Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. – Roller Girl

Growing up can be hard. Everything changes: body, relationships, emotions, and responsibilities are in transition, and it’s difficult to know what to expect next. Authors Judy Blume and Victoria Jamieson both write about this phase of life with respectful honesty.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume has long been considered a classic female coming-of-age novel. Unafraid to tackle religion, boys, and the mysterious first menstrual cycle, Blume dared to explore topics that were considered taboo in books for kids and teenagers. Although written in 1970, the modern ‘tween will still find this book relatable.

Similarly, Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl tells the story of twelve-year-old Astrid’s steps towards maturity and independence. She used to do everything with her best friend, Nicole, but as the girls are growing up, Astrid is discovering that she doesn’t have as much in common with Nicole anymore. When Astrid decides to pursue Roller Derby Camp without Nicole, she learns that it is okay to be unique and pursue our own passions.

Roller Girl is the first graphic novel I ever read. I was so pleasantly surprised by the truth and profound material that it completely corrected the unfair stigma I had placed on this genre. Victoria Jamieson is a master of dialogue–both spoken and unspoken. The female relationships presented in this book (mother-daughter, friend-friend) are among the best I have read in any book for any age.

I would recommend Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. and Roller Girl for ages 10-14. I find the content of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. to be slightly more mature and philosophical, so emotionally immature readers may benefit by waiting until they are a bit older.

My Friend Maggie

Hannah E. Harrison both wrote and illustrate a strong story of friendship in My Friend Maggie. Maggie the elephant and Paula the beaver are best friends. By Paula’s own description, “Maggie’s the best!”

One day, fellow classmate Veronica mentions to Paula that Maggie is too big. Paula starts noticing other things about Maggie that aren’t so great. Paula wants to defend Maggie, but instead chooses to leave Maggie and play with Veronica instead. Maggie continues to seek out Paula, but Paula ignores her.

The tides turn when Veronica starts making fun of Paula’s teeth. Guess who comes to stand up for Paula?

Bullying is such a prominent issue plaguing today’s kids. My Friend Maggie is an appropriate book selection for ages 4-8 to aid in discussions about bullying and loyalty to our friends.

Be A Friend

Be A Friend is a beautiful book, with its theme succinctly expressed in its title. Dennis is a quiet boy that seems to live in his own world. Misunderstood by his peers, Dennis is often left to play by himself, with little hope of being included in the others’ games. And then Dennis meets Joy, a young girl who just gets him.

Salina Yoon’s illustrations are deceptively simple – strong lines, minimal background, but so expressive. Likewise, her text is sparse, but paired with the illustrations, the book tells a powerful story.

I recommend this book for ages 4 and up. Even older students will benefit from the simple message of being kind and reaching out to a lonely soul.

Wishtree

Katherine Applegate opened readers’ eyes to animal rights in her Newbery-winning The One and Only Ivan by showing us the world through Ivan’s perspective. Applegate uses a similar technique in her newest middle grade novel, Wishtree, to explore difficult themes of inclusion and acceptance. Narrated by the oak tree Red, Wishtree weaves a story of friendship that dares to cross cultural boundaries.

Samar is new to the neighborhood. She is also Muslim. The neighbors are less than welcoming, and when a hate crime bluntly tells the new family to “Leave,” Samar is afraid her family will be forced to relocate again. Unwilling to stand idly by, Red breaks his own policy of staying out of human business. He orchestrates circumstances that in turn help next-door neighbor Stephen and Samar to become friends.

Wishtree is a lovely book that can initiate important conversations about how we interact with others. The reading level is appropriate for ages 8-12, though I believe the content is best for ages 10+. It’s a fast read, with many short chapters and beautiful illustrations (both also features of The One and Only Ivan), and with its important themes of acceptance and courage, Wishtree would also be a good choice for older readers with lower reading ability.

Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn

Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn is the debut picture book of author/illustrator Kenard Pak. The book’s premise is summarized in its title: a girl observes the subtle changes in her surroundings as the season changes from summer into autumn. The girl greets natural elements such as plants, animals, and weather, and each returns her greeting with a description of how they are preparing for autumn. The result is lovely, lyrical prose beautifully framed with repetition and rhythm. (Example: “Hello, breezy wind.” “Hello! I love to whoosh drizzle and leaves through the misty streets.”)

Stunning artwork first draws the reader’s attention and makes re-readings a pure delight. The changing color palette as the book progresses further captures the essence of summer turning into autumn.

I have come across several books for children that focus on a particular season, or even the cycle of all the seasons, but not as many that survey the changing of one season into another. With the inclusion of trees and flowers, mammals, birds, insects, and weather, this book borders on creative non-fiction (though I’d still put it in the fiction section).

I recommend this book for ages 4-8, and it can be a great book to use at the start of the school year with its seasonal theme. Pak created a second book in the series, Goodbye Autumn, Hello Winter, which is beautifully done as well. I hope Mr. Pak will finish out the cycle with the remaining seasonal transitions.

Nothing Rhymes With Orange

This gem by Adam Rex is not your typical rhyming picture book. Instead of the rhyming couplets we’ve come to expect in children’s books, Rex fills the pages with internal rhymes while cleverly highlighting all types of fruit and even including a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche. That’s right. You’ll have to read it to find out how.

The illustrations are a fun fusion of photography (of real fruit) and overlaying illustration to bring the fruit to life. The result is bright and colorful, perfect for the comical text.

And though this book is pure fun, it manages to have some educational purposes as well. On a surface level, many types of fruit are introduced, including some that stray from the typical lineup found in lunch boxes. On a deeper level, the underlying theme promotes friendship and personal worth.

I recommend Nothing Rhymes With Orange for ages 4 and up. This one really isn’t just for little kids – older kids, teens, and adults will get a laugh out of this book too.

Stepping Stones

Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey is a beautiful book, and I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard about it before stumbling upon it in the library. Author Margaret Ruurs tackles a difficult and current topic by telling the story of a fictional refugee family’s journey from their endangered home to the hope of safe haven in a foreign land. Ruurs skillfully weaves a tale that is appropriate for young readers, yet it doesn’t minimize the danger the refugees face.

Nizar Ali Badr’s artwork is the true star of this book. He illustrates the story in stone-scapes, using only stones to create scenes. When I first read this book, I was stunned at how this stone artwork has so much life infused into it. It seems counterintuitive, but there is so much expression in the stone figures. Badr is himself Syrian, and he created his scenes with materials that were available to him there. In fact, Ruurs wrote the story after seeing Badr’s artwork, wanting desperately to bring his work to the attention of others.

Stepping Stones would be a wonderful book to introduce children to the plight of refugees. While the content is likely okay for children of all ages, I believe children ages 8 and up will benefit most from the meaningful conversations that may follow its reading.

The Crossover

When I first read Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, all I could think was this sizzles. I had never encountered writing such as this. It is so full of energy and practically leaps off the page.

Josh is a basketball standout. He is rivaled only by his twin brother Jordan. Josh and Jordan have to learn to live with each other, both on and off the court. Josh has to deal with consequences for some bad decisions, but the value of family becomes most important as the book pushes to the final climax.

The Crossover earned Alexander a Newbery Medal. I highly recommend it for ages 12-14. The novel-in-verse format, with its open white spaces and lower word count will appeal especially to reluctant readers, while its literary merit makes it a solid book choice for any reader. The content will appeal to athletes, and I believe young men will be particularly interested in the story.

Rhino in the House

Rhino in the House: The True Story of Saving Samia by Daniel Kirk tells the true account of conservationist Anna Merz and her efforts to provide sanctuary to Africa’s rhinos. Anna created an animal sanctuary to protect the wildlife from poachers. She rescued an abandoned rhino calf, which she named Samia and raised as a pet in her home.

Naturally, as the rhino grew bigger, it became more difficult for Anna to keep Samia at home. Children will entertained as they learn about some of the problems Samia caused, such as barging in while Anna was taking a bath! Anna reintroduced Samia to the wild, though the two continued to meet and share their special bond.

There are four pages at the end of the book that include photographs of Anna, Samia, and other African wildlife. An author’s note goes into further detail on Anna’s preservation efforts, and a bibliography guides students in further research. I recommend this book for ages 4 and up.

Still a Family

Not many picture books tackle the difficult topic of homelessness, and fewer books feature a homeless child character. Still a Family, by Brenda Reeves Sturgis, illustrated by Jo-Shin Lee, affirms the family unit, even when the situation is less than ideal.

A young girl, her mother, and her father are split apart as they reside in separate homeless shelters. But they are still a family. They meet to play at the park , wait in lines for dinner, and look for work, and they are still a family. Weeks and months go by. They celebrate holidays and birthdays. They are still a family.

This book celebrates familial love and gives voice to all the children whose families do not have a place to call home. I recommend it for ages 4-8.