Thursday, December 31, 2020

WE DREAM OF SPACE by Erin Entrada Kelly


It is 1986. Bird Nelson Thomas is dreaming of being the first woman space shuttle commander. Her science teacher has them studying the space program and everyone is anticipating the launch of the Challenger in a few weeks.

Bird is in the seventh grade as is her twin brother Fitch and her older brother Cash who failed seventh grade last year. Bird loves space and figuring out how machines work. Fitch loves arcade games and spends every quarter he can get his hands on at the local arcade. Cash loves basketball but can't make a basket to save his soul. He hasn't figured out exactly what he is good at yet.

One thing the three siblings can agree on is that their parents argue and fight all the time. The house is always a mess and everyone eats dinner anywhere but at the table. Bird wishes things were different, but her excitement about the Challenger launch is enough to keep her mind off the disappointments of home.

When the day finally arrives for the launch, Bird is in the auditorium with a select group of students whose winning essays have earned them a chance to watch the televised launch. Of course, things don't go the way Bird has imagined and her world is turned upside down. All her anticipation evaporates along with the space shuttle leaving Bird to rethink her hopes and dreams and how she will carry on.

WE DREAM OF SPACE by Erin Entrada Kelly explores the emotional impact of the loss of the Challenger on a school child eager to witness an exciting moment in the space program. Bird, Fitch and Cash are making the best of their often challenging family life as they discover what it means to be there for one another.

I remember the day vividly. As a teacher I had followed with excitement the fact that a teacher would be aboard the shuttle. Attending an education workshop, I watched the launch on television with a group of fellow teachers and will never forget the stunned silence that followed the explosion. Reading about Bird brought tears to my eyes as I imagined what it was like for millions of school children with dreams of being in space as they watched the tragedy. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

THE COURAGE OF ELFINA by Andre Jacob & illustrated by Christine Delezenne


Elfina is from Paraguay. Her mother died during childbirth and her father's work kept him away from family. Elfina was sent to live with her grandparents. Hoping to offer her a better education, Elfina was sent to live in Asuncion to live with her aunt and uncle. 

Soon after moving, Elfina's aunt announced they were moving to Canada for their business. Elfina was told she would begin using their last name. Upon arrival in Canada, she expected to attend school and live the life her grandparents had wanted for her. That was not to be. Instead, Elfina stayed at home to cook and clean while the rest of her aunt's family went on with their lives. She was even assaulted by her uncle who swore her to secrecy or he would force her to leave.

Elfina eventually found help at the church. They told her no one should be forced to work and refused an education. With their help she returned to her family in Paraguay with hopes and dreams of a better future.

THE COURAGE OF ELFINA is a graphic novel about a form of human trafficking/abuse. Author Andre Jacob and illustrator Christine Delezenne present Elfina's story in clear, concise dialogue and art. 

RUNNING FULL TILT by Michael Currinder

Leo Coughlin has been running for the past year. It really hasn't been by choice. It's been more to escape. He's been escaping from nightly attacks by his older brother. 

Now this may seem strange, and frankly, it is, but it makes more sense if you know the details. Leo's brother Caleb is autistic. Expressing himself is difficult and when frustration builds, he attacks. Leo is currently the victim of these attacks. He has no idea what provokes them, but he knows that Caleb is bigger and stronger which means getting away until Caleb calms down is vital. 

Leo is aware that Caleb can't help himself. It is also fortunate that Leo is the receiving the brunt of these attacks rather than someone else. The family recently moved to a new neighborhood because of issues with Caleb. Things are better in the new location. Leo's running has even earned him a spot on his new school's cross country team and a few new friends.

Running is offering Leo a new way to deal with Caleb and even a new perspective on the marriage problems his parents are having. There's also a girl in the picture. Maybe this new life will have more ups than downs.

Author Michael Currinder draws on personal experience in this story of a runner and his autistic brother. Readers will be quickly drawn into the story and begin rooting for Leo as he finds himself in running. RUNNING FULL TILT will have great appeal to runners and non-runners alike.


Friday, December 25, 2020

ALL BOYS AREN'T BLUE by George M. Johnson


George M. Johnson, known to his family as Matthew, and his school friends as George, hopes this YA memoir-manifesto will help LGBTQIA+ young people struggling to self-identify and become comfortable with what they feel and know about themselves. George wishes there had been a book like this when he was in grade school, middle school, and high school that would have provided some guidance and answers to the questions he faced from family and friends. May those who open the cover find something helpful whoever and wherever they are in their own personal journeys.

George grew up in a loving family. His parents were busy with their jobs so after school time and many weekends were spent with his grandmother, Nanny. He always knew he was different, but his family never made him feel "different" in a negative way. He loved things that girls love, but he also proved his athletic abilities which earned him the respect of the boys and men in his life. 

Even though George felt loved and accepted, he didn't fully come out until he was twenty-five. Until then he explored and experimented, but still answered "no" when asked if he was gay. In this memoir he thanks those who played a role in helping him discover and accept his true self. Not an easy journey, he now writes about being a Black Queer man with an openness that is welcome in the Queer community and beyond.

Thank you to the publisher for providing this copy in my NCTE/ALAN book box. It was also a pleasure to "meet" and hear from the author at the 2020 ALAN virtual conference. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

FULL CICADA MOON by Marilyn Hilton


Mimi Oliver is starting seventh grade at a new school, and she isn't sure what to expect. She didn't want to leave her friends and cousins in Berkley, California, but it was time for her mother and her to join her father in Vermont where he recently joined the faculty of a small college. Mimi is used to fitting in and now she will be the odd one in this small community.

People are always asking Mimi "what she is." She answers that she is American, but she knows they really expect her to say that she is black like her father and Japanese like her mother. That's true, but Mimi knows she is just Mimi.

Adjusting to her new school, a grumpy neighbor, and working toward her future dream of becoming an astronaut keep Mimi busy. Being a seventh grade girl in 1969 means that most people think Mimi should be doing "girl" things like taking home economics not wishing she could be in shop class with the boys. She does find a few friends who understand her and even join her attempt to respectfully protest the school not allowing girls to take shop. 

As the year passes in her new home, Mimi learns more about family, friendship, and standing up for what she believes in. She also eagerly watches the new advancements in the world around her as she longs to be a part of the changes she observes.

FULL CICADA MOON by Marilyn Hilton is written in verse and packed with emotion, humor, and bits of 1969 history. As I read it, I could easily envision it as the centerpiece of a STEM/STEAM/STREAM unit for middle grade readers. It's a quick read with enormous discussion potential.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

THE SNOW FELL THREE GRAVES DEEP: Voices from the Donner Party by Allan Wolf


I heard about this book at the virtual NCTE/ALAN 2020 conference and was lucky to get a copy in my box of books. Thank you Candlewick Press! To be honest the title was what captured my attention. When I learn it was about the Donner Party, I was even more intrigued.

The book is a fictional account of the treacherous journey from Nebraska to California. Based on facts that were recorded and uncovered over time, the book tells of the emigrants' journey through multiple voices of members of the groups that made up the party. 

Another interesting part to the tale is the narrator of the journey - Hunger. Hunger's portion of the story is told in prose in a voice that is matter-of-fact with no excuses for the part it plays in the deaths of many due to the environment and other circumstances related to the more than year long, perilous adventure. The voices of the Donner Party members is told through verse which leaves the reader with a lasting impression of the harsh, deadly conditions many didn't survive.

The haunting cover art illustrates the people huddling around a fire in the life-threatening cold and snow. Imagine 18 feet of snow, little to no food, inadequate clothing, and poor shelter for months on end. Author Allan Wolf captures the fear, the pain, and the lack of hope felt by these brave folk as they struggled to trudge their way to what they were promised would be a better life. Miraculously some did survive due to the bravery of their fellow travelers and their pure will to see the journey to its end. 

THE SNOW FELL THREE GRAVES DEEP is definitely the YA historical fiction title of the year as far as this reader is concerned.

Thursday, December 17, 2020



Life for Zinnia "Zinny" Manning was busy and full. She had her two best friends, her parents, her three siblings, and her love of all that is science. To be honest she was having a few problems with her two best friends. All they seemed to want to talk about was James Ramos and how cute and incredible he was. Zinny found herself listening more than talking to them, and recently she had been slipping off to Ms. Molina's science room during lunch instead of trying to seem interested in their boring conversations.

Life suddenly became more complicated when Zinny's older brother Gabriel had an accident in a borrowed car. A few fairly minor injuries landed him in the hospital for a few days which is where another discovery was made. The accident may not have been an "accident." Gabriel's disoriented behavior led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Suddenly, he was being checked into a residential facility several hours away for treatment, and Zinny and her siblings were being told to keep it private.

When Zinny receives an invitation to Lunch Club, she doesn't know exactly what it means, but it quickly becomes clear that all the members have some sort of problem - step-parent trouble, divorced parents trouble, or sick parent trouble. Zinny knows she shouldn't mention Gabriel so why the heck should she even be in club?

Author Barbara Dee, recently known for her middle grade "Me Too" novel MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU, has tackled another hot topic in MY LIFE IN THE FISH TANK. A diagnosis of bipolar disorder doesn't just involve the person being treated but also the family surrounding that person. Dee unveils what it might be like to be part of such a family. Zinny is a likeable main character whose experience will be one readers can relate to and learn from. This one is a definite must-have for classrooms and libraries.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

GROWN by Tiffany D. Jackson


Enchanted Jones is busy with school, swim team, and watching the Littles, her four younger siblings. Her mother works hard and her father does, too, except at the moment a strike has him walking a picket line instead of earning a paycheck. It is getting more and more difficult for them to put food on the table and pay the tuition for the exclusive private school Enchanted and her sister attend.

What Enchanted really wants to be doing is taking singing lessons and working toward her goal of making it big with countless platinum albums to her name. Inspired by her grandmother's encouragement, Enchanted began singing classic R & B tunes at an early age. It is clear she has talent, but the grownups around her consider singing to be just a hobby. Enchanted is sure she can do more.

With the help of her friend Gab, Enchanted has entered singing contests. Gab agrees that Enchanted has talent and is willing to cover for her so Chanty's parents think she's at Will and Willow church meetings or swim meets instead of trying to get noticed at the singing competitions.

Finally, Chanty gets her wish. She doesn't win the competition, but she is noticed by the popular singer Korey Fields. He takes an immediate interest in her and her voice. Secret meetings follow and the two form a fast friendship. Chanty is star struck by the pop singer, and can't believe it when he suggests she accompany him on his next tour.

With the promise of constant supervision and on the road homeschooling, her parents sign a mountain of paperwork, and Enchanted is off to fulfill her dream. The dreamlike journey soon dissolves into a nightmare. Korey's promise to help her record her first album never materializes. His gentle guidance and attention soon turn to abuse both physical and emotional. Chanty can't believe he is the same guy she believes she has come to love.

GROWN by author Tiffany D. Jackson is a real page-turner. Readers will be rooting for the young 17 year old singer while they berate the older man intent on holding her as his prisoner and plaything. Short chapters alternating between NOW and THEN make this a fast-paced read that will have readers breathlessly awaiting the next crisis. Two big thank yous - 1) to the publisher who provided copies for the NCTE/ALAN book boxes, and 2) to the friend whose excitement about the book inspired me to move it up to the top of my TBR pile. It's a great read!

Saturday, December 12, 2020



Tracy has been writing letters to the Innocence X project for 7 years. Her father pled not guilty to a double murder, but despite having an alibi and no motive, he was convicted given the death penalty. He is now scheduled for execution in less than a year.

Life hasn't been easy since the murders. Police also accused a business partner of Tracy's father's, but he was shot and killed when officers entered his home to arrest him. Quincy, the man's son, one of Tracy's best childhood friends, was shot and injured, and things haven't been the same with their friendship since. She is definitely missing his support during these rough times.

Between school, weekly visits to her father in prison, and helping take care of her little sister, Tracy tries to keep busy writing a column for the school newspaper and hosting Know Your Rights programs. She hopes to keep other black people in her community from becoming victims of police violence and crime. So far there has been no response from the Innocence X people, but Tracy keeps hoping they will see value in her father's case.

When a popular high school girl is found murdered, Tracy's brother Jamal is immediately pinpointed as the one and only suspect. The sheriff's son claims to have seen Jamal at the scene leaning over Angela's body. Tracy is certain he is blaming her brother because he thinks Jamal has been secretly seeing  Angela although she is dating him. Now Tracy has to prove the innocence of two men in her family.

Author Kim Johnson uses hot topics in today's world of criminal justice as the subjects for THIS IS MY AMERICA. Fans of Angie Thomas and Nic Stone will want to pick up a copy of this intense tale as another example of Black Lives Matter related stories.