by Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books, Random House, 2015
Middle grade, contemporary fiction
Ages 10 – 14
Additional formats: ebook and audio
Multiple “best books lists” of 2015
Three middle school friends, a perfect set of three: Brig, an accident survivor who should have died when she was eight; Tabitha, ever-practical and cautious—the voice of reason; and Em, the popular soccer queen, now in a relationship with an 8th grade boy who encourages her to send him a selfie in jeans and a bra.
Newbery-award-winner Rebecca Stead fleshes out the crazy world of middle school and the dicey slope of everyday decisions and peer pressure with a wonderfully interconnected cast. I was especially fond of how she used the supporting characters to move the story along. Jamie, Brig’s brother, is locked in a dumb bet about how many steps he can take in a single day. Sherm, a classmate, writes letters to a grandfather that he refuses to speak to. A nameless second-person teen has run away for a day in the face of the fact that her “best friend” is a mean girl. Readers will find versions of themselves in these pages—and plenty of familiar experiences to keep them reading, thinking, and talking.
Evelyn lives with her mother and her feisty grandmother in Spanish Harlem, New York City in the 1970s. The Black Panthers and the Young Lords are insisting on social change—and they’ll use sit-ins and a church takeover to get their point across to city officials, if necessary.
I admire this novel for its look at the Civil Rights era in New York City—especially through the Latino lens. Sonia Manzano offers up a story about girl awakening to the impact of culture and racism on her community—and what it takes to do something about it.
By Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Illustrated by Sean Qualls
Random House, 2009
Picture book, Ages 4 and up, Pre-K and up
Additional formats: e-book
Honors: 2010 Charlotte Zolotow Award
In Who Will I Be, Lord?, a young girl reflects on what she will be like when she grows up, as she traces her family tree through story after story of multiple generations. She recounts what she knows about Great-Grandpap, who was a mailman and a radio-show banjo player. The story deepens when the girl recalls the family history of how Great-Grandma, who made the best cakes ever, married Great-Grandpap, and their inter-racial marriage prompted people to say Great-Grandma was crazy.
Along the story goes, meditating on all the people in the family: a preacher, a teacher, a pool shark. A jazzman, a mama, a papa. A dreamer. The girl asks after each, “What will I be, Lord?”
This picture book would be a great read aloud for parents or teachers to kick off a conversation about how family shapes who we are and who we want to be. The refrain that echoes through the text—“what will I be, Lord?”—invites readers to pause and consider how they are connected to those who came before them.
The personal stories of the child’s relatives portray individuals with dreams and struggles and love for each other. The illustrations do such a fine job of connecting the physical traits of each family member to one another down through the generations.
At my grammy’s house, she devoted the hallway to displaying portraits and photographs of our family, all the way back to my great-great grandparents and up to and including my sister, my cousins, and me. I loved to look at the faces of all my people to see who looked alike and who looked like me. I loved to hear the stories of farmers and teachers, shopkeepers and preachers. Who Will I Be, Lord? swept me up into that same wondrous feeling. – Gigi
By Tanita S. Davis
Young Adult, 12 and up
Random House, 2009
Additional formats: e-book, audio
NCTE Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts* Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choice Award * Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People *Amelia Bloomer Selection *Best Books for Young Adults by YALSA *Coretta Scott King Author Honor *Junior Library Guild Selection *NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Youth *Chicago Public Libraries Best of the Best
What’s the particular story-alchemy that leaves you a completely satisfied reader? For me, a book that offers a road trip backdrop, a fabulous grandmother character, and an unexplored era of women’s history is the panacea. With Mare’s Ware, Tanita S. Davis delivers all that along with beautiful writing and strong voice. The story opens in northern California. It’s from fifteen year old Tali’s perspective that we first meet Mare, a sassy, 80+ year old grandma, who drives a red coupe like “a bat out of hell,” wears padded push-up bras and panties with a fake butt, and drinks strong bourbon drinks. Mare greets her granddaughters, Tali and Octavia, with a “whacked” idea to drive across the country to a family reunion 2,340 miles away somewhere in Alabama. Naturally, Tali and Octavia have bigger plans than hanging out with completely random Mare all summer – plans that include friends, boys, and more boys but decidedly do not include Mare. But the adults have already decided, despite their protestations .
The story alternates points of view between Mare’s of “Then” during World War II and “Now” during the mismatched trio’s road trip to Alabama . In the “Then” chapters, we meet seventeen year-old Mare who has lied about her age to join the African-American battalion of the Women’s Army Corp (WAC) in World War II. Through her recollections, we follow Mare’s own sort of road trip as a young solider from Alabama to Iowa to Birmingham, England, and, finally, Paris during the war. In the WAC, Mare learns new skills, makes friends from all-over, and experiences bitter racism in America and beyond. In the “Now” chapters, mostly told from Tali’s point of view but also with postcards and texts from Octavia, the girls at first resent being Mare’s captive audience. They’re so annoyed with Mare: she smokes long, skinny cigarettes, she’s a bad driver, and she has major stomach issues. And the sisters pluck each other’s nerves as well. But slowly, they come to appreciate that Mare is a treasure they have yet to fully discover.
Davis infuses Mare’s story with some of the most unforgettable characters in YA – Peaches, a sister-solider and closeted-lesbian-by-necessity in the WAC; Sister Dials, an elder of Mare’s church community back home; and Feen, Mare’s baby sister who’s getting an education in Philadelphia. I really love this book and am so grateful to the author for using her storytelling gift to lift up the sheroes of the Women’s Army Corps. GA
If there’s one thing a strong girl needs, it’s her voice. And no one of her era had a lovelier voice than Florence Mills, the legendary singer and stage actress of the early 1920s.
In Renée Watson’s picture book, Harlem’s Little Blackbird, we meet Florence in Washington DC, where she was born to formerly enslaved parents. As she grows and plays in school, she discovers the power of her singing voice to take her from her modest Washington DC neighborhood all the way to the grand stages of Europe.
“If my voice can take me around the world, what else can it do?” she wonders.
Lots, as it turns out.
Florence Mills’ impact went beyond entertainment. She refused performances at whites-only establishments, and at her death, she was mourned not only for her talent and beauty but also for her convictions during the Harlem Renaissance.
Christian Robinson’s illustrations are simple and collage-like, infused with the bright colors and cityscapes that Renée Watson calls up in the text.
For me, the book works as history, as biography, and as a doorway into learning about music. But more than anything else, it works as a book about a strong girl who stands up for what she believes MM
Read more about Florence Mills.