“I can still be sorry that you had to experience that. No child or woman should ever be treated like you, Suzie, and your mom were. It helps me understand a little bit why you think you wouldn’t be any good at fancy dancing.” page 9
Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Heartdrum, HarperCollins, New York, 2021, my edition 2022. MG short story anthology, 312 pages including back matter. Lexile: not yet leveled AR Level: 5.0 (worth 9.0 points) . NOTE: This review is longer than usual since I discuss each piece and the book as a whole. Also see note on accent marks.
An anthology of pieces centered around one powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Despite having left school library life some time ago, I still get excited to see new collections and anthologies like this one published, because they are such important additions to the classroom. Ancestor Approved manages to take this to the next level by having the stories and poems all connected, despite most being by different authors. If it’s difficult as a reader to wrap your head around the many linkages and connections, just imagine the work Cynthia Leitich Smith did to bring this book together!
There are 18 different pieces by 16 different authors (and Nicole Neidhardt who contributed the excellent cover illustration is also rightfully acknowledged). Most are short stories although the book closes and opens with poems. There’s also considerable supportive matter, including a foreword, glossary broken down by story, notes, acknowledgements, and brief biographies of all contributors. As is my custom for anthologies and collections, I’ll discuss each of the individual pieces briefly before returning to the discussion of the work as a whole.
“The women in my family handled most of the practical details of everyday life. Men were skilled at some things, at the same time as being inexplicably incapable of performing other seemingly simple tasks. I grew up believing that men were faulty creatures, a little untrustworthy, childlike, even. They needed a woman around to keep them on the tracks.” page 13
Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote. Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, BC, Canada, originally published 2016, my edition 2019. Adult nonfiction, 244 pages + 12 pages for notes at the end. Not leveled.
Canadian memoir through a collection of essays – about life as a young butch and then a non-binary adult.
This was a gift from a friend who pointed out that I hadn’t reviewed any nonfiction by non-binary authors yet – to which my response was that I hadn’t read any yet. A quick trip to another room and this was pressed into my hands with the instruction that it should be my first, but definitely not only, non-binary nonfiction read.
“For me the worst part, especially about young kids being racially profiled in school, is that they can’t be expected to understand that what’s happening to them is not their fault.” page 49
My Seven Black Fathers: A Young Activist’s Memoir of Race, Family, and the Mentors Who Made Him Whole by Will Jawando. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2022. Memoir/autobiography, 232 pages. Not yet leveled.
The story of one man’s early life through the lens of seven essential mentors.
Jawando begins by comparing his own life to a childhood friend, Kalfani, who didn’t have the same kind of mentoring available to him. Indeed, this is Jawando’s central theme throughout – the importance of community.
I’m not sure what my expectations were – perhaps something like Misty Copeland’s personal reflections on a variety of related figures. My Seven Black Fathers reads more like a hybrid biography/memoir. Jawando tells the story of his life in roughly chronological format, only occasionally needing to use the subject emphasis and timeline jumps characteristic of memoir.
“Writing a novel is a long process – like a long-distance runner running a marathon, I know I cannot reach the finish line that day. Instead, I have to be patient, trying to complete a shorter stretch of writing – a chapter, for instance.” pages 21 and 22
The Lost Garden by Laurence Yep. My edition Beech Tree Paperback, Harper Collins, New York, 1996 – originally Simon & Schuster, 1991. MG autobiography, 118 pages. Lexile: 1110L . AR Level: 7.1 (worth 7.0 points) .
The story of famous children’s author Laurence Yep’s life from his early years to the start of his writing career, although focusing mostly on his coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s.
The slim paperback fooled me into thinking that this would be a book for elementary students, but the content is more appropriate for tweens and young teens. Yep doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, such as his own family’s brushes with poverty, a customer whose husband brutally attacked her, Mark Twain’s suicidal thoughts, the topless dancers at a club in the neighborhood, and pulse-pounding confrontations when the burglar alarm goes off.
He tells even difficult and painful tales in a straightforward way, and frequently pauses to explain details that might not be known or understood by younger readers. This reminded me strongly of Roald Dahl’s Boy – a tale of a fairly ordinary life told with vivid details that render it fascinating. Aspects such as what it was like to have severe asthma attacks before common home treatments may shock young readers.
There are so many tidbits here about how he was inspired or helped with various novels by different relatives or events. I’m planning a systematic rereading of his entire Golden Mountain Chronicles series, many of which I’ve read but not in order – after which I might need to reread this book!
“She couldn’t hear anything, not the wind or the crickets of the distant thunder. It was silence almost more than silence because, for the first time since she’d gotten to Silverworld, she couldn’t hear the thoughts of the Flickers.” page 119
Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber. Crown Books for Young Readers, Penguin Random House, New York, 2020. MG portal fantasy, 294 pages. Lexile: 800L . AR Level: not yet leveled.
Sami’s family has recently moved, her beloved Teta is speaking gibberish, and there’s a plan to put her in a nursing home. In desperation, Sami tries finding and reciting something from her grandmother’s spellbook, even though she doesn’t believe magic is real – right until she falls through the portal into Silverworld.
Many aspects of this will resonate with readers beyond the Lebanese-American children for whom this book is a mirror. Sami feels stuck between two cultures: her family’s traditional Lebanese culture, and the American lifestyle that surrounds her. To her, the closest connection to her culture is her grandmother’s stories and precious artifacts (although her family also has other aspects, such as her mother’s cooking). Although I am not Lebanese, that aspect of the book rung very true to my own life experiences. Parents and other community members play an important role, but the wisdom of elders and bond between a child and their grandparent is stronger than most other forms of cultural transmission I’ve seen.
“Yolanda squeezed Rosalind Franklin to her chest and nuzzled her nose in the dog’s fur. She was not going to get rid of her dog, and she and Sonja were not going to foster care. There was no way she was going to let any of that happen.” page 59
Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon. Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon & Schuster Children’s, New York, 2020. MG fantasy, 330 pages. Lexile: 660L . AR Level: not yet leveled.
All the women in Yolanda’s family have some sort of magical gift, including her twin sister, but not her. Her father is away in the military, she’s become estranged from her best friend and her twin, her grandfather has died, and her ailing grandmother asks Yolanda to take her to the only pecan tree left standing on their property after the grass starts growing taller and taller…
Occasionally I run into a book that seems to be severely underhyped. Sometimes, like with The Secret of the Blue Glass, I can look objectively at the book and see why it might have trouble finding an audience or why it might not appeal to everyone even if I personally loved it. Others I can’t understand why it hasn’t been popular! My only thinking for this one is 2020, or perhaps that some readers disliked the lesbian aspect which is not immediately apparent.
I’ve written about “diverse-adjacent” books before; this one is more stealth diverse. The cover is gorgeous and represents the characters well, but even reading the synopsis, other than the names Yolanda Rodriguez-O’Connell and Wela, nothing that stands out as Latina, and particularly not LGBTQ.
“Ann also had a certain Javanese sense of propriety, which Holloway went so far as to describe as prudery. It surprised him, because most of the Americans he knew were the opposite.” page 210
A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother by Janny Scott. Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, New York, 2011, my edition 2012. Biography, 386 pages. Not leveled.
A biography of Barack Obama’s mother.
Barack Obama led a unique and fascinating life long before he ever went into politics. A great deal has been made of his father, including his now famous first book, Dreams from My Father, but much less has been said about his mother, a white woman from Kansas. After Barack’s father returned to Kenya, she married a man named Lolo and moved to Indonesia, where Maya was born. Eventually they split up too, and Barack then lived with his grandparents.
There might be other details depending on which book you’re reading, but little insight into who she was or why she made the choices she did, although those choices were so formative for a man so many have opinions about. Janny Scott was different – she saw Stanley Ann Dunham* from the beginning and wanted to know what her life was like.
The result is this fascinating biography which will probably be little read and even less appreciated. Yet the story of Dunham’s life holds merit alone, even though it probably never would have been written without her famous son’s accomplishments drawing intense public scrutiny to their family. She was surprisingly countercultural yet drew from certain deeply conservative attitudes.
“On the morning of the Lunar New Year Day, I didn’t dare mention that I’d helped slay the nian. Ye Ye would be too busy scolding me for sneaking out to congratulate me on slaying a demon. That’s Asian-style tough love for you.” page 26
The Dragon Warrior by Katie Zhao. Bloomsbury Children’s Books, New York, 2019. MG fantasy, 344 pages. Lexile: not yet leveled AR Level: 5.1 (worth 11.0 points) .
Faryn Liu wants nothing more than to become a warrior in the exclusive Jade Society her family was born into, but the current leader sees her gender and mixed race as fatal flaws. With her grandfather sick, only finding her legendary, long-lost father can get her the entry into demon-fighting she desires. All it would take is a cross-country, multiple-realm trip wielding the legendary Fenghuang and facing dragons, demons, and rogue gods.
This book calls out colorism from the very first page, and that’s incredibly unusual in a middle grade genre novel. Although I wish it wasn’t needed, and agree that it shouldn’t be in every book, I also remember students struggling with this, and wish I’d had this book then to offer. There’s a unique power to being able to see one’s struggles in a fictional hero. She identifies as half-Chinese and half-Other (Egyptian/Greek/Turkish); I have used both the part-white and the non-white biracial tags here because sometimes those groups are classed as white, other times they are not. Faryn herself points out that she is darker skinned than the norm for her Chinese community.
I spent perhaps more time than I should have trying to pin down the exact year this was meant to be set in. It’s frequently mentioned that it’s the Year of the Horse, but that could be 1990, 2002, 2014, or 2026. Since the kids have a handheld video game but none of them have cell phones, I’m going to cut the first and last of those out and say it’s either 2002 with surprisingly good tech, or 2014 and they either can’t afford or have too strict of a family to have cell phones. I’m leaning towards 2014 because in 2002 kids would have been a lot more worried about approaching the District of Columbia with magical flight. However, the scenes of deserted streets also feel strangely familiar post-pandemic!
“… 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?
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.
“Grace just looked at me and asked what I was waiting for. She says it doesn’t matter how old you are, or what you’ve learned – being a Black geek is about who you are, and what you’re interested in. Nobody gets to decide that but you.” page 75
Sauerkraut by Kelly Jones, illustrated by Paul Davey. Knopf, Penguin Random House, New York, 2019. MG fantasy, 280 pages. Lexile: 750L . AR Level: 4.8 (worth 7.0 points) .
A biracial Black/German-American boy clearing his uncle’s basement finds a sauerkraut urn haunted by his great-great-grandmother, who insists he help her make pickled ethnic food to enter into the county fair. HD has to balance his own summer plans and responsibilities with his new ghostly relative’s goals.
Reading this after the Unusual Chickens series might be unfair. We eagerly anticipate the next installment in that favorite series. Sauerkraut is a separate story with familiar modus operandi – biracial MC (white German-American and African American) lives in a mostly white, semi-rural area and has unusual hobbies (caring for goats, making things) runs into some strange magic (ancestor haunting the sauerkraut pot).
HD is established in his community, has a strong connection to both sides of his heritage (identifies more as Black), already has a best friend, and isn’t on a farm despite the goat subplot. And he’s a nerd who loves the library and comics and is very familiar with supernatural fiction, so after the original scare he copes with magic more easily.