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Once upon a Friend

Dan Gemeinhart, illus. by ShinYeon Moon. Holt, $18.99 (44p) ISBN 978-1-2508-9226-3

Middle grade author Gemeinhart makes his picture book debut with a familiar-feeling story of connection that springs up between a child reader and the creaturely protagonist of the child’s favorite series. Moon draws book character Meego, this story’s pensive narrator, in crisp lines and soft colors: the purple creature sports rosy cheeks, a raccoon-like tail, and a hat topped with a white flower. Though Meego frets between readings, there seems little cause for immediate alarm, since the child, portrayed with brown skin, insists on regular rereads (“Again!!!”) as well as on toting the book during various milestones. “My covers opened less and less” as the child matures, but one day Meego is taken from “dust and shadows.” It’s an earnestly told work best directed at readers in the throes of object attachment. Ages 3–6. (June)

Reviewed on 02/23/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Plant Rescuer

Matthew Rivera. Holiday House/Porter, $18.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-8234-5499-0

In this sunny problem-solving tale, Manny and his landscaper father “come from a long line of gardeners.” Though the Latinx-cued family’s apartment has no garden, “Dad has a gift for growing jungles in the smallest spaces,” and lush, collage-like spreads by Rivera show the home overflowing with growth. Inspired, Manny asks for a plant of his own, and his father is quick to oblige. When the plant begins to lose leaves, the story follows Manny as he tries to revive it. The plant’s rebirth champions independence (“I promised I would take care of my amigo by myself”), patience, and finding answers at Manny’s “old friend, the library,” while the child’s success, and his father’s affirmation, result in a generous impulse: “Mijo, let’s share your gift and take cuttings of your amigo to our neighbors.” Ages 4–8. (May)

Reviewed on 02/23/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Roar-Choo!

Charlotte Cheng, illus. by Dan Santat. Rocky Pond, $18.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-593-53175-4

Two symbols of Chinese mythology go beak to snout in this collaboration from Cheng and Santat. Fierce and frightening, Dragon is ready to “take on the world/ with a mighty ROOOOOAAAR”—when its pronouncement becomes a giant sneeze. Kindly, peaceful Phoenix offers a cup of orange ginger tea, encouraging rest, but even as Dragon declines, the “ROOOOOOAAAARR... CHOO”s keep coming. Phoenix’s subsequent attempts to help (“Take this blanket”) and Dragon’s firm rebuttals (“Dragons never quit”) lead to hilarious results. When Dragon’s fiery sneezes finally cause trouble for Phoenix, who “can’t keep going without a little rest,” Dragon embraces a reframe that turns out better for both. Caldecott Medalist Santat’s signature-style art brings Cheng’s dynamic friendship to life in this rollicking readaloud about two folkloric friends learning their own limits—and each other’s. An author’s note concludes. Ages 4–8. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/23/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Endfixer

Noemi Vola, trans. from the Portuguese by Rosa Churcher Clarke. Berbay, $18.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-9226-1071-3

Seeking closure takes on a new meaning in this woolly reflection on being what Vola calls “an endfixer... someone who fixes the ends of stories.” Too many tales, the first-person narrator asserts, end “in the very worst way,” and textured illustrations elucidate specific complaints. Accompanying “too long” is a queue that extends for three spreads, in which a figure resembling an Indigenous caricature smokes a pipe standing alongside mostly fanciful creatures. Though the narrator hopes to fix things “when I grow up,” a sudden, late-story concession suggests that such work may be beyond their control. Maybe it’s actually the doing of story-making mice headquartered in a multi-room factory? Though the meta-conceit of malleable endings and the plethora of visual details satisfy, having agency, however fanciful, dangled and then taken away may prove frustrating for child readers. Characters are portrayed with various skin tones. Ages 4–8. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/23/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Mama’s Library Summers

Melvina Noel, illus. by Daria Peoples. Cameron, $18.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-949-48023-8

Two sisters spend their summer taking in books featuring African American figures in Noel’s transportive first-person telling, which, per an author’s note, is based on memories from “a time when schools did not teach Black history.” For the narrator’s Mama, “summer vacation means reading books—lots of them!” In mixed-media illustrations that focus on the protagonists and the individuals they read about, Peoples captures the brown-skinned family’s drive to the library, where the children head in to choose their reads (“Only books about Black people, Mama’s directions”). Upon their return home to “disappear into our books,” the narrator is shown engaging with luminaries including Harriet Tubman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Martin Luther King Jr. Later, “Mama holds book review contests... Winner gets an extra slice of Mama’s homemade sweet potato pie.” It’s a celebratory love letter to libraries, literature, and the significance of representation. Creators’ notes conclude. Ages 5–7. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/23/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Hurdles in the Dark

Elvira K. Gonzalez. Roaring Brook, $21.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-2508-4785-0

In sixth grade, Gonzalez lives in a house in Laredo, Tex., with 12 unemployed adults, including her single mother, in a neighborhood called “Ghost Town.” While attending a wedding in Mexico at 14, her mother is kidnapped, and Gonzalez is given one day to raise $40,000 to secure her mother’s release. Though she succeeds, she’s traumatized by the event. Her home life deteriorates and, following time spent in juvenile detention, Gonzalez determines that a college education is the only thing that will improve her financial situation, but her subpar academics won’t get her there. Set on winning a sports scholarship by running hurdles, she trains, pushing her body to the limit. When she’s approached by a renowned track coach, Gonzalez feels as if her luck is turning around—until their coach-student relationship starts to change. Gonzalez offers a glimpse into the challenges she faced navigating financial precarity, racism, sexual abuse, and violence through candid and insightful text, culminating in a raw and powerful debut. A foreword contextualizes the subject’s upbringing, and an afterword offers further information about the topics discussed. Ages 14–up. (May)

Reviewed on 02/23/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Mine Wars: The Bloody Fight for Workers’ Rights in the West Virginia Coal Fields

Steve Watkins. Bloomsbury, $19.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-5476-1218-5

The Great West Virginia Mine Wars of 1920 are unknown to most Americans, according to Watkins (Stolen by Night) in this relevant and enlightening read. Forced to work 10- to 12-hour days in unsafe conditions under the brutal treatment of a violent guard system for credits, or scrip pay only usable at their employer’s store, West Virginia miners attempted to unionize. The mine owners and state government responded by hiring local lawmen and “gun thugs” from Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, the mine guard company, to union-bust by terrorizing the workers; the gun thugs beat the employees and destroyed their homes, and the owners brought in hundreds of scabs to work the dormant mines. But the striking miners fought back, “igniting the greatest armed insurrection in America since the Civil War,” a yearlong conflict that only ended when federal troops were sent in. In spare and honest text, Watkins explains that the Mine Wars were a part of history that was not just overlooked but intentionally buried by “the powers that be in West Virginia, the coal owners and their politicians, [who] ran a deliberate disinformation campaign.” Archival b&w photographs, newspaper clippings, and political cartoons throughout illustrate the miners’ hazardous working conditions, prominent figures, and common sentiments during this period. Sources, end notes and more conclude. Ages 10–14. Agent: Kelly Sonnack, Andrea Brown Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 02/23/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Bicycle: How an Act of Kindness Changed a Young Refugee’s Life

Patricia McCormick and Mevan Babakar, illus. by Yas Imamura. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $19.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-0630-5699-2

Collaborating with McCormick (Sergeant Reckless), Kurdistan-born debut author Babakar tells a story based on her own experience as a child refugee. During young Mevan’s early life, “figs fell from the trees and the air smelled like honeysuckle” in Kurdistan, “a lush and hilly corner in the north of Iraq.” Though she is the littlest girl in her extended family, “the love all around her made her feel ten feet tall.” Then the ruler of Iraq sends soldiers and helicopters to force the people in Kurdistan away and into the mountains. Escaping in a van to Turkey, then by plane to Azerbaijan and by train to Russia, Mevan makes herself successively smaller and even wishes to become invisible. Only in the Netherlands, where the family moves two years later, does she feel welcomed, but she still makes herself small—until she’s given the titular object in an act that makes her feel “a hundred feet tall.” Gouache, watercolor, and crayon illustrations from Imamura (Love in the Library) capture the dappled light of Mevan’s pastoral family home in Kurdistan against other landscapes’ stark geometry and the feeling of possibility represented by the bicycle in this hopeful personal telling. Background characters are portrayed with various skin tones. An epilogue and author’s note conclude. Ages 4–8. (May)

Reviewed on 02/23/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Lunar Boy

Jes and Cin Wibowo. HarperAlley, $24.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-06-305760-9; $15.99 paper ISBN 978-0-06-305759-3

Transgender, brown-skinned Indu has always weathered big changes with his adoptive hijabi mother, who found him alone on an outlying moon during a space mission. Now, socially anxious Indu faces a move from their beloved community spaceship to neo-Indonesian New Earth, and while opportunities for connection abound—Indu must improve his Bahasa Indonesia with an after-school tutor, navigate living with a new parent and siblings, and correspond with a school-mandated pen pal, who is queer—he worries that New Earth society, while racially diverse, lacks consideration for his gender identity. Feeling isolated, Indu accepts when delegates from the moon of his origin offer to retrieve him on the night of the new year. But as the date approaches, and as Indu’s new friends and family make him feel more at home, he’s forced to consider where he belongs. Twin creators the Wibowos compose characters with striking light and shadow; this cinematic interplay intensifies moments of clarity and connection for Indu and others, while a radiant palette of warm, sun-drenched pinks and oranges underscore the vibrant community of care and support that envelop Indu. Reminiscent of Le Petit Prince, this lustrous debut graphic novel signals a much brighter future for its protagonist and those who relate to him. Ages 8–12. Agent: Britt Siess, Britt Siess Creative Management. (May)

Reviewed on 02/23/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Curveball

Pablo Cartaya, illus. by Miguel Diaz Rivas. Disney/Hyperion, $24.99 (192p) ISBN 978-1-368-09009-4; $14.99 paper ISBN 978-1-368-08926-5

In this uplifting graphic novel, Cartaya (The Last Beekeeper) and Diaz Rivas (the FGTeeV series) chronicle the trials and tribulations of baseball-playing Latinx middle schooler Elena Rueda. Though she loves the sport and is a skilled player—and the only girl on her team—her mother’s single-minded focus on furthering Elena’s career forces Elena to consider leaving the diamond. A tweaked medial collateral ligament prevents her from attending a summer baseball clinic, which seems like a blessing in disguise—until she realizes that she doesn’t have friends to spend her downtime with. But a summer LARPing with her younger brother Benji may be the spark to get her back on the field. The conflict between Elena’s prodigious skill and her own desires, complicated by her mother’s hovering, presents a moving take on the struggles of growing up surrounded by the pressure to succeed and lacking the opportunity to explore different facets of oneself. By centering Benji’s fanciful hobbies and rendering the siblings’ individual challenges via vibrant color and kinetic movement, this grounded tale of self-discovery transcends a rote sports narrative. Ages 8–12. Author’s agent: Jessica Regel, Helm Literary. Illustrator’s agent: Atlanta Japp, Advocate Art. (May)

Reviewed on 02/23/2024 | Details & Permalink

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