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“You Matter” by Christian Robinson and “Everyone’s Awake” by Colin Meloy

I am bursting with picture book recommendations! The last few months have been challenging, to put it mildly, but one of the things I have been able to look forward to is the steady stream of excellent picture books.

The first title is one I pre-ordered as early as I could. Award-winning illustrator (and author) Christian Robinson’s YOU MATTER was released on June 2nd alongside glowing reviews, and is the second that he has done solo. YOU MATTER tells two stories: the first is a reminder, as it states in the acknowledgements, “to anyone who isn’t sure if they matter. You do.” Each full-page spread reiterates this message to those in situations in which they may feel less than: when you’re slow, when you make a mistake, when no one listens to you, when someone you love is far away, and “even if you are really gassy.” Robinson’s trademark collage illustrations, which include a combination of handmade illustrations and papercut drawings, add levity to a message that could be saccharine if done differently.

Through these illustrations, Robinson cleverly weaves a second story in with the first. This second story begins on a grand scale, telling the history of the earth from the first living bacteria to the first living creature on land, touching on the extinction of the dinosaurs and the various phases of Earth’s evolution along the way.

Christian Robinson has been one of my favorite illustrators for a long time. His illustrations just feel special, and his attention to detail feels like a labor of love. Here, Robinson’s attention to detail is amplified. The astronaut overlooking Earth holds a picture of a young child; on the next page, that child is seen looking forlornly out of an apartment building window while holding a brightly colored rocket ship in one hand. This is just one instance where, If the reader looks closely, they can follow one character through several pages and perspectives.

Robinson has a knack for bringing to light the overlooked and underappreciated aspects of life; with YOU MATTER, he excels at doing both visually and textually. The characters in this book are diverse in ethnicity and ability, thus extending the message to those reading the book who may not often see themselves represented in the media they consume.

My favorite thing about YOU MATTER is that it is adaptable for a variety of ages. If your child is very young, you can read the words and identify the pictures. If they are a bit older, you can discuss the visual story Robinson tells, though the depth of the conversation depends on the child’s age and comprehension level.

Robinson has won many awards for his work; most notably, his 2015 picture book with author Matt de la Pena won the Newbery Medal for Excellence in Children’s Literature.

Find YOU MATTER in our catalog.

For another fun read-aloud, try Colin Meloy and Shawn Harris’ lyrical, outrageous, and hilarious un-bedtime story EVERYONE’S AWAKE. It is no surprise that Meloy’s (of the band The Decemberists) second picture book is witty and fun to read aloud. If you have listened to his music, you have likely felt the same way about his songwriting. The book reads as a litany of outrageous behaviors the largely unseen narrator’s family engages in in lieu of sleeping, and the list gets more ridiculous as it goes on. It begins mildly, with the sister locking herself in the bathroom to braid her hair and the brother reciting lines from a movie. By the book’s middle, the grandmother is playing cards “with long-dead Grandpa Paul” and the cat is giving “poke tattoos and prank calling the cops.” Each rhyming couplet ends with an emphatic, “EVERYONE’S AWAKE” that lends itself well to a mildly amped-up bedtime or an engaging storytime. Grown-ups will enjoy this book as much as younger readers, and they will likely enjoy the sometimes obscure pop culture references throughout (Prince, Frank Sinatra, and a slew of classic children’s books all make an appearance).

Shawn Harris’ illustrations are a perfect fit for Meloy’s musical and wildly enjoyable story. The bright color palette consists of mostly neon or nearly-neon greens, blues, yellows, and oranges and feels just as loud and fun as the house seems to be. The characters are diverse and whimsical and funny, and Harris’ interpretation of the chaos in the large, multistory house is humorous in its own right (see the mouse browsing the internet on a tiny laptop while reclined on the father’s back for one example). I love this book, and I look forward to reading it at storytime. In the meantime, you can borrow it from the library and add an exciting spin on your own family’s bedtime routine. But get some sleep.

Find EVERYONE’S AWAKE in our catalog.

Reading for Change: Books by Black Authors

All of these titles can be found via the JPL catalog

Picture Books

M is for Melanin

Concepts ABC Rose

That is my dream! : A picture book of Langston Hughes’s “Dream variation”

People Diversity Hughes

What’s the Difference?: Being Different is Amazing

    People Diversity Richards

Saturday

    People Mom Mora

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut

    Self Self Esteem Barnes

Just Like Me

Self Self Esteem Brantley-Newton

Magnificent Homespun Brown: A Celebration

    Self Self Esteem Doyon

I am Enough

Self Self Esteem Byers

Sulwe

    Self Self Esteem Nyong’o

Hey Black Child

    Self Self Esteem Perkins

You Matter

    Self Self Esteem Robinson

Freedom Soup

    Stories Food Charles

The Undefeated

Stories History Alexander

Let the Children March

    Stories History Clark-Robinson

The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read

    Stories History Hubbard

Before She Was Harriet

Stories History Ransome

Easy Fiction and Easy Nonfiction

Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel

    Easy Fic Grimes Nikki

Jada Jones series

    Easy Fic Lyons Kelly Starling

The Amazing Life of Azaleah Lane

    Easy Fic Smith Nikki Shannon

Let’s Talk About Race

    Easy Nonfic 305.8 L56L c. 1

Child of the Civil Rights Movement

    Easy Nonfic 323.11 Sh4c

Trombone Shorty

    Easy Nonfic 788.9 An2t

The Stone Thrower

    Easy Nonfic 796.332 Ea5r

Juvenile Fiction and Juvenile Nonfiction

The Crossover

    J Fiction Alexander Kwame

Blended

    J Fiction Draper Sharon

The Parker Inheritance

    J Fiction Johnson Varian

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

    J Fiction Mbalia Kwame

Ghost Boys

    J Fiction Rhodes Jewell Parker

Betty Before X

    J Fiction Shabazz Ilyasah

Piecing Me Together & Ways to Make Sunshine

    J Fiction Watson Renee

Genesis Begins Again

    J Fiction Williams Alicia

Brown Girl Dreaming

    J Fiction Woodson Jacqueline

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich

    J Fiction Zoboi Ibi

New Kid

    J Nonfic 741.5 C84n

We are the Ship: the story of Negro League Baseball

    J Nonfic 796.357 N33w

Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets

    J Nonfic 808.1 AL2o

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement

    J Nonfic 817 H11w

The Women Who Caught the Babies: A Story of African American Midwives

    J Nonfic 973.0496 G82w

Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History & Little Dreamers: Bold Women in Black History

    J Nonfic 973.0496 H24L

Teen Fiction

Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles

     Teen Coles Jay

Let Me Hear A Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson

     Teen Jackson Tiffany

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

     Teen Magoon Kekla

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

     Teen Reynolds Jason

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

     Teen Stone Nic

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

     Teen Thomas Angie

If You Come Softly and Behind You by Jacqueline Woodson

     Teen Woodson Jacqueline

Teen Non-Fiction

Teen Graphic Novels

March, Books 1-3 by John Lewis

      Teengn Lewis John March

I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina

      Teengn Medina Tony I Am

Fiction

The Vanishing Half

    Fiction Bennett Brit

The Water Dancer

    Fiction Coates Ta-Nehisi

Homegoing

    Fiction Yaa Gyasi

The Broken Earth series

Fiction Jemisin N.K.

Such a Fun Age

    Fiction Reid Kiley

Real Life

    Fiction Taylor Brandon

Sing, Unburied, Sing

    Fiction Ward Jesmyn

The Nickel Boys

Fiction Whitehead Colin

Red at the Bone

    Fiction Woodson Jacqueline

Non-Fiction

Bad Feminist

    305.42 G25 2014

How to be an Antiracist

    305.8 K34h 2019

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

305.8 K34s 2016

Heavy: An American Memoir

    305.896 L45h 2018

How We Fight For Our Lives

    811 J71h 2019

The Yellow House

    921 B79y 2019

Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masala by Meenal Patel

Did you know that May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month? In honor of this fact, I want to share one of my favorite newish picture books by a Southeast Asian American author and illustrator.

“PRIYA DREAMS OF MARIGOLD AND MASALA,” written and illustrated by MEENAL PATEL, is a sweet story of a grandmother, named Babi Ba, sharing vivid memories of India with her granddaughter Priya as they make rotli, a type of Indian flatbread. As they roll dough, Priya asks, “What is India like?” This inquiry serves as the catalyst for a journey through the grandmother’s birthplace — a sensory journey of food, sounds of the city and sights of the market. Patel’s descriptions are tangible; Priya (and the reader) can smell the cumin and masala at the market as it “tickles your nose.” We can feel the “hot sun on (our) face” after it rains, and we can hear the “quiet swish-swish” of a sari as a woman walks through a shop.

The grandmother’s joy and comfort in these memories is infectious, both for Priya and the reader. These stories spur Priya to action, calling on her classmates to help design a marigold garland for her grandmother to hang over her door during winter. Upon receiving this gift, Babi Ba tells Priya that the best way to carry your home — or your memories of such a place — with you is to share it with others.

Every time I go back home to California, I bring my family to my favorite place by the ocean. At this point, I could describe the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks as you stand overhead. I could describe the burning thigh muscles as you ascend the stairs back to your car. I could describe the cold rush of air across your face as you walk the dusty trail closer to the overlook. Though my home is not quite as far as Babi Ba’s, I understand the joy inherent in memories of home and in the sharing of those memories.

Patel’s illustrations are just as colorful as Babi Ba’s memories. The spreads that include people milling about the city feature a diverse array of skin tones. The saris worn are both colorful and simple in detail, and most characters are featured with round, rosy pink or red cheeks. The spreads featuring cityscapes are sharply angled, mashing colors and patterns purposefully and carefully. Patel’s color palette manages to be both muted and colorful simultaneously; the collection of browns, oranges, pinks, red, yellow and navy are delightfully twee. (Somewhat relatedly, if you have ever seen Wes Anderson’s 2014 film “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” you will likely notice the similarities in color there.)

In the author’s note, Patel describes visiting India as an adult and recognizing how the things that made her feel different back home were parts of daily life there. This visit allowed her to interweave the various threads of her identity and to understand how those “unique threads” make up who she is.

You can find “Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masala” here. If you’d like to see more of Patel’s art, you can follow her on Instagram @meenal_land.

BIG PAPA AND THE TIME MACHINE by Daniel Bernstrom

It’s been a while since I rounded up my favorite picture books for a review, so I am eager to share one of my most recent favorites.

On a good week, I bring home approximately 10 picture books to read with my son. They typically fall into three categories: books my son wants to read over and over again, books he is through with after one reading and books we all love. Sometimes, though, they fall into a fourth category: books that make me cry.

The most recent book to fall in that fourth category is “BIG PAPA and the TIME MACHINE” by DANIEL BERNSTROM and SHANE EVANS. This sweet story about a grandparent’s love was inspired by Bernstrom’s relationship with his own grandfather; don’t skip on the illustrator’s note at the end to hear more about it.

“Big Papa and the Time Machine” follows a young boy and his grandfather as they travel back in time to glean lessons on bravery and love. The story begins with the boy and his papa driving to school in the titular time machine, a 1952 Ford. On the drive, the boy admits to his grandfather that he’s scared to go to school. His admission sparks a time-traveling journey through one African American family’s experience in the 20th century. They visit a younger version of the grandfather, hugging his mother as he prepares to leave home. They stop at a 1957 club, just as his grandfather and grandmother meet for the first time. Each trip back in time ends with the same question: “Was you scared?” Big Papa’s response as they watch a younger version of himself leaving home is the first of many musings on bravery. As they watch the boy’s mother hand a newborn baby off to Big Papa, the weight of his love for the boy becomes clear; the newborn baby is that boy, and the mother never returns. Big Papa admits to his own fear here too: “You was so little, and I was so old … but sometimes you gotta love the unexpected if you ever gonna find love at all. That’s called being brave.”

As someone whose child is very loved by his grandparents, I felt myself getting emotional at this point. But as a parent who sends her child to preschool every day (and as a human being with working tear ducts), I was done getting emotional by the end of the book; I had fully arrived.

The last lesson on bravery comes when the boy looks over at Big Papa as they pull up to school and sees a tear rolling down his cheek. “You scared right now?” he asks, and his grandfather responds, “I’m scared you grown’ up too fast … and I already miss you.”

Shane W. Evans’ illustrations are simple yet poignant. His drawings consist of sharp outlines and soft colors, with soft white swirls stretching across each page, signifying a dreamlike journey back in time. Evans portrays feelings between grandfather and grandson in subtle ways, as with Big Papa’s bunched up shirt sleeve when they share a long hug before they finally say goodbye. Admittedly, I am a sucker for a good intergenerational story, and Bernstrom and Evans do it well. I would recommend this book for families, obviously, but I would also recommend it to anyone with a heart.

Never Caught, the story of Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar & Kathleen Van Cleve

In preparing for the library’s Black History Month celebration on Feb. 22, I chose to read Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Kathleen Van Cleve’s young readers edition of “NEVER CAUGHT: THE STORY OF ONA JUDGE.”

Ona Maria Judge was born into slavery around 1773 or 1774 at George Washington’s Mount Vernon to Betty, an enslaved woman, and Andrew Judge, a white indentured servant. Dunbar and Van Cleve tell the story of her birth, early life and eventual escape from her owners, George and Martha Washington.

As a young girl, Ona becomes one of Martha’s favored slaves, a fact that brings her to Philadelphia and New York with the Washingtons as George prepares to lead a young United States of America out of England’s shadow. While in Philadelphia, Ona meets free black people for the first time and learns about Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act, which enables enslaved people to be freed after six months if they move from another state to Pennsylvania. After she returns to Mount Vernon, freedom weighs heavily on her mind: “While she understood that some slaves at Mount Vernon looked at her with envy because she was Martha’s favored attendant, she now had seen for herself that there were black people who lived without being anyone’s slave, favored or not.” Her experiences in Philadelphia remain with her for several years until 1796, when she finally makes her escape.

Although Ona’s story is largely absent from our historical texts, the authors pull from a sparse historical record to construct an engaging story of a courageous and determined woman.

In the author’s note that precedes the story, Dunbar states that Ona’s story “will make you think differently about everything you have learned regarding American history.” While that is a tall order, I do believe that Ona’s story adds nuance to a very polished period of history.

In “Never Caught,” readers learn about the ways in which slavery shaped this nation in its infancy. Most importantly, we learn individual details about people who, thanks to Dunbar and Van Cleve, are no longer relegated to a distant, fading past. In addition to Ona Judge, readers learn about Hercules, an enslaved chef who was highly favored by the Washingtons, and Richard Allen, a free black preacher and abolitionist in Philadelphia.

Dunbar and Van Cleve do not make concessions for George and Martha Washington in regard to slavery. The authors note how they and their paid staff made a concerted effort to keep the Gradual Abolition Act out of the Presidential House, going so far as to rotate Ona and others between Philadelphia and Mount Vernon on a six-month basis to avoid emancipation. They acknowledge the gaps between the president’s comments on slavery and his actions. The authors are also blunt in their condemnation of slavery, stating, “Human nature was allowed no outlet in the emotional life of the enslaved,” and, “Slavery was brutal. Slavery was immoral.”

Acknowledging the sins of important historical figures can be challenging; at times, one may feel that they must choose between disregarding the person or their negative acts.

In “Never Caught: the Story of Ona Judge,” Dunbar and Van Cleve show how to discuss historical figures with nuance. George Washington was a revered military leader and president, and he also owned slaves. There is room in his legacy for both things to be true.

The book’s front and back matter are also worth mentioning. Dunbar and Van Cleve include a map of relevant places, a table of contents, a timeline, a newspaper interview with Ona Judge as well as a bibliography detailing the resources used in writing this book. The book is a captivating and important account of a woman largely absent from historical texts.

Finally, the young readers edition was adapted for middle school-aged readers. While it doesn’t shy away from the brutality of slavery, the authors manage to explain difficult ideas in an age-appropriate manner.

Find in catalog.

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.

Find in catalog

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.”

Find in catalog.

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.