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Donna Barba Higuera’s THE LAST CUENTISTA

I recently finished the Newbery Medal title, Donna Barba Higuera’s The Last Cuentista. This medal is awarded to the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. At some point, I suppose I will stop being surprised at how excellent award winners are, but today is not that day.

The book follows Petra Peña and her family as they prepare to leave Earth due to an impending, life-ending comet. Because her parents are renowned scientists, the Peña family is selected to travel 380 years away to colonize a planet called Sagan. Upon boarding the large space ship, Petra, her younger brother Javier, and her mom and dad are separated and placed into a comatose state that preserves their bodies during the long trip. While in this state, they will receive knowledge through a port; this knowledge will ensure they can sufficiently contribute to the Collective upon arrival on Sagan. Petra is very unsettled by it all. She misses her grandma Lita, the stories they would tell together, and her old life back home in New Mexico.

The procedure should cause her to forget her old life when she wakes up. But nearly four centuries later, nothing is the way it is supposed to be. She remembers every bit, and her family is nowhere to be found.

Petra attempts to conceal this from the ship’s leaders while seeking out her parents and younger brother and working to get the others in her cabin to remember their former lives. Stories are how Petra has always made sense of the world, and they become even more of a lifeline as she seeks to find a way out of this strange future and get back to her family.

 

The Last Cuentista is full of twists and turns. I found myself racing ahead to find out what would happen, as if by speed reading, I could head off any negative outcomes that might occur. As Petra sneaks around the ship, trying to collect clues about her family and find a way off the ship, she retells her grandmother’s cuentos to the others and accidentally captures an unintended audience in Voxy, a young boy born and raised on the ship. To avoid any differences in human appearance, all members of the Collective, including Voxy, look the same. All have translucent skin, purple lips, and bright red veins. People like Petra, who has brown skin, a vision problem, and freckles, no longer exist. Individuality and diversity are not prized in the Collective.

The ship’s frightening leaders, Nyla and Crick, sacrifice Petra and the other original humans to explore Sagan. As she navigates the planet’s jungle-like climate and looks for a way off the ship, she comes to heartbreaking realizations and encounters some very unexpected people.

I will be thinking about this story for a long time. Higuera has crafted an engaging, edge-of-your-seat, dystopian tale that also emphasizes the importance of stories as a form of connection to yourself and others. I recently re-read Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and I felt a lot of similarities between the two. Both are a little bit heavy with characters that are undeniably human. This would be an excellent read for fans of plot-driven dystopian tales, though The Last Cuentista is not nightmare-inducingly scary. Instead, it presents a terrifying reality where only a single story gets told, where we try so hard to get rid of the bad parts that we allow history to repeat itself. As Petra reflects at the novel’s end: “I know stories can’t always have happy endings. But if there are chances for us to do better, we have to say out loud the parts that hurt the most.”

Watercress by Andrea Wang & Jason Chin

Happy book awards season!

Every January, the American Library Association announces award winners and honorees in a whole host of categories. The most well-known awards include the Newbery Medal, the Caldecott Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award, though there are over 30 awards for young adult and children’s books.

The Caldecott Medal is awarded to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. It makes sense, then, that “WATERCRESS,” illustrated by JASON CHIN and written by ANDREA WANG, bears the shiny medal on its cover. Wang tells a story based on her experience growing up as the child of Chinese immigrants in Ohio in the shadow of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. The young girl at the center of the novel resents her parents for being different, for making her different. When they pull over to the side of the road on a drive, they make the whole family climb out to pick watercress. For her parents, the “snail-covered plant” is a delicacy, reminiscent of their lives in China, when any food was good food and free food was even better. For the protagonist, it’s another glaring difference between herself and her classmates. When her typically private mother tells the girl and her brother about their uncle, a child taken by the famine, she gets a glimpse into the importance of the plant and, more than that, a glimpse into her parents’ past and how it affects their present.

With “Watercress,” Caldecott honoree Chin proves that he is as effective at painting minute details — those of a home in the 1970s, of the shame on a young girl’s face — as he is at painting landscapes. His watercolor art beautifully captures the cornfields of Ohio, and I especially appreciate the spread a few pages where the cornfields seamlessly fade into the bamboo in the background of a hillside above a Chinese village.

Another favorite page depicts the girl’s family sitting around a metal-legged, Formica-top table eating a meal that includes the foraged watercress. The girl sits with her arms crossed, a scowl on her face. As explained in his endnotes, Chin sought to reflect Chinese and American heritage, as well as the 1970s aesthetic. The scene, from the details of the table to their clothes to their dishes, feels reminiscent of that time period.

The free verse structure of “Watercress” makes it an excellent choice for a read aloud in a group setting. Wang’s words read like a poem, evoking emotion and vivid scenes on each page, a perfect example of the English teacher’s mantra: “Show, don’t tell.” Chin’s illustrations only serve to amplify the story rather than overshadow.

In the book’s endnotes, the author discusses her own experience as the daughter of Chinese immigrants as well as the importance of memories and their ability “to inform, to inspire, and to heal.” Wang’s encouragement to talk about the hard things, to tell your story and to take pride in your heritage is crucial, and she sends those messages seamlessly throughout. “Watercress” is well deserving of the Caldecott Medal.

Find it 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 

    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

WE ALL PLAY by Julie Flett & JOJO MAKOONS by Dawn Quigley

I love to set both small and larger reading challenges for myself throughout the year. In November, I chose to primarily read titles by Native authors. I encourage you to explore the growing number of titles in this category at the Joplin Public Library. I will share two of my most recent favorites.

The first title is JULIE FLETT‘s picture book “WE ALL PLAY.” Flett is a Cree-Metis author and illustrator who has won numerous awards. “We All Play” is a simple book, told mostly in English with Cree words throughout, that depicts children playing in ways similar to bison, beluga whales, geese and other North American animals. The text is a pattern; three to four pages show animals hopping, peeking or wobbling, and every fourth spread shows children moving their bodies in similar ways with the repeating refrain “We play too! (‘Kimêtawânaw mîna’)” at the top of the page.

In the reader’s note at the end of the book, Flett describes the ways in which her father taught her about her relationship to nature as a young girl. “We All Play” depicts a most basic connection between us and nature: Children of all species playing together outside.

Once you have seen it, Flett’s art is instantly recognizable. She works primarily with earth tones; this title in particular utilizes many shades of beige, white, gray and green, with pops of clay red, sky blue, and goldenrod appearing occasionally. Animals, humans and the landscape have only the most basic of features, and the edges are soft and smudged.

At the conclusion of the story, Flett includes a list of animals featured in the book. Each animal name is listed in English and three variations of the name in Cree (one, more than one, and “younger, smaller, cuter”). The author also includes a bit of linguistic education on the Plains Cree dialect, including the pronunciation of words and sounds. This would be an excellent group read-aloud, as it lends itself well to movement and conversation. You can find “We All Play” in the picture book category at the Joplin Public Library.

Another excellent book I read this month is DAWN QUIGLEY‘s “JOJO MAKOONS: THE USED-TO-BE-BEST FRIEND.” This first book in the forthcoming series follows the plucky 7-year-old narrator JoJo, an Ojibwe girl living on a fictional reservation (Pembina Ojibwe) learning to navigate friendships, life with her mom and kokum (grandmother), and figuring out how to rescue her home best friend, her cat Mimi, from getting shots (among other things). JoJo is funny and earnest, and she often wonders why people — her family, her teachers, her best friends — think differently than she does. Why can’t she bring Mimi to school? Why don’t “couch” and “touch” rhyme when they obviously look the same? Why isn’t Fern saving her a seat at lunch anymore?

JoJo’s problems feel both real and urgent, as problems tend to feel whether you are 7 or 37. The spunky young protagonist is similar in voice to Junie B. Jones, another beloved first grader with her own series.

JoJo Makoons is published by Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint of HarperCollins created in partnership with We Need Diverse Books. JoJo’s Ojibwe culture is woven into every aspect of the story, from JoJo’s hilarious pronunciation tips (“If you can say Tyrannosaurus rex, you can say nindizhinikaaz”) to Tara Audibert’s grayscale art in JoJo’s classroom. JoJo’s funny narrative style lends itself well to a family or classroom read aloud, though I found myself laughing out loud while reading solo. I love JoJo Makoons, and I know you will too. You can find “JoJo Makoons: The Used-to-be Best Friend” in the easy fiction section of the Joplin Public Library.

Beginning Reader Titles in the Children’s Department.

Summer Reading 2021 has come to a close at the Joplin Public Library. With over 1,300 participants, it is safe to say that it was a successful summer. Of course, the end of summer means a new school year, and we are all full of anxious excitement about what the new season will bring. In my own household, we are eagerly anticipating kindergarten. Starting kindergarten means a lot of changes, both big and small: meeting new friends and a new teacher, learning a new routine, losing a tooth, learning to tie your shoes and learning to read.

In the children’s department, we frequently work with parents and caregivers to identify the best books for these burgeoning readers. With the variety of reading levels and options, it can be difficult to know where to start. I have identified a few series for a variety of readers, both in regards to interest and reading levels. Most of the titles are focused on sight words, letter blends and word sounds, as well as entertaining stories, engaging illustrations and diverse perspectives.

My favorite beginning reader books are part of the BRIGHT OWL BOOKS imprint by MOLLY COXE. Each book focuses on a different vowel sound or blend. My favorite part of these books, however, is the visual aspect. Each book features hand-felted creatures photographed in realistic nature scenes. “Greedy Beetle” includes a family of felted beetles, replete with tiny scarves and handkerchiefs, eating a meal in the forest. They may be the cutest beetles I have ever seen. In addition, the story has a plot and a conflict, all within the confines of the “long E” sound and no more than three- or four-word sentences.

Books for beginning readers can sometimes heavily favor individual words over engaging illustrations or plot, but Coxe’s books are a delightful exception. Other titles in this series include “Go Home,” “Goat,” “Blues for Unicorn” and “Cubs in a Tub.”

Find these titles in our catalog. 

Another series I enjoy is Holiday House Publishing’s I LIKE TO READ imprint. Each book in the series is illustrated by a bevy of excellent and well-known artists. The back cover of each book also includes a letter indicating reading level, and explanations for their leveling system are included on the back cover. I recognize that reading levels should not be the sole determinant for any child, but they can be a helpful guide for parents of beginning readers who may be intimidated by too many words on a page. (It is also important to note that actual reading levels can vary widely from book to book. While one “Level 1” may be appropriate for a child just learning to sound out words, a “Level 1” from another company may be more appropriate for an already independent reader comfortable with more complex sentences.)

The “I Like to Read” books range from two word sentences to 3-4 sentences per page, which makes them a helpful tool to utilize regardless of your new reader’s skill level. Award-winning illustrator Joe Cepeda wrote and illustrated several books for the earliest readers; these include titles, such as “I See” and “Up,” that feature simple sentences and nature themes. Paul Meisel, another award-winning artist, has written several dog-themed books that subvert the repetitive Dick and Jane titles with fun art and even funnier stories. Though most of the sentences rely on Dick and Jane-esque refrains (“See me run,” etc.) they all end with the dogs in silly situations that will guarantee a belly laugh from your child.

Find these titles in our catalog. 

Finally, I highly recommend the DIVE INTO READING imprint by publishing company Lee and Low. Started in 2015, Lee and Low primarily focuses on sharing books by and about people of color. The beginning reader series focuses on a diverse group of students (the “Confetti Kids”) engaging in a range of activities, from playing music to gardening to participating in a parade. The story includes a beginning, middle and end with active participation from the characters. In other words, we aren’t just getting a bland play-by-play of characters’ actions. Currently, Joplin Public Library only offers three of these titles (“Music Time,” “The Protest” and “Rafi y Rosa”), though we have plans to purchase more.

I appreciate the reading guide explanation on the back cover of these books. Levels range from “early emergent,” “emergent,” “early fluent,” and “fluent,” with a discreet color-coded system.

Find these titles in our catalog. 

All of the aforementioned titles can be found in the Easy Fiction section of the Children’s Department. As always, children’s department staff are more than happy to help identify these or other titles. With any new reader, we will often provide a few options while pointing out the level structure to the caregiver, and encourage them to work together to determine which book is the best fit for the child.

“All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team” by Christina Soontornvat

The library is always a great place to be, but it has been especially great these past few weeks. The start of our summer reading program has meant excited children and happy families in the Children’s Department. Families are ready for a bit of normalcy, and part of the summer routine for many of them involves signing up for our reading challenge. Our summer reading theme this year is “Tails and Tales,” so we are exploring animals, nature and the stories we tell about them.

The best book I read this year featured nature as a dominating, formidable main character. You may remember the story. In 2018, a boys’ soccer team in Thailand went caving after practice. What they didn’t know was that Thailand’s monsoon season was starting a month earlier than anticipated, leaving them stuck in an increasingly flooding cave. CHRISTINA SOONTORNAVAT‘s bestselling narrative nonfiction book, “ALL THIRTEEN: THE INCREDIBLE CAVE RESCUE OF THE THAI BOYS’ SOCCER TEAM,” recreates the edge-of-your-seat feeling we all experienced while waiting to hear of their fate.

Soontornvat begins with the story on that fateful day, as the soccer players leave practice and seek out an adventure before they call it a night. The Wild Boars, she explains, are an active and adventurous group — caving or hiking is not out of the ordinary after a long practice. A little rain was in the forecast, but not much. After all, monsoon season typically doesn’t begin until June and it was only May. Soon enough, it begins to rain and water enters the cave from several locations. In just a few short hours, the rushing water is cloudy and 6 feet deep in some places.

When the boys don’t turn up that night, their worried parents form a search party. Teammates who didn’t tag along know where they are, and soon enough, emergency services arrive at the mouth of the cave. Over the next few days, everyone — including local water experts, international cave divers and the prime minister of Thailand — is working together to get the boys out of the cave. In all, the boys remain in the cave for 18 days.

This is a story of endurance. It is also a story of mutual aid, of everyone offering what they have to help the boys, because we are, of course, all connected. Their story transcended the town of Mae Sae, the country of Thailand and borders around the world. When we watched this on TV or read it in the paper, we felt like a part of something larger. We were all rooting for the boys, for the cave divers, the Thai Navy SEALS and everyone else who stopped their lives to ensure the boys’ survival. Soontornvat effectively recreates that sentiment in “All Thirteen.”

A good narrative nonfiction book must have three key components: a compelling story, engaging images and accurate references. In short, it needs to be good, and it needs to be factual. Soontornvat achieves both in spades. I read every time I had a free moment, when I wasn’t reading about it, I was thinking about it. Even though I knew the outcome, I found myself rapidly turning the pages for some piece of good news.

Soontornvat also includes full-page maps and descriptions of things such as the formation of a karst cave, Buddhism, stateless people in Thailand and the stages of hypothermia. The images, which are all credited, are both crisp and helpful in understanding key aspects of this story. The source notes at the back of the book are exhaustive. I would recommend this book for anyone in upper elementary grades or older.

Our reading challenges are available for all ages. The Children’s Department offers the following challenges: pre-reader (ages 0-4), early reader (ages 5-8) and reader (ages 9-12). They can sign up online at www.joplinpubliclibrary.org/summer-reading-program or in person at 1901 E 20th Street. Participants earn prizes (including free books), so sign up today.

FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang

If you have seen the movie “Elf,” you are familiar with the scene where Will Ferrell’s character bursts into his father’s work meeting yelling, “I’m in love, I’m in love, and I don’t care who knows it!” That’s how I feel about KELLY YANG‘s award-winning 2018 novel, “FRONT DESK.”

This middle grade chapter book tells the story of 10-year-old Mia Tang and her parents as they take on the biggest endeavor of their nascent life in America: managing and living at the Calavista Motel in Anaheim, California.

The novel begins in the early 1990s, a few years after the Tang family emigrated from China. Mia’s parents, who had established careers in China, have worked labor-intensive jobs since coming to the United States, and Mia has never stayed at one school long enough to make a best friend. When her parents are hired as the live-in managers at the motel and Mia meets Lupe at school, things seem to be turning around. But Mia soon learns that nothing is what it seems.

Yang deftly introduces classism, racism, the struggles of new immigrants and the dangers of making assumptions through realistic characters and authentic relationships. When Mia first meets Lupe, she thinks Lupe’s life is perfect and much different than hers, but it turns out that the two girls have plenty in common.

The Tangs’ situation at the Calavista seems financially promising, but hotel owner Mr. Yao proves ruthless with his money. He is more concerned with its accumulation than fair treatment of his employees. The motel’s permanent residents (also known as the “weeklies”) include Hank, a kind, hard-working African American man who can’t seem to catch a break. Through her friendship with him and the others, Mia learns that, as with Lupe, she is not alone in her struggles. She also learns that everyone has a story to tell and that those stories are worth listening to.

One thing I loved about “Front Desk” and Yang’s writing more broadly is that every character does have a story to tell. The immigrants who are welcomed by the Tangs at the motel are not nameless, faceless visitors. They are husbands, wives, daughters, fathers and hard workers, all struggling to survive in a new country where they aren’t always welcomed. The weeklies aren’t just caricatures — they are individuals with talents to share and love to give, as well as friends turned family. Jason, Mr. Yao’s spoiled and sometimes mean son, isn’t just a stuck-up rich kid. He, too, has problems of his own, stories and struggles that give some insight into who he is.

I also love the development of Mia’s character. When the story begins, she is a bit unsure of her place in the world, especially as she endeavors to make new friends and help her parents at the motel. She also has dreams of becoming a writer, though her well-meaning mother encourages her to pursue math instead. As the story progresses, Mia becomes more confident in her talents. She also is encouraged to speak out, be bold, and pursue her passions after witnessing the injustices that her friends, neighbors and family experience.

Though the subject matter can be heavy, “Front Desk,” which is loosely based on Yang’s childhood, is also funny. By the end of the novel, I felt like I knew — and really liked — Mia Tang, and I couldn’t wait to dive into the 2020 sequel, “Three Keys.”

 

Find in catalog. 

WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER by Tae Keller & WE ARE WATER PROTECTORS by Carole Lindstrom

I know the actual Super Bowl just happened, but I did not watch any of it. Instead, let me tell you about my Super Bowl: the Youth Media Awards.

Every year, the American Library Association announces the best books and media in a variety of categories. For picture books and illustrations, it’s the Caldecott Medal. For children’s books generally, it is the Newbery. For the best books by African American authors and illustrators, it is the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Pura Belpre follows the same guidelines but for Latino authors and illustrators.

TAE KELLER’s “WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER” won the Newbery Medal this year; the Newbery committee didn’t ask me, but I do approve of this decision.

The novel follows 12-year-old Lily, who has just moved from sunny Southern California to rainy Washington with her mom and teenage sister to care for her sick Halmoni (“grandmother” in Korean). Halmoni has always made Lily and her sister Sam feel special. When they were young, she would tell stories of “long, long ago when tiger walked like man” stories just for them that always included two very special sisters. However, the move isn’t an entirely welcome one, especially because Lily discovers Halmoni is more sick than her mom let on — and she keeps spotting a giant tiger around town. With the help of her new friend Ricky, Lily works to uncover what the tiger wants and, by that effort, heal her grandmother.

“When You Trap a Tiger” shows readers the power of stories, both in giving us hope and in changing us. When Lily first meets the tiger, no one, with the exception of Halmoni, believes her. Her sister and mom both blame stress or her wild imagination. But when the tiger proposes a deal in exchange for her grandma’s recovery, Lily knows what she must do.

As Lily works to give the tiger what it wants, she realizes she is not who she thought she was. She discovers a different, stronger view of herself. The typically reserved and quiet Lily feels empowered to make big decisions, strengthen relationships and say she’s sorry. At the novel’s start, Halmoni warns Lily that the tiger characters in Korean folktales are not always what they seem. But neither, Lily learns, is she.

Find in the catalog. 

For the first time, the Caldecott Medal was awarded to an Indigenous author-illustrator team. CAROLE LINDSTROM and MICAELA GOADE’s “WE ARE WATER PROTECTORS” tells of the connection between people and the land and our duty to protect and preserve water. Lindstrom’s poetic call to action portrays oil as a black snake that can destroy our water if we let it.

The Ashinabe/Métis author was inspired to write this book following the widespread protests of the Keystone XL pipeline in South Dakota, but its message of our connection to and responsibility for the earth is a timeless one.

Goade’s watercolor illustrations are lush and include a broad spectrum of colors and shades reminiscent of water. The young girl featured on the cover appears with her chin raised proudly and her black-blue hair flowing into the swirling water. The rich blues and greens are calm, even as our narrator speaks in dramatic tones and passionate pleas. I feel the most calm when I am near the water; Goade does an excellent job communicating its tranquil nature.

In “We are Water Protectors,” the young narrator encourages readers to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves and to care for our earth and other living things. That is a sentiment I can get behind.

Find in the catalog. 

For a full list of award-winning titles and honorees, check out the School Library Journal award article: https://bit.ly/3k5YZVN.

 

My Favorite Picture Books and Middle Grade of 2020

The year 2020 was a great year for books. I reviewed many of them here in previous columns, but it was impossible to share them all. I am going to highlight some of the best picture books and novels that I have yet to share.

DERRICK BARNES and GORDON C. JAMES’ “I AM EVERY GOOD THING” is one of the best books I read this year and maybe one of the best picture books I have read in a long time. Barnes and James won a multitude of awards (including the Newbery Medal) with “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,” their last picture book, and they did not disappoint with the follow up.

The last few years have offered a great deal of self-esteem themed picture books with many notable titles — including “Crown” and “I Am Enough,” to name a few — but “I Am Every Good Thing” somehow feels uniquely fresh. Even the best picture book encouraging self-confidence runs the risk of relying on cliches or overwrought phrases. The power here lies in the mundane, in the personal aspects of what the narrator (in this case, a young Black boy) believes he is good at, as well as in the boldness and confidence of the broader proclamations. I read this book as part of a library program designed to encourage children to think about what makes them special. While I was not the target audience, I found myself reading and rereading passages of this book because it made me feel good about myself. The best picture books are universal, offering something for every reader.

James’ illustrations are similar to those in “Crown,” and they excel here for similar reasons. The oil paint portraits feel as grand as the bold proclamations the narrator makes throughout. James paints the children in the book as they see themselves or how they wish others would see them.

Another picture book I loved in the latter part of 2020 was the FAN BROTHERS’ “THE BARNABUS PROJECT,” which follows a group of misfit pets (or “failed experiments”) as they try to break out of the Perfect Pets secret lab. Barnabus, a hybrid mouse-elephant, acts as the leader in this epic escape story that begins in an underground lab where perfectly cute, fluffy and well-behaved pets are created.

Barnabus and the other failed experiments sit alone under bell jars until they are recycled into something cuter. The lush illustrations lend a weight to this (very cute) escape story, making Barnabus’ experience feel both real and grave. The Fan Brothers (Terry, Eric and Devin) create adorably strange neighbors for Barnabus as well, including birdlike creatures with long legs and puffball bodies, a box turtle with a fuzzy body and a tiny monster with the stripes, wings and antennae of a bumblebee. The full-page spreads showing the underground pipes connecting the laboratory to the pet shop up above, as well as the breakout scene, are layered, complex, and beautiful. This is one to own.

JERRY CRAFT’s 2019 debut graphic novel, “The New Kid,” won a multitude of awards, including the Newbery Medal for the best children’s book. I enjoyed the fun, funny and insightful book well enough, but I have to admit that I loved the 2020 companion even more. “CLASS ACT” picks up where its predecessor left off, with protagonist Jordan navigating his second year as one of the few Black students at a prestigious, all-white private school. This time around, we get to hear from his new friend Drew, a darker-skinned boy at Riverdale on a scholarship, as well as their wealthy white friend Liam. Drew in particular struggles with what it means to be Black and poor when most of his friends are not. His grandmother’s words echo in his brain (“You have to work twice as hard to be just as good”) as he works to make good grades, navigate friendships and figure out who he wants to be. If “Class Act” were not a graphic novel, it would read much differently. Though the subject matter is often serious, the accessibility and humor of Craft’s illustrations gives it the feel of a (really great) sketchbook over a weighty memoir. Each chapter illustration borrows from a popular comic or graphic novel (some favorites include Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and Shannon Hale’s “Real Friends”), and the award-winning author/illustrator includes directional cues when it may be difficult to know which way to read.

The last middle-grade novel I loved this year was KELLY J. BAPTIST’s “ISAIAH DUNN IS MY HERO.” This book, which began as a short story for the middle-grade anthology “Flying Lessons and Other Stories,” follows preteen Isaiah, a sweet kid who is faced with serious challenges as he and his family endure homelessness, wrestle with grief and battle substance abuse. His writing and the notebooks his dad left behind serve as a buoy that keep him from going adrift. He spends Saturdays in the library, writing poems and reading his dad’s stories, all of which are about Isaiah the superhero. The actual Isaiah may not be sure if he is a superhero, but his dad’s love for him gives him the confidence to keep going when it seems as if life has turned against him. I love Isaiah as a character — he is sweet, a good friend, a good son and a good big brother. The circumstances mean he has to be stronger than a kid should have to be, but Baptist still lets him be a kid. Finally — though I may be biased here — I appreciate that the library is an oasis for Isaiah, a place where he can get lost in books and in his writing. This is an excellent debut novel about growing up, loss, the power of words and the importance of community.

“A Polar Bear in the Snow” by Mac Barnett & “In the Half Room” by Carson Ellis

2020 has been a roller coaster of a year, but books have been undeniably good.

This year, all three of my favorite picture book authors/illustrators have released new titles — two debuted on the same day. I wrote about Christian Robinson’s “You Matter” a few months back, so I will reserve this review for the two most recent titles.

One of my favorite artists, Caldecott honoree CARSON ELLIS released her third solo book last month. “IN THE HALF ROOM” is a nod to Margaret Wise Brown’s infamous “Goodnight Moon,” both textually and visually. Like much of Ellis’ work, though, it leans toward the strange, a trademark effect that makes her art both beautiful and unique. “In the Half Room” is textually simple. Each page names half of an item with an accompanying illustration (“Half chair, half hat/Two shoes, each half/Half table, half cat”). Admittedly, the premise sounds a bit sleepy, but Ellis’ gouache paintings are so beautifully detailed that some of the illustrations feel like fine art. The watercolor paint effect gives her art a human touch, replete with undefined edges and misshapen freckles on the “half a face.” The book takes a strange turn midway through, however, with two halves of a person joining together with a “SHOOOOOP” and running out the front door into the night. In the acknowledgements, Ellis credits her young son Milo with the idea, “though he’s not sure about the ending” (I will let you decide). The image after the ending may be my favorite, though: half a cabin sitting in an empty field with a full plume of smoke puffing out of the half-chimney to hang over the full, twinkling stars.

Find in catalog.

The second title I want to share features two return guests. MAC BARNETT (author of “Mac B., Kid Spy”) and SHAWN HARRIS (illustrator of “Everyone’s Awake!”) have known each other since childhood, though “A POLAR BEAR IN THE SNOW” is their first collaboration. Barnett, like Ellis, has a reputation for funny books that make you feel as if you are part of a secret club, and this picture book, though simple, fits that mold. In “Polar Bear in the Snow,” we follow the eponymous creature as it lumbers through the snow as the narrator wonders aloud where he is going. The text is fun and will lend itself well to storytime, but the real star here is Harris’ illustrations. The musician/illustrator (Harris also fronts the rock group, The Matches) used an ink pen and scissors to create a 3D effect that makes the polar bear pop from the page. The first page reads: “There is a polar bear in the snow,” though all we see is a textured white page. As we turn the pages, bits of the polar bear appear; first a nose, then eyes, then a full body. The snow on which he trods is actually carefully torn layers of white construction paper, and the animals (and a very scared man) he meets are simple shapes cut out of white paper. The description sounds simple, though maybe that is where the genius lies.

Find in catalog.

Both Ellis and Barnett created wildly successful virtual followings during quarantine. Ellis’ #transmundanetuesdays on Instagram began as daily art challenges ranging from self portraits to drawings done with your nondominant hand. In fact, one of the best things to come from that time for my household is our collection of Transmundane Tuesday art. I can also credit Barnett for the idea for our Mac B. book club, as we worked to model bits of it after his “Mac’s Book Club Show” book club (Harris was also a key collaborator here).

Both “In the Half Room” and “A Polar Bear in the Snow” are available to borrow from the Joplin Public Library, and I would highly suggest doing so if possible. For more excellent Carson Ellis art, check out her award-winning 2018 title, “Du iz Tak,” also available at Joplin Public Library.