Freedom in Congo Square / by Carol Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie. 9.8.2017

Little Bee Books ISBN 9781499801033

PRI Grades 1-5 Rating: 5

Freedom in Congo Square is both a Caldecott Honor Book and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, each of these awards being very well-deserved for the unique artwork and the telling of the story of an enslaved people in New Orleans.

This is a little-known account of slaves in Louisiana whose weeks were spent toiling relentlessly yet counting down the days until Sunday when they could spend a half day in Congo Square holding a market, visiting with friends, and singing and dancing–in other words, experiencing a brief respite from their difficult lives.

Authors Carol Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie have done a superb job of putting readers right in the middle of slave life and allowing them to experience, in a small way, what these New Orleans slaves’ lives were like.

The Forward and the author’s note both provide much interesting background information, and a glossary gives understanding to the vernacular and difficult words. But the artwork and the poetic form of writing are what will long stay with the reader, both child and adult.

Freedom in Congo Square is highly recommended for school and public libraries.

Ceil Carey, CLJ

In the Country We Love: My Family Divided / by Diane Guerrero. 9.7.2017

Henry Holt ISBN 9781250134967

Adult (YA) Rating: 4

In the Country We Love is a compelling and heartfelt memoir of the plight of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Diane Guerrero has first-hand knowledge of the challenges immigrants face when they come to America to begin a new life and of the devastating effects of deportation. She was born in the United States to undocumented Columbian parents. With courage, humor, sincerity, and a moderate amount of profanity, she shares the story of her life from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, and the ways in which her attitude toward life have been shaped by her experiences from her growing up years.

Guerrero’s parents not only worked for low wages in menial jobs to make ends meet, but they were also persistent in their quest to become American citizens, only to have crippling blows dealt to their efforts. Guerrero’s childhood was overshadowed by the constant worry that her parents could be taken away at any moment. Guerrero’s fears came true at the age of 14 when her parents were arrested and shortly thereafter deported back to Columbia. She moved in with family friends so she could continue attending Boston Arts Academy, a performing arts high school.

Fearful of rejection as a performing artist, Guerrero chose to follow an academic path in college. During this time, her life spun out of control. She dealt with major financial debt, emotional fallout from her parents’ deportation, depression, self-cutting, and excessive drinking. After seriously contemplating suicide, she started seeing a therapist, who Guerrero believes was sent by God to help her overcome her fears and doubts. Subsequently, she enrolled in acting classes, and through perseverance became a recurring actress in two popular television shows.

The black-and-white photographs and quotes from novelists, poets, singers, and other notable individuals add to the powerful message Guerrero recounts about the toxic stress and its long-lasting impact on children of undocumented parents. The book concludes with an overview of immigration policy issues, the importance of immigration reform, and a list of resources for Americans who are interested in advocating for change in the current immigration system.

Dianne Woodman, CLJ

Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run! An Alphabet Caper / written and illustrated by Mike Twohy. 9.6.2017

Balzer + Bray ISBN 9780062377005

PRI PS-Grade 1 Rating: 5

A dog’s ball bounces into a mouse’s hole and chaos ensues in Mike Twohy’s Theodore Seuss Geisel Honor Book, Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run!

A New Yorker cartoonist, Twohy manages to introduce characters, a setting, a plot, and a satisfying conclusion using just 30 words to accompany his delightful artwork. From A to Z, the busy story unfolds, one word (occasionally two) to a page. The large-font alphabetical text will appeal to preschoolers, who are also highly likely to enjoy the fast pace and the overall silliness.

Twohy’s felt-tip and India ink illustrations are vivid against their plain white background and are rich with feeling, action, and humor. Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run! is pure fun, with a heartwarming resolution and all the right qualities for a child’s picture book.

Nina Ditmar, CLJ

Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune / by Pamela S. Turner. 9.5.2017

Charlesbridge Publishing ISBN 9781580895842

YA Grades 5-8 Rating: 4

Much of the life of Minamoto Yoshitsune sounds like an epic movie. He spends much of his early life attempting to avoid the enemies of his family. He studies to become a Buddhist monk until he returns to take part in the struggle for control of Japan. He shows himself to be a brilliant military leader and one whom men willingly choose to follow. However, his elder half-brother is jealous of Yoshitsune and finally they begin a struggle for supremacy. Those who look for adventure and excitement in the books they read will find much to admire in Samurai Rising. There are also elements of the samurai culture and its Buddhist background that are illustrated and explained. Those who appreciate the look and feel of a graphic novel will also enjoy the artwork of Gareth Hinds that graces the book.

Though some of the book’s design elements (similar to a graphic novel or even a comic book) seem directed toward a younger audience, its thematic material suggests that a more mature audience might be more appropriate. There are descriptions of major battles, sexual content including a child born out of wedlock, and a description of the samurai practice of seppuku (a form of ritual suicide). However, other themes of the book make it worth reading: courage, loyalty, sacrifice, and bravery. This book would be a welcome addition in public libraries.

Michael Wilhelm, CLJ

Leave Me Alone! / by Vera Brosgol. 9.4.2017

Roaring Brook Press ISBN 9781626724419

PRI K-Grade 2 Rating: 4

A little old woman just wants to be left alone so she can finish her winter knitting, but living in a small house with lots of children makes being alone almost impossible. So, the little old woman packs her bag and heads for the forest, thinking she will find the peace and quiet she needs to finish her knitting. Unfortunately, the bear family living in the forest makes being alone impossible. Once again, she packs up her bag, this time heading for the mountains, certain she will finally be alone way up there. However, the mountain goats force her to pack up once more and climb all the way to the moon. Will the little old lady ever find herself alone in time to finish her knitting before winter arrives?

Selected as a Caldecott Honor Book for 2017, Leave Me Alone! by Vera Brosgol is full of charm, humor, and absurdity that will delight its young audience. Its rich watercolor illustrations provide warmth and visual appeal to the story and are the primary mode of infusing humor into each situation in which the little old lady finds herself. The illustrations have an eastern European flair, which is further reinforced by the ever-present samovar the little old lady uses to make her tea, providing a potential cultural side note to expound upon.

The repetitive phrase “Leave Me Alone!” always appears in a speech bubble in large font making it easily identifiable for pre-readers who will enjoy recognizing and reading this phrase aloud together with a parent or their fellow classmates. Overall, this book is a visual gem worth adding to any personal or classroom collection.

Justina McBride, CLJ

March series / by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. 9.1.2017

March: Book One / by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. (March, 1)

Top Shelf ISBN 9781603093002

March: Book Two / by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. (March, 2)

Top Shelf ISBN 9781603094009

March: Book Three / by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. (March, 3)

Top Shelf ISBN 9781603094023

YA Grades 9-12 Rating: 4

Congressman John Lewis and his co-authors present a graphic novel series about a critical time in our nation’s history: the civil rights movement.

March is an autobiographical account of John Lewis’ life, starting with his life as a sharecropper’s son and continuing until the Civil Rights Amendment is signed. The story reflects the ups and downs of the civil rights movement and its major figures. Readers will encounter Rosa Parks, Presidents Johnson, Bobby Kennedy, and others.

Book One starts with his life as a youth in Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., the start of the student rights movement, and their efforts to bring about change through nonviolent sit-ins and the opposition they faced.

Book Two continues with the Freedom Riders in the deep south. Their courage in the face of beatings, imprisonment, and more draws the attention of powerful allies, among them Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Twenty-three-year-old John Lewis is thrust into the national limelight as the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Book Three concludes as Lewis leads his fellow activists to face intimidation, violence, and death, as they bring civil injustice to the forefront. They use nonviolence to launch a series of campaigns to register millions of black voters in time for the presidential election.

The information presented is told in comic strip format, drawing the reader into the drama preceding and surrounding the 1963 March on Washington. Each volume is drawn in black and white, to emphasize the lines between white and black in the society at the time.

March received critical acclaim from several sources: the Coretta Scott King Honor Book 2017, ALA Notable Book, YALSA’s Top 10 Great Graphic Novels for Teens, and several more. Young adults and adults alike should read this. Written as a memoir by one who was involved with the ivil rights movement for more than 50 years, it presents history in a digestible form and fills in the gaps found in textbooks.

Recommended for school and public libraries, for teen and adult readers.

Carol R. Gehringer, CLJ

Die Young with Me: A Memoir / by Rob Rufus. 8.31.2017

Touchstone ISBN 9781501142628

Adult (YA) Rating: 5

Die Young with Me is a candid and heart-wrenching memoir of a teenager whose life is changed dramatically when he is diagnosed with cancer.

Rob Rufus lives with his family in Huntington, West Virginia. He feels like an outcast in the rural town and has no real goals in life. However, his attitude changes when he and his twin brother, Nat, are introduced to punk rock. The two 13-year-old boys are so enthralled with the music they acquire instruments and turn the basement of their house into a practice space, so they can form a punk rock band. It takes a few years for their dream to turn into a reality, but once they succeed the band starts playing local gigs with Rob as the drummer.

Just as the band is on the verge of getting a big break that could give them national recognition, Rob sees his world turned upside down. He is 17 and diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.

The course of treatment requires both chemotherapy and surgery. Rob candidly shares not only the horrific physical side effects he experiences due to the treatments, but also the roller coaster ride of emotions he goes through. He vacillates between feeling angry, terrified, frustrated, panicked, downhearted, anxious, and lonely. At the same time, he steadfastly refuses to give up hope that he can beat the disease. He also describes how family members and friends deal with their own stress when someone close to them is being ravaged by a life-threatening disease.

The key element behind Rob’s surviving the nightmare of a debilitating disease is the inner strength he draws upon that comes from his music and the determination to get strong enough to play the drums again. The support of family and friends, prayer, and items Rob considers good luck that pertain to punk rock and Christianity are also important in helping him in his challenging fight to survive against overwhelming odds. The book includes cigarette and marijuana smoking, drinking, a bit of sexual innuendo, a trip to a strip club, and an excessive amount of profanity.

Dianne Woodman, CLJ

Du Iz Tak? / by Carson Ellis. 8.30.2017

Candlewick Press ISBN 9780763665302

PRI K-Grade 3 Rating: 5

Two flies “discover” a seedling sprout in Du Iz Tak?. The next time they and a friend see the young plant, it has grown, prompting them to ask a nearby friend for a ladder. They climb the leaves to sun themselves. Continued growth of the plant prompts them to build a plant fort, but while they work, they fail to notice danger creeping closer to them and potential disaster looming from above.

Du Iz Tak? showcases the writing and illustrations of Carson Ellis. Ellis determines what incites emotion in her bugs–from wonder to fear to determination to resignation–and writes from that perspective. Even though written in the language of bugs, Ellis’s application of grammar rules and her lovely illustrations enable the reader to easily understand the story. The drama unfolds quickly. Few words are necessary and few are used, but the created language is very enjoyable to read, and the fun lies in the discovery.

Kristina Wolcott, CLJ

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth / by Cathy Camper; illustrated by Raul the Third. (Lowriders, 2) 8.29.2017

Chronicle Books ISBN 9781452123431

YA Grades 4-9 Rating: 4

It seemed like an ordinary day at the car garage until the earthquake hit and the cat disappeared. Searching frantically, Lupe Impala and her partners, El Chavo Flapjack and Elirio Malaria, follow a trail of paw prints that lead into a giant corn maze where the trickster Coyote informs them that their pet, Genie, is being held prisoner in the underworld. Can they trust Coyote?

Determined to rescue Genie at all costs, the fearless trio power up their earth/space vehicle and plunge full-speed into a volcano and down through the earth’s rocky layers until they reach the center. If they find their cat, returning home in their hi-tech car will be a cinch. They just have to wrestle and defeat the god of the underworld who holds Genie prisoner. No, not the Greek god Hades–the giant Aztec god, Mictlantecuhtli!

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, second in Cathy Camper’s Lowriders series, has a suspense-filled rescue plot that engages readers with humorous word plays and puns while teaching earth science. The Spanish vocabulary spread throughout the story (defined in a glossary) and the depiction of diverse protagonists give voice to other cultures and validate characters that Hispanic children can relate to. Raul the Third’s graphic illustrations of skulls, skeletons, bones, and gods introduce Aztec world views.

This is a highly entertaining read, with Lupe Impala like a Latina version of Miss Frizz (of the Magic School Bus series, by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen), teaching important concepts and creatively overcoming obstacles.

From a Christian perspective, Lowriders to the Center of the Earth could engender discussion of the God of the Bible and His care for all creation, in contrast to the capricious and antagonistic natures of other deities. The story invites readers to explore ideas of love and sacrifice, and challenges them to reflect on how much they would be willing to risk for someone they love.

Veronica Jorge, CLJ

Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life / by Ashley Bryan. 8.28.2017

Atheneum Books for Young Readers ISBN 9781481456906

INT Grades 3-6 Rating: 4

Ashley Bryan wrote and illustrated this award-winning picture book about eleven slaves, based on a real document of sale.

In Freedom Over Me, Bryan gives life to the slaves listed in the bill of sale for the Fairchild’s estate by giving them an age and work assignment. After the passing of Mr. Cado Fairchild, Mrs. Mary Fairchilds hires an appraiser prior to selling the estate and its properties (including the slaves) and moving back to England. The book starts off with a group illustration of the eleven slaves, with their ages and estimated value, followed by the poems for each slave. The slaves are introduced by their roles on the estate, then later by their lives in Africa. The book ends with a print appraisal of the Fairchild estate of the ten slaves. (Bryan added an eleventh fictional slave to his collection to round out the ages.)

He writes free verse to create two poems each, one about their life and one about their dreams. Inspired by the actual 1828 will of Mr. Fairchild, Bryan creates poetry with illustrations to interpret each person’s life and dreams. The illustrations for each slave’s life are muted, while the ones for their dreams are colorful. According to the author’s note, the title of the book comes from a spiritual, “Oh Freedom,” which plays a role in the civil rights movement.

Freedom Over Me was the 2016 Newbery Honor Book, 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book, and 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book. Bryan ‘s book is a tribute to the “strength of their human spirit and power of hope” (front cover flap), as well as a recognition that the slaves were individuals who had a dream.

Recommended for school and public libraries.

Carol R. Gehringer, CLJ