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Why? by Adam Rex and Claire Keane & Saturday by Oge Mora

The end of the year is always a scramble to chip away at my TBR (to be read) list in order to meet an arbitrary goal I set for myself when I was feeling much more ambitious — sometime around the first of January. I never include picture books when I track my reading; considering how many I can read in a week, maybe I should start doing so to meet my goal before the ball drops on Dec. 31.

Whether you choose to include picture books in your official tracking, you should carve out a few minutes to read the ones mentioned below.

On occasion, you read a book that you know will win all of the awards. (On other occasions, you will have read none of The New York Times’ top 10 titles. But that is neither here nor there.)

Adam Rex and Claire Keane’s inquisitively titled “Why?” is one of those books. The story follows a bored little girl tagging along behind her mom at the mall. As preschoolers are wont to do, she peppers her mother with a near-constant string of “Why? Why? Why?” as they shop.

As the girl dawdles behind, she encounters supervillain Doctor X-Ray threatening nearby shoppers. As he releases the fire in his heels and floats down to survey the damage, he receives his first, “Why?” from the brave little girl. Doctor X-Ray explains the details of his plot, growing more animated with each “Why?” — an effect that leads to an eventual existential crisis. Why is he trying to take over the world? What does he hope to accomplish?

“Why, indeed,” asks the dejected supervillain at the story’s end. The moral of the story, then, must be that inquisitive children can save the world if their questions are taken seriously, right? Of course, that’s a bit of a leap and very tongue-in-cheek, but curiosity and persistence have achieved great things — why couldn’t they help thwart evil?

Keane’s illustrations are a natural companion to Rex’s story. The Disney animator’s art adds effects that feel vintage, realistic and, at times, fantastical. Doctor X-Ray looks exactly how you would expect a supervillain to look, with a long, white lab coat, goggles on his forehead and a bushy, red handlebar mustache. The story is primarily told through conversation, and their text is handwritten and placed in comic-style text callouts — again, lending a vintage, comic book feel.

Overall, the story is delightful, and it’s one of those special books that both children and their grownups will undoubtedly enjoy.

Find Why? in our catalog.

The second picture book I want to share is Caldecott honoree Oge Mora’s sophomore release, “Saturday.” I was a big fan of her debut book, “Thank You, Omu,” and I gladly recommend it to all families looking for a good read aloud.

“Saturday” follows a little girl named Ava and her mom as they attempt to make the most out of the most special day of the week. Ava’s mom works Sunday through Friday, so every Saturday must be perfect. Unfortunately, grand expectations such as this are inevitably met with disappointment, as is the case with Ava and her mother. Plan after plan is ruined, even as the text emphasizes repeatedly: “The day would be special. The day would be splendid. The day was Saturday.”

When they get to the library, story time is canceled. When they leave the salon, their new hairdos are promptly ruined by an errant puddle. Finally, Ava’s mother has enough; Saturday has been ruined, she proclaims. However, as Ava gently reminds her, the splendid and special part of Saturdays is not what they do — it’s who they are with. As a working parent, this reminder from a wise and precocious child hit home.

I might venture to proclaim that Oge Mora is making some of the best, most distinctive art in the picture book world. The illustrator mixes several artistic methods, from collaging to hand lettering to small details done in pen. Her collages themselves are unparalleled; Mora often includes small details from vintage publications, including newspapers, recipes and other books, making each page feel special in its own right.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Ava and her mother are black. Of the 3,653 picture books reviewed in 2018, only 400 featured African or African American protagonists (per the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, 2018). More importantly, Ava is not placed in the story to teach or to represent her race as a whole — she just gets to be herself, and that fact feels important.

I would recommend “Saturday” to all families looking for a fun read-aloud, and it’s sure to be added to my ever-growing suggestion list — (if I can bring myself to return it).

Find Saturday in our catalog.

THEY CALL ME GUERO by David Bowles/DANCING HANDS by Margarita Engle

Twelve-year-old Guero (a lifelong nickname referring to his pale skin and red hair) has spent his entire life crossing back and forth over the U.S.-Mexico border. Born and raised in the southernmost part of Texas, the title character of “THEY CALL ME GUERO” often makes trips into Mexico to visit family and stock up on food at his family’s favorite stores. In fact, Guero notes, Texas and Mexico mostly feel the same to him. However, the foreboding bridge at the border, the vehicle stop by police on his way to San Antonio, and the fear of undocumented classmates serve as a stark reminder that the two places, though mere miles apart, are very different.

Author DAVID BOWLES’ choice to tell Guero’s story in verse mirrors Guero’s growing interest in poetry during his seventh grade year. A member of the self-anointed “Los Derds” (short for “Diverse Nerds”), Guero has always been an avid reader. However, when his seventh grade English teacher, Ms. Lee, starts a poetry unit, Guero — enamored with the ways in which music and poetry are similar — begins writing his own short poems to document his days. Though the entire book is told in verse, not every poem is the same; some poems rhyme and are short, while others are entirely free verse, longer, and include dialogue, a choice that makes these poems read more like a traditional novel.

“They Call Me Guero” also reads like a typical middle grade novel; the title character learns to navigate friendships, crushes and sibling problems through trial and error. However, Bowles delves into heavier territory by addressing other topics that are of equal importance to Guero and his friends: immigration, legal status and difficult home lives.

My chief complaint about this novel is that it is too short. I want to know more about how the main character navigates life on both sides of the border, yes, but I also want to know more about his loving family and his friends, a sweet group of boys who bond after meeting in their school library. Overall, I would recommend “They Call Me Guero” for upper elementary and early middle school students, as some of Guero’s experiences will resonate with them, while other experiences may be illuminating to them.

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The second book I want to recommend this month is MARGARITA ENGLE and RAFAEL LOPEZ’s “DANCING HANDS: HOW TERESA CARRENO PLAYED THE PIANO FOR PRESIDENT LINCOLN.” The biographical picture book follows the young piano player as she flees a war-torn Venezuela for New York City at just 8 years old. Prior to seeking refuge in Civil War-era New York City, Teresa develops a love for playing the piano. Engle’s vivid descriptions emphatically express Teresa’s appreciation for the instrument. The author describes “gentle songs that sounded like colorful birds singing in the dark” and “powerful songs that roared like prowling jaguars” as sounds Teresa could tame or be soothed by.

The book, which covers Teresa’s young life up until she plays piano for President Abraham Lincoln, does not shy away from difficult feelings and events. Engle successfully acknowledges these heavy topics in a manner accessible to preschoolers or young elementary students. Accessibility for younger readers likely lies in the fact that Teresa’s trials serve a narrative purpose; at one point, a young Teresa wonders, “How could music soothe so much trouble?”

Her visit to the White House serves as an answer to this existential question. President Lincoln, whose young son Willie has just died, delights in her music — an effect made apparent through Lopez’s illustration of a tall Lincoln reclining in an armchair, his eyes closed with a bemused smile on his face.

Lopez’s illustrations throughout are a perfect complement to Engle’s lyrical storytelling. The lush colors bloom across each page as Teresa plays the piano. The final page offers a close-up of her hands on the piano as music notes, flowers, birds and swirls of color fly upward.

The duo first collaborated with award-winner “Drum Dream Girl,” and they complement each other well.

For a multi-sensory experience, pull up Teresa Carreno’s music on Spotify while you read “Dancing Hands.”

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MEET YASMIN by Saadia Faruqi & Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed

Youth activist Marley Dias was inspired to begin her #1000BlackGirlBooks after being assigned yet another book about “a white boy and his dog.”

To be fair, many of those books are excellent. Rather, her frustration was centered around her inability to find (or be assigned) books with characters who looked like her. Rudine Sims Bishop coined the phrase and idea “windows and mirrors” in literature, an idea backed by research regarding the benefits of seeing yourself in the books you read as well as the benefits of reading about people with different experiences.

On this note, the Children’s Department has a growing collection of books about young Muslim boys and girls and their search for what makes them special.

I have been eagerly anticipating AISHA SAEED’s first picture book, “BILAL COOKS DAAL,” since I first heard about it.

Anoosha Syed’s illustrations are fun, fresh and cartoon-like, an effect inspired by Syed’s animation work.

In “Bilal Cooks Daal,” 6-year-old Bilal invites his friends over to cook daal with his father, but his friends’ questions (“What’s daal taste like? Is it salty?”) and their observations (“It looks funny. It smells funny.”) make him self-conscious about one of his favorite foods. Saeed’s description of what daal is, including how to choose which type to make, reads like poetry, and Syed’s bright illustrations illuminate the excitement and near-sacredness of preparing the dish.

The last page reads: “Daal is tiny. Daal is tough. But with a little time and a lot of patience, it becomes the softest, tastiest, best thing in the whole wide world.”

Saaed and Syed’s book is beautiful and successfully works as both a window and a mirror.

If you’ve never had this dish and want to try it at home, Saeed includes a recipe in the back pages. Saeed’s story acknowledges both the cultural and familial importance of daal, as well as the comfort a good meal can provide. I recommend both the dish and the book.

It’s important to note that diversity in picture books has improved very slightly in recent years.

In 2017, 6% of new children’s books were written by people of color; that figure rose to 7% in 2018 (Lee & Low, 2018). From an observational standpoint, much of the diversity seems to be centered in picture books.

However, books for beginning readers can lack both diverse characters and a compelling story, so I was thrilled to find SAADIA FARUQI and HATEM ALY’s new early reader series, “MEET YASMIN.”

The book, which totals roughly 90 pages, includes four stories, including: “Yasmin the Explorer,” “Yasmin the Painter,” “Yasmin the Builder” and “Yasmin the Fashionista.”

In each story, young Yasmin struggles with discovering her talents. In “Yasmin the Builder,” she doesn’t know what her contribution to her class’s city will be but uses her experiences going on walks with her mom (who, notably, wears a hijab) to create sidewalks and bridges out of tinker toys.

In “Yasmin the Artist,” she struggles with her painting abilities during a school art contest; once she relaxes and ignores expectations, she creates an abstract painting of which she is very proud. “Yasmin the Fashionista” is a fun story about creating a fashion show with her Nani (which the back matter defines as Urdu for your grandmother on your mother’s side).

The last few pages of “Meet Yasmin” introduce Urdu words, facts about Pakistan and a recipe for a yogurt drink called a mango lassi. Hatem Aly, the illustrator of the Newbery Honor book, “The Inquisitor’s Tale,” creates fun and inclusive illustrations reminiscent of Japanese anime characters. “Meet Jasmin” is excellent and available in the Children’s Department’s easy fiction section.

Happy reading!

Find MEET YASMIN and BILAL COOKS DAAL in our catalog.

Mae Among the stars by Roda Ahmed & Look Up With Me: Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Life Among the Stars” by Jennifer Berne

The summer reading program is in full swing inside the library’s children’s department. Sillies are being shaken out during weekly story times, books are flying off of the shelves and we are all learning about outer space.

Because this year’s summer reading theme is “A Universe of Stories,” I want to highlight a few of our newest and best extraterrestrial reads.

RODA AHMED’s “MAE AMONG THE STARS” has taken up permanent rotation in my son’s bedtime story lineup and has earned a place on my regular list of picture book recommendations as well.

Ahmed’s picture book is a fictionalized retelling of astronaut Mae Jemison’s childhood and her love for astronomy and the night sky.

The book begins with a young, pig-tailed Mae daydreaming about seeing Earth from outer space. As she looks out at the night sky from her front porch, her mom tells her, “If you can dream it, if you believe it and work hard for it, anything is possible.”

This refrain acts as a guiding narrative, following Mae as she builds a spaceship out of cardboard boxes, checks out astronomy books at the library and shares her dreams with her family, friends and classmates.

When a teacher encourages her to pursue a more female-centric profession, she quickly grows discouraged, but her mother’s words act as a gentle reminder to follow her dreams.

Illustrator Stasia Burrington’s softly colored ink illustrations in “Mae Among the Stars” are excellent, specifically in relation to her use of color to represent Mae’s moods. Her sadness is reflected in an icy blue color scheme; when her mom encourages her to dream big, the colors are bright, bold and almost reminiscent of the Northern Lights.

The story itself follows a simple narrative biographical arc of following your dreams regardless of naysayers, but it does so in the format of a picture book specifically for preschool and early elementary readers.

History books for this age group can often be too wordy or packed with intangible concepts such as grit or bravery, but Ahmed manages to make those concepts tangible through her simple yet clear storytelling. “Mae Among the Stars” is both an accessible biography for the youngest readers and a fun, intriguing story for all.

Another space-centric book I have been enjoying this year is JENNIFER BERNE and LORRAINE NAM’s “LOOK UP WITH ME: NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: A LIFE AMONG THE STARS.”

The astronomer is fairly well-known, in large part because of his narration of the remade documentary series “Cosmos” as well as his humorous and amiable personality in his role as director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an internet sensation. As with “Mae Among the Stars,” “Look Up With Me” turns the long-winded, text-heavy biography into something more palatable for the younger, more wiggly set.

The book begins with a paper cut image of a baby Tyson in a crib while a friendly, anthropomorphic planet sits close by in a rocking chair; his parents’ shadows are visible in light spilling through the doorway. “Neil deGrasse Tyson opened his eyes, and there it was. The universe. Just waiting to be discovered,” reads Berne’s accompanying text.

The book buzzes along pleasantly, with the young Tyson portrayed as an eager and curious learner whose life was changed when he visited the Hayden Planetarium as a child. Perseverance and hard work are obvious but subtle (though never preachy) themes; Neil walks neighborhood dogs to raise money for his first real telescope, and he travels overseas at 15 to give paid speeches about astronomy.

Berne’s biography deals with the more concrete matters of Tyson’s life in the first half of “Look Up With Me,” while the latter half feels more focused on encouraging young readers to follow their dreams.

However, Berne roots these details in scientific realities (“Shooting stars are really meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere. And most of them are smaller than a blueberry!”), an effect that makes the book feel less moralistic than it might otherwise be.

Nam’s paper cut images are exceptional and put this biography miles ahead of its bookish peers.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t encourage you to sign up for the all-ages summer reading program online or on our website (www.joplinpubliclibrary.org). We have events nearly every day in the children’s department, as well.

Find Mae Among the Stars and Look Up With Me in our catalog.

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

As I mentioned in my most recent review, I challenged myself to read the Coretta Scott King Award honorees this past February as an attempt to diversify my reading and celebrate Black History Month the best way I know how to celebrate anything: by reading.

The second honoree I read was VARIAN JOHNSON’s middle-grade mystery “THE PARKER INHERITANCE.” Upon first glance, one might expect Johnson’s newest novel to be a typical mystery in the vein of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys or one of their more modern shelfmates. As the young, black protagonist Candice Miller discovers, however, there is often more than meets the eye when it comes to books, towns and people.

Twelve-year-old Candice doesn’t want to move back to her mom’s hometown of Lambert, South Carolina, but she’s not left with much of a choice after her parents’ divorce and the financial imperative of renovating and selling their own home. At first, the small Southern town is boring, and Candice is angry that she’s missing out on spending time with her real friends in Atlanta. She is butting up against her late grandmother’s reputation in the town, which is not great, to say the least. Ten years prior, her grandmother bet her job, reputation and, in the eyes of some, the reputation of the entire black population of the formerly segregated city on a mysterious letter that allegedly led to a small fortune buried somewhere in town.

One hot and boring afternoon, Candice and her new friend Brandon are digging through the attic when they come across a letter written to her grandmother with the inscription, “Find the path. Solve the puzzle.”

Out of pure interest, as well as an indirect obligation to her grandmother, Candice and Brandon embark on a wild goose chase led by a secret benefactor throughout present day and 1960s-era Lambert, uncovering family secrets and racial strife that continue to strain relationships among family, friends and neighbors.

With its mysterious and wealthy benefactor, series of puzzles, and a problem that can only be solved by a duo of preteens, “The Parker Inheritance” would be a welcome addition to any mystery fan’s shelves. However, nothing about Johnson’s novel feels boilerplate or redundant, a fact that can be explained by the realistic family drama, racism and relationships that Candice endures during her South Carolina summer. In addition to a fractured relationship between her late grandmother and the entire population of Lambert, Candice struggles to navigate her parents’ divorce and the truth about what her father is up to back home in Atlanta. She also worries about her new friend Brandon, and the bullies who make his life miserable enough that he plans his schedule around their own.

At first, the series of puzzles feels like a welcome reprieve from regular life, but it becomes much more than that as Candice and Brandon come to understand its importance to their families and their town.

With “The Parker Inheritance,” Johnson has also written a family and relationship drama as intriguing as any Judy Blume, Raina Telgemeier or R.J. Palacio novel.

A must-read for fans of puzzle mysteries, realistic fiction and diverse perspectives.

Find in catalog.

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

This February, I challenged myself to read all of the Coretta Scott King Author Award winners and honorees in the Joplin Public Library’s Children’s Department. I ended up reading two out of three, but they were both excellent.

If you are unfamiliar with this award, let me quickly explain: The Coretta Scott King Award is bestowed by the Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table of the American Library Association. Each year, the group awards and honors authors, illustrators and titles “for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African-American culture and universal human values.”

The first award-winning book I read last month was LESA CLINE-RANSOME’s slim but powerful novel, “FINDING LANGSTON.” This middle-grade novel follows a young black boy named Langston who is looking for fulfillment in Great Migration-era Chicago. After his mother, to whom he was very close, dies, Langston and his dad move from Alabama to Chicago in search of more opportunity. Langston is lonely; he’s never been especially close to his father, he misses his extended family, and his classmates bully him and call him “country boy.” But when he walks into the large, foreboding library in his neighborhood for the first time, he finds solace in the words of great black writers, including Langston Hughes.

Although he doesn’t know for certain, he has a hunch that he was named after the Black Renaissance poet. Meeting Hughes this way feels like kismet; not only do his words act as a balm during a challenging time for the young boy, but they allow him to learn more about the things his mother loved while she was still living.

It can be difficult to accurately convey the power of reading, but Cline-Ransome transmits this message exceptionally well. “Finding Langston” also emphasizes the transformative effects of media representation. Langston struggles with his self-worth when he moves north. His classmates think he’s uneducated, he doesn’t have any friends, Chicago feels like a foreign country, and he has a very tenuous relationship with his loving but distant father.

When he steps foot in his local library — something he couldn’t do in the Jim Crow South — he can’t believe that everything is free and that black people aren’t just allowed but honored there. Through books by authors such as Langston Hughes, a man whose journey north somewhat resembles young Langston’s own experience, Langston makes friends, begins building a relationship with his father and discovers his self-worth.

It can be difficult to imagine how magical it feels to see yourself in a book for the first time when you have never had to look far. As a white person, I can find someone who looks like me on virtually any shelf in any library. Through Langston’s compelling story and authentic voice, Cline-Ransome provides all readers with the opportunity to experience some of the magic Langston feels when he first walks into the big, fancy building on Wabash Street and sits down with a book of Hughes poems.

The other two author honorees, which were announced in January, included Varian Johnson’s “The Parker Inheritance” and “The Season of Styx Malone” by Kekla Magloon.

Find in catalog.

Diverse Picture Books

I started this week’s review with another novel in mind, but a recent comment from a storytime attendee directed my attention elsewhere. On their way out the door, a small child stopped to look at a display book; as they did so, they told their caregiver, “Look, its me!” The child holding the book and the child on the front cover of the book both had brown skin and curly brown hair. This child saw themselves in this book; more importantly, this child saw themselves in a book in their library.

A good library has something for everyone, and I think the Joplin Public Library is no exception. We plan storytimes, as well as select, read, and display books, with all children in mind. Social media has made it especially easy to find books that reflect experiences different than my own.

When I request or select books to use in storytime, I often search the #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #ownvoices hashtags on Twitter and Google to find titles I might not see in mainstream review sources (I should mention that these aforementioned mainstream sources are taking steps to become more representative and inclusive).

In defense of my belief that the library does a great job representing various viewpoints, I would like to share a few recent picture books that depict underrepresented voices and perspectives.

THE DAY YOU BEGIN by Jacqueline Woodson, ill. By Rafael Lopez

Jacqueline Woodson’s newest picture book begins with a comforting statement that becomes a refrain of sorts: “There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you.” This line is juxtaposed with Rafael Lopez’s soft illustration of a trepidatious young girl with caramel skin and curly black hair peering through what is presumed to be a classroom door.

Woodson’s tender, poetic voice lifts up the experiences of several children, including Rigoberto, a boy from Venezuela who speaks differently from his classmates; a presumably Korean girl whose kimchi garners strange glances from her friends; and a young white boy with a book in his hands who prefers reading over sports.

Woodson is an exceptional poet, and The Day You Begin is a testament to her skill. Woodson, who is currently the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, lives up to her title by representing the emotions of several underrepresented children, offering the reader a glimpse into both the joy and terror inherent in being different from your peers.

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BOWWOW POWWOW by Brenda Child, Ill. by Jonathan Thunder, trans. By Gordon Jourdain

Bowwow Powwow, which is written in both the Ojibwa language and English, follows a young Native girl named Windy Girl and her silly dog Itchy Boy as they learn about the history of their people and pow wow traditions. Jourdain’s translations embody the pre-pow wow excitement that permeates the grounds as Windy Girl watches the preparations unfold, and Thunder’s colorful digital illustrations add a playful element to the powwow grounds, regalia, and anthropomorphic animals that appear in the young girl’s dream sequence.

Native people have been notoriously misrepresented in children’s literature, so a book about a modern Ojibwe girl that is written and illustrated by Red Lake Ojibwe artists is noteworthy in itself. However, Bowwow Powwow is also noteworthy because it is an enjoyable and interesting read for both children and adults.

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HEY WALL: A STORY OF ART AND COMMUNITY by Susan Verde, ill. By John Parra

Hey Wall: A Story of Art and Community follows community members as they band together to turn an ugly old wall into a symbol of love, beauty, and unity. Children of various skin tones pass the wall on a regular basis, but it exists as nothing more than a sore thumb amidst the dancing, singing, and cooking that takes place around it. One day, Angel, a young boy with brown skin, takes the wall and his neighbors to task. Slowly, with the neighborhood’s help, the formerly ugly wall unfolds into a reflection of its community: creative, diverse, beautiful, and colorful. Parra’s colorful illustrations are evocative of chalk art or a mural, supporting the wall’s role as a literal reflection of the community.

In the endnotes, Parra, who is Latino, discusses the influence of muralists like Diego Rivera on his work. Hey, Wall: A Story of Art and Community turns the politicized idea of the wall on its head, championing it as a pillar of diversity and a testament to the beauty that exists when people of different backgrounds, circumstances, and races work together rather than against one another. Although the text is essential to the story, it is Parra’s illustrations that turn this book into a work of art.

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Of course, these titles are not only helpful to children who yearn to see themselves in books on the shelf; on the contrary, we could all benefit tremendously from a peek into a slice of someone else’s life.

There, There by Tommy Orange

In “THERE, THERE,” by TOMMY ORANGE, 12 strangers make plans to attend the Big Oakland Powwow in Oakland, California.

Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, who has raised her sister’s three grandchildren, hopes to catch a glimpse of her oldest nephew in full regalia dancing for the first time. Her sister, Jacquie Red Feather, is newly sober and driving from New Mexico with the man who first got her pregnant as a teenager on Alcatraz Island. Tony, a young man with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which he calls “the Drome,” gets mixed in with Calvin, Charles, Carlos and Octavio, a group of men planning to rob the powwow to make up a drug deal debt. One character, Dene Oxendene, plans to attend the powwow as a voyeur, hoping to document people’s stories and how their stories fit into the story of the urban Native American. These are just a small handful of the characters in Orange’s debut novel.

The degrees of separation could be difficult to follow if crafted by a less-skilled writer, but Orange deftly threads the stories together with the skill of a spider weaving a web. The reader may find him or herself flipping back and forth among stories and marveling at the seemingly inconsequential role one person plays in several other stories before making an appearance in their own, often heartbreaking, accounts.

What does it mean to be an urban Native American? What does it mean to be half-Native but raised by your white mom? This fleeting identity is at the center of Orange’s novel; it begins with a searing look at the United States’ treatment of Native Americans that serves as an entry point to these answers, as told through each character’s story.

In the prologue, Orange writes, “We (Urban Indians) know the sound of the freeway better than we do the rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls” and that “being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.” Few of the characters know who they are as individuals, much less who they are in the context of the history of their culture. But maybe that is what Orange is positing with “There There;” there is not one way to be a good or authentic Native American. Maybe Native heritage is more dependent on this country’s treatment of Native tribes and nations, and the bearing of centuries of abuse and torture on the psyche. Orange’s use of epigraphs is extraordinary, but the following by James Baldwin feels especially representative of the entire novel: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”

Overall, “There There” is an exceptional and well-developed novel. My chief complaint is that I wanted more of each character. The conclusion, however is spectacular. To avoid spoilers, I will only note that the conclusion is electrifying, spectacular and worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.

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Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

Writing about social justice issues can be difficult when the audience is composed of middle school students because of the complexity inherent in such discussions. RENEE WATSON’s “PIECING ME TOGETHER” addresses issues of race and social justice deftly and accurately while maintaining authenticity of character.

The main character, Jade, is a poor, black teenager who attends a predominately white private school. She is smart and driven, so she is given many opportunities. But she begins to realize that most of these opportunities are given out of pity rather than as rewards for her real scholastic successes. She knows she is supposed to feel grateful, and she does. However, she also feels frustrated that her teachers and mentors view her neighborhood, family, friends and status as hurdles to overcome rather than as integral to her being.

Jade initially transferred to the school because she was excited by the possibility of visiting a Spanish-speaking country on the study abroad trip her school sponsors every year. She’s certain she will be chosen to go; she is a star Spanish student who assists classmates with their assignments, and she has a nearly perfect GPA.

Instead, her counselors select her for Woman to Woman, a mentor program that pairs underprivileged students with successful women of color to attend culturally enriching workshops and events. The program sounds great, and it culminates in a college scholarship, but Jade wants to be chosen for programs because of who she is and not in spite of it. At the same time, she must navigate new and old friendships and family relationships as well as her passions. In addition to being an excellent student, Jade is a talented and passionate collage artist who is inspired by the recent officer-involved shooting of a black teenager in neighboring Vancouver, as well as by York, the slave who traveled with Lewis and Clark.

“Piecing Me Together” offers a nuanced discussion of the way black kids can be treated, both in school and society, even when intentions are good. Jade’s relationships with her friends, her family and her mentor provide excellent opportunities for discussions of race and social justice issues. For example, when Jade confronts her Spanish teacher regarding his decision not to select her for the study abroad program and he explains that it is because she is already given so many opportunities, readers can better appreciate what true support of underprivileged and minority youth can look like. When Jade’s new friend Sam argues that her experience with a racist store clerk was not, in fact, racist, readers learn what being an ally should look like. When Jade comes to Maxine with her concerns about the mentor program, readers can better appreciate the importance and value of speaking up. The novel, while targeted toward middle school readers, is an excellent choice for any reader interested in realistic fiction and/or social justice fiction.

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Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson

Before Betty Shabazz became an activist, educator, mother and wife to Malcolm X, she was Betty Dean, a young and ambitious girl growing up in Detroit.

For the first seven years of her life, Betty lived in Georgia, where she was raised by her aunt, Fannie Mae. “BETTY BEFORE X” follows a young Betty as she moves to Detroit to live with her mom and her mom’s new family. Although the novel is a fictionalized account of her childhood, LLYASAH SHABAZZ, daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, and award-winning author RENEE WATSON based the story on real people, events and facts.

Betty loves her family and is an attentive older sister to her three half-sisters, but she struggles with feeling like an outsider in her own home. While her sisters play, her mother often expects her to clean and keep house.

Her activism begins because of her associations with certain friends and neighbors, particularly Helen Malloy, who steps in as a mother figure when Betty’s actual mother fully rejects her. However, events such as the lynching of a black couple in the South, the shooting of a black teen in Detroit and discriminatory hiring practices in her community fuel her work as a young activist.

Betty Before X highlights the different forms activism can take, as well as the polarizing effects it can have within an oppressed community. While the Housewives’ League encourages its members to only shop at stores that employ black workers, characters such as the mother of Betty’s friend Phyllis are angry about boycotts that exclude low-income families not able to shop at more expensive stores.

Like the story itself, Betty’s character is nuanced and realistic; she experiences anger, acceptance and happiness in equal measure when faced with friendship troubles, family problems or racism. Betty joins the Housewives’ League as a volunteer, handing out flyers and welcoming guests at luncheons; as she becomes more knowledgeable in the work, she takes on more responsibility, though she remains nervous when approaching strangers, particularly adult ones who view Betty and her organization as troublemakers.

She is also a pre-teen girl, with all of the joys and sorrows that come with that stage in life. She loves listening to records by popular acts such as Sarah Vaughn and Billy Eckstine, spending her allowance at the candy counter and talking about beauty products and boys with her best friends.

Overall, Shabazz and Watson’s story is both authentic and inspirational, and the story is compelling enough to classify as a page-turner. Don’t pass on the end papers. The author’s note, timeline and afterword provide important and interesting information that links the young Betty in the story with the important woman she became.

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