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I Can Help

Reem Faruqi, illus. by Mikela Prevost. Eerdmans, $17.99 (44p) ISBN 978-0-8028-5504-6

This painfully honest look at the way unkindness can poison a classroom atmosphere is narrated by Zahra, a brown-skinned child who takes pride in helping white student Kyle, who “isn’t great at handwriting or cutting or gluing either.” Classmates Tess and Ashley gossip: “Kyle is such a baby” and ask Zahra, “Why do you help him?” That’s all it takes. Zahra stops helping Kyle (“You’re mean now,” Kyle says), and every classroom interaction subsequently becomes freighted with her consciousness of the girls’ scorn. Faruqi gives careful attention to all of the emotions Zahra feels, the better for readers to identify them in their own experience. Prevost contributes smudgy, muted tone images of sweet-faced, dot-eyed children of varying skin tones whose expressions are easy to read. Readers may recognize times when they felt as Zahra does—and vow to do better. Ages 4–8. (July)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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El Cucuy Is Scared, Too!

Donna Barba Higuera, illus. by Juliana Perdomo. Abrams, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-4197-4445-7

Ramón, a dark-haired, light brown–skinned child, has just moved to New York with his family in this tender picture book debut. Feeling homesick and apprehensive, he can’t sleep; soon, El Cucuy, a cape-clad gray creature with sharp teeth (“also known as the Mexican Boogeyman,” according to an author’s note), reveals that he can’t, as well. The duo exchange their concerns: Ramón worries about making new friends at a new school, while El Cucuy—who lives in Ramón’s cactus pot—worries about a lack of small, dark spaces in which to hide and whether people will know to fear him. As Ramón comforts and reassures El Cucuy, he soon finds strength to face his own fears. Higuera gracefully interweaves Spanish and English, while Perdomo’s subtly textured digital illustrations feature vibrant colors and geometrically stylized scenes. A delightful infusion of folklore makes this new-school narrative stand out. Back matter includes author’s and illustrator’s notes. Ages 4–8. (July)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Little Bat in Night School

Brian Lies. Clarion, $14.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-358-26984-7

Little Bat, a nocturnal youth who wears swimming floaties, can’t wait for his first night of school: “When is sunset?” he pesters his mother. Upon finally arriving, though, he’s spurned by the first bats he meets (“We’re already playing... with each other”). But when he retreats to a cubby, he discovers Ophelia, an opossum, who’s as comfortable hanging upside down as he is. The pages find a grin in every new school experience, from battling feelings of inferiority (“Practice makes better!” says a ferret who’s been sculpting “a lot longer than you”) to politely navigating an offer of shared snacks: “This is delicious,” says Ophelia. “My mama found it on the road. Want some?” As in earlier series entries, Lies creates artwork with remarkable detail, polish, humor, and inventiveness, and it should bring young readers flying. Ages 4–7. (June)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Henry at Home

Megan Maynor, illus. by Alea Marley. Clarion, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-328-91675-4

Siblings Liza and Henry do everything together, including getting simultaneous haircuts, receiving flu shots while holding hands, and pretending to rescue animals. As Maynor humorously relays, “They knew all the same people.// And went to all the same parties.” But when older sister Liza starts kindergarten, the younger sibling finds himself in a defensive funk, playing pretend and visiting the Twisty Tree, his and Liza’s Best Place, alone. When Liza returns from school, the duo find themselves exchanging tales of their new experiences. Resonant dialogue clearly conveys the siblings’ closeness and their respective emotions, while luminous digital art by Marley centers the brown-skinned siblings’ simple-featured expressiveness; appealing doodled overlays bring their imagination sessions to life. Younger siblings or those worried about distance weakening close bonds will find reassurance in this tender narrative. Ages 4–7. (July)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Shape of Home

Rashin Kheiriyeh. Levine Querido, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-64614-098-5

In this buoyant, vibrantly illustrated story, Kheiriyeh centers an Iranian girl’s first day of school in America. Shapes and sensory experiences are the focus of attention as she notes breakfast items Rashin’s mother serves: “a smiley-face pancake and happy eggs.” Tan-skinned Rashin remembers sensate elements from her life in Iran (the smell of bread shaped “like my braided hair”), and notices differences in New York City, where she lives now (“Everyone is in a rush”). Upon arrival in her ethnically diverse class, teacher Mrs. Martin ask the children to share the shapes of their home countries: “I grew up in New Jersey,” she says “but my grandparents came from Benin, which is long and skinny—like me!” Having a teacher who engages the children about similarities and differences makes everything easier as bright, chalky spreads combine distinctive shapes with lively patterns and colors, creating a road map for curiosity and learning. Ages 4–7. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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I Don’t Want to Go to School

Lula Bell, illus. by Brian Fitzgerald. Tiger Tales, $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-68010-248-2

In parallel vignettes shown side by side on each spread, a gray mouse and a blue dinosaur each express trepidation about the first day of school. “I don’t want to go!” both say to themselves at home. Mouse wonders, “What if the children don’t like me?” as Dinosaur worries, “What if the teacher doesn’t like me?” But once they simultaneously arrive at school, a mutual smile and a wave signals that “I will be brave if you will be brave.” The next page reveals a surprising twist, and a wholly enjoyable kickoff to the school year for them both. Bell’s brief and emotionally on-point text will be a boon for readers with their own jitters, and Fitzgerald adds a solid dose of cheer, using bright candy colors to bring a class of big-eyed, happy-faced dinosaurs—and their newly confident mouse teacher—to life. Ages 3–7. (May)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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1, 2, 3, Off to School!

Marianne Dubuc, trans. from the French by Yvette Ghione. Kids Can, $17.99 (24p) ISBN 978-1-5253-0656-3

Pom, a light-skinned human child in a pointed cap, is so eager to attend the first day of kindergarten that they “packed a schoolbag, prepared a snack and put on new shoes.” Momo protests, “you don’t start school until next year!” but Pom has a plan to visit all the many various animal kindergartens to see what awaits. In Dubuc’s signature line drawings in soft colors, the classrooms teem with dozens of animal students and teachers taking part in all kinds of school activities. The mice attend class behind the garden wall, with rooms and furnishings made of recognizable objects such as thimbles and playing cards. The rabbits use their big ears to listen closely, while the frogs attend art class on lily pads. Big double-page spreads brim with details and vignettes to pore over, including text asides, in this cheery, inviting back-to-school fantasy. Ages 3–7. (May)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The New Kid Has Fleas

Ame Dyckman, illus. by Eda Kaban. Roaring Brook, $18.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-250-24524-3

Like other classmates, this picture book’s narrator, a white child with brown hair, doesn’t go out of the way to welcome the New Kid, a red-haired girl who eschews shoes, casts a canine shadow, and howls during music class. Soon, the class mean girl declares that the New Kid has fleas. “Nobody really talks to the New Kid. But she doesn’t care,” reads the text as the student sits alone during recess. “Well, I don’t think she does.” When the narrator and the New Kid are thrown together as science project buddies, it becomes clear that the latter is literally being raised by wolves. But while her family may seem different (their study break snack is roasted squirrel, freshly caught), they’re also warm and welcoming, and the New Kid proves a smart, funny partner without “a single flea.” Kaban’s digitally painted, closely observed cartoons of kid life and Dyckman’s deadpan narration combine to deftly address important issues of prejudice and giving the unfamiliar a chance. Ages 3–6. (June)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Becoming Vanessa

Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Knopf, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-525-58212-0

Vanessa, a Black child with round blue spectacles, has first-day-of-school jitters. Attempting to show her classmates that she’s a special “someone they should know,” Vanessa dons a frilly multicolored tutu, yellow boa, and a green beret, paired with polka dot leggings and new red shoes. But as soon as she arrives at school, she runs into difficulties: her more simply dressed schoolmates don’t “get” her outfit, and she finds that her name is “long and hard to write.” Vanessa returns home dismayed, but a parentally bestowed revelation helps change her outlook. Brantley-Newton employs simple, rhythmic prose from the third-person perspective: “This day wasn’t special. Her outfit wasn’t special./ And neither was Vanessa.” Multimedia illustrations construct a cheerfully colored world and classroom populated by children of varying skin tones. A hopeful celebration of individualism and an ode to recognizing one’s inner specialness. Ages 3–6. (June)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Beach Toys vs. School Supplies

Mike Ciccotello. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-374-31404-0

The age-old transition from summer into the school year takes an anthropomorphized turn in Ciccotello’s heavily punny tribute to collaboration and work-life balance. When Ruler’s shadow interrupts Shovel’s sunbathing at the beach, the Big Showdown between rivals—representing learning and fun—is on. Wordplay-centered trash talk takes center stage in the lengthy text as the two teams face off, with decidedly different approaches, in a sandcastle-building contest: “ ‘We’re totally going to deflate them,’ said Beach Ball. ‘Don’t hold your breath,’ said Swim Mask. ‘Maybe they have some skills.’ ” Bright art in pencil and crayon textures details the competition as the two witty crews join forces for what becomes a (slightly begrudging) celebration of individual style, and a fun enterprise all around. Ages 3–6. (June)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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