I’ve already admitted my undying affliction–I mean, affection–for children’s books. So even though I did read a handful of books for grown-ups this summer, I read quite a few children’s books. Want to know some of the latest and greatest in kidlit? You can’t go wrong with any of these::
Middle Grade Novels
Squint by Chad Morris & Shelly Brown
I learned about this book from a book review newsletter. It was the beginning of summer and we were headed on a family roadtrip. I already had a few books stowed in my backpack at my feet. But it was dark. So I searched for it in the library and found they had an ebook copy available! I checked it out and started reading.
And I didn’t stop!
Squint tells the story of a middle school boy named Flint. But due to his degenerative eye disease, his peers all call him Squint. He goes from having friends and playing football to being alone and unable to do many of the things he used to love. He keeps pushing himself to draw a comic book because he is hoping to win a contest and prove to everybody that he really is cool and talented.
And then a new girl arrives. And things change.
I love that this story tackles childhood illness. It is something I think kids struggle with understanding–whether they are going through a disease of their own or someone they know is suffering. I think this story does a fantastic job of bringing some of these issues to light while keeping the story light and entertaining.
Maybe it’s the author duo, but I love that this book is very appealing to both boys and girls.
The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
This was a page-turning mystery full of excellent historical fiction. This book was nominated for an award for our region (I believe he lives near Austin), so I read it before the voting day so I would be ready to cast my vote. I was so glad I did! There are quite a few conversations this book warrants::
Racism–this book addresses modern-day racism as well as the racism of her grandmother’s generation. Johnson does a phenomenal job of illustrating many of the challenges of race including interracial relationships and passing.
Homosexuality–the main character’s father comes out to his daughter near the end of the book. Another character is accused of being gay and is bullied because of it.
Divorce–the main character’s parents were already going through a divorce, but she was hoping the would get back together. Until she learns her dad’s secret.
Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly
Lynne Kelly is actually from the Houston area, so I heard about her book early on. But now that I’ve read it, I can honestly say that I would have read it no matter what. It is amazing. Expect this book to win some awards.
Our narrator is 12-year-old Iris. She lives in Houston (woot! woot!) and loves to work on old radios. And she’s the only deaf girl at her school. When Iris learns about a whale called Blue 55 who is unable to speak to the other whales, she feels instantly connected to him. She learns all she can about Blue 55 and comes up with a plan.
This book takes us on an adventure with Iris as she copes with a recent loss of her grandfather, her aging grandmother, and hearing parents who don’t understand her. This book is full of heart.
The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast by Samantha M. Clark
I met Samantha in Austin (another Texas writer!) and was following the release of her book. Much like Lynne Kelly’s book, I originally bought it to be supportive. But once I read the first page, there was no way I was going to stop! This book is so intriguing! I read it a second time with a small reading and writing class I taughtsmall reading and writing class I taught over the summer. The kids were about 10 years old and were engaged the whole time.
The thing that makes this book so engaging is that we don’t know exactly what is going on until the very end. We know we have a boy stuck on a beach with amnesia, but we don’t know who he is or how he got there or anything else. As the story progresses, we hear the negative voices in his head, we see glimpses of his past and we learn details about where he was before he washed up on the beach.
This story is quite possibly the best way to explain toxic masculinity I have seen. I would recommend this book not only as a book to engage children and get them excited about reading, but as a book for parents as well. This book really made me think a lot about parenting and how I hope my own children perceive me and my words and actions.
How High the Moon by Karyn Parsons
I saw this book at Costco while we were out of town and was instantly intrigued. The reviews on the back cover were all from authors I know and love. My mom saw my excitement and bought the book for me! Thanks, Mom! I read it on our drive back to Houston. You may think you don’t know the author. I didn’t recognize her name either. I wasn’t even 100% sure when I saw the picture. But then I read her bio.
It’s Hilary Banks from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air! But her book is not one of those only-got-published-because-the-author’s-famous books. Those books are the worst.
This book is a fantastic historical fiction that addresses segregation and racism during the 1940s, though many parallels can be draw to today. Besides the pervasive racism, we also see the pain of a 12-year-old girl–Ella–who is being raised by her grandparents while her mom works up north and her dad is a mystery. This is a beautiful tribute to families of different shapes, sizes, shades, and blood.
You May Already Be a Winner by Ann Dee Ellis
This book was another serendipitous discovery. I came across this author’s name and realized I was not familiar with her. I looked up some of the books she’d written and saw this was her most recently published book. And it looked good. So I thought it might be fun to read with my two younger boys.
It was so fun!
Our narrator is Olivia Hales and she is a 12-year-old who lives with her mom and little sister in a trailer within Sunny Pines Trailer Park. This story is full of hope, humor, and heartbreak. My kids loved Olivia’s voice and laughed at her silly phrases like “dumb-bum.” They also really loved when the scene went off-track unpredictably from real-life to her imagination. This happened several times without warning and every time one of my boys would should, “What?!” and then we’d look at each other and giggle and they’d recognize this was Olivia’s imagination.
And that is not an easy feat to transition between reality and imagination and back to reality, so I was pretty impressed with how often Ellis did it successfully.
This book really looks poverty right in the face. Not only does this book masterfully show us the extra challenges faced by children living in poverty, but we also get dead-on insights into children going through separation and divorce. If you are a parent, I obviously recommend this book for your child, but if you are a teacher, I also recommend it for you. If you don’t know or can’t remember what it’s like to be a child dealing with tons of extra baggage, this book is the wake-up call every teacher needs.
Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes
If you are looking for a way to mix a ghost story and historical fiction in time for Halloween, look no further! The story begins when 12-year-old Jerome is shot by a police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real threat. As a ghost, Jerome sees so much more than he ever did in his Chicago neighborhood. And he meets another ghost:: Emmett Till.
This story is not overly violent yet it addresses a very real and very pertinent part of our nation’s past and present. I hope this book helps spark more conversations among families, especially white families. If you haven’t considered talking to your child about race, there is no time like the present.
Ghost Boys is also full of beautiful themes like friendship and forgiveness.
Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton
I originally came across this book because I took a class from Chris Barton (he lives in Austin). But I bought it because I loved it. Barton was inspired to write this book after having a conversation with some librarians. They had recently returned from a seminar where attendees were asked to draw a picture of a scientist. Almost everyone in the room drew something that looked like Albert Einstein. The point of the exercise was to point out that scientist are far more diverse than that.
My first thought was, “Yeah! My sister is a chemist!”
And this well-done picture book doesn’t stop at the surface level of pointing out that there are Black scientists, too. Nope. It points out that everyone–including brilliant NASA scientists–face failure and rejection. Success comes from not giving up.
And in my opinion, those are two of the biggest things we need our kids to know about life::
1-There is no ONE way to look or act or be. Anyone can do anything.
2-Don’t give up.
I love that both of these stories come from this inspiring nonfiction picture book!
The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith
You may have seen the YouTube video where the grandma is struggling to read this to her grandson. If you haven’t, go laugh along with her!
My kids had a gread time with this book. My 6-year-old carried it around with him all summer long. He read it to everyone who’d give him half a chance.
And while I like a book full of silly words, I have one disclaimer with this book. I think everyone who reads this book to a child needs to point out something super important::
This book is fiction. And it’s silly because the donkey isn’t real and the words rhyme. But if we see a person who is missing a leg or an eye or looks different than we do or likes different music or smells bad or whatever, we should not laugh. That is not funny.
I read this group with a few classes of kids just out of kindergarten. After we read this book and laughed at how silly it was, we had this same conversation. In fact, we learned a few lines of a poem by Carol Lynn Pearson in the form of a song:
For the Right to Learn: Malala Yousafzai’s Story by Rebecca Langston-George, illustrated by Janna Bock
I know there are several picture books out there about the world’s youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai. But this one is my favorite. It tells her story in a way that children will appreciate, even though it is heavy. Kids know when a story is being dumbed-down or when key parts of a story are missing. This story includes Malala’s parents’ names, even though they are difficult to pronounce and tells about the Taliban in a straightforward way.
And the illustrations in this book are gorgeous. I think their rich colors and expressive details help engage children on every page. This book is one that could be enjoyed by little 4-and 5-year olds and 4th and 5th graders, too.
Fun fact: did you know that Fort Bend ISD will be naming their newest elementary school Malala Yousafzai Elementary?
Feelings by Libby Walden, illustrated by Richard Jones
Of all the things that young children struggle to describe, feelings have got to be at the top of the list. Thanks to Daniel Tiger, we know it’s OK to feel angry and that sometimes you can feel two things at the same time.
I came across this beautiful book one day while browsing through the picture books with my daughter at the bookstore. It comes out often at story time. My daughter (3) laughs as my voice changes between the angry lava spewing and the happy rhythm of the steel-drum band. I fell in love with the page about feeling alone: “Floating through the light blue sky in a single bubble, as though you’ve done the whole world wrong and now you’re in deep trouble. Through the clouds you slowly soar as no one looks or listens, far away from all the world in a ball that floats and glistens.”
The descriptions are all beautiful and the illustrations are divine. The book ends with a beautiful lesson that can’t be repeated enough, “Everyone is different, and their feelings aren’t the same; and what you feel is who you are–it’s something you must claim. Try to walk in someone’s shoes to see how they might feel. For though you cannot see them, feelings are still strong and real.
Don’t Touch My Hair by Sharee Miller
As soon as I saw this book, I knew my daughter needed to own it! Everywhere we go, someone has to touch her hair! The irony is that probably at least half of those times, while people are in the middle of sticking their hands in her gorgeous curls, they say, “Do people touch her hair all the time?” to which I sigh and say, “Yup.”
When my boys were little, they had curly hair, too. And while my oldest son’s blong afro brought a lot of unwanted attention, nothing compares to my poor little girl. It’s like she’s a poodle or something. Except she’s not. And we don’t know–nor do we want to know–where your hands have been.
So this book needed to live in our home. On our shelves!
I want my daughter to understand that she is entitled to personal boundaries. Her hair is her hair and nobody else has the right to touch it unless she wants them to. Even if it isn’t hair, I think it is important to teach personal boundaries to our children. This is another one of those areas I don’t think we can over-teach!
Let’s Get Out There and Read!
Sometimes the best way to teach empathy or to allow our kids to walk in someone else’s shoes is through the pages of a good book. I hope these books help your kids navigate their worlds more successfully. If you read, or have read, some of these books, we’d love to hear your thoughts.
Have you discovered any books lately that you would add to this list? Share in the comments!
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