Several weeks into summer break is the perfect time to bring home new books for kids who may be realizing that the relative freedom of the season can sometimes feel too long. Picture books, graphic novels, and books that address relevant and topical issues can entice both reluctant and eager readers. Here are our summer suggestions, and remember that your libraries and local book stores make wonderful (and air-conditioned!) browsing spaces and the employees are fantastic resources for reading suggestions.
Preschool and Elementary
SEASHELLS: MORE THAN A HOME by Melissa Stewart is a detailed and informative picture book appropriate for reading aloud and for children who enjoy learning about nature and science on their own. As the title suggests, the pages share the myriad ways seashells serve the creatures that live within them. With two sets of text, one version in larger print and another with more detail in smaller print, this is a book that will grow and continue to entertain over time. The illustrations, by Sarah S. Brannen, are creative accompaniments to the text, and they often use comparisons to other animals to highlight the abilities of seashells. Portrayals of various sea creatures like scallops, oysters, and more show action and emotion artistically without anthropomorphizing in a cartoonish manner.
MOUNTAIN CHEF, written by Annette Bay Pimentel and illustrated by Rich Lo, details the essential role of Tie Sing, a Chinese-American chef who accompanied millionaire Stephen Mather on a high-end camping trip for a group of investors and legislators. The trip was meant to convince the guests to create a national park service to protect the natural wonders of the USA. Tie Sing’s position as head chef for this trip proved invaluable in ensuring the men were comfortable and satisfied during their “rustic” trek across the camping route. Pimentel does a good job spotlighting Tie Sing and his assistant Eugene, and Lo’s illustrations provide color and movement in their depiction of the adventures. The appreciation for the wilderness of what would one day become Yosemite National Park and the perseverance Tie Sing shows throughout the journey will be a sure inspiration for those who read MOUNTAIN CHEF.
JABARI JUMPS by Gaia Cornwall is a sweet story about a boy who overcomes his fear. Jabari has prepared with swim lessons and a successful swim test, and now he’s ready to JUMP off the high diving board. Even though Jabari is confident and seemingly eager, he keeps delaying and even considers waiting for a “better day to jump.” The illustrations help readers empathize with Jabari’s feelings, especially the pages that show his view from the diving board. Finally, with positive encouragement from his father and a deep breath or two, Jabari fulfills the promise of the book’s title, and then some!
The story of SAVING EMMA THE PIG is the first in a new picture book series based on John Chester’s short films about The Biggest Little Farm. The feature length version of the film was shown at the 2019 Montclair Film Festival. This first story sets a gentle and loving tone that shows both the circle of nature and how humans don’t have all the solutions for the animal world. The emphasis is on the animals throughout the picture book, in fact, the farmers are never shown. Children will love the beautiful and detailed illustrations.
THE POUT-POUT FISH CLEANS UP THE OCEAN by Deborah Diesen and Dan Hanna, the latest in the Pout-Pout series, brings back Mr. Fish and his friends who live happily in the beautiful ocean. Suddenly, Mr. Fish notices that there is “A big…BIG…MESS!” in the ocean, and he doesn’t know what it is. He swims around and shares his concerns with his friends, always asking if they’d like to join him to figure out what it is and to solve the problem. Together, the ocean creatures come to a disturbing root cause of the mess and decide to go about fixing the damage. Despite the enormity of the problems in the story, it never feels overwhelming or hopeless for readers. Older children and adults will appreciate the commentary on items that contribute to the mess like the irony of a balloon that reads “Happy Earth Day.” The book ends with a note from the creators of the series making suggestions for actions readers can take to join the Pout-Pout Fish in his quest to clean up the ocean.
LOLA GOES TO SCHOOL by Anna McQuinn is a lovely and encouraging picture book for children starting Kindergarten or even preschool. Every character is smiling throughout, and the text is simple description of actions with no dialogue. The story follows Lola as she gets ready for her first day of school and navigates snack time and blocks and singing throughout her day. Lola Goes to School is perfect for children who are anxious about starting school as there is a matter-of-fact, reassuring tone and the story presents no conflicts to overcome. The bright colors and soft edges of the illustrations are consistently comforting and joyful.
Christina Starspeeder, older sister to Victor Starspeeder, is the focus in this 7th book in the popular Jedi Academy series: REVENGE OF THE SIS. The graphic novel, written by Jarrett J. Krosoczka & Amy Ignatow, continues the relatable and fun style of journal entries and doodles to great effect. We meet a brand new set of characters from all corners of the Star Wars universe at the Jedi Academy at Jedha City. Christina shows vulnerabilities, silly foibles, and self-doubt as she acclimates to her new Academy. Faced with classmates who are highly impressive and the legendary Jedi Master Skia Ro as her Jedi mentor, Christina’s optimism and confidence are tested again and again. The storyline emphasizes perseverance, humility, and trusting one’s instincts (some of the time) as the Jedi in training wends her way through adventures and conflicts both small and humongous.
THIS WAS OUR PACT by Ryan Andrews is a fanciful graphic novel that starts out as a standard coming-of-age story of boys on bikes in the wilderness. It then suddenly veers into magical realism that is at once bizarre and familiar as well as touching and haunting. Ben, one of two main characters, and Nathaniel, a nerdy outcast who brings great snacks, end up as the only two or the original group of boys who don’t break the pact that “no one turns for home.” Their travels quickly become magical when they meet a talking bear and visit strange and fantastical people and places all while staying on the path to their original goal. In the end, the book is a wonderful illustration of overcoming obstacles, perseverance, and discovering what loyalty and friendship truly are.
Tami Charles’ LIKE VANESSA is a true gem for the 10-14 year old set. I highly recommend it as a “let’s read this together” book for caregivers and children. The novel, set in Newark, NJ during the fall of 1983, deals with recognizable middle school challenges like identity, changing friendships, leaving comfort zones, and balancing family difficulties with school and friends. However, what envelops each of the “typical” challenges is racism and colorism, body image, homophobia, varied examples of absent parents, and gang culture. The main character, Vanessa, celebrates the Miss America win of Vanessa Williams both for its pageantry and for its historical significance of the first Black Miss. As a shy 8th grader who tries to blend in, the idea of entering a middle school beauty pageant seems impossible, but with encouragement from a new teacher and her best friend, she enters and makes the cut to participate.With a structure built on introducing each chapter with poetry and journaling, readers will find themselves deeply engrossed by the main character’s courage, as well as her successes and let-downs. The novel includes mild language, including some homophobic language in Spanish, and one scene of a street fight that doesn’t get gory in detail. As a bonus, readers of a certain age will appreciate the 1980’s references.
THE DIVIDED EARTH is the third and final graphic novel in The Nameless City trilogy by Faith Erin Hicks. This series is wonderful for reluctant readers. This story is more mature, deeply detailed, and ultimately satisfying for readers who have been following Rat and Kaidu’s friendship and adventures. The Divided Earth is more graphic in its violence and more complicated in its intrigue and relationships than the previous two stories. Visually, Hicks’ attention to detail in her illustrations continues to amaze.With several major battle and fight scenes, she manages to portray motion and pain and power without gratuitous gore and violence. The settings in this third book move quickly from rooftops to forests to tunnels to underwater caverns. The Divided Earth is a very fine conclusion to this trilogy. Highly Recommended.
NEIL ARMSTRONG AND NAT LOVE: SPACE COWBOYS is book three in author Steve Sheinkin’s Time Twisters series. The first book had a history book version of Abraham Lincoln jump from history after hearing a classroom of kids complain that “History is boring!” It takes stepsiblings Abby and Doc a lot of clever, history-based maneuvering to make sure history’s timeline returns successfully to its rightful place…or so they thought. This Space Cowboy mash-up in which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin go back to the Wild West of 1869 instead of landing on the moon is the perfect read to celebrate the 50thAnniversary of the Moon Landing. Sheinkin’s emphasis on historical accuracy and fanciful hijinks will make sure to keep anyone’s attention.
Teenage and Young Adult Readers
FREEFALL SUMMER by Tracy Barrett is a coming-of-age novel that addresses an overprotective father and boyfriend who seem to have “good reasons,” but their behavior has the same effects as any other suffocating actions. Main character Clancy Edwards seems to have it all. She is 16-years-old with a doting father, a handsome boyfriend, and a best friend who always has her back. Her father owns a skydiving business, and Clancy works there, earning money by packing parachutes and spending time with the family-like employees at the Drop Zone every weekend. From the novel’s start, we have hints that Clancy is uncomfortable with the suffocating attention from the men in her life, but we also find out why they may feel like they need to protect her: Clancy’s mother died in a skydiving accident when Clancy was just six-years-old. The novel explores Clancy’s attempts to break free of her own doubts and discover her own path. A surprising bonus throughout the novel is the vivid detail with which skydiving and the culture of the Drop Zone is described. And no wonder: Author Tracy Barrett is an avid skydiver!
IF IT MAKES YOU HAPPY by Claire Kann is a body positive, matter-of-fact novel that centers issues of race and queer culture even as it weaves a tale of typical summertime teenage drama and family conflicts. The protagonist, Winnie, is an 18-year-old living “her best fat-girl life” during the summer before college. In addition to being body positive, Winnie is in a long-term platonic dating relationship with Kara, her ungirlfriend. However, she’s also attracted to Dallas, the popular and handsome boy who seems perfect in all ways. Add all that to drama with her grandmother, balancing attention for her brother and her cousin, and trying to figure out what SHE really wants — and you’ve got a great summer read appropriate for teens (minor cursing and kissing) of all ages. It’s also a great book for parents who are struggling to learn about and support their own children’s assertions about their love lives in all their many shades. Winnie is an irresistibly likable protagonist, and the supporting cast of characters is engaging as well. Despite the main character being 18, the story is appropriate for younger teens. Strongly recommended.
ALL OF ME by Chris Baron is the wrenchingly honest and raw story of Ari, a gentle, sensitive, Jewish boy who is also fat. Written in verse, the story flows seamlessly and Ari’s voice begins and remains incredibly true and authentic. The book starts when Ari’s family moves across the country to San Franciso, and fault lines between Ari’s parents being to show almost immediately. On top of taunting emotional and physical bullying about his weight and religious background, Ari deals with awkward and challenging friendships, his parents’ crumbling relationship, and challenging the expectations of what it means to be masculine. Compounding the pressure, he starts his Bar Mitvah lessons one-on-one with a Rabbi — a year late. Finding friends and finding peace with himself lead Ari through this thoughtful and tender coming-of-age story. Appropriate for teens and middle grade readers.
SHOUT is a must read, especially for those who grew up with Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel SPEAK, or for the more recent readers of the recent graphic novel adaptation. Described as a “Memoir in Poetry,” Shoutis at once painful, cathartic, and comforting. Anderson bares her personal experience, and her decades of speaking about and working on the issues of sexual assault and harassment shows in the clarity in the verse. Readers should be aware that there is little holding back, and the violence, including some wartime and sexual violence, is depicted without apology. Shoutalso takes time with the aftermath, the healing, the survival, and showing how “shame turned inside out is rage.” The resources for readers at the end of the book include groups to contact regarding sexual violence and mental health. Appropriate for teens with content warnings for sexual assault.
BRAVE FACE by Shaun David Hutchinson is a memoir about depression, being gay, and journeying to the edge of the abyss and discovering that, more than a tag-line, it really does get better. The story Hutchinson shares is supported with emails, snippets from journals, and a willingness to share painful and personal details. At times philosophical, at times raw and gutting, the memoir is hopeful at its core even as it dives deeply into the topics of depression, self-harm, and suicide. All this is wrapped up in his journey towards coming out as gay in the 90’s. Although, as Hutchinson makes clear: “I wasn’t depressed because I was gay. I was depressed and gay.” This is an important, powerful memoir that will be a boon to many young people and their families who deal with the topics in the book.