Review: Sarai & the Meaning of Awesome

“… but our whole family lives in New Jersey now. So we are really, truly Americans – North, South, and Central!” page 7

Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome by Sarai Gonzalez and Monica Brown, illustrated by Christine Almeda.
Scholastic, New York, 2018.
Realistic fiction, 108 pages.
Lexile: 690L  .
AR Level:  3.8 (worth 1.0 points)  .
NOTE: This is the first book in the Sarai series.

Sarai Gonzalez is awesome.  She can do anything she sets her mind to, right?  But when her grandparents are about to lose their home, can she solve that problem?

Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome cover resized
Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome by Sarai Gonzalez and Monica Brown, illustrated by Christine Almeda.

I absolutely adored this book and am looking forward to reading more in the series.  Sarai is like a modern-day, Latina Pollyanna without the syrupy sweetness.  She radiates positivity and a can-do attitude, but also makes mistakes and sometimes meets problems she can’t solve (yet).

A large part of my love for this book was due to the incredibly appealing artwork, which brings me to the biggest problem, which is that the artist is not appropriately credited.  Christine Almeda’s name appears only on the back cover and copyright page, and that in small print.  Since this is a book with two co-authors (teen Sarai on whose real life the series is based and experienced author Monica Brown), it would be easy for young readers to mistake the cover credits for author and illustrator.

I know that in chapter book series the artist is often left off the cover and title page.  However, this is an elementary chapter book, which relies heavily on artwork as well as text to convey the whole story.  Every page has at least a little artwork and each chapter has at least one full-page illustration.  Plus there are several two-page spreads.

Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome p42-43 resized
Sarai is frustrated by her younger sisters in the two page spread on pages 42 and 43. Notice the apron art nod to the viral video that made her famous.

The artwork is a huge part of the appeal of this book, and Almeda should have been properly credited.  Her interior art is imaginative and expressive, helping us to fully enter into Sarai’s world and see her vivid dreams.  It was also what drew me to pick up this book at Target and to buy it, as I knew my middle daughter would be enchanted when I opened to the strawberry cupcake forest page.

Yes, cupcakes are a major theme here as Sarai is an entrepreneur who has her own cupcake business.  I always love to see diverse books encouraging kids to try new things and a cupcake business is definitely a modern update to the lemonade stand.

In case you are wondering about ethnicity, Sarai helpfully breaks it down in the introduction.  (She also reviews pronounciation options for her name in case you’d like to read the book aloud.)  Her mom was born in Peru, her dad immigrated as a child from Costa Rica, and now they live near some of her extended family in New Jersey.  The close-knit family ties are definitely a highlight of Sarai’s story.

Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome p2-3 resized
A brief introduction tells a bit about Sarai, including how her name is pronounced in both English and Spanish. (page 2 and 3 pictured)

Another aspect that has a lot of appeal for me is intersectionality.  Sarai is the oldest of three girls, and her middle sister, Josie, is Deaf.  She has a cochlear implant BUT is also learning sign.  This was an unexpected plus for this series.  I did wish that Deaf had a capital D, that hearing impaired wasn’t used, and that ASL was properly identified.  But her CI is visible, and they do refer to her using sign throughout the book.  Frequently with the cop-out that she “says and signs” but they are short sentences so maybe she can SimCom.  Maybe.  So, definitely some flaws in the Deaf representation, but it is still nice to see it in a book for young readers.

I really loved that the resolution was not a deus ex machina.  Although Sarai, her family, and the readers can surely hope to raise enough money to buy her grandparent’s house, realistically a fourth grader is unlikely to make enough money selling cupcakes and lemonade to purchase a house.  The eventual resolution to the problem was perfectly on-pitch.

Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome p52-53 resized
Most of the artwork wraps around text, as in this example at church from pages 52-53. Notice that Lucia’s cochlear implants are also in the artwork.

This is a great early chapter book, and I think fans of titles like Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream, Anna Hibiscus, or Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen will love this series as well.  As of this writing, three more Sarai books have already been published.  We’ll see how the kids react after we complete this title (a great family read aloud which has sparked much discussion) but I suspect we’ll be reading the rest!  Highly recommended.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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