As I was sure it would, my book-a-day life has slowed dramatically in the school year. And while I'd love to be reading more, it's okay. I have a couple of books to catch up on from the very end of the summer, as well as the few that I've read in September and October. So, onto the books!
Zoey and Sassafras: Dragons and Marshmallows by Asia Citro (2nd-4th grade interest, GRL O)
This book (the first in a series) is so charming and fun! It begins with Zoey discovering a secret that her mother has been keeping for Zoey's whole life: Zoey's mom is a vet, but she also has a gift of seeing and healing magical animals! And they come to the family's yard when they need help. Zoey discovers that she shares her mother's gift, but before her mom can give her more than an introduction, she goes away to a conference. While she is gone, a sick baby dragon arrives, and Zoey must do her best to care for the little guy, who she names Marshmallow.
There are so many things to love about this book. The representation of a woman of color as a vet, and a little girl who loves science, for starters. The sweet, cheerful tone and excellent writing, for another. And then the clever combination of fantasy with great informational and scientific sections. You see, Zoey uses everything that she knows about conventional animals to figure out how to care for Marshmallow, and learns more by conducting careful experiements the way her mother has taught her. She keeps a detailed science journal (depicted in handwritten illustrations), and a glossary in the back provides more information about the vocabulary. Zoey is interesting and realistic, and she provides an awesome model of scientific inquiry!
Scholastic has this at GRL O. I think it would be accessible to readers at a slightly lower level, too, because the format is so engaging and not too text-heavy. Revisiting it to write this has me thinking that I might want to use it as a real-aloud this month. I have a feeling that my kids would love the combination of science and fantasy, and stories with a bit of intrigue like this (will Zoey be able to heal Marshmallow??) are so good for that keep-them-coming-back feeling. And if they get super into it, there's a whole series!
Nikki and Deja: The Newsy News Newsletter by Karen English (2nd-4th grade interest, GRL O)
I was so glad to come across both the Zoey and Sassafras and the Nikki and Deja series, because I feel like I'm missing newer diverse books in this range of difficulty, and series are so great for getting plenty of books into the hands of avid readers. Nikki and Deja was a little less engaging to me as an adult reader than Zoey and Sassafras, but it's just right for young readers who can relate to so many facets of the girls' lives. In The Newsy News Newsletter, as the two girls embark of the project of writing, publishing, and selling a neighborhood newsletter, they also face a variety of real-kid dilemmas. They navigate jealousy between friends, negotiations with parents and guardians, and what happens when you make assumptions about the people around you. The story is realistic, and the tone and the kid-voices are spot on. It would be a great addition to a school or classroom library.
Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz (YA)
Ah, indulging in my YA guilty pleasure, books that in no way fit into my classroom or my school life, but that I love. So. Much. This gorgeous book. It's a quintessential coming-of-age story, and it goes so deep into the emotional lives of the two main characters. I think that's the thing it does best and most powerfully: explore and express the inner emotional life of two teenage boys trying to figure out who they are, how to live their lives, and how they fit together. Ari, in particular, keeps almost all of his feelings inside, so it feels like a gift and a privilege to see inside his mind, and to watch his journey towards learning to understand, articulate, and express what's going on inside him. Ari's relationships with his parents and with Dante are complex and really beautifully developed, as are both boys' journeys with identity and sexuality. Ari and Dante worked their way right into my heart over the course of this book, and the intensity of their story at several points had me breathless for them. This would be a highly-recommend for teenagers...and other YA-loving grownup readers.
Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee (5th-7th grade interest, GRL Z)
This book is an awfully cute, late-middle-grade read. In fact, it was a perfect choice for my very last beach day, stolen the day before going back to school. Twelve-year-old Mattie, with two best friends at her side, is making her way through her last year in middle school, when they get the exciting news that Romeo and Juliet is going to be their 8th grade play. As with any good middle school story, we follow Mattie as she deals with parents, friends, and crushes, and learns that she can rise to challenges and be herself, even when it feels impossible. At the start of the story, Mattie is trying to decide if she still has a crush on her classmate Elijah, but when a new girl enters the scene and is cast as Juliet, Mattie is faced with a new question: is it possible to have crushes on both boys and girls? Star-Crossed handles this question with direct earnestness, and treats Mattie's journey with gentleness and humor. We are privy to her emotional journey, the things she questions and the things she learns. This is such a welcome addition to the late-middle-grade library, creating space for middle schoolers figuring out their sexuality in a positive way, that's accessible to younger readers; we're really just talking about crushes here, and in a very accepting way. Mattie struggles throughout the story, but ultimately finds support, and also finds inner strength and confidence. This is a really lovely book.
Ninth Ward, by Jewel Parker Rhodes (4th-6th grade interest, GRL Q)
I've had this book on my to-read list for a long time, from the very beginning of my diverse books journey. I'm so glad that I finally picked it up, because it's so powerful, intense, and beautifully written. It really knocked me out. Ninth Ward is the story of twelve year old Lanesha, who lives in New Orleans' Ninth Ward with her grandmotherly guardian, Mama Ya-Ya. While they have close relationships in the community, Mama Ya-Ya is the only family Lanesha has, and vice-versa. They love each other fiercely. Mama Ya-Ya has spiritual gifts, connects to the dead, and sees the future. Lanesha sees ghosts, too, including the ghost of her mother, who died in childbirth. This piece of the story is so interesting to me. I guess you might classify it as magical realism...except that's not how it's written. Ninth Ward is written as realistic fiction, and this layer just feels like part of it, especially in the context of New Orleans. The book begins with Lanesha's twelfth birthday, and the imminence of Hurricane Katrina. Like the proverbial calm before the storm, there is an erie slowness to the beginning of the story. It's made even erier by the fact that as a reader you know about the devastation to come, but the reports, predictions, and hopes of the people in Lanesha's neighborhood underestimate the strength of the storm to come, even as Mama Ya-Ya has an unshakable sense of foreboding. The book climaxes when the storm descends on their home, and I can honestly say that I've never read anything like those chapters. Rhodes describes the violence of the storm and its aftermath with visceral, vivid language that brought me deeper into the experience than anything I'd imagined about Katrina or any other major storm. I came to love Lanesha, in her vulnerability, particularity, and great strength, as well as strange, magical Mama Ya-Ya, and Lanesha's sweet, odd friend TaShon. Because of the story's weight and intensity, younger readers might want to be able to discuss it with an adult, but it's definitely a powerful, insightful read for upper elementary and middle school readers.
Writing about practicing literacy and freedom with my small humans.