Jones, Kelly. Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer. New York: Knopf Books for Young People, 2015.
When 12 year old Sophie Brown moves to her late great uncle Jim's old farm, it could not be more different from her life in Los Angeles. It's quiet, it's wide open, and nobody looks like her (she's half white, half Mexican) except Gregory the mailman and her mom. Everything seems fairly uneventful until the chickens start showing up. However, these are no ordinary chickens (think glass eggs, telepathy, and possible transformative powers), and Sophie must learn to take care of the chickens through a correspondence course with the mysterious Agnes of Redwood Farm Supply while trying to defend her flock against a determined thief. A quick, fun read with plenty of funny moments, with wonderful illustrations reminiscent of Quentin Blake. Good for grades 3+.
Levine, Kristin. The Lions of Little Rock. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2012.
Set over the course of 1958, The Lions of Little Rock chronicles the events of the "Lost Year," when schools in Little Rock were closed in order to avoid court orders to integrate. The main character, 12-year-old Marlee, spends her days in silence, talking only to her family. When Liz joins her middle school class, the girls strike up a fast friendship, and Liz is able to draw Marlee out of her shell. One day, Liz vanishes from school, and Marlee learns that she has been hiding a potentially deadly secret about herself. Marlee is determined to stay friends with Liz despite great personal danger to both of them, and begins to question the segregationist policies of her friends and family, and gradually sheds her silence in favor of activism. Suitable for more sophisticated middle grade readers, the book features threats, mild violence, and the use of racial slurs, including the n-word. A powerful, moving account of a period not often recounted (we know of the Little Rock Nine, but not what followed their courageous actions), this is a must read.
Senzai, N.H. (2014). Saving Kabul Corner. New York: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Twelve-year old Ariana comes from a family of Afghan immigrants, but recently her life has been turned upside down. Her annoyingly perfect cousin Laila has recently arrived from Afghanistan, which means Ari has to share her room. She can't wait to move into their new house, but when a rival grocery store opens up in the same plaza, run by the very same Ghilazi family that feuded with her own in Afghanistan, life starts to get hard. When both groceries are the victims of terrible crimes, Ari realizes she must band together with Laila, her best friend Mariam, and Wali, the son of the Ghilazi's, to figure out who's up to no good.
What makes this book stand out is the fact that instead of being a token non-white character negotiating a white world, Ariana's entire world is essentially non-white. Her best friend Mariam is an Afghan refugee, and their community is made up of other Afghans living in Fremont, CA. Yet, even the supporting characters represent a remarkable, yet wholly credible, depth of diversity, representing Chinese, Korean, Indian and Mexican small business owners. Senzai is to be commended for creating a wholly believable, entertaining story that manages to combine mystery with details about Pukhtun culture, Afghan history, and current events.
Khan, H. (2012). Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Author Hena Khan's first book for preschool-aged children and above offers a culturally and age appropriate introduction to Islam. Using the theme of colors, Khan teaches children about Islamic customs and holidays, clothing, food, and worship. As they practice their colors, readers will also learn vocabulary relating to Islam, such as mosque, hijab, Eid, Quran, zakat, and more. A short glossary in the back defines these terms and offers a pronunciation guide. Mehrdokht Amini's vibrant, full page illustrations offer the perfect accompaniment to the text. A great choice to add diversity to a counting book collection.
Fosberry, J. (2013). Isabella Star of the Story. New York: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky.
Isabella Star of the Story is a delightful follow-up to My Name is Not Isabella, where Isabella assumes the personalities of famous women throughout history. In this version, our spunky heroine imagines herself as different literary characters from beloved works such as Peter Pan, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Black Beauty. Through simple, creative descriptions, the essence of each character is captured as Isabella assumes each personality as she romps through the library in search of the perfect book. Ultimately, she realizes that a library card is the key to unlocking all sorts of magical worlds. Brief descriptions in the back of the book introduce readers to the highlighted works in more detail. A charming addition to any collection for kindergarten through 2nd grade.
Lee, Y.S. (2011). The Agency: Spy in the House. Somerville: Candlewick Press.
Hungry, poor and a petty criminal in Victorian London, Mary Lang is set to hang when she is rescued by Miss Scrimshaw's School for Girls. Eventually frustrated with being a teacher, she finds herself inducted into The Agency, a network of female spies and detectives. Her task is to investigate Mr. Thorold, a potential smuggler, but she quickly finds she is in the midst of a much more complicated plot. Surprise marriages, secret affairs, backstabbing, murder, revelations, and a hint of romance make this first book in Y.S. Lee's Mary Quinn trilogy an engaging, fun young adult mystery.
Suitable for grades 6 and above.
James, S. (2006). Quest for Celestia. Chattanooga: AMG Publishers.
Billed as a reimagining of The Pilgrim's Progress, Steven James' Quest for Celestia follows young Kadin as he journeys to the magical kingdom of Celestia. Though the premise sounds interesting, the writing falls flat with little time spent on plot or character development. The oblique references to the rape suffered by Leira, Kadin's companion, seem oddly mature for a book whose evils are otherwise decidedly magical in nature and may raise questions with perceptive readers. Given the inspiration for this work, the Christian allegory and imagery are not surprising, but do become quite overt at the end. Readers may enjoy the banter between Kadin and Leira, and Quest for Celestia makes a natural followup for those who enjoyed Narnia.
Grades 4 and above.
Jordan-Fenton, C., and Pokiak-Fenton, M. (2013). When I Was Eight. Toronto: Annick Press.
Olemaun, an eight-year old Inuit girl, desperately wants to read. Her father is reluctant to send her away to the "outsiders school," but her persistence pays off. However, her desire to read comes at a great cost. The nuns cut Olemaun's hair, change her name, and subject her to cruel humiliation. Sent down to the fearsome basement as a punishment, "Margaret" realizes she can read, and that her spirit will not be broken. She is Olemaun, "conqueror of evil, reader of books." Just like the heroine of her only book, Alice in Wonderland, Olemaun has faced down those who would do her harm and has prevailed. The story's simple language and beautiful illustrations make a difficult, painful subject accessible to young audiences in an age-appropriate manner and add welcome diversity to any collection.
Ages 7 and up.
These reviews are drawn from my personal reading as well as from unpublished galleys available through NetGalley.com, and advanced reader copies. I receive no compensation for these reviews.