Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Sunny (Track, Book 3) by Jason Reynolds

Sunny Lancaster, 12 going on 13, may be the fastest runner on the Defenders track team, the "master of the mile," but he isn't very happy at the moment. He knows that no one much cares about the 1600 meter race until right before runners reach the finish line. So when Sunny stops running just as he reaches the last lap and lets someone else win the mile, everyone is baffled. Coach is certainly stunned when Sunny announces he wants to quit the team in order to dance to the sounds and rhythms he hears in his head. But Coach also sees potential in his dance moves, and convinces Sunny to stay on the team as a discus thrower.

But, it is his father Darryl who really is stunned. After all, running and winning is just what Sunny's mother would have wanted for him, with the goal that he will run and win a marathon, living out his mother's dream for herself. Sunny's mother died immediately after giving birth to him, and he has never had the time to come to terms with his feelings about it, and carries a huge amount of guilt on his shoulders. That guilt trip his father's lays on him together with his father's high expectations have always worked in the past, not any more.

Unlike his fellow teammates, Sunny has lead a life of privilege. Wealthier than the others, he lives in a large, essentially empty house, has been home-schooled his whole life by his mother's friend Aurelia, a teacher/dance instructor. Luckily, Aurelia is a pretty casual, relaxed, blue-haired person, and she definitely has Sunny's best interests at heart. And Aurelia's weirdness totally compliments and encourages Sunny weirdness. Homeschooling isn't all academics with Aurelia - there are also movies (she turns Sunny on to West Side Story) and trips to the hospital to see Sunny's grandfather, Dr. Lancaster, and to visit with his cancer patients, whom they entertain with music and dancing.

Aurelia is the exact opposite of Sunny's dad, who is a cold, distant, regimented man. His feelings seem to have shut down the moment his wife passed away, yet he is still clinging to her. So much so, that he has puzzles made from photographs he took of her, which he and Sunny silently work on together in the evening - their bonding time, as Sunny calls it. In fact, most everything Sunny does with his father is done in silence.

Sunny has a lot on his plate for a 12-year-old - he's convinced he is a murderer because his birth caused him mother to die, he's living with a father who insists Sunny call him Darryl instead of dad without knowing why, and most important, he's trying to figure out who he is now that he is no longer living under the running shadow of his mother. So it's understandable that Sunny would stop running as he approached the last lap of his race - if he had kept going, would he never discover his true self? Luckily, Coach and Aurelia seem to understand that this is Sunny's most important race to win.

As with his other two coming of age Track novels, Jason Reynolds has written Sunny in first person, except instead of straight narration, Sunny's story is told in diary form. This isn't a favorite style of mine, but in this case, it really works. Diaries are private, they are a secret relationship between the writer and the page. In real life, they are not meant for anyone else's eyes. But as a novel form, we have an intimate place in that relationship, being there as Sunny chronicles his most heartfelt thoughts and feelings, and yes, even the sounds and rhythms he hears and likes to dance to. His diary is a place where he can really be himself so we get to meet the real Sunny. And it is therapeutic, as Sunny works through his personal struggles.

There isn't as much about track and Sunny's teammates in this novel. Most of what happens is away from the team, but in the end, it all comes back to that field. Like Ghost and Patina before him, Sunny learns that in order to grow and evolve into the person he wants to be, he's going to need that supportive camaraderie that comes with being one of the Defenders.

Yes, Jason Reynolds has done it again. If you are a follower of the Track series, you won't be disappointed, and if Sunny is your first Track book, you won't be disappointed either, but you will want to run out and get books 1 and 2, Ghost and Patina and then have to impatiently wait with the rest of us for the release of book 4, Lu in October 2018.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book an EARC received from Edelweiss Plus

Saturday, June 16, 2018

A Picture Book Roundup for Pride Month

It's June and that means it's LGTB Pride month, a great time to introduce young readers to picture books about diverse families and varying gender identities within the LGTB community. Books like the ones below will, hopefully, help to foster acceptance and teach readers the importance of embracing difference. For other young readers, they may offer an opportunity to find themselves within their pages, to celebrate who they are, and to see how others have overcome adversity. 

Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Steven Salerno
Random House, 2018, 40 pages

The story of rainbow flag is, ironically, one of hope. Harvey Milk had a dream that one day everyone would have equality, even gay people. Working towards making that dream a reality, Harvey ran for  became the first gay person elected to a political office, city supervisor in San Francisco. Harvey knew that his cause needed something - a visible symbol of hope that would make people feel they were part of a community, something like a flag. Sure enough, Harvey's friend, artist Gilbert Baker, designed a Rainbow Flag, a flag that represents inclusion and diversity. Sadly, in November 27, 1978, Harvey and the mayor of San Francisco were assassinated. In their memory, the Rainbow Flag became a lasting symbol of equality, pride, hope, and love. This is such a well-done picture book, with detailed illustrations every bit as colorful as the Rainbow Flag.

Pink is for Boys by Robb Pearlman, illustrated by Eda Kaban
Running Press, 2018, 40 pages 

Though this book begins with the sentence Pink is for boys the reader soon learns that it is for girls and bows on fancy clothes, as well. In this colorful picture book, Pearlman interrogates the idea of color and gender stereotypes, beginning with the typically gendered blue and pink and  shows young readers that each of the 10 colors used can be for boys, girls, and everything or anything else. Though Pearlman's book is about breaking down gendered ideas, it has been criticized for not going far enough and excluding kids who identify as non-binary.  Ultimately, in its desire to be inclusive and to introduce the idea of diversity to young readers, it ends up being exclusive. The colorful, energetic illustrations feature a diverse cast of characters, reinforcing the idea of diversity, but they are still only boys and girls. In the end, this is a book that parents and/or teachers will have to decide for themselves whether to introduce it to their children or not. My honest opinion is that I wanted to like this book, but I really didn't.

Julián is a Mermaid written and illustrated by Jennifer Love
Candlewick Press, 2018, 40 pages

The first thing I loved about this book was the title - it's not Julián wants to be a mermaid, it's definitive - Julián is a mermaid. The second thing I loved the whole book. Riding on the subway with his Abuela after a day of swimming at the pool, young Julián sees some mermaids. He really loves mermaids and tells his Abuela he's also a mermaid. At home, while Abuela is in the bath, Julián puts together a mermaid costume out of curtains, a plant and some lipstick, but when Abuela sees him, he thinks he in trouble. Instead, Abuela has a surprise - a necklace to add to his mermaid costume. And another surprise - a trip to Coney Island to join the mermaid parade going on down there. This almost wordless picture book is a charming story about identity, gender fluidity, acceptance, and most importantly, unconditional love. The muted watercolor, gouache and ink illustrations add to the idea of fluidity, while truly capturing the nuances of city life.

This is a book that warms my Brooklyn-born heart. The Coney Island Mermaid Parade is a real city event, welcoming in the summer season, and my Kiddo and I love it. But, in case you might think it's a little schlocky parade, this year's King Neptune is Neil Gaiman himself, and Queen Mermaid is his wife, Amanda Palmer.

Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack, illustrated by Stevie Lewis
Little Bee Books, 2018, 40 pages

When a King and Queen decide it's time for their handsome and sincere son to marry, the three of them set off on a quest to find a suitable bride. the Prince meets a lot of suitable girls but has no interest in any of them; he tells his parents he wants someone special to rule with him. While they are traveling and looking for a bride, word comes that a dragon is attacking their kingdom. The Prince immediately hurries home to defend the realm. Luckily, a Knight in shining armor comes along to help just when the Prince needs it most. After tying up the dragon, the Prince loses his balance and begins to fall...right into the arms of the Knight on his horse. And yes, it is love at first sight. The two men marry and live happily ever after. Haack has written a wonderful take on the usual Prince Charming/Knight in Shining Armor trope and the result is a much needed, delightfully endearing alternative. Lewis's bright, animation-style illustrations will no doubt remind readers of all the Prince/Princess Disney movies they've ever seen and books we've become so accustomed to as the defining image of fairy tales nowadays. This, however, is a lovely magical book. Pair Prince & Knight with King & King by Linda de Haan for some real royal fun.

Donovan's Big Day by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Mike Dutton
Tricycle Press, 2011, 32 pages

One morning, as Donovan wakes up, he remembers that today is going to be a big day and he has an important roll to play in it. But first, he has a lot to do to get ready. Get up on time, feed the dog, each breakfast, wash, brush his teeth, and carefully put on his new pants, his new shirt, his new jacket, and his new shoes. Then, he must put a very important little box in his pocket for later. Next, a drive with his grandparents to a fancy place, to get in line and wait his turn to walk down the aisle. And just at the right moment, Donovan must open the box and hand his Mommy and his Mama their wedding rings. And after hugs and kisses from his moms, he has one last important job to do - tell them "you may now kiss the brides." Everything in this book is pretty typical wedding stuff, with the one exception not revealed until the end of the story. This surprising big reveal helps show readers the diverse weddings are really not so different than any wedding - they are happy, hopeful family occasions for celebrating love between two people. Dutton's bright gouache illustrations really depict the excitement and pride that Donovan feels about his participation in this very special wedding, and be sure to study the two page spread of wedding guests waiting for the ceremony to begin - I think Dutton has captured the essence of the kinds of guest you find at most wedding, but without caricaturing them. Having had a child who was a ring bearer, a flower girl, and a junior bridesmaid at three different weddings, I'd say that this is a pretty true-to-life picture book.

From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea by Kai Cheng Thom, illustrated by Wai-Yant Li and Kai Yun Ching
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017, 40 pages

Born at a time when both the moon and sun were in the sky, a non-binary,  shapeshifting child named Miu Lan goes by the third person plural pronouns they, them, their. Their mother always sings a lullaby to them about being whatever they dream, that she will always be there and love them until the day she dies. Wrapped in this unconditional maternal love, they, a strange, magical child, can transform at will to be what strikes their fancy. But when Miu Lan starts school, the other kids don't know what to make of this shapeshifting child. The first day, they poked and pulled them, the next day, they whispered and pointed. They went home feeling dejected. The third day, Miu Lan looked like everyone else, and things were good until the children demanded they pick a gender to be. On day four, they wears fur, feathers, scales, leaves and sparkles. At first put off, the other kids finally accept their gender fluid, shapeshifting classmate, playing together and having fun. Though this book has a fairy tale quality to it, it has an important book about acceptance and identity, even as it challenges our stereotyped perceptions of gender. Written completely in lower case letters and using third person pronouns may feel awkward at first, but by the end of the book, it really begins to feel natural - but isn't that the point of this charming story that really is for anyone whose ever felt like an outsider. The  illustrations have an ethereal quality that adds to the magic of the story.

A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Marlon Bundo with Jill Twiss,
illustrated by EG Keller
Chronicle Books, 2018, 40 pages

Marlon Bundo lives in a big, lonely house and this is the story of his special day, a day that begins like any other. But on this day, after doing his usual things, and while hopping around the garden, Marlon spots a brown lop-eared bunny named Wesley who makes his heart continue hopping. The two bunnies spend the day just hopping around and having a good time. At the end of the day, Marlon and Wesley decide they never want to hop without each other again and agree to get married. Well, until the Sting Bug, who is in charge and makes the rules, says they can't. He has decreed that only girl bunnies can marry boy bunnies, not two boy bunnies or two girls bunnies, because that is bad. But when all the other animals invited to  the bunny wedding realize they are all different in their own way, they vote the Sting Bug out of office, paving the way for Marlon and Wesley to have a wonderful wedding, eating, drinking, and dancing the hokey pokey. This book drips with political satire, but in the end the message is clear - Stink Bugs are temporary, love is forever. Themes of acceptance and empowerment are strong. Profits from the sale of this book are being donated to LGBT-friendly organizations.  I think it's safe to say this book just isn't for everyone.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Class Action by Steven B. Frank

Math problems, dioramas, the despised California Missions project, and middle of the night anxiety over a forgotten bibliography leave sixth-grader Sam Warren tired, and with no time to just be a kid, to able able to play with friends Jaesang, Catalina, and Alistair, and to play more jazz piano, his real love. So when his teacher, Mr. Powell, begins handing out review packets for the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress test, Sam decides to take a stand and refuses to do any more homework.

Sam's protest earns him a 3 day suspension. On his first day, he meets Mr. Kalman, an elderly retired curmudgeony lawyer, who, annoyed that Sam tried to be nice and rescue his newspaper from some gutter sledge, nevertheless informs Sam that without a hearing his suspension is illegal, and to look up Goss v. Lopez to learn why.

After explaining Goss v. Lopez to him, Sam finds a surprising ally in older sister Sadie, and they decide to take action against the school board. Though they ask, Mr. Kalman refuses and refuses and refuses, but eventually he agrees to represent Sam and sue the Board of Education.

Meeting in Mr. Kalman's house, Sadie gets her friend Sean to help, Sam brings along Jaesang, Catalina, and Alistair and they all bring their own particular talents and energy to the project. Though only in high school, Sadie, who is captain of the debate team, is a real help. She has some familiarity with the law and has already participated in many mock trials. Sean is the tech genius of the group, and Sam and his friends are the participants in the class action lawsuit.

Of course, their lawsuit cost money, even if Mr. Kalman is working Pro Bono and especially as they work their way up through the court system, going from a simple hearing to being heard by the Supreme Court. So, what better way to raise the money they need than to make homework work for them. They begin by collecting as many old, discarded dreaded California Missions projects as they can find and selling them to harried students and their more-than-willing-to-pay parents.

What's the decision of the Supreme Court on the case of Warren v. Board of Education? Does Sam et al prevail? Well, there's a nice twist at this point in the novel that would really amount to a major spoiler, and it has nothing to do with the court's decision. All I can say is read it and...

I have to admit I loved this novel. As preposterous as some of the action was, it was just so much fun to read, but not just fun. It was also a nice course in civics and how the law works. Best of all, nothing was dumbed down for the reader.

Sam, our first person narrator, is a believable, buoyant, persistent fleshed out character. Sadie was also well developed, and somewhat more serious than Sam. Sean, Jaesang, Catalina, and Alistair are not quite so full-bodied, but that does diminish their roles. Alistair in particular was a favorite of mine. Here was a kid who loved food and cooking, and who aspired to participate in Master Chef Junior, a reality show I actually got hooked on this past spring. Just reading his room service order in the Watergate Hotel was a pleasure.

Of course, the irony of the novel is the Sam and his friends are working harder than they would have on any school assignment, receiving an excellent education in jurisprudence, and the right to "petition the Government for a redress of grievances" as guaranteed under the First Amendment of our Constitution. The difference is that this is something that is really relevant to their lives, the California Missions project, not so much.

Class Action is a fun, exciting, sometimes nail-biting novel that most kids will thoroughly enjoy - and maybe some teachers will, too, especially when they see the back matter. This consists of a Glossary of Legal Terms and an Appendix of Supreme Court Cases Mentioned in Class Action.

One other thing made Class Action of real interest to me was a report on my local news about two boys who had petitioned their school district in Stony Point, NY to eliminate homework. They prevailed.

You can read about them HERE and HEREI wonder if they've read Class Action.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Friday, June 8, 2018

Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant

It's 1972 and Flora Smallwood, age 9, has been living in Rosetown, Indiana her whole life. Her mother always said that Indiana had balance and Flora couldn't agree more when she thought about Rosetown. And although Flora loves everything about her hometown, her very favorite place is reading vintage books in the purple velveteen chair in the window of the Wing and a Chair Used Book Shop. Luckily, she can do that three days a week while her mom works, helping shop owner, Miss  Meriwether.

Now, however, as fourth grade begins, Flora is feeling rather off balance. She and her parents are still getting over the death of their beloved dog Laurence, the kids returning to school seem to have found a new sense of confidence over the summer that has escaped Flora, and her parents have just told her that they would be separating.

Flora does have a best friend Nessy, short for Vanessa. The girls have been friends since the day they met at the Rosetown Free Library, when Flora was 5 and Nessy was 4, and they often play together on weekends. Now, though, Flora has made another friend. Yury sits behind her in school and come from the Ukraine. All three get along just fine.

Rosetown may be one of the gentlest, slowest moving books I've ever read and I couldn't put it down. Watching Flora's year and the quiet, ordinary events that unfold in her life is reality fiction at its finest, feeling like a breath of fresh air. Ordinary things make up Flora's life (as they do for most of us), like when she and Nessy begin piano lessons at the Four Part Harmony Music School, and Flora is only an adequate piano player, while Nessy seems to be a talented natural. Or deciding what to name the stray cat she and Yury find, finally settling on Serenity. She's a cat who lives up to her name, providing quiet companionship and some balance to Flora. And, after Yury is given a puppy he names Friday, Flora accompanies them to the Good Manners For Good Dogs dog school every Saturday just because she is his friend.

There are not ugly fights between her parents before or after they separate. For and while, Flora finds herself a little at odds to have two rooms of her own in different houses, but her parents work together at providing her with some sense of security, and no matter what, Flora is always sure that they both love her.

Is Flora's view of everything about her life and hometown too unrealistic? I kept waiting for irony to show up, and it just didn't. But this is a story about Flora, not the adults around her and, for all the reader knows, they may be very aware of that is happening in the world outside of Rosetown. After all, Rylant hasn't forgotten life outside Rosetown. There are mentions of Vietnam and the war is lingering in the background, and Flora's parents had actually met because of anti-war protests.

And Rosetown did get me thinking about my world and childhood home at Flora's age - Flatbush in Brooklyn, NY, with wonderful summer trips to Coney Island and Sunset Pool, evening family picnics in Prospect Park and adventures with a best friend I still have. These were the kinds of things that kept me balanced, even though I know that Brooklyn in the 1970s was anything but idyllic, and I can remember sometimes my sense of balance was pulled out from under me.

So, as I read, I asked myself just who is this book for and by the end, I realized it is perfect for young readers who have difficulty dealing with change in their lives. Rosetown shows that with love and support Flora (and all of us) is able find the confidence and certainty that she lacked at the beginning of the book, restoring a now-more-mature sense of balance to her life. Rylant's beautiful lyrical language reads like a textual lullaby, calming and reassuring, stressing the importance of home, a supportive family and friends in life, a message that which will hopefully stay with sensitive readers long after they finish the book.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Beach Lane Books

Monday, June 4, 2018

📚 It's Monday! What are you reading? 📚

It's Monday! What are you reading? - from picture books to YA is a kidlit meme 
hosted weekly by Jen at Teacher Mentor Texts and Kellee at
Unleashing Readers. The purpose is to recap what you have read and/or
reviewed and to plan out you reading and reviews for the upcoming week. Twitter: #IMWAYR

Read and To Be Reviewed:
I read and enjoyed three very different middle grade novels, which I hope to review soon.

Read and Reviewed:
Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code: A Navajo Code Talker's Story by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes, and

You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly, last year's Newbery Award winning author for Hello, Universe

Now reading:
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
This book is spellbinding!
What are you reading this week?
Imagination Designs