Secret Coders

by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes

Moving to a new school is always tough, especially when it looks like it might be haunted. The first day starts out badly for twelve-year-old Hopper, as she encounters a creepy janitor and a bunch of bullies. Eventually, along with her new friend Eni, Hopper gets wrapped up in the mystery of the school, which involves four-eyed birds and a leaf-blowing robot turtle. This graphic novel from the “Secret Coders” series is an engaging story and, using relatable examples, is a great introduction to binary code. Students who are intimidated by computers and coding will not have trouble digging into this story. Several times throughout the book, the reader is even invited to actively work on cracking the codes. Each of these challenges teaches a useful lesson. Even the chapter numbers are in binary code, using the birds’ eyes! There are also personal mysteries in Hopper’s life to solve, such as her family’s issues involving her father. The artwork is expressive and comical. There is plenty of humor overall, and the story is entertaining enough that readers will not realize they are also learning at the same time. There is potential for wide audience appeal to both boys and girls, and the ending will leave the reader wanting more.

Reviewer: Lisa Czirr

I Wish You More

by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

Simple and sweet, this collection of wishes for a young listener is perfect for sharing in an adult’s lap or poring over with a friend. The anonymous narrator, “I,” can be anyone; the situations pictured will remind a child of moments experienced, like watching a caterpillar creep slowly along, tasting a snowflake, or standing under an umbrella in pouring rain. The wishes are short, but full of wordplay and contrasts, and Lichtenheld’s imaginative multi-media illustrations expand on each with an unexpected twist that will bring a smile of recognition. Lichtenheld’s use of colors is fresh, though he excels at using blues, from a snowflake-filled sky to a dark blue night scene with a child reading by flashlight under a sheet. The final, expansive wish is for warmth, love, security, “and more.” An excellent model for beginning writers, the collaboration could lead to an illustrated classroom book of wishes, an exploration of one’s own desires, or a tender gift for someone special. Readers and teachers who want to see more from Rosenthal and Lichtenheld should try the team’s Duck! Rabbit! (Chronicle, 2009), Rosenthal’s Spoon (Disney/Hyperion, 2009), or Lichtenheld’s illustrations for Stick and Stone (HMH, 2015).

Reviewer: Barbara L. Talcroft

Mama Seeton’s Whistle

Jerry Spinelli

Illustrated by LeUyen Pham

The enduring bond between a mother and her four children is delightfully demonstrated through a simple act—the mother’s “simple, two-note whistle” to call her children home. Whether the children are young or grown, whether they are in their own backyard or scattered through the world, their mother’s whistle beckons them. Though plain and sparing, Spinelli’s words capture the affections of a close-knit family and the joys of its members through rituals of family dinners and homemade chocolate cake. They conjure a simpler time when children roamed and played at each other’s’ homes for all hours, and were only called away from friends at dinnertime by their parents. Based on Spinelli’s childhood neighbor, Mama Seeton’s character and life from a bygone era are captured perfectly by the charming illustrations, from Mama Seeton’s clothing and hair style to the cars, bicycles, and a neighbor’s black-and-white television. Rendered in ink and watercolor, the artwork effectively conveys the children’s escapades and their growth and development through the years. One scene beautifully portrays the passage of time by capturing the neighborhood during the four seasons across the page, while others show the children’s exploits through the town and then all over the world as adults. A ribbon of pink twirls through the air in the pages, showing the connection between mother and children. The words and gorgeous pictures complement each other flawlessly, sure to resonate with adult readers with its sense of nostalgia while giving its young readers a sense of comfort, safety, and love.

Reviewer: Ann L. Kreske

Goodbye Stranger

by Rebecca Stead

Newbery winner Stead masterfully avoids all the pitfalls common in tales of friendships between middle school girls. Her three main characters include Em (who has suddenly developed real curves and the attention they bring), Tab (whose focus has turned to feminism and social justice), and Bridge (an introspective survivor of a near-fatal accident who wonders if there is a special reason for her life). These three swore several years ago—over a Twinkie—to be friends forever, to never fight, and to work through the changes in their friendship over the years. As they navigate seventh grade, they are determined to follow through on that pledge. Three narrators, one of whom is Bridge, flush out the story from different viewpoints. Readers will meet Sherm, the second narrator, and read his unmailed letters to the grandfather he misses terribly. After fifty years of marriage, Sherm’s grandfather has left their home. A third narrator, using a second-person voice, is an unnamed high school student needing to hide in plain sight for a day—who is she and how is she connected to the others? Of course some bad choices are made, including texting risqué photos that go viral; but Em is insistent that the boy to whom she sent them didn’t do it. Finding the culprit is one of the “mysteries” Stead has worked in. This examination of love, loyalty, and friendship explores the differences between each girl’s self-perception and what the world—parents, teachers, and classmates—know of them. Clearly aimed at middle school readers, it should not be added to elementary book lists. It has a special, limited audience for a reason.

Reviewer: Peg Glisson

Baba Yaga’s Assistant

Marika McCoola

Illustrated by Emily Carroll

Baba Yaga is an iconic figure in Russian folklore, a fearsome witch who intimidates others with various degrees of terrifying magic. Masha, on the other hand, is a modern-day teenager with problems. Her mother has died, and her father, a scientist, has just proposed to another woman and seems eager to move on. When Masha sees a help-wanted ad from Baba Yaga for an assistant, she decides to apply. Her father does not seem to care about her anymore, so what does she have to lose—except, perhaps, her life? The reader is taken on a wild and enchanted journey as Masha matches wits with a witch and does battle with fantastic woodland creatures. Can she win the job? And if she does, will her father even care if Masha leaves her family to live with a witch? There are no easy answers as fiction and reality collide in this inventive, imaginative graphic novel. Despite its unusual subject matter, however, at the heart of this tale is the universal theme of loss, death, and abandonment. Readers who have lost a loved one will recognize themselves in Masha as she tries to cope with grief and survive in a universe in which everything has changed. The illustrations are rich in color and content; and, equally important, are easy to follow and understand. An unconventional myth with a very human theme, this book will reward and touch readers who willing to suspend belief and enter into a blended world of fact and fancy.

Reviewer: Leona Illig

George

by Alex Gino

George has a secret and it is time to tell the world. In order to do so, George must play the role of Charlotte in the school’s upcoming play so that everyone will know that, despite the male body she was born into, she is actually a girl. After being told that only a girl can play the part, George and her best friend Kelly hatch a plan so that her family and everyone will see her for who she really is. The reader gets a unique look into George’s mind as she struggles to come out to her best friend, winces at the mention of her future as a man, fends off school bullies, and hopes for acceptance from her family. Beautifully written, this story is a much-needed perspective on transgendered youth and the trials and triumphs they go through. The author takes such a complex topic and, through the eyes of a ten-year-old child, simplifies it. The writing is age appropriate and would make an excellent choice for a classroom book. It could also be an incredibly eye-opening story for any child who struggles with gender identity.

Reviewer: Amy McLaughlin

Voice of Freedom Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement

by Carole Boston Weatherford

Illustrated by Ekua Homels

Fannie Lou Townsend was the youngest of twenty children born to sharecropper parents in the Mississippi Delta. Brought up with a clear sense of the indignities she and her family suffered at the hands of the local plantation owner, her family’s white neighbors, and the state government, Fannie Lou determined as an adult that she would stand up for what was right and pursued her right to vote. Over the years, Fannie Lou did gain the right to vote and became a vocal member of the civil rights movement, serving in various leadership roles. Beaten and jailed, with her life threatened because of her participation, Fannie continued her fight, working alongside Freedom Fighters and eventually running for office. Fannie’s story is told in verse, and meshes well with the illustrations that underscore both the darkness that Fannie Lou fought against as well as the brightness and creativity that emanated from her spirited attack on racism in this country. This is a great text to promote interest in the American civil rights movement.

Reviewer: Jean Boreen

Noah Webster: Man of Many Words

by Catherine Reef

As a child, Noah Webster was bored in school, yet he had a love of reading and a curiosity about words that would eventually lead to the creation of the first American dictionary. He was born in Connecticut during the French and Indian War and grew up during the escalating tensions and eventual war between the colonists and the British government. After the American Revolution, he advocated for a strong federal government and American English. Reef places Webster’s life in the context of the world around him. As a result, the reader gains insight not only into this “Man of Many Words” but also early American history and the creation of the United States. Well-researched and documented, there are source notes, a selected bibliography, a listing of the major works by Noah Webster, picture credits, and an index. Most importantly, Reef understands this man’s extensive contributions to a new nation. A carefully crafted text and the accompanying pictures allow his story to unfold and to inform the reader. From the ‘BEGIN’NING” to the “EP’ILOGUE” (with definitions), this is an outstanding book for discussions about personal accomplishments, the birth of a new nation, and contemporary issues such as a strong federal government and a common language.

Reviewer: Sharon Salluzzo

Viva Frida

by Yuyi Morales
With just a few words of English and Spanish on each double-page spread, Morales manages to speak on behalf of Frida Kahlo and summarize the artist’s life spent searching, seeing, playing, knowing, and dreaming. She realizes that she understands, loves, and creates, so she can finally declare, “I live!” Morales has chosen to illustrate the text with art using “stop-motion puppets made from steel, polymer clay, wool, acrylic paints, photography, and digital manipulation.” She uses all this to create vivid, intensely-colored pictures with a Frida-like doll in action, dressed in costume as she is in her self-portraits and surrounded by items from both her paintings and her life. Some of these are mentioned in the lengthy (English and Spanish-language) note that Morales adds to provide more information on both Kahlo and the artist’s influence on the author herself. The striking end pages are appropriate for the decorative, romantic, eye-catching work of visual art. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz.

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend

by Dan Santat

You may believe that imaginary friends do not exist until they are thought into being. In this story, they do. They come into being on an island far away, and there they wait to be selected and named by a child. One crowned, marshmallow-like creature tires of waiting. He decides to take matters into his own hands, and sails across dangerous waters to “the real world.” At first, it seems a dismal place. Then he catches sight of another imaginary and follows it to a bright playground full of children and their imaginary friends. Unfortunately, his child does not seem to be there—or is she? A fantastic friendship forms, our protagonist gains a name, and—as the end pages hint—the adventures continue long after the last page. Hopefully there will be more stories about this endearing hero in picture books to come. This book is very much in the style of Tom McCrae’s When I Woke Up I Was a Hippopotamus (2011, Andersen Press) as it artistically combines imaginary and realistic story elements. Readers may be reminded of Erica Perl’s Dotty (2010, Harry N. Abrams), another perceptive and warmly-told tale about children and imaginary friends. Highly recommended.

Reviewer: Heidi Hauser Green