Hey, Kiddo

Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka is both easy and hard to read. Easy because Mr. Krosoczka’s writing and art propel the story forward in a seemingly effortless way. Hard because the content forces the reader to confront the difficult reality that many children grow up in less than ideal circumstances.

The story is autobiographical. Krosoczka’s mother was a heroin addict, and at a young age, Jarrett is taken from her custody to live with her parents. While his grandparents love him, they are somewhat gruff and jaded, so it isn’t the most cozy environment for a young child – especially one that has already experienced a fair amount of trauma. Coupled with the fact the his mother is in and out of rehab centers and prisons, it’s easy to understand how young Jarrett experiences nightmares and anxiety. What’s most amazing is how Jarrett rises above it all to become a talented artist and family man.

Both inspiring and sobering, Hey, Kiddo is a graphic novel that is best for ages 14 and up. It contains mature content of drug use, suggestions of Jarrett’s mother’s sexual encounters, themes of abandonment, and disturbing images pertaining to Jarrett’s nightmares. The book may be helpful and appropriate to readers younger than 14 if they are experiencing similar life circumstances themselves, but otherwise, I would say it’s best for teens and adults.

Darius the Great Is Not Okay

The title alone enticed me to read Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, and I’m so glad I did. I was happy to get my hands on my library’s copy before the post-award rush, as Darius won the Morris Award and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Young Adult Literature.

Darius is a teenager growing up in Portland, Oregon. Son of a Caucasian American father and an Iranian-American mother, Darius feels like he never fits in anywhere. Too Persian to be perceived by others as all American, but too American to be considered truly Persian, Darius struggles to find his place. As if this wasn’t enough, he’s also been medically diagnosed with depression, just like his father, and Darius battles to keep his mood swings in check.

When Darius’s maternal grandfather’s health declines due to his progressing dementia, Darius’s family visits his mother’s family in Iran. Darius has only seen his extended family in video calls – he and his little sister have never met their Iranian grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. In Iran, Darius feels even more out of place than he did in Portland. He cannot speak the language (though his little sister can), he doesn’t practice the same religion as his relatives, and just like any other traveler, he isn’t always sure about cultural practices.

All this changes when Darius makes a friend. Sohrab is Darius’s first true friend, and Sohrab helps Darius gain confidence in himself. As they spend time together playing soccer, eating Iranian food, and touring local attractions, Darius learns more about his Persian heritage while also discovering the joys and trials of friendship.

There’s much to like about this book. I appreciate how Khorram integrated mental health issues into the narrative without making them the front-and-center focus of the plot. I found the relationships between Darius and other characters to be developed and complex. I also loved the setting for this story, as I didn’t have much previous experience or knowledge of Iranian culture.

Darius the Great Is Not Okay is not just okay, but is in fact, great. I highly recommend this book for readers 14 and up, though I do think readers as young as 12 might enjoy it as well.

 

The Book With No Pictures

This book makes kids laugh. Hysterically. Or maybe that’s just mine. Over the last week, the best part of my day has been reading this book to my kids before bedtime. I think multiple readings have only increased the giggles, since my kids laugh in anticipation of what they know is coming next. For me, this makes The Book With No Pictures by B. J. Novak a worthy addition to our home library.

I love how this book promotes the importance of words in the most jubilant, undidactic way. It’s a great read aloud for children of all ages, for the littlest will giggle uncontrollably and even teens will be hard pressed not to smile. TIP: An exuberant performance is sure to bring the most laughs, which makes it most fun for the reader!

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown is an excellent book for teens who want to know more about the refugee plight. Brown uses the graphic novel format to provide historical context and address current issues involving Syria and its people.

The book opens with a brief history of how the political situation escalated in Syria, which led to the outpouring of refugees. After setting the scene, Brown then follows various refugees trying to escape the war-torn country. We follow them on foot to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and we follow them on sea, across the Mediterranean into Greece and other European nations. We see the whole spectrum of young and old, male and female.

Brown does justice to his subjects by not avoiding difficult material. We’re faced with cold facts: some will not survive. They will die from starvation, exposure, and drowning. Although a graphic novel, Unwanted is not explicitly graphic, though scary scenes certainly are depicted in the illustrations. Due to this difficult content, I recommend The Unwanted for ages twelve and up. I believe it would be a compelling read to build empathy and compassion for those enduring this nightmare.

Rivers: A Visual History from River to Sea

“Geography” and “amazing” may not be two words commonly used in the same sentence when talking about books for young people, so let’s change that. River: A Visual History from River to Sea by Peter Goes is indeed an amazing book of geography for young readers. And old readers. Everything about this book, from the oversize pages and format to the detailed illustrations surrounded by interesting facts, says, “Read me! … Read me again!”

As one would deduce from the title, Goes uses the rivers of the world to relate geographical, historical, cultural and even biological information. Rivers are grouped together by continent, and then each major river has its own two-page spread. Each spread has a solid color background with Goes intricate black-and-white illustrations on top. Readers are given a wealth of information that all pertains to the river. For instance, on the spread for the Thames, we learn the river once was also called Isis, the Thames tunnel was built between 1825 and 1843, the kingfisher likes to live near running water, and the Thames Barrier protects London from high tides. And that’s just a small sample of interesting tidbits.

Rivers has a way of making non-fiction readily accessible to a younger audience, but it is so engaging and sophisticated that it in no way seems juvenile. I suspect teens would pore over these pages. I highly recommend this book for all ages, though I suspect ages eight and up will enjoy it most. Goes also authored the book Timeline, which I’ve not yet had the pleasure to read, but can’t wait to get my hands on if it’s as good as Rivers.

Louisiana’s Way Home

I am convinced that Kate DiCamillo is a writing genius. DiCamillo tackles weighty topics while using half the words that others would use, and her word choice is deceptively simple. Her characters are well formed and memorable, and they weave together in beautiful storytelling.

Louisiana’s Way Home is DiCamillo’s first novel sequel, and it follows Louisiana Elefante, who we first met in Raymie Nightingale. The book starts with Louisiana embarking on a traveling adventure with her grandmother. Not long after they drive across the Florida-Georgia border, the grandmother has a dental emergency, requiring an unexpected stop in a small Georgia town. Things quickly unravel from there, and Louisiana must confront her past and determine who she wants to be going forward.

The book deals with heavy themes of loss, abandonment, and forgiveness, but DiCamillo frames them in a hopeful light. While the reading level isn’t too advanced, the emotional content may be too intense for sensitive readers. As such, I recommend this book for ages 10 and older.

Drawn From Nature

Drawn From Nature by Helen Ahpornsiri is an exquisite picture book that will delight nature lovers, young and old. Ahpornsiri expertly uses real leaves, flowers, and other plant-derived items in collages that then create illustrations of animals and landscape. The intricate work demands a second look. And a third. And a fourth. And, well, you get the idea.

The stunning artwork alone makes this book superb, but the accompanying non-fiction text is also engaging and informative. We start by looking at the natural world during the spring season, and then follow the natural trajectory through the seasons all the way through winter. A glossary at the end is helpful for defining the more scientific terms that appear in the text, such as fungus, nocturnal, and photosynthesis. Curious artists will also appreciate Ahpornsiri’s note in the back that gives a little more information on how the art was created.

I highly recommend Drawn From Nature for all ages, but I think it would be best for ages eight and older. Although a picture book, it is in no way too juvenile for teens and adults. In particular, I suspect artistic and/or nature-loving teens will love this book and spend hours poring over its content.

Harbor Me

Start with the ’80s iconic movie The Breakfast Club. Replace the all-white teen group with a half dozen diverse pre-teens. Substitute school dilemmas for precarious real-world problems that are far bigger than the characters. Add exquisite writing. Now you’ve got Jacqueline Woodson’s Harbor Me.

At the start of a school year, a teacher takes her six students to a private room and gives them a single task: talk with each other for an hour. Every Friday. Over time, the students come to trust each other, eventually confiding in one another. Woodson does not shy away from controversial current affairs. The students share there unique perspectives on illegal immigration, racial profiling, financial status, learning disabilities, a parent in prison, treatment of ethnic minorities, and bullying.

I admire Woodson’s writing style. She has a way of getting to the heart of the matter in the most beautiful way. Many will know Woodson for her widely acclaimed novel-in-verse Brown Girl Dreaming. Although written in prose, Harbor Me uses the same rich language and poetic style.

I highly recommend Harbor Me for ages ten and up. I think younger readers (ages 8-10) would be okay to read it or listen in, but I do believe older pre-teens will be able to make a deeper connection with the content. It is a great choice for initiating meaningful conversations with young readers, helping to give new perspectives on many issues our society currently faces.

 

Blue

Stunning paintings, brilliantly placed cutouts, and the perfect thirty-two words make  Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s Blue one of my favorite pictures books of all time. Following in the style of her picture book Green, which won a Caldecott Honor, Seeger takes it one step further by adding an underlying plot of great emotional depth. I marvel at her ability to tell the life story of a boy and his dog over seventeen spreads, with minimal text. The result is profound and poignant.

I highly recommend this picture book for children and adults of all ages. Blue is a particularly good choice for anyone mourning the death of a pet. Younger children will appreciate the cleverness of the illustrations and cutouts, and at the very least, will learn to recognize various shades of blue. Older children will likely grasp the subtle plot and deeper feelings permeating through the book. I also recommend Green by the same author, though it is more about the colors and illustrations and does not have the same weight of the newer Blue.

Sea Prayer

There are two things you should know about this book: 1) I am generally not a crier, especially for books. 2) This book made me cry.

Sea Prayer is a poem – a father’s earnest prayer for protection over his young son, Marwan, as they prepare to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea in a lifeboat. Fleeing war-torn Syria, they are among the refugees who are hoping to find a better life in another land. But first they must face the sea.

With lyrical language evoking a sense of longing, the father recalls happier times on the farm and in the bustling city. This is soon contrasted with the world Marwan knows, a world of protests, bombs, and death. Now their family is waiting by the sea for the sun to rise so they can depart, eager for safety, but dreading the uncertainty of a perilous journey.

Author Khaled Hosseini is a bestselling author, perhaps most known for his novel The Kite Runner. In Sea Prayer, his words are paired with illustrations by Dan Williams. Williams’ art captures every mood and adds yet another layer to the already rich text. My particular favorite spreads are of Marwan and his mother walking through a field of flowers, and Marwan cradled in his father’s arms as they wait by the sea.

Because this is an illustrated book, some may consider it a children’s book. One of my local libraries catalogued it with the juvenile fiction, while another placed it in the young adult section. This is where I will offer a word of caution. While it is a devastating truth that this story is a reality for far too many children, Sea Prayer may be too graphic for the youngest readers, especially sensitive ones. Furthermore, this is the sort of book that will impact adults (particularly parents) more than children and teens. As such, I would recommend it for ages ten and up, and parents may wish to preview it first. At the very least, I encourage all parents to read this beautiful, heart-breaking book.