Review of Like, by Annie Barrows and Leo Espinosa

Like

written by Annie Barrows
illustrated by Leo Espinosa

Chronicle Books, 2022. 40 pages.
Review written November 10, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This picture book delighted me so much, I immediately found someone in the office to show it to. (This isn’t as easy as when I worked in a branch with other youth services staff, but it can still be done.) The book is bright and colorful, surprising and funny, and it has a great message.

Here’s how the book begins:

Hello.

You are you, and I am I. We are people.
Also known as humans. This makes us
different from most of the things on Earth.

For instance, tin cans.

We are not at all like tin cans.
We are not shaped like tin cans.
We cannot hold tomato sauce like tin cans.

If you open up our lids, nothing good happens.

We are not at all like tin cans.

The kid-narrator goes on to compare us with a swimming pool. We are a little more like a swimming pool, since we have water and chemicals and dirt inside us. But there are some big differences.

The book goes on to compare the reader with a mushroom, an excavator, and a hyena.

There are a lot of ways we are like hyenas, and those are listed in fun ways. But I like the page that talks about how we are different from hyenas:

They don’t know when their birthday is,
and if you invited a hyena over to your house next Thursday, it wouldn’t come.
Hyenas don’t make plans.

Which is fine, because if a hyena did come to your house, it might try to eat your baby brother.

So we are like hyenas in some ways,
but if you were a hyena,
you wouldn’t be like you are now.
And I would run away if I saw you.

But the rest of the book talks about how much humans are alike. We’re not exactly alike, but we’re much more alike than other things on earth.

Even if I eat raspberry Jell-O with bananas in it,
and you would never ever eat that in a million years,
I am more like you than a mushroom.

Even if you speak a language I don’t speak
you are more like me than a hyena.

And the book winds up by pointing out lots of people of different ages and shapes and looks and points out that we are all very much alike.

I am more like you than I am like most of the things on Earth.

I’m glad.

I’d rather be like you than like a mushroom.

An utterly wonderful book.

anniebarrows.com
chroniclekids.com

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Review of Call Us What We Carry, by Amanda Gorman

Call Us What We Carry

Poems

by Amanda Gorman

Viking, 2021. 228 pages.
Review written September 20, 2022, from my own copy, purchased via amazon.com
Starred Review

I don’t purchase a lot of poetry books, but I was so happy with this one, and I’ve spent the last few months reading a poem or two a day most days.

Amanda Gorman was the 2021 Inaugural Poet, and the stirring poem she recited that day, “The Hill We Climb,” is the final poem in this book.

The book is full of poems as moving and insightful as that one. Amanda Gorman has a way with words. The poems are full of rhymes and alliteration and word play, turning words as if they are pieces of glass, reflecting light in different ways.

These are poems about current times. Written during the thick of the pandemic, there’s plenty about pain and death and healing.

Here’s a small stanza where I underlined the middle line:

Perhaps our relationships are the very make of us,
For fellowship is both our nature & our necessity.
We are formed primarily by what we imagine.

There’s lots that’s lovely here, and lots that made me pause in meditation.

I’ll be honest — there’s a big section in the middle with “erasure poems” — poems made by erasing parts of a document, using what is left. I didn’t enjoy those poems as much. For me, they didn’t have the resonance and didn’t roll off the tongue as well. But I think she was going for the significance of the documents she chose — documents about slaves and about indigenous people treated horribly — and they definitely still have punch.

Altogether, this is a book of poems I’ll want to come back to. I’m glad I got my own copy.

We are enough,
Armed only
With our hands,
Open but unemptied,
Just like a blooming thing.
We walk into tomorrow,
Carrying nothing
But the world.

(p. 205, from “What We Carry”)

And from “The Hill We Climb”:

When day comes, we step out of the shade,
Aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it,
For there is always light.
If only we’re brave enough to see it,
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

theamandagorman.com

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Review of Washed Ashore, by Kelly Crull

Washed Ashore

Making Art from Ocean Plastic

by Kelly Crull

Millbrook Press, 2022. 40 pages.
Review written October 8, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This book is the kind I can’t resist showing to my coworkers on the spot. The art is stunning. The subject is convicting. And the overall presentation is mind-blowing.

Yes, I knew that there’s lots of plastic trash in the ocean. But this book makes you feel the magnitude.

This book documents the work of Angela Haseltine Pozzi and her organization called Washed Ashore. They make animal sculptures out of trash found in the ocean.

Washed Ashore shows large photographs of fourteen of these sculptures. They give facts about the ocean animals portrayed and how they’re affected by plastic trash. They also list tips for reducing plastic trash in the ocean. And across the bottom of each spread, there are objects for you to find in the sculptures.

It’s finding those objects that makes you look closely and get your mind blown with all the junk. It also helps you realize just how big these sculptures are. Some of the objects to look for include a cigarette lighter, sunglasses, an inhaler, a steering wheel, toothbrushes, multiple toys, shoe parts, and even the front of a stereo.

And the art itself is stunning. Looking closely and realizing what it’s made of makes the achievement all the more remarkable.

Take a look at this book. I don’t believe that you can fail to be moved.

kellycrull.com
washedashore.org
lernerbooks.com

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Review of We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire, by Joy McCullough

We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire

by Joy McCullough
with illuminations by Maia Kobabe

Dutton Books, 2021. 383 pages.
Review written June 8, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

As the book opens, Em Morales learns the verdict against the college student who raped her sister after a frat party – guilty on all counts. But then comes the sentencing, and he’s sentenced to only time served.

Em feels terrible, because she urged her sister not to accept a plea deal and to go through the agony of the trial. She’s been trying to speak up for victims of sexual violence, and now it seems that she’s done more harm than good. The summer before her Senior year is starting, and she even decides to give up on journalism, which has been her life.

So now she’s at loose ends for the summer, and she starts hanging out with Jess, a nonbinary teen whose parents are splitting up and who stayed in town to try to keep them together. Jess mentions a medieval woman, Marguerite de Bressieux, and Em discovers she went to war to get vengeance for her family, who were slaughtered and raped by the Count of Orange.

Em starts writing a novel in verse about Marguerite, and Jess, an artist, begins illuminating the pages.

But Em’s dealing with a lot of anger and people are still upset with her sister for speaking up. So things that happen are far more complex than simply writing a book to get out her rage.

While I was in the middle of reading this book, someone called the library and asked me to read him a specific Wikipedia article. I did so – until I listened more closely to what he was saying and realized he was masturbating while I was talking. Having that happen when I was in the middle of reading a book about characters angry about our toxic society and the power men have over women and rape culture didn’t help.

There are a couple of good men in this book, Em’s father being one of them, so they’re not trying to say that every man is a predator. But it’s a dark book, a book about fighting back against oppression – and not a tremendously hopeful one.

Something I loved that wasn’t a main point of the book was how nicely Em modeled using they/them pronouns for Jess. She referred to Jess smoothly and consistently with they/them pronouns, not making a big deal of it, and the reader picks up on it quickly. Anyone who reads this book will find it that much easier to use the correct pronouns when they have a nonbinary friend.

This is a powerful book. It got me a little discouraged – but that’s probably more a function of what happened to me while I was reading the book than of the book itself. It is about women fighting back persistently, whether they are successful or not.

PenguinTeen.com

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Review of The Secret Battle of Evan Pao, by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

The Secret Battle of Evan Pao

by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Scholastic Press, 2022. 259 pages.
Review written from my own copy, signed by the author at ALA Annual Conference
Starred Review

The Secret Battle of Evan Pao is the first book I ordered in my new position as Youth Materials Selector for my library system, after I saw the author at ALA Annual Conference, and she told me the book had been selected for the Washington Post Kid’s Summer Book Club. Of course we needed copies for all the branches! (Alas! We had a big backlog in our Processing department, and the book was not on the shelves for readers when it was featured in the book club. I tried!)

This book is about racism and prejudice in a rural Virginia town, but it’s much more nuanced than that description suggests.

I love the main character, Evan Pao. (Though we do get chapters from the perspectives of several other kids.) Evan is a “sensitive” boy — in fact, he’s got a condition where he feels sick when someone lies to him. So he’s a good lie detector for his family. But he doesn’t understand how he never knew that his dad was going to leave their family.

As the book begins, Evan, his mother, and his sister are moving from a prosperous life in California to a run-down rental house in small-town Virginia, to be near his Uncle Joe. Evan hopes maybe in the new place he can get a dog, but he’s not optimistic.

But Evan isn’t prepared for how important the Civil War is in his new town. (I grew up in California and also moved to Virginia. I, too, thought this was strange, though it’s not nearly so extreme in northern Virginia.) He now attends Battlefield Elementary, where his class is making preparations for the annual Battlefield Day, where class member dress up as roles their ancestors may have played in the Civil War. Evan’s afraid there’s no place for him, and one kid in particular makes it clear he’s pretty sure Chinese Americans don’t belong.

But then Evan learns that Chinese Americans did have parts in the Civil War, and Evan begins to claim his place. There’s pushback, though, and it all adds up to a story that challenges everyone’s assumptions, including the reader’s.

In Wendy Wan-Long Shang’s hands, we’ve got a fantastic school story for middle grade readers that shows that history is for everyone, and you can’t make assumptions about what anyone is capable of. A great read.

scholastic.com

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Review of The Little House of Hope, by Terry Catasús Jennings, illustrations by Raúl Colón

The Little House of Hope

by Terry Catasús Jennings
illustrations by Raúl Colón

Neal Porter Books (Holiday House), 2022. 32 pages.
Review written September 30, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This inspiring book made me proud to be an American, as well as blown away by a family’s joyful hospitality.

The author bases the story of Esperanza, a girl from Cuba, on her own story of her family coming from Cuba in 1961. Here’s how the book begins:

It was a little house. Una casita.

When Esperanza and Manolo and Mami and Papi
came to the United States from Cuba,
they looked and looked
for a place where they could live
that didn’t cost too much money.

And then they found it.

It was small.
It smelled like old, wet socks.
It had rickety, tattered furniture
from a church basement.

But even though they were far from home,
the family was together.
They were safe.
They were happy in la casita.

As the story goes on, we see each parent working two jobs and the children making their own breakfasts, helping with chores, and helping fix up la casita. They all work hard and begin learning English. They eat food in la casita that reminds them of Cuba.

The pictures are happy and hopeful. Since Esperanza’s name in English is “Hope,” she makes a collage with her name in both languages, and “Hope” represents what they’ve found in their new home.

And they spread that hope to others! Mami’s sister Conchita joins them, with her baby. She takes care of other people’s children during the day in la casita, and Esperanza gets to tend the baby.

Then they make room in the garage for a family who’ve made a tough trip from Mexico while they’re getting settled.

Even though there wasn’t much room,
everyone was happy in la casita.

As the book continues, we see the family happily sharing their space. Papi gets a job as an accountant, like he had back in Cuba, and Mami teaches high school Spanish. More people come through on their way to getting homes of their own.

The pictures in this book make it especially wonderful — on many spreads we see large, happy groups of people, enjoying one another.

And for everyone who comes through la casita and then goes on to their own place, Esperanza sends them on their way with a collage, which we see in the illustrations. The collage features “Esperanza” and “Hope,” and “Hope” is done in the colors of the American flag.

It wasn’t until my second time through the book that I noticed the Author’s Note at the front, which is more for the adult reader than for kids:

This book was written in anger, but with pride. Anger at a realtor who told me he never rented to Hispanics because they lived four families to a house and always destroyed the properties where they lived. In 1961, when my family first came from Cuba to the United States, we lived in una casita. Three families lived there, twelve of us during the week and fourteen on weekends when my uncle’s two sons came to stay with him. We came to the United States to regain our freedom, and in the case of my father, to avoid being jailed again. We landed with $50 for our family of four. In time we all became gainfully employed, each family finding a home of its own. And we all became citizens. From anger, I hope this book brings healing. It is dedicated with unwavering gratitude to the country that took us in, and to all immigrants who come to the United States in search of hope.

The lovely thing is that the picture book part of this book completely communicates that gratitude and hope. I didn’t know any anger was involved until I read the note — and what an effective answer this book is to that anger! She shows a family helping others out with love and joy, and no deprivation whatsoever, but only that overwhelming gratitude and hope.

HolidayHouse.com

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Review of Braving the Thin Places, by Julianne Stanz

Braving the Thin Places

Celtic Wisdom to Create a Space for Grace

by Julianne Stanz

Loyola Press, 2021. 170 pages.
Review written August 19, 2022, from my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com
Starred Review

Here’s how author Julianne Stanz introduces the idea of a “thin space”:

Each of us stands at the threshold of a thin place, and we are its gatekeeper.

Have you ever held a loved one’s hand as they slipped from this life and into the next? Birthed a child and felt the thin edges of God’s presence inside your being? Beheld such beauty that it took your breath away? Or been moved to tears by an image or a piece of music? If so, you have stood at the edge of a thin place, a place where God and humanity meet in a mysterious way. These moments open us to places of rawness and beauty. Something seems to break open inside us, and words are inadequate to describe what we are experiencing. We feel a sense of breakthrough as we break free of the ordinary and into the extraordinary.

This book is about making room for thin places and embracing them. The author was born in Ireland and brings the idea of thin places from the Celtic tradition.

The Celts, known for their love of threshold places at the edge of life, such as Sceilg Mhichil, a crag off the coast of County Kerry, were never afraid to explore God in the known or in the wild, barren edges of life. We should not be afraid either. The Celtic imagination considers sacred places to be “thin,” or places where the veil between the worlds of heaven and earth seems especially permeable, and the worlds discernibly close to each other. Thin spaces exist between the now and the not-yet. Entering thin spaces is an opportunity that we don’t normally have — to slow down, to pause, to look with fresh eyes, to recover a sense of wonder about the world. The pace of life moves too fast for many of us over concrete and inhospitable ground, and we are searching — for joy, forgiveness, healing, completion, and peace. God is all around if only we recognize his presence. And for those wwho do, that this space is one of rejuvenation and renewal.

This book works for personal meditation and devotional use, and it would also work for a church small group to go through together. There are 11 chapters and an Introduction. Each chapter has some open-ended questions at the end, under the headings “Breaking Open,” “Breaking Through,” and “Breaking Free.” And they start with an Irish proverb.

Julianne Stanz makes this a personal journey, illustrating it with stories from her own life. The book builds toward getting through difficulties and making a space for grace.

To be honest, I read this book when everything in my life seemed to be wonderful — having just gotten my dream job and enjoying working in it. But I know hard times will come, and I think this lovely and encouraging book will be especially helpful to take up and explore when one of those times comes. Yes, happy times can be thin places, too — but I don’t need as much help finding a good perspective on them. I enjoyed the book, but I think that if times were tougher, it might be a lifeline. I will keep it on hand.

loyolapress.com

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Review of If You’re a Kid Like Gavin, by Gavin Grimm and Kyle Lukoff, illustrations by J Yang

If You’re a Kid Like Gavin

The True Story of a Young Trans Activist

by Gavin Grimm and Kyle Lukoff
illustrations by J Yang

Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2022. 36 pages.
Review written October 25, 2022, from a library book.
Starred Review

This colorful and informative picture book tells the story of Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy who went to court to be able to use the boys’ restroom at his high school.

The book is framed in a way kids can understand, talking about choices you can make and choices you can’t make.

Here’s how they explain that Gavin is transgender:

And if you’re a kid like Gavin Grimm,
you don’t choose if you’re a boy or a girl.

But if you’re transgender like Gavin Grimm,
you might choose to talk about it.

To tell your family, “I know you thought I was a girl,
but I’m really a boy on the inside.”

To say, “I can’t keep the name you gave me. We have to pick a new one.”

To be honest about who you are.

But then Gavin faced another choice: What to do about the bathrooms at school. He went to school as a boy, and no one bothered him. But they had him use a restroom in the nurse’s office. After a while, he started using the boys’ bathroom.

The principal said it was okay, and that should have been the end.

But the book portrays that there were some who didn’t like it, starting with a teacher, who told people that he was really a girl. That started everyone talking about him. Other kids bullied and laughed at him. And they made him a topic of a school board meeting. Gavin then had another choice.

Gavin chose to speak up for himself. He went to the meeting at his school and told them where he belonged. He tried to make them see that he was just a kid, not a problem to be solved.

It didn’t work.

But he still had a choice. He could have used the girls’ bathroom, which didn’t feel right. Or he could have used the bathroom his school put into a closet, one that no other kid was forced to use.

And he could have chosen to stay quiet.

The spread with his choice has a wonderful sky at sunset behind Gavin — with the colors of the transgender flag.

But when you’re a kid like Gavin Grimm, you know the only choice you have is to fight back.

To stand up for yourself.
And your right to use the bathroom as yourself.
And your right to be in school as yourself.

Then it talks about how Gavin worked with the ACLU to continue to fight his own case and to try to help other transgender kids, too.

I wish that this book were only of historical interest! It helps kids understand why transgender kids want to be who they know themselves to be. And it encourages kids to make the choice to stand for what’s right. Even while acknowledging they shouldn’t have to.

harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of Within These Wicked Walls, by Lauren Blackwood

Within These Wicked Walls

by Lauren Blackwood
read by Nneka Okoye

Macmillan Audio, October 2021. 8 hours, 54 minutes.
Review written July 27, 2022, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

First, I have to say that I’ve found another favorite narrator. Nneka Okoye has a voice I love to listen to, and made this book all the more mesmerizing and magical. That was a little bit unfortunate. I was listening to this audiobook on the same weekend I planned a 48-Hour Book Challenge, and spent more time listening than I did reading. I thought it was a shame, since I can read a book faster than I can listen to one, so I didn’t finish as many books. But I did tremendously enjoy the time, so it’s all good.

Within These Wicked Walls is a very loose resetting of Jane Eyre, set in Ethiopia, where Coptic Christianity is the main religion and the Evil Eye is running rampant.

Andromeda is a debtera — an exorcist who can cleanse households of the Evil Eye by crafting silver amulets. Unfortunately, because her guardian threw her out, she’s not licensed. So she needs to take any job she can get and hope for a patron to vouch for her so she can get more work.

She comes to the castle of Magnus Rochester. And it turns out that he will hire an unlicensed debtera because ten others have already given up on the job.

The more Andie sees, the more she’d like to leave as well. But she needs that patronage. And worse, she’s beginning to care for the cursed master of the castle.

This version takes out some of the worst parts of Jane Eyre — there’s no crazy wife in the attic and no illegitimate daughter. He’s not vastly older than her, only a couple years.

He does put her in situations that make her jealous, though not quite as blatantly and intentionally as the original. And she does run off at one point, though with every intention of going back.

So admittedly, Jane Eyre isn’t a model for a functional romance. This one did nice things with the material. There’s lots of death and danger and a creative story with compelling magic and a young heroine with the strength to fight demons in order to save those she loves.

laurenblackwood.com

(Link to My Plain Jane and Brightly Burning.)

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Review of Swim Team, by Johnnie Christmas

Swim Team

by Johnnie Christmas

Harper Alley, 2022. 248 pages.
Review written September 6, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

Middle school experiences are the perfect content for graphic novels. They make for quick reads, and the pictures fully bring you into the volatile emotions of that time in a person’s life. Swim Team is already popular, and it’s going to join other classics of middle school graphic novels.

As the graphic novel opens, Bree is moving with her father from Brooklyn to Florida, ready to start middle school. She does make a friend pretty quickly in her apartment complex, but instead of Math club, the only elective still available is Swimming 101. She doesn’t want to admit she doesn’t know how to swim, and she misses some classes at first.

But then she gets help from Ms. Etta, a lady who lives above her in the apartment and turns out to be a champion swimmer herself. When Bree expresses the belief that Black people don’t swim, Ms. Etta explains that this false rumor has everything to do with the racism that kept Black people from swimming in pools white people used.

And it turns out that Bree is pretty fast in the pool, once she learns to swim. One thing leads to another, and she ends up on the swim team. And they have quite a rivalry with the private school in town. It all builds to the relay race, which depends on working together.

This is a middle school story without a lot of angst, but with plenty of fun.

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