“Letters from Cuba” Ruth Behar

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Random House). To be published August 25, 2020.

Letters from CubaEsther’s father left his family behind in Poland and headed to Cuba, intent on earning enough money to give them a better life. Though he had been working for 3 years, he only had enough money for one of them to make the trip. Esther begged to be allowed to make the trip and, when she arrived, she was entranced. Cuba’s friendly neighbors made her feel welcome, everyone called her a little Polish girl instead of Jew, the weather was balmy, and the sea was breathtaking. It was wonderful!

Esther decided to tell her story in daily letters to her sister that she saved for when they’d be reunited. Though her father had been a peddler before she arrived, Esther was able to earn more money designing and selling her own dresses. As they worked to earn money to reunite the family, she learned about the heritages of the people in their small village. As Nazi beliefs began to invade their village, former slaves, Chinese Cubans, rich sugar mill owners and poor sugar cane workers were united in their belief that Esther and her father should be protected. Through faith and hope, they all learned that love could overcome evil.

This beautiful story told in letter form recounts many parts of Ruth Behar’s own family history, told from her grandmother Esther’s memories of leaving Poland and arriving in Cuba. Though Ruth and her mother were both born in Cuba, and they immigrated to the United States when it became Communist, Cuba is always in her heart. After reading Esther’s story, her memories will stay in her reader’s hearts too.

Highly recommended for ages 11 and older.

PS – I believe “Letters from Cuba” should be a contender for the treasured Pura Belpré Award, to be announced at the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards in January 2021. Remember when Ruth Behar wins an award there that you read it here first!

I received a digital advance reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

“Clap when you land” Elizabeth Acevedo

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Hot Key Books. To be published May 5, 2020.

Clap when you landThis novel of verse is dedicated to the memory of the 265 people killed when AA flight 587, headed to the Dominican Republic, crashed into a Queens neighborhood on November 12, 2001. Over 90% of the passengers were Dominican. I lived in New York at the time, and remember vividly how this loss shocked the city so soon after the losses of September 11th.

Sixteen-year-old Camino lives in the Dominican Republic with her aunt. Her mother died when she was six, and her Papi lives in New York but visits every summer. After he’s killed in a plane crash Camino is beset with grief and worries for her future. Papi paid for private school, but what will happen to them without his monthly checks? When she finds out he has another daughter in New York City Camino is angry because Yahaira had led a rich life while she has to struggle. However, though that girl stole her father, she’s also her sister.

In New York City Yahaira’s father is killed in a plane crash, but sorrow is mixed with anger because she’d found out a year earlier that he had another wife in Santo Domingo. When she finds out he had a daughter there too she’s angry that this girl stole her father, but is happy to have a sister. Against her mother’s wishes she’s determined to travel to the Dominican Republic to meet her new sister, Camino.

In alternating voices, Yahaira and Camino tell their stories of grief, loss, love, discovery and forgiveness as the beauty of the Dominican Republic, and the love its people have for their country, is clearly verbalized. Once again Acevedo weaves a story that will keep readers glued to their seats. I finished it in just a few short hours, feeling a great affinity for all the strong women described in its pages. I won’t be surprised if this book wins a few more awards for its author in the 2021 ALA Youth Media Awards.

Highly recommended for ages 15 and older.

I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

“New kid” by Jerry Craft

Rated 5 stars ***** 2019. HarperCollins Children’s Books. 249 p.

New kidJordan’s parents, especially his mom, feel that sending him to an expensive private school will be the ticket to his having a “leg up,” which will open doors in his life. Jordan loves drawing and wants to go to art school, but is sent to become Riverdale Academy Day School’s (RAD) newest financial aid student – one of only a few students of color.

Having to negotiate a new world of rich, almost all white kids, feeling judged by the color of his skin, enduring subtle (and not-so-subtle) racism, and a seeming inability to bridge the gap between Washington Heights and Riverdale make it seem as if Jordan and his schoolmates are worlds apart. He wonders how to find commonality and friendship with them without sacrificing the life he knows in Washington Heights. But, through the eyes of his twelve-year-old experiences, Craft’s humor and colorful illustrations depict Jordan’s predicaments in ways that will evoke thought provoking responses from his readers. “New kid” will make an excellent Book Club book.

Awarded the prestigious Newbery Medal at the January 2020 American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards in Philadelphia, “New Kid” will go down in history as being the first graphic novel to receive this award. It was also the recipient of the Coretta Scott King Author Award.

Highly recommended for ages 9-14.

“Shout” Laurie Halse Anderson

Rated 5 stars ***** Viking (Penguin Random House). 2019. 291 p. (Includes Resources on Sexual Violence and Mental Health for readers.)

ShoutIn free verse, Laurie Halse Anderson tells her story of constantly having to move due to her father’s job, of being poor, of having to attend many different schools, and of being raped by someone she considered a friend at the young age of 13. After her assault Anderson details the many coping mechanisms she used to try to cover the raging anger she now felt, including getting high, cutting classes, and getting drunk. It was only after spending 13 months in Denmark as an exchange student, during her senior year of high school, that Laurie finally began to feel some of the scar tissue within begin to heal.

Anderson’s journey towards healing, and how those healing steps helped her become a writer, are interspersed with outrage towards those who foist themselves on boys and girls, friends, girlfriends, sisters, brothers, cousins and anyone who didn’t say “yes” to those advances. She offers strong encouragement and strength towards those who suffer in silence from the pain of sexual assault or rape.

Laurie doesn’t pull punches as she shouts out her outrage, calling out the Principal who cancelled the rest of her appearances at his school, after the first of three sessions “because those things [sex, rape, bodies touching, consent, and violence] don’t ever happen in his school” (p. 187). Censorship of “inappropriate books” also met the steely beam of her eyes, reminding us (and censors) “Censorship is the child of fear, the father of ignorance, and the desperate weapon of fascists everywhere.” (p. 191.)

In short, “Shout” loudly, lovingly and firmly gives victims of sexual assault the strength to stand firm, to speak their pain, and to rise up from the ashes knowing they’re not alone. The #MeToo movement gave voice to that which had had been hiding in the shadows for too long. However, with her memoir, Anderson takes that movement and puts it on an amplifier, giving knowledge and courage to her readers, infusing them with power and strength so they can also #MeToo and shout out their pain as they heal.

“Shout” is raw and truthful; a description of what happens when a slice of life is stolen from unwilling victims. Anderson’s pain from being a victim of sexual assault is your pain. Her fight to rise above her pain is your fight. Her courage to keep going forward is your courage. Her voice to educate others is your voice. Her healing is your healing. Her shout of victory is your shout.

I am going to predict “Shout” will win the 2019 YALSA Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature at the upcoming American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Conference in Philadelphia, along with many other awards. When it wins, remember you read it first on my blog. I will be at that conference, and plan to SHOUT VERY LOUDLY at the ALA Youth Media Awards for Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Shout.”

Highly recommended for teens ages 14 and older, as well as Adults.

 

 

 

“Shame the Stars” Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Rated 5 stars ***** Tu Books (Lee & Low). 2016. 288 pp. (Includes “Author’s Note”, “Book Recommendations”, “Newspaper Clipping Sources,” and a “Glossary.”)

shamethestarsBefore Texas became a territory and then a state, it was part of Mexico. As happened when European immigrants took control of land occupied by its original inhabitants, the Anglo American colonists who settled in Tejas, Mexico in the early 1800’s decided they wanted the land upon which they had settled, and fought to get it from Mexico. Ultimately the land they conquered became the state of Texas. Just as Native Americans had their lands stolen from them, so too did the Mexicans who had originally lived and farmed their own lands in Tejas for generations.

“Shame the Stars” is set in 1915, and tells the story of Tejano families struggling to understand and survive brutalities inflicted upon them by the Texas Rangers (a group of “lawmen” who randomly killed and raped Mexican Americans, imprisoning them without trial, and stealing their land.)

Joaquín Del Toro and Dulceña Villa are teenagers in love during this tumultuous time in the fictitious city of Monteseco. Though suffering from the devastation brought upon them and others by the Rangers, they refuse to keep their heads bowed low in servitude. They, and many others, determine to make a difference for their people and stand for their rights. “Shame the Stars” is their story.

This book is marketed as a “rich reimagining of Romeo and Juliet,” but I feel this simplistic overview is a disservice to McCall. “Shame the Stars” is so much more than this, as the author’s rich and powerful narrative opens the eyes of her readers to an atrocious chapter in the history of the United States that had been a secret for many years. It is closer to the history of Segregation and the crimes committed by segregationists than it is to Romeo and Juliet.

The “Refusing to Forget” Project, started in 2013, created an exhibit of this time period called “Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920.” It was on view in Austin, Texas from Jan. 23-April 3, and was a visual complement to the events in the book.

I sincerely hope McCall’s excellently written and researched book will win an award of some type at the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards in January, as it deserves a place in every high school and public library. McCall is a previous winner of the Pura Belpré award however, since “Shame the Stars” is intended for a much older audience, my fingers are crossed that it will receive a Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature from YALSA.

Highly recommended for ages 16 and older.

I received a copy of this book from Lee & Low in exchange for an honest review.

 

“Piecing Me Together” Renee Watson

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. Bloomsbury. 260 p. To be published February 14, 2017.

piecingmetogetherJade is starting her junior year at a very exclusive high school located on the other side of her neighborhood. She did not want to leave her old school or friends, but accepted a scholarship because she wanted to learn Spanish and travel with their study abroad program.

As one of a handful of black students at the school, Jade finds that because she is black and poor she is expected to act, speak and think a certain way. She is even expected to participate in a mentorship program offered only to African American girls, causing her to feel that her classmates and teachers disregard her, and are unable to understand why their expectations are hurtful. Prejudices and stereotypes at school as well as in the news cause Jade to create beautiful artistic collages from her self-examinations, as she reflects upon the state of the world for herself and other blacks.

Watson’s thoughtful observations about a young girl finding her voice, while telling her story about what it means to be black, will be an eye opener to many who don’t understand white privilege. I especially loved her poem “Things that are Black and Beautiful” on page 136. I can’t quote it here, because this is an ARC and the author/publisher might choose to change it for the final version of the book, but it is lovely. The beautiful cover art is also striking, while the title of the book excellently conveys Jade’s talent and her actions as she seeks to express herself.

I predict “Piecing Me Together” will win the Coretta Scott King Book Award at the American Library Association’s annual Youth Media Awards, as well as a few other book awards.

Highly recommended for ages 14 and older.

“Olinguito, from A to Z! /Olinguito, de la A a la Z!” Lulu Delacre

Rated 5 stars ***** 2016. Illustrated by Lulu Delacre. Children’s Book Press (Lee & Low). IncludOlinguitofromAtoZOlinguitoDelaAalaZes descriptive narratives on the Discovery of the Olinguito, The Cloud Forest and The Illustrations. Also includes ways readers can become explorers within the pages of the book as well as through online activities. The book also includes a detailed Glossary of scientific names of plants and animals in the cloud forest, complete with illustrations of each one, a list of More Helpful Words, and a detailed list of the Author’s Sources.

This amazingly detailed, well-researched and beautifully illustrated bilingual picture book for older and younger readers is more than an A to Z book of plants and animals found in the Ecuadorian Andes cloud forest. Used in conjunction with the very detailed Glossary, each page unveils unique and varied life forms found in this fascinating cloud forest.

Readers will learn about unusual creatures such as the tanager, quetzal, barbet and, of course, the olinguito. Not to be outdone, reading about vegetation with interesting sounding names like the Bomarea flower, passiflora, wax palm and epiphytes will also pique their curiosity. Each page contains rich stores of knowledge waiting to be explored. Each of the more than 40 plants and animals in the book have a story to tell, and can easily become extensive research projects for its elementary and middle school readers.

Well known author and illustrator Lulu Delacre has outdone herself with her latest book. I expect “Olinguito, from A to Z! /Olinguito, de la A a la Z!” will create quite a stir at next year’s American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards. I consider it a candidate for the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award, as well as for the Pura Belpré Author Award. Remember that you read it first here!

Highly recommended for ages 7-14.

“Counting to D” Kate Scott

Rated 3 stars *** Published February 11, 2014. ebook. ARC. Elliott Books. (Includes “Resources for Dyslexics.”)

CountingToDSamantha can’t read. Up to this point in her life her two best friends had helped her get through school. Her dyslexia has stayed a hidden secret for years, as her mathematical genius skills and audiographic memory has placed her in all AP courses. She is happy with her life until her mother moves her cross country from San Diego to Oregon.

Sam is terrified her new classmates will find out she is not a genius, but a sham. However, as a sophomore taking senior level courses, she gains points with the local brainiacs giving her an “in” to their “we are better and smarter than everyone else” club aka the Brain Trust. There she meets Nate, who takes her under his wing.

Within a short time, Sam has fit into her new group and gained several new friends but her dyslexia is threatening to make itself known. Desperate to hide who she really is Sam denies part of herself in favor of popularity. It takes strong friendships and a completely different mindset for her to finally come to terms with dyslexia and what it means to her life.

I found “Counting to D” to be very informative, as it explained myths and truths about dyslexia in a clear manner. It also gave a positive spin to mathematics, with clearly broken down algebraic equations, which might give hope to those struggling with math.

Despite these positive points, I thought Sam’s personal story was contrived. Her doubts, troubles and fears about dyslexia felt very realistic but her high school popularity seemed to be unrealistic. In just a few short months she manages to date a senior, become good friends with the school’s basketball star, crack into the elite senior Brain Trust, make lots of new friends, and have other “wow!” moments. Perhaps this could all have been accomplished in 4 years of high school but, in my opinion, seemed a bit much for just a few short months of life in a brand new high school. Thus I’ll leave it up to you, when you read it, to decide if her social life felt contrived or not.

NOTE: I’m pretty sure “Counting to D” will be in the running for a 2014 Schneider Family Book Award, given out at the annual ALA Youth Media Awards, because of its great emphasis and explanations about dyslexia. I wish Kate Scott and her publishers the very best of luck.

Recommended for ages 14 and older.

“Bomb: The race to build – and steal – the world’s most dangerous weapon” Steve Sheinkin

Roaring Brook Press, 2012. 266 pp. Includes Source Notes, Quotation Notes, Photo Credits and an Index.

BombIt is easy to see why this was a 2013 Newbery Award Honor winner, as well as the 2013 winner of the Robert F. Seibert Informational Book Award and the 2013 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults. It was also a Finalist for the National Book Award, Young People’s Literature category. When the awards were announced at the ALA Media Awards (the Librarian Oscars), the excitement in the room was electric. As I sat there and listened to all the clapping and screaming from the hundreds and hundreds of librarians in the room, I instantly put it on my “to read” list. Yes, it’s THAT good!

In breathtaking detail, using period photographs, Sheinkin tells how and why the United States decided to build the first atomic bomb during WWII. His chapters are short and informational, with cliffhanger endings. Spying, cloak and dagger scenes, revealed hidden secrets and more are all woven into this great educational thriller. 

Included are chapters in which readers learn of the work being done in Germany to create their own bomb, as well as the immense need for speed in the United States to beat Germany and, hopefully, get a quick end to the war. Readers are privy to various commando operations carried out with the goal of destroying whatever Germany created, and the incredible tenacity exhibited by the Soviet Union’s KGB to find spies amongst the American scientists. These spies, while working for the U.S., passed along crucial information to the KGB which enabled the Soviet Union to build its own bomb. We also learn of the incredible work put into the project by various scientists and physicists, and gain insight into their backstories.

The arms race has never been explained in clearer detail, as readers aged 14 and older will learn much about American and world history from reading it. I know I did, having only known about what happened after the bomb was dropped and not what happened before, during and after it. 

“Seraphina” Rachel Hartman

Seraphina #1. 2012. Random House. 464 pp. (Includes Cast of Characters and Glossary)

SeraphinaAt the recent ALA (American Library Association) Media Awards in Seattle, there was a huge burst of applause when “Seraphina” won the William C. Morris YA Debut Award. I’m not a big Fantasy reader, and am also not fond of reading books that are part of a series, but decided to read it.

In the world of Goredd, dragons are outcasts. They are discriminated against, and are shunned by Goredd’s human society. Intermarriage with all humans is expressly forbidden by law, and punishable by death. As a half-breed dragon, Seraphina lives in fear that someone will discover her secret. Her dragon mother died in childbirth, while her human father barely acknowledges her presence. Her dragon uncle keeps a human form to stay as her tutor, forbidden to change into a dragon form, while her love for all things music keeps her sane.

As assistant Music Mistress to the Royal Court, Seraphina is privy to audiences with the Princess and Head of the Guard. When she hears of an evil dragon’s plot to destroy the peace that has existed between dragons and humans for 40 years, Seraphina steps in to save the human and dragon world. She is determined that peace not only continue, but that both groups be joined in true unity. She doesn’t plan to fall in love with the Princess’ fiancee, but things happen and her feelings veer out of control.

“Seraphina” is an interesting glimpse into two worlds which, at first glance, seem to be very different from each other. However, as both humans and dragons learn more about each other, readers also learn that differences may be similarities in disguise.

I look forward to reading the rest of the books in the series as Serpaphina continues her quest to find her own place in both worlds. Readers aged 12 and older will also enjoy the series.