Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters

Stunning illustrations and characters of color make this Cinderella-story stand above the rest.

by John Steptoe
Caldecott Honor Book
Picture book, fiction
Interest level: elementary
5 out of 5 stars

John Steptoe’s detailed and rich illustrations grab your attention from the very start. For me, they turned an okay version of a Cinderella story into a more worthwhile reading experience. His intricate lines and rich colors match the elegant style of the tale he was inspired to write.

I am somewhat unclear about how authentic Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters is to the genre of African tales. A paragraph at the start of the book indicates that it is merely the inspiration for Steptoe’s book, so I would caution against using this book as an example of an African folktale.

I do see that it would be a great addition to a study of Cinderella-stories. The story of conflict between siblings to be chosen by royalty is seen in many children’s books, but the main characters are usually white. Steptoe features black characters and the image of African royalty, which needs to be seen in more folktales and literature studies.

Princess Academy

Princess Academy is a well-written novel that can possibly fill in for young readers who want to read something like The Selection series by Kiera Cass, which is geared to young adults.

Chapter book, fiction
by Shannon Hale
Interest level: grades 4 through 7
4 out of 5 stars

It is quite common for students, seems to happen a lot in grade 4, to show interest in popular books that are written for young adults. School librarians work to provide appropriate reading material for young readers, and the reality is that some popular books contain material or situations that are too mature to be included in an elementary school library collection. I encourage these young readers to discuss the book they are interested in reading with their parents, and then I try to identify a book in the library collection that might be a similar read.

When several students showed interested in The Selection series by Kiera Cass, I set about to find an alternative for younger ages. Princess Academy by Shannon Hale is the book I recently read that I would recommend.

When it is announced that the Prince will select a bride from her small village, Miri is forced to leave behind her simple life in the quarry and enter the Princess Academy. There she faces a harsh and cruel academy mistress and must navigate the competition among the other girls. Will she learn enough to become the one chosen to be Princess, and is that even what she wants?

The story features intrigue, a little mysticism, and a budding romance as we watch Miri grow from a girl to a young woman. The power of reading and education also changes the life of the girls and the village. Hale has written strong characters and a mystical, yet believable setting.

Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School

Lilly Ann Granderson was a slave who understood the power of being able to read, and risked her life teach other slaves. This is an important view of the pre-Civil war life of slaves that is perfect for U.S. history classes from elementary school on up.

Picture book, biography, nonfiction
by Janet Halfmann; illustrated by London Ladd
Interest level: Kindergarten and up
4 out of 5 stars

Janet Halfmann, the author of Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School, did a lot of historical and genealogical research to obtain as many facts as possible about Lilly Ann Granderson. Lilly Ann’s story helps young readers see that there were laws and many ways that slave owners used to maintain a position of power.

The strength of Midnight Teacher is that it tells the true story of a woman who was resilient and persevered despite threat to her life. Showing how slaves toiled all day in the fields and then snuck away to learn at night shows how strong the desire to learn was. The reference materials listed in the back of the book are another strength.

I do feel that the author glosses over some points and I wish that they had been explained with more realism. One example is when the text states, “When the adults weren’t watching, the master’s children often played school with her. They even found an old ragged blue-back speller for Lilly Ann to use and keep.” London Ladd’s illustration to accompany the text depicts Lilly Ann as unsmiling, as compared to the white children, with dirty and frayed clothing, no shoes, holding a ratty book.

I view the situation as the white children playing with Lilly Ann like a toy; not seeing her as a playmate, but like a doll to use in their make-believe. Suggesting they gave Lilly Ann the book to keep is problematic because I am guessing they just didn’t notice that she had it. The book was beat up and something they would cast away without a thought. I have problems with the reasoning that seems to persist in books about slaves, that suggests that household slaves were part of the family. While they may not have experienced the grueling, physical toil that marked the existence of field slaves, household slaves were still viewed as property and not people.

Another minor irritation is when describing the beginning of the Civil War, the author states that “President Abraham Lincoln opposed the spread of slavery.” While this is technically true, it is a vast generalization of Lincoln’s view of slavery and ignores the fact that he did not want to see slavery spread because of economic inequalities for white people and he, in fact, did not believe that black people were equal to whites. While this is a much larger discussion than is needed in the pages of Lilly Ann Granderson’s story for young readers, I do feel that authors need to start sharing more accurate statements about Lincoln’s views instead of repeating the mythology of Lincoln being anti-slavery.

My two complaints about glossed-over depictions of slavery should not diminish from the importance of this book in classrooms. Students need to know that there were other civil rights figures besides Harriet Tubman.

Marlon Bundo’s: A Day in the Life of the Vice President

Truly well-done picture books are incredibly difficult to write. I am always skeptical when politicians or celebrities publish a children’s book, because it is usually not high quality. My guess is that they see an audience of children and feel it will be easy to write for them.

In this case, throw in a bunny and the thought was that a truly boring story would be interesting. Unfortunately, it is not. The plot follows the family rabbit as it accompanies the vice president through the day’s duties. We learn that the vice president meets with the president, presides over a vote (this wording will be meaningless to young readers), meets with people, and then heads home. There is very little substance and no specifics to provide interest.

The text is written in a rhyming fashion. In places it is awkward and falls out of rhythm, which makes it difficult to do as a read-aloud. The watercolor illustrations and the main character are charming.

The back of the book features a section titled “Resources.” There are no further resources for additional information, instead this section is really an author’s note that provides a few more details about places mentioned in the story.

The Voyagers series

The Voyagers series is full of action and likable characters. Not overly challenging, this would be a good series to recommend to students who want a a quick and enjoyable read.

Chapter book, science fiction
Interest level: grades 4 through 6
4 out of 5 stars

The Voyagers series consists of six books, each written by a different author. There are story threads that carry on throughout all of the books, and each book features adventures on a different planet. The story could be categorized as dystopian fiction for upper elementary readers. The eight main characters of the story, all under the age of 15, must travel to distant planets to obtain six elements needed to create an energy source that will save the inhabitants of earth, which is running out of fossil fuels.

I started reading this series because book one, Project Alpha was a 2017-2018 Young Hoosier Book Award nominee. D.J. McHale wrote the first book, and while he is popular with many readers, I felt the characters were rather two-dimensional and didn’t feel fully developed. I am happy to report that in subsequent books the characters were developed more and I was able to engage with them and wanted to follow their adventures to the end.

It was interesting to read a series that was written by a variety of authors. There were some authors whose writing I personally enjoyed more than others, and I feel that they all worked well together to tell further the plot.

I recommend this book for upper elementary readers who enjoy science fiction, or who are looking for adventure and excitement in a quicker read.

Not If I Save You First

Fans of survival and adventure stories will love Not If I Save You First. Throw in humor and a little first-love-romance and this book hits a home run for me!

Chapter book, fiction
Interest level: middle grade and up
5 out of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of Ally Carter’s books! She always has strong female main characters, male characters that respect strong women, original plots, humor, adventure, and romance. Her latest work, Not If I Save You First includes all of these features and, as an additional bonus, it is set in the Alaskan wilderness. This is a stand-alone novel.

Madeleine Rose Manchester, aka Mad Dog, is the spunky and very capable main character. The book opens six years earlier, when Maddie was a talkative 10-year-old and her father was the head of the Secret Service. Maddie’s best friend is Logan, the son of the president of the United States, and they are inseparable. When Maddie’s father is seriously injured in the line of duty, he resigns his position and moves Maddie to the wilderness of Alaska where there is no internet or phones and a small one-room cabin becomes their home.

Six years later, Maddie is a young woman who knows how to throw a hatchet, start a fire, and survive in Alaska on her own. She is also completely aware of the importance of lip balm, painted nails, and hair ties. Maddie is a wonderful mix of abilities and doesn’t fit into any stereotypical image of girls. She is a woman of the 21st century who is fully capable of doing whatever she wants.

Logan is sent to Alaska because he has been sneaking away from his security detail and acting up in DC. His parents believe roughing it in Alaska will help him learn to shoulder responsibility. For the past six years, Maddie has been writing letters to Logan that he never answered. She is both hurt and angry and is less than thrilled by his arrival.

After Maddie’s father is called away to deliver supplies before a big storm hits, a terrorist shows up and abducts Logan. It is up to Maddie to save him. The rest of the story is full of the excitement and adventure as Maddie and Logan struggle to stay alive in the Alaskan wilderness, escape the assailant, and work through the hurt feelings that developed after six years apart.

Carter injects humor and romance into a plot filled with adventure and survival. The relationship between characters is well developed. The story is unique and full of surprises. Fans of Carter’s other books will definitely enjoy Not If I Save You First. There is a mention of the Blackthorn Academy and obviously, Maddie would make an excellent Gallagher Girl!

Rhyme Schemer

This is not your typical story about a middle school bully. K.A. Holt uses poetry to show the different sides of bullying in an authentic way that will appeal to readers in grades 5 and up.

Novel in verse, 167 pages
Interest level: grades 5 and up; high interest, lower reading level
5 out of 5 stars

The main character in Rhyme Schemer is Kevin, a 7th grader who comes from a large family with four older brothers and absentee parents who are both doctors. Kevin is the narrator, sharing his story in the form of poems that he writes in his journal and through poetry he creates by transforming pages torn from books into messages.

Rhyme Schemer is important because it shows Kevin as both a bully and a victim. Kevin is a likable character because we are allowed to know his inner thoughts through his journal entries. He openly shares his joy at bullying a classmate named Robin, but he also shares the turmoil and loneliness he feels at home. His older brother bullies him and he feels his parents don’t even know he exists.

When Kevin’s older brother throws his journal out the car window one morning, the plot shifts. Robin, the boy who was once bullied by Kevin, finds the journal and uses it to get his revenge. Robin has the upper hand now and begins to bully Kevin by threatening to reveal the poetry in his journal.

Holt has constructed the story and characters in such a way that even though Kevin was bullying kids at school, when the tables are turned, it does not feel like he is getting what he deserves. Robin’s form of bullying is much more personal and as Kevin begins to change how he acts and thinks, Robin is unrelenting. Kevin’s skills as a poet are recognized by the school librarian and she helps him find ways to use his skills in positive ways.

This book is of high interest to middle grade readers, who are looking for a less complex text that is short in length. The story can be used to begin discussions about bullying, and it would make a great text for a poetry unit. The poetry is written in the voice of a middle schooler so it will appeal. Additionally, the marking up of book pages to create poems would be a fun and engaging poetry-writing activity.