club readaloud and invite kids to drop their own pencils, pillows, and pom-pom balls to see what drops fast, what drops slow, and what sounds they make. Lois Wickstrom has been writing some fun STEM/STEAM stories; see more of her books at her website, Look Under Rocks.
Hank Hudson is a boy who loves rocks and The Jungle Book. He does NOT like the very sad book his teacher is reading to the class: it gives him the a’a feeling, which is a geological term for lava flow which moves and cools at different rates. Hank has autism, and feels things, sees things, in a way that doesn’t always match his classmates. His classmate, Maisie Huang, notices him after a big incident lands Hank in some hot water. Her parents are geologists, so she invites him over to see their rock collection. It’s there that Hank discovers Maisie’s ulterior motive: she wants Hank to help her “rescue” her next door neighbor’s dog, Booler. Booler has seizures, and Mr. Jorgenson, his elderly owner keeps Booler tied to a tree outside, because it’s too dangerous for him to be indoors. Maisie has built up a vision of her neighbor that isn’t too flattering, and Hank, while happy to have a friend, is conflicted about a lot of Maisie’s “rescue” ideas. But the two kids become friendlier with Mr. Jorgenson, until he has an accident and his daughter comes to town. Hank and Maisie decide that Booler isn’t safe, after all, and revisit their initial rescue plan. Filled with cringeworthy, funny, and touching moments, We Could Be Heroes is a story about friendship, understanding, and feeling “less than”.
Hank and Maisie are complex characters that feel real. Readers may know kids like Hank and Maisie at school – they may be Hank or Maisie. Margaret Finnegan captures the feelings that go into a meltdown for a person with autism by linking Hank’s love of rocks and geology to the feeling that heralds a meltdown; the “a’a”, a Hawaiian word that, once defined, paints a picture for readers and opens the door to understanding. Maisie may frustrate some readers – this is a great character to talk about; find her motivation, and give pros and cons of her focus on saving Booler. The adults in the novel each have wonderful depth, too; they are all invested in our characters and important parts of the story throughout.
A strong choice for book discussions, We Could Be Heroes is a good realistic novel that delves into the complexity of emotions and friendships. Author Margaret Finnegan has epilepsy and autism resources available on her author webpage.
We Could Be Heroes is a Junior Library Guild selection.
Dusti Bowling gives readers more of the unsinkable Aven, her family, friends, and life at Stagecoach Pass in the follow-up to 2017’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (which also happens to be one of my favorite middle grade books ever). Aven, a middle grader born with no arms; her best friends, Connor, a boy with Tourette’s and Zion, a boy with weight problems, formed a tight-knit group of kids who could lean on each other, strengthen one another, and – because what are friends for? – drive one another nuts. Insignificant Events is a brilliant novel with characters that become part of you the first time you meet them, so to learn that Dusti Bowling was giving us another book about Aven and Company was just the news myself, and so many other readers, needed.
Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus changes the game on Aven and her friends once more. Just in time to start high school, Connor’s moved away and makes a new friend. A new female friend. Trying not to let jealousy get to her, she works on affecting indifference, but a cruel prank by some of of the Mean Boys (yep, they exist, and you know exactly who they are) in school devastates Aven, sending her into a PTSD-like spiral of anxiety and depression. Lando, Zion’s older brother, seems interested in Aven, but she can’t imagine – especially while continuing to be bullied by the creep that pranked her – that he’d be interested in her, which makes her more miserable. There’s a subplot where Aven wonders about her father while trying to find Henri’s – the ice cream man at Stagecoach Pass – family as his dementia gets worse, that put my emotions through the ringer.
There’s so much taking place in Momentous Events. Aven and her friends are struggling with adolescence and the things that come with it; namely, shifting friendships, crushes, and first relationships. Aging, death, and family – especially when you know there are family members “out there” somewhere – take up huge parts of Aven’s thinking and feelings here. A new friend on the scene introduces Aven to fictional punk rock band Screaming Ferret, which gives her a new outlet for her feelings and makes me very happy; each chapter begins with a Screaming Ferret lyric, giving readers a heads-up as to what Aven’s mood may be for that chapter.
There are no downsides to Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus. Dusti Bowling gives readers – yet again – incredible characters with messy lives; lives that we recognize, challenges we can understand, sympathize with, and appreciate; and she does it with humor, care, and feeling.
Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus has a starred review from Kirkus and is the follow-up to the award-winning book, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus. Author Dusti Bowling’s website includes free downloads of cactus bookmarks, teaching resources, and activity guides. Educator Tara Bardeen has created an educator’s guide for Momentous Events, available as a free pdf.
This self-published book is a team effort: the author is a paraprofessional at a high school in New Jersey; the illustrator, David Cruz, is a young man with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and Ms. Gallagher’s student; Ruth Cruz is David’s mom and pitched in as an editor and writes the afterword. Speech pathologist Maura M. Lazzara worked with David and writes the foreword. David has a solid team surrounding him!
Look at Me Look at Me is based on a game developed specifically for and with David, to develop and maintain eye contact during social interactions. The repetitive phrase, “Look at me Look at me” invites David – and readers – to make eye contact to communicate feelings. The story is upbeat and positive, with David’s illustrations of Puppyduck – a puppy with duck feet – bringing a sweet element into the artwork. David the Puppyduck goes through his day, interacting with different adults who encourage him to look at them. The story ends with a counting game that any kid would enjoy and is easily translated to others.
The next half of the book is dedicated to strategies for parents, educators, and caregivers when working with special needs kids. Discussions include Sections include eye contact and how to maintain it; fun bubble-blowing and puppet activities, and dress-up play.
David’s illustrations are bright, child-friendly, and positive. He makes his characters’ eyes large, so readers can maintain eye contact with them (a great start). It’s an empowering book for kids, especially those with special needs. I’d love to see this in school counselors’ and doctors offices.
There are some solid graphic novels hitting shelves in October: LGBTQ+ positive stories and a dystopian adventure for tweens and teens, and for tweens and teens, Art Baltazar’s adorable artwork for kids are just a few of the books you can look forward to. Let’s dive in!
If you have readers who get a kick out of Joey Weiser’s Mermin books, they’ll love Art Baltazar’s Gillbert: The Little Merman! He’s the son of King Nauticus and the prince of Atlanticus, and he’s surrounded by cool friends, like his turtle buddy, Sherbert, and his starfish buddy, Albert. One day, he meets playful mermaid named Anne Phibian, who takes him to a rocking party at WeWillRockTropolis. Meanwhile, aliens invade Earth, but quick action by Queen Niadora and her alien friend, Teeq, save the day.
Art Baltazar creates art that kids love: Tiny Titans; Grimmiss Island; DC Super Pets, and countless more comics have his signature bold, bright artwork and zest for zany adventure. He’s got kid-friendly artwork, storylines, and humor that kids eat up. When my library kids are too young for the DC comics on “the other side of the library” (the teen collection), but still want superheroes, I give them Art Baltazar’s books, and they’re thrilled.
Gillbert’s first outing looks like it’s the start to a fun new under-the-sea series. Papercutz won’t steer you wrong; add this one to your graphic novel shelves.
Acclaimed Honor Girl author Maggie Thrash’s latest book is a continuing memoir with a touch of fiction. A year and a half after the events of Honor Girl, Maggie is spiraling into a deep depression. She’s failing 11th grade; her stuffy, image-consumed mother is baffled, and her workaholic father, a federal judge, pays no attention to her. The only thing Maggie cares about is her cat, Tommi, who seemingly disappears in her rambling home. While searching for Tommi, Maggie discovers a ghost named Tommy, who leads her to peel back layers of her father’s life and see him through new eyes.
Maggie Thrash beautifully captures the tedium and angst of adolescence and the hopelessness of depression. The feeling of shouting into the void is poignantly captured when she opens up about coming out… and being ignored, regardless. She maintains a bitter sense of humor through her journey, making her likeable and relatable, and her watercolor artwork intensifies the feeling of being not-quite-there.
Lost Soul, Be at Peace is a beautifully thoughtful graphic memoir and a must-add to upper middle school and YA collections. Download an author note (also included in the back matter) and Maggie Thrash’s Top 10 Songs for Lost Souls playlist here; view a sample chapter here. Lost Soul, Be at Peace has starred reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus.
Last Pick is the first in a new dystopian trilogy. Three years ago, aliens invaded earth, taking everyone between the ages of 16 and 65: everyone they deemed “useful”. The survivors left behind live under cruel rule. Too young, too old, too disabled, they’re seen as worthless, receiving slim food rations and living under constant threat. But Sam and Wyatt, a twin brother and sister, are about to change all that. Sam’s the rebel, distributing food and fomenting revolution; Wyatt, her special needs brother, is the brains of the operation: he’s cataloging the aliens, and knows how to work with their technology. They start disrupting the aliens’ plans and making themselves a general nuisance until the aliens decide they’re too much of a threat, right on the eve of their 16th birthday.
Last Pick is SO GOOD. I tore through this one during a lunch hour; it’s compulsive reading with a tight storyline and characters you want to root for. Aliens appear to be enthralled with earth culture and are played in part as comic relief, from the overlord who seems to be influenced by American Westerns, affecting a cowboy-type flavor of speech, to the gooey creature that shares a love of Ultraman with Wyatt. There’s some intrigue going on among the aliens, too; I’m looking forward to learning more in the next installment. Sam and Wyatt are a solid sister-brother unit; Wyatt’s special needs appear to place him on the autism spectrum, and Sam acts as his partner and protector. An underground radio broadcaster, a Latinx who refers to herself as La Sonida, offers moments of retrospection and I hope we get more of her, too.
Eisner Award winner Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam collects all the installments of her webcomic. It’s a science fiction adventure in a universe that embraces all relationships. Mia is a young woman on a reconstruction crew that travels through space, restoring buildings and structures. The narrative shifts between the present and Mia’s past, where she fell in love at boarding school with a girl named Grace; a girl who was taken away by her family before Mia could say goodbye. Mia learns more about her crewmates and their own stories as they travel through space, ultimately creating a family of their own.
The cast is incredibly, wonderfully, diverse. There’s Char, the co-captain; she’s an African American woman who shares captain duties with her Caucasian wife, Alma: “Char may have the degrees, but Alma knows how to yell”, according to one character, Jules. Jules should know: she’s Alma’s niece, taken in when her mother – Alma’s sister – died. Jules seems to be the youngest member of the crew; she’s most likely a teen, loves playing games, and is the happy optimist of the crew. Ell/Elliot is a Caucasian nonbinary person who prefers they/them/their pronouns – and the crew vociferously defends their right to those pronouns, as Ell is nonverbal. Grace, Mia’s lost love, is African American.
As the narrative shifts between Mia’s past and present, we see Mia and Grace’s relationship develop, right up until Grace’s departure from the school. The color palette shifts with the narrative: cooler colors like blues and purples dominate the flashbacks, while warmer colors creep during the present day. Mia is the central character, but every character in this novel has a story to tell. This is a book I had to move back and forth with during the first few chapters; not having read the webcomic, I wasn’t altogether sure I was reading a connected story until I got the hang of the shifts, and of Mia’s place in them. Stick with the story: it’s an wonderful work of queer speculative fiction that deserves a spot on your shelves. On a Sunbeam is good for young adult/new adult readers.
Briana is starting her eighth grade year when her father dies of a sudden heart problem. Her mother spirals into grief, leaving Briana with the responsibility of caring for her 5-year-old brother, Aaron, who’s on the autism spectrum. Briana thought of her father as “her” parent and her mother as “Aaron’s parent”, which introduces frustration and resentment on top of her own grief. Briana feels a “second heart” form in her stomach, which communicates to her in her father’s voice, telling her to “find” her mother, and to “let go”.
Told in the first person in Briana’s voice, this novel is a touching, sensitive look at the complicated grief process: it’s messy, frustrating, and filled with mixed emotions, especially when thrown into the volatile mix of adolescent emotions. The writing is so believable, so real, that I felt overwhelmed by both Briana’s and her mother’s grief at points. Readers receive a wealth of information through Briana’s “Before Aaron” flashbacks, back to when her mother had as much time for her as her father; back when they were a cohesive, whole family. This process also helps Briana become a more present sibling to Aaron, and to reach out to new friends when the opportunities present themselves. We get a glimpse of what grief can do to a parent, and the effect of that grief on a child, and we see how the extended family – in this case, Briana’s grandfather – have to take on roles that they may be unprepared for.
The Girl with More Than One Heart is a must-add to your realistic fiction collections, and keep this one in your booktalking pocket for books on grief and loss.
Never That Far, by Carol Lynch Williams: Twelve-year-old Libby and her father work through their grief after her grandfather dies.
Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, by John David Anderson: Three school friends give their dying teacher the best day ever.
A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness: Thirteen-year-old Conor’s mother is fighting cancer and losing; at the same time, a yew tree tells Conor stories and expects him to tell his.
The Haunted House Project, by Tricia Clasen: Andie tries to hold onto her mother’s memory by having her “haunt” the family home.
Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan: Twelve-year-old Willow loses both parents in a car accident, leaving her to find her place in the world.