Swing by Kwame Alexander

Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: A teen guy who loves his best female friend but can’t bring himself to tell her, so he makes her anonymous art collage love letters. And their other best friend, Swing.

What made me pick it up: I adore Kwame Alexander and read everything he puts out.

My favorite parts: My favorite thing is the thing I can’t tell you. It’s the thing that made me cry in the LAST TEN PAGES and which I never saw coming. But I guess, generally, I can say it was the friendship. This book is about an angsty, mixed up teen who needs the guidance of his bestie to help him get the girl. And his friend shows up every time for him. Giving him advice. Lending him money. Introducing him to older, wiser individuals and the all important jazz music that permeates the book. This book is sweet and then it’s unexpected and sad and hard. Alexander wrapped all his strings up so well at the end and right under my nose as a reader. In hind sight I should’ve added everything up and known what was coming, but I guess even readers get hopeful that maybe the world isn’t the way it ends up being. Or at least maybe books won’t reflect that sad world back to us.

Who it’s great for: Everyone middle grade and up.

Erica’s rating: five shells

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: The struggle to accept yourself and your life when you don’t quite fit in as a kid.

What made me pick it up: I love everything Woodson writes and was excited to see this book announced.

My favorite parts: The illustrations are lovely and really add another layer of emotional depth to the story. I was not expecting the emotional gut punch this book has about not fitting in and all the self doubt that can bring up as a young person. If your lunch, clothes, or abilities are different, or your adventures are smaller, or you have no “good” stories school can be a really uncomfortable place to be. Learning to be confident with who you are and find kindred spirits who reflect that back to you is such a gift and this book is an excellent reminder that it is possible, even if it’s hard.

Who it’s great for: Unique young ones who may doubt themselves. Anyone who remembers wondering if they were enough as a child, and hopefully found out they were.

Erica’s rating: four and a half shells

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

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Originally published in: 2017

What it’s about: A boy who wants to be friends with a girl in his class but is too nervous to talk to her. And his friend, who is a psychic. And the class bully.

What made me pick it up: It beat Long Way Down for the Newbery and WHAT KIND OF BOOK CAN DO THAT? I had to find out.

My favorite parts: This book has four main characters and they are all wonderfully fleshed out. The bully is a cringingly accurate portrayal of fragile mscunlinity and bravado/posturing. The other three are excellent weirdos in their own way learning how to be brave enough to reach out to others in the morass that is middle school. OMG I love this book so much. I love the strength it takes for these characters to step outside their comfort zones and how they are such individuals. Middle school to me felt like the time to blend in and try to be as homogenous as possible. But not for these kids. They have special circumstances that make them unique and it’s wonderful. And I love the tiny fragment of hope the book ends on. You will want to know how the story continues after this heartwarming adventure.

Who it’s great for: Upper elementary and new middle school readers.

Erica’s rating: five shells


Find this book in your local library or on Amazon (affiliate link).


 

I Walk With Vanessa by Kerascoët

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: Being kind in the face of bullying.

What made me pick it up: I can’t quite remember. I think I saw it on Twitter. Wherever it was, the person was raving about it.

My favorite parts: This sweet and brief picture book contains no words. And it doesn’t need to. The story is told perfectly through the illustrations. When a young child is antagonized by a bully she finds an ally in another child who witnessed the bullying. And they walk to school together. Then another child joins, until everyone chooses to support the bullied child. It’s powerful and lovely and all kids and adults alike should read it.

Who it’s great for: Everyone. No exceptions.

Erica’s rating: five shells


Find this book in your local library or on Amazon (affiliate link).


 

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

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Originally published in: 2017

What’s it about: The story of two friends, partners in art and life, creating animated works that bring them a sort of fame while also forcing them to confront difficult truths and traumas in their lives that other people would like to leave in the past.

What made me pick it up: I needed an audiobook to listen to and this one was available, has gotten a lot of good press, and has a cover that makes me want to read it.

My favorite things: Whitaker treats characters suffering addictions almost without judgment in a way that is refreshingly humane. She takes the time to develop every character’s layers and the complexity of their relationships.

Who it’s great for:  Readers looking for complex relationships between characters or an exploration of identity.

Abby’s rating: four-shells


Find this in your local library or on Amazon (affiliate link).


 

Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev

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Originally published in: 2015

What it’s about: A little boy with a pet elephant searches for a group that will accept him and his pet.

What made me pick it up: I saw it reviewed on another blog and the cover captured my eye. Also, I have a strong and ongoing desire to have a pet elephant so this was right up my alley.

My favorite things: This picture book was sweet story about friendship and belonging. It has lovely illustrations and a positive message.

Who it’s great for: Elephant lovers. Parents looking for stories of friendship and inclusion to read to their children. Fans of excellent illustrations.

Erica’s rating: four-shells


Get a copy of this book on Amazon (affiliate link) or at your local library.


 

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

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Originally published in: 2016

What it’s about: Jahren’s journey to be a scientist who has her own lab, which is also her journey to become herself.

What made me pick it up: It had a lot of holds. I’d heard about it a little. It was about trees or plants or something I was interested in reading about at the time. Little reasons.

My favorite things: Like her blog says, Hope Jahren sure can write. This is beautiful. Jahren writes so well about things that are so hard and complicated. I was floored with how realistically she was able to portray her mental illness, especially her episodes. It brought tears to my eyes. I also appreciated the story of the enduring friendship she built with her longtime assistant Bill. That story of how friends become family always warms my heart. Mostly, I liked how forthright she is. How she makes you want to keep going even though it’s tough because of how frequently she did the same. It will inspire you.

Who it’s great for: Teens. Adults. Anyone who is pursuing something but isn’t sure it will work out. Those who struggle with mental illness. Lovers of trees. You, if you want to read a great story of finding your place and your people.

Erica’s rating: five-shells


Find a copy of Lab Girl at Amazon (affiliate link) or in your local library.


 

Pax by Sara Pennypacker


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What it’s about: Peter is a 12 year old boy and Pax is fox. They’ve been inseparable since the day Peter rescued Pax as a kit. Now they are being forced apart, but will go the distance to find their way back each other.

What made me pick it up: I actually picked this one up because the cover is so compelling.

My favorite things: Wow, reading Pax felt like getting punched in the gut-in a good way! Peter and Pax have an incredible bond, and I loved that we got to read about it from both of their perspectives. I was surprised to find that this story is really as much about war as it is about friendship. I wasn’t expecting war to feel as close as it does. Pennypacker does a great job of making war very real and very personal. Despite the heavy themes, Pax is mostly a story about love and friendship and how they can flourish even in troubled times. You’ll definitely want a box of tissues on hand before you dive into this one.

Who it’s great for: Tweens who can handle some graphic content. Those looking for a story of resilient love and friendship. Fans of The Fox and the Hound.

Abby’s rating: three-shells

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

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What it’s about: A young girl fears nothing and relies on no one, at least until she is confronted with the reality that jumbies exist. She learns that it’s okay to be scared and important to trust in your friends.

What made me pick it up: I was looking for a creepy middle grade read and came across The Jumbies. I was only planning to read the first few pages to get a feel for it, but I got sucked in.

My favorite things: I don’t know too much about Caribbean folklore, so I enjoyed getting to learn a little through the context of the story rather than having everything spelled out. I love the variety of characters and relationships that develop throughout the story. Baptiste does a great job of illustrating the idea that just because you are scared of someone or something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are dangerous or want to hurt you-sometimes they’re just different than you.

Who it’s great for: Tweens looking for stories of friendship. Fans of creepy. Those looking for a strong female lead.

Abby’s rating: four-shells